The 2016 NBA offseason brought forth an extravagance of spending due to the sudden rise of the salary cap. The center market was especially affected, with mediocre centers like Joakim Noah and Timofey Mozgov signing lucrative long-term contracts. Danny Leroux’s piece about centers available on the trade market touches upon a broad phenomenon in the NBA at large: so many teams are currently facing logjams at the center position. Let’s take a look at the various problems teams face in deciding their frontcourt rotations, and how long-term NBA trends have affected and will continue affect the center market.
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A few teams have questions about their starting centers, and hope for one of their candidates to rise above the rest. One of the most prominent examples is the Philadelphia 76ers, who will shuffle Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and Joel Embiid at the 5 spot. The Hornets will similarly host a competition between Frank Kaminsky, Roy Hibbert, and Cody Zeller to find their starter. In the West, the Trail Blazers are likely to start Mason Plumlee, but their reserves Festus Ezeli, Meyers Leonard, and Ed Davis will all factor in heavily.
Frankly, none of these guys haven proven themselves to be good NBA starting centers, but most of them fulfill some sort of unique role on their teams. Okafor, Kaminsky, and Leonard are offensive talents, while Ezeli, Noel, and Hibbert are defensive anchors. The problem is that none of these centers are well-rounded enough to lock down the starting center job.
These teams also don’t have the roster makeup to shift some of these centers down to the 4 to free up playing time for them. The 76ers are set at the 4 with rookie phenoms Dario Saric and Ben Simmons (even Richaun Holmes has a role!). Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers and the Hornets are planning on starting Al-Farouq Aminu and Marvin Williams, respectively, as stretch power forwards. Regardless of how the starter battles shake out, there won’t be enough minutes for everybody.
Can He Play The 4?
Several teams have their starting center set in stone, but lack a core guy at the power forward. However, they have a bevy of centers, and will experiment with playing their centers at the 4 to see if they can make it work. For example, the Thunder may start Enes Kanter next to center Steven Adams after trading Serge Ibaka this offseason. The Kanter-at-the-4 experiment has produced middling results in the past, but he’s probably a better play than Ersan Ilyasova, right? Similarly, the Kings are trying Willy Cauley-Stein at power forward next to DeMarcus Cousins, and the Wolves are playing Gorgui Dieng next to Karl-Anthony Towns, despite questions of fit. The Nuggets have Kenneth Faried penciled in as their starting power forward, but will experiment with playing centers Jusuf Nurkic and starter Nikola Jokic together as a long-term project.
These teams also have extra big men on the bench, crowding their rotations. Besides Kanter, Adams, and Ilyasova, the Thunder have Nick Collison, Domantas Sabonis, and Mitch McGary (so many white guys!) vying for minutes. The Nuggets have another European center with potential, Joffrey Lauvergne. Along with Dieng, the Wolves have invested in three backup centers in Jordan Hill, Cole Aldrich, and Nikola Pekovic. For whatever reason, the Kings have five(!) centers, with Kostas Koufos, Georgio Papagiannis, and Skal Labissiere joining Cauley-Stein and Cousins.
The Offense-Defense Tradeoff
Because of the sudden rise in cap space this summer, some teams doubled down on the center position, adding defensive anchors to complement their offensive-minded bigs. For example, despite Marcin Gortat’s excellence at center last year, the Wizards brought in Ian Mahinmi on a large contract for his relative youth and defense. The Bucks paid good money to Miles Plumlee, who started over Greg Monroe at the end of last season due to his athleticism and defense, despite also having center John Henson on the roster. Lastly, the Magic signed Bismack Biyombo, one of the best post defenders in the league, to complement Nikola Vucevic’s offensive prowess.
Since none of the centers on these teams can reliably play power forward, these centers will not play together for long stretches. The question going forward for these teams is whether the offense-defense center tandem is a permanent fix, or these teams will ditch the offensive-minded option in the future.
Is Our Star Actually a 5?
Two teams with young stars that have spent their early careers as power forwards face pivotal decisions regarding how they shape their future frontcourts. So far in their careers, Kristaps Porzingis and Anthony Davis have excelled at center, despite a lack of minutes. This offseason, the Knicks opted to keep Porzingis at power forward, to the chagrin of many in the basketball community, and brought in center Joakim Noah on a large contract. This move means Carmelo Anthony and Lance Thomas will likely play most of their minutes at the 3, which is not ideal.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans seem to be transitioning to playing Davis at center. By adding Terrence Jones and Solomon Hill to a roster already with Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter, the team now has a variety of versatile forwards that could complement Davis at the 5 well. Of course, the Pelicans have center Omer Asik on a terrible contract, but they did not use free agency to shore up the center position, unlike many teams on this list.
So why do teams have such crowded center situations? A confluence of factors have led teams to invest lots of resources in centers, revealing much about what the future of the big man could be in the modern NBA.
Due in large part to the success of the Warriors, more teams are embracing a small-ball identity. The biggest change most teams are implementing is playing traditional 3’s as 4’s. As a result, some traditional 4’s are pushed up to the 5, creating a big man logjam. Kristaps Porzingis and Anthony Davis playing the 5, for example, would push Joakim Noah and Omer Asik to the wayside.
Additionally, centers are pressured to be defensive anchors more than ever to make up for the lack of size at the forward positions. However, teams are still tied to contracts for offensive-minded centers like Jahlil Okafor, Greg Monroe, and Nikola Vucevic. Their declining trade value reveals an important trend around the league: front offices are re-evaluating how valuable these centers are. It seems that in the future, these centers will be most valuable off the bench to create shots against backups, like Enes Kanter did this year. Look for the Wizards, Magic, and Bucks to use their defensive centers in crunch-time situations as their most trusted big man.
One counter-trend to the small-ball revolution could be the two-center lineup: in a league where everybody goes small, perhaps a big squad could out-rebound and out-muscle their way to success. But lately, what two-center lineups have stood out in the NBA? It’s rarely worked for elite teams. Furthermore, most of these teams lack core power forwards, and playing a center at the 4 seems like either a temporary fix or a wishful experiment. For the Kings, with many of their flawed centers playing the 4 this season, their entire roster may be shifted down from their preferred position. Meanwhile, the Thunder do not have an urgent desire to start Enes Kanter at power forward, but rather a gaping hole at the position. It seems like the “trend” of playing a center at power forward is borne out of necessity rather than because of a grand, over-arching plan.
International Big Men Are Too Good
Despite recent changes in what’s required from a center, international big men are getting better and better. Last year, the three best rookies (Towns, Porzingis, and Jokic) were international, and this year, with Domantas Sabonis, Dragan Bender, Thon Maker, Jakob Poltl, and Giorgios Papagiannis all selected in the lottery. The quantity and quality of these international talents further crowds the pool of talented centers in the NBA.
The number of competent centers in the league seems to be at all-time high. This might be true, but the ongoing transition of NBA teams towards small-ball styles has changed our traditional ideas of what makes “good” NBA centers. The slow, scoring big’s value has diminished, while traditional power forwards and defensive anchors seem to be gaining traction as the centers of the future.
2016 is a pivotal moment for offensive-minded centers like Jahlil Okafor, Greg Monroe, and Nikola Vucevic to prove that their value still exists, hopefully as starters. Because we’re still not sure that they’re truly subpar starters, they still have value with the right teammates. Maybe NBA teams are going too small, convincing themselves against all odds that they’ll be the next Warriors, that they have the next Draymond Green. Maybe there aren’t enough defensively-talented power forwards in the NBA right now to cover for scoring centers. We won’t know for a while.
For teams looking for quality centers (the Warriors, maybe?), there are more options than ever to choose from. As teams decide which centers are worth their resources, some will inevitably make mistakes (looking at you, Lakers), and other teams will have chances to scoop up bargains. Keep an eye out for how things shake out at the center position over the next few months to see what type of big men teams choose.