Don't call it a comeback: Good centers have been here for years
There exists a great and persistent belief that the center position in the NBA is weak. It is my intent herein that we change this.
Twelve years ago, Antonio Davis, Anthony Mason and Theo Ratliff were Eastern Conference All-Stars. Back then, the NBA's center position genuinely was weak. It was made to look especially weak by an in-his-prime Shaquille O'Neal completely dominating the position - this, combined with the significant decline of David Robinson (who nonetheless was also an All-Star that year), and the illness of Alonzo Mourning, decimated a position already troubled by scant little depth.
This was the lowest point of a decline in the position that had begun a few years previously. Concurrent with Robinson's decline and Mourning's illness, Hakeem Olajuwon retired, and Patrick Ewing should have. This was also to be the penultimate quality year for Dikembe Mutombo (although he still managed to be an All-Star in 2001/02, he dropped off significantly thereafter), whilst Rik Smits had gone, and Vlade Divac was to follow soon after. And into this breach stepped very little.
This 90's era is regarded as a classic era for "true" centers. Indeed, "classic" big man play is on the decline in general. It is not impossible to watch an NBA game now and not see a single post-up play run, even more so to see a game in which a post-up was specifically called for. The art of the post-up player is in decline, in deference to three-point shooting, driving to the rim, and the mid-range jump shot that not so long ago was itself considered to be in irreversible decline. It is not unheard of for a team's main post-up threat to come from a forward, rather than a big man. This is the new NBA.
No one has to like this style change if they do not wish to. However, what we all must do is recognize the talent at the center position these days, whether it fits our mold of what a center should be or not. It takes nought but the most cursory look to recognize that, no, this is not the same era as the one in which an 8.7 point, 7.5 rebound Theo Ratliff was an All-Star. Here are some basic stats from some of today's center crop, selected in no particular order:
Anthony Davis - 21.7 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 3.9 bpg
Brook Lopez - 20.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.3 bpg
Al Horford - 18.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg
Chris Bosh - 18.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg
Roy Hibbert - 9.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.4 bpg
Andre Drummond - 10.8 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg
Nikola Pekovic - 13.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.6 bpg
Marc Gasol - 15.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.9 apg, reigning Defensive Player of the Year
Jonas Valanciunas - 9.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 25.9 mpg
DeAndre Jordan - 11.4 ppg, 13.4 rpg, 1.9 bpg
Greg Monroe - 18.0 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Dwight Howard - 17.6 ppg, 14.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg
Marcin Gortat - 13.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.8 bpg
DeMarcus Cousins - 23.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.2 bpg
Nikola Vucevic - 10.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg
Those not listed here include Joakim Noah, a high quality two-way centre whose slow start belies his proven quality, the injured Tyson Chandler, and Andrew Bynum, the great unknown who was once a great known. The enigmatic JaVale McGee is also not listed - for all his well documented bursts of ineffectiveness, the position must surely be deep if he is not one of the 20 centers in the NBA - as well as quality role players such as Anderson Varejao, Zaza Pachulia, Sam Dalembert and Chris Kaman. Even further down, proven veterans struggling with either injury (Andrew Bogut) or misuse (Omer Asik) are also left off, as are some up-and-coming youngsters (Steven Adams, Greg Smith, Kosta Koufos).
The names listed are often young, too. Davis is 20-years-old, Valanciunas 21, Lopez 25, Monroe 23. Most of the others listed are in their primes - Hibbert is 27, Pekovic 28, Howard 28, Marc Gasol 29, Noah 28. The older generation are still represented well, too - a 37-year-old Tim Duncan is still remarkably effective in limited minutes, and while Pau Gasol has trailed in little brother's shadow for a while now, he still posts a double-double in only 28 minutes a game at age 33.
Even Spencer Hawes (15.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg) is showing signs of life.
Of course, players like Drummond, Bosh and Davis do not exclusively play center. And perhaps players like Horford, who do, shouldn't. But this does not affect the most fundamental yet so sorely overlooked point - centers, these days, are good. We are long past the era when the position was weak. Now, the centre position is strong.
The myth persists, however. It does so mostly because of the two aforementioned two factors - the reformation in the character and style of the position, and the stark contrast to the 90's. Yet it must surely be time that that era of great legacy no longer anchors the present or the future, and that the change in style is recognized for what it is - the continued evolution of a game that would stymie itself if it refused to accept change.
It is seen in even so brief an examination that the NBA now has quality centers for almost every team. And if some of those present day centers would have been power forwards 10 years ago...well, many would say the NBA is more fun than it was 10 years ago. Perhaps this is not a coincidence. It may have more DeAndre Jordan types than Jud McIlvaine's now. But that's not worse. That's just different.