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Ball Don't Lie

The NBA is cutting the center position from its All-Star ballots

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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Jamaal Magloire and Brad Miller wow the fans in the 2004 All-Star Game (Nathaniel S. Butler/ Getty).

For some time, the traditional center position has been disappearing from NBA lineups. Teams now go small with increasing regularity, moving athletic power forwards to what used to be the center position to sacrifice some bulk for quickness and athleticism. The approach is popular enough that it seems quite wrong to refer to these players as centers. The definition of the position we used for years no longer applies.

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So, in a showing of impressive logic, the NBA has decided to change how it designates players on their All-Star ballots. Centers are no longer recognized — they'll be combined with all forwards to create a new category, the frontcourt. From David Aldridge for NBA.com:

The league will announce Wednesday a change to its All-Star ballot that will, for the first time, allow fans to vote for three undefined "frontcourt" players instead of having to vote for two forwards and a center. With more and more teams playing smaller than in the past, the definition of "center" was becoming increasingly difficult -- not to mention finding enough quality big men for whom to vote. [...]

The league decided to make the change after the NBA's Competition Committee agreed to the move at its meeting last month, VP of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson said Tuesday evening.

"It makes sense," Jackson said. "It made sense to our Competition Committee. Having a center is the only specific position that was singled out on the ballot. It just seemed a little outdated and didn't represent the way our game has evolved. By the same token, it also affords the same opportunity, if you have two good centers in a given year, pick 'em both. They both can be selected. Which is impossible right now."

That would be good news for players like Boston's Kevin Garnett and Miami's Chris Bosh, nominal forwards who are now playing center for their respective teams. Under the old rules, Garnett and Bosh would have been in the center category with the likes of Philadelphia's Andrew Bynum, Atlanta's Al Horford and Indiana's Roy Hibbert. Now, any of them can be selected as a "frontcourt" player.

This is a great decision for many reasons. On a very basic level, it'll turn the All-Star game into a more star-studded event. Over roughly the past decade, the backup centers selected to the All-Star game, while usually very good players, have also been the weakest picks. Think back, for instance, to 2004, when Hornets center Jamaal Magloire was selected out of necessity rather than some overarching desire to include him in proceedings. This development is bad news for players like Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert, but they can always be chosen on the merits if they prove deserving. That's certainly a better option than including them simply because they qualify under an outdated method of designating positions.

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Although, in truth, the practice of assigning all players to positions — not just centers — seems more unnecessary with every passing season. While it's still common to use some kind of positional nomenclature (typically the numbers 1 through 5), the responsibilities of those positions differ wildly from team to team. Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are both nominally point guards, but they play the game in very different ways that require their teams to plan the rest of their lineups accordingly. Plus, some teams conceive of two positions as having similar jobs in particular lineups or sets (say, the 2 and 3 both acting as wings or the 4 and 5 playing the same role in the post). At this level of basketball, strategies are so sophisticated that broad position names are ultimately meaningless. They can even change within the same possession.

Or, for that matter, positions might not be used at all. As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com noted earlier this week (via TBJ), the Miami Heat don't even use positions — they just refer to themselves as players with unique roles. That strategy is extreme, and only really possible because of the supreme versatility of LeBron James, but it's also not terribly far from the norm for most teams. In the modern NBA, positions are much more fluid.

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This change to All-Star ballots is ultimately a small decision, but it proves that the NBA can acknowledge that it's an evolving league. That's one of its best traits, not something to be ignored.

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