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What happened to the great NBA center? The NBA happened

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Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not via Instagram (Getty Images)

You see these sorts of columns just about every year, so this isn't breaking news, but it is of great interest now that the NBA has whittled itself down to eight teams. The typical NBA center, apparently, has gone bye-bye, and we're not sure if this is good or bad for the NBA. In a league that for decades was dominated by teams that seemed to boast the best big man around, the center position has become somewhat of an afterthought in the modern game. We think. Again, we're not entirely sure if this is new news, or entirely correct analysis.

The Atlantic's Kevin Fixler is the author of the newest piece, and he attributes the seeming lack of centers to the typical influences — that the rash of injuries to NBA centers has depleted what was an already-shrinking group of big men that actually wanted to play center in the first place, rather than growing up emulating Magic and Michael. He also points to the increasing amount of underclassmen that jump to the NBA from college:

The problem has been exacerbated by younger and younger players entering the NBA, which is one of the reasons Clifford Ray, who is considered one of the foremost authorities on coaching centers, said fewer teams now have this essential rim protector. Little or no time in college has prevented these big men from gaining this specific skill set, while at the same time growing physically, mentally and technically. Since 2006, the league has prevented players right out of high school from becoming available in the draft. Now they must wait a full calendar year whether they play in college or not.

Again, this seems like a bit of an overreaction.

Forty years ago, with 17 NBA and 10 ABA teams in the running, the center position in the NBA was just as sparse. There were plenty of Joel Anthonys starting for NBA and ABA teams back then, and plenty of glorified power forwards being forced to man the pivot. The distinction, that you'll no doubt point out, is that a defense-first big like Anthony would not have survived decades ago because he doesn't rebound as well as his would-be contemporaries.

Well, why isn't Joel Anthony rebounding? And why isn't Roy Hibbert getting the ball down the stretch of Game 1 of the Indiana Pacers/Miami Heat series? Why is Andrew Bynum being criticized for his play in Monday's Game 1 between the Lakers and Thunder, despite coming through with a double-double? Why couldn't Yao Ming ever lead his team to a title, when healthy?

Because the game has evolved. It's too easy to point to youngsters obsessing over Michael Jordan, as if centers from other eras didn't grow up pretending to be Oscar Robertson or Jerry West in their playground games. And Joel Anthony doesn't rebound all that much, despite being only asked to play defense, because … well, watch the guy.

Watch Miami's defensive schemes. Watch the talking, the moving, and the shifting, even without any trapping involved. This game is so fast, and the counters so exacting, that Anthony has time to rebound only after fulfilling the 13 other duties he's asked to do in a typical defensive possession for the Heat — showing here, hedging here, roaming there, talking about this, doing that.

And Hibbert doesn't get the ball not because he's a big softie, but because the game is too fast for Roy Hibbert at times. And Roy Hibbert, deservedly, is an All-Star. The same went for Yao Ming, even when he was healthy and dropping 25 a game.

This is not a center's game anymore. Not because the centers stink, but because the game has gotten faster, smarter, and more detailed in its design. Attempt to dump it in all you want; the opposing defense already has two-dozen counters for that simplistic notion. And before you know it, there's five seconds on the shot clock, and the ball is 30 feet away from the goal.

Fixler's piece is a great read, and clearly well-researched, but ignoring the stylistic shifts along the way is to be missing the point. Yes, adding a 3-point line forced defenses to pay attention to long-range shooters, but in doing so it also cleared up the lanes for big men in ways the league hadn't seen in decades prior to the NBA's addition of the line in 1979 — go watch clips of the league's pack-it-in style from the 1970s as compared to the 1980s or present day. The spacing, even with the legalization of a strong side zone (in 1999-00) and fully legal zone (before 2001-02) is much, much better.

The players are much, much quicker though. And able to cover that spaced-out floor better than ever. They also want to cover it, which is not something you can say for most NBA teams in previous eras. Nowadays terrible defenders are treated as laughingstocks, whereas in decades prior they made up half the NBA. And to point to what used to count as league-leading rebounding averages as some sort of proof of interior decline is laughable; due to the sheer difference in possession counts and shooting percentages. The NBA used to run and shoot more. Fruitlessly. Rebounds, shockingly, kind of happened. It's not Dwight Howard's fault that he pulls in 10 rebounds a game fewer than Wilt Chamberlain.

Invoking the litany of underclassman is a bit much, as well. Tim Duncan's "Mr. Fundamental" streak would have hit the NBA with the same force in 1996 or even 1995 (by most accounts, Wake Forest coach Dave Odom wasn't exactly churning out NBA-changing wisdom to the eventual MVP) had he declared for the draft earlier. Shaquille O'Neal was nearly as fundamentally "blah" in his final season last year as he was during his rookie turn in 1992, and the obsessive failure rate of four year centers taken with mid-to-late lottery picks over the last 25 years doesn't do much for that argument.

Then there is the size aspect. Yes, there were 7-2 guys roaming the earth 40 years ago, scoring 30 a game on skyhook after skyhook. But you also had Wes Unseld plodding in the paint as well, working at nearly the same height and build as LeBron James terrorizes the paint at today.

It's not just because Dirk Nowitzki was taught jump shots, first. Or that 6-10 Kevin Durant's game is more Ray Allen than Clifford Ray. It's a faster, more knowledgeable game that often can't wait for what used to work as NBA orthodoxy to set up in the low post.

That isn't to say that the importance of the position has declined. Not in the slightest.

All eyes will be on Hibbert on Tuesday night, as the Pacers attempt to steal one in Miami. The rebound battle between San Antonio's DeJuan Blair and Reggie Evans might decide a few quarters in this series, as the Clippers head into their time spent with the Spurs wondering if center DeAndre Jordan's game can fit in ways it couldn't against the mastery of Marc Gasol out of Memphis. Kevin Garnett's move to center turned Boston's season around, and the Philadelphia 76ers midseason dip, hot start, and current run can almost entirely be linked to Spencer Hawes' health.

And if you stayed up to watch the end of Oklahoma City's blowout win over the Lakers on Monday, you saw 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the bench for a good five minutes following the final buzzer. Trying to figure this [stuff] out. Knowing that they were going to be the deciding factor in this series, and any other series the Lakers care to play this season.

At some point, even the quickest-thinking and quickest-spinning big men can't keep up. And I don't think that's a problem. No, we don't see many skyhooks anymore (unless you count what JaVale McGee attempts from time to time), but how is any of this a problem when Kevin Durant just crossed you over, or Marc Gasol just hit a cutter, or Roy Hibbert keeps an entire franchise's hopes alive with his work in a game-deciding 12-2 run?

It wasn't the centers that got smaller, Joe Gillis. It was the game that got bigger. And better.

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