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Nene joins the several other active centers among the NBA’s limping big men

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Nene, Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah grit through it (Getty Images)

In 2002, in the weeks leading up to that year’s NBA draft, scouts were drooling at the rare combination of gifts that Brazilian forward Maybyner “Nene” Hilario was ready to bestow on a lucky NBA team. That year’s draft was well on its way to acting as a sharp repudiation of the stateside prep star-heavy 2001 draft, one that saw several American youngsters disappoint during their rookie years while the same-aged Pau Gasol ran away with the Rookie of the Year. The future “Nene,” in vaulting ahead of his class’ rookie of the year in Amar’e Stoudemire (a preps-to-pros prospect) took advantage of this shift.

His length made it so that he could take the ball at the three-point line, and with two full strides, make his way toward a dunk without having to dribble. His skill set reminded some scouts, in talking to ESPN’s Chad Ford, of Shawn Kemp – but don’t worry! Unlike Kemp, you’ll be able to play him Nene center. Best of both worlds, as he dashes all over the perimeter before returning home to bang with the biggest opponent on the court.

Over a decade later, Nene is paying for all of this. The Washington Wizards center is shutting down his season due to a continuing case of plantar fasciitis. It’s true that Nene’s out-of-shape condition that he showed up to the lockout-truncated Dec. 2011 training camp with aided in his demise, but the demands of the modern day big man and international play may be coming home to roost for Nene, and others. From Michael Lee at the Washington Post:

Over the course of another grueling campaign, the Washington Wizards veteran’s nightly recovery routine gradually increased from resting one foot in a bucket of ice to soaking both feet, to covering both knees with ice packs and adding a wrap to cover his sore right shoulder.

[…]

“How tough? Tough enough to think about the end of my career? Yeah, that’s how tough it was,” he said. “It was so hard to play the way I did it. I thought to end my career because it’s so painful, my body can’t support. I’m glad I finished the season, but the way I suffer, I hope, never again.”

[…]

“To play through pain, that’s not necessary,” said Nene, 30, who will have an injection in his right knee to relieve some of his agony. “For what? I’m going to sit down. Let the young guys play. They need the work.”

We can hear you rolling your eyes through the laptop. Yes, eye-rolls make noise.

Playing through pain, with two games to go in a lottery season with young reserves behind Nene that do need the seasoning, is not necessary. Even if his last quote was somewhat of a victim of the bi-lingual forward/center’s take on what he’s choosing to articulate, it hardly matters. Plantar fasciitis is a terribly painful injury that requires plunging a foot into a bucket (or, in my case, bathtub) full of ice water in order to bring the swelling down to just tolerable levels. And it doesn’t go away without rest, and lots of it.

Why Nene needs to continue this agony while working through road games against Brooklyn on Monday or Chicago on Wednesday is beyond me. The season is over, nobody in Brooklyn or Chicago paid tickets to see Nene suit up, and there’s no point in him setting up the same postgame ritual that Lee described just because he makes eight figures a year and you feel like being a tough guy on the internet.

What’s more important to me is where we’re going as a game, and how this could affect players of Nene’s type.

Not to take away from the relative athletic merits of great centers in the past, but with the continued emphasis on pick and roll and perimeter work in the modern NBA offense, the list of demands being placed on centers and power forwards grows by the season. The same attributes that did Nene so well in the 2002 draft and before his turn as a hot-shot free agent in 2011 are coming home to roost. He was asked to use that length, timing, and athleticism to chase all manner of guards and forwards around, while paying attention to his particular man in the paint.

This sort of result as players of Nene’s ilk, as they hit their early 30s, might become typical.

How else would you describe it? Think of some of the better defensive bigs of the last five years: Tyson Chandler, Udonis Haslem, Andrew Bogut, Joakim Noah – each have had lingering issues with injury after injury. Nene’s teammate Emeka Okafor seemed to watch as his athleticism fell off a cliff a few years ago, Dwight Howard probably won’t be right with that back injury until next season, Al Horford and Pau Gasol have had their problems, and even offense-first guys like Brook Lopez and to a lesser extent Zach Randolph have struggled through injuries of late.

This isn’t about massive pivots like Yao Ming, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Greg Oden watching as their prime years were lost. This is about those who were asked to hedge on a driving guard, while getting back to get the rebound, or at least box out for those that got the rebound.

Toss in the international play during the offseason, and you can see the pained picture coming together. This may be a guard’s league in 2013, but the big men that are asked to use the better part of their guard-like gifts may be suffering as a result.

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Udonis Haslem, once one of the league's most active bigs, hasn't been the same in years (Getty Images)

Again, Nene came into camp in 2011 out of shape after the lockout (as most did), and played in the Olympics last season. There’s a very good chance that this is the main cause of his current issues, and not the result of years of wear and tear both above the free throw line and below it.

I’ve also watched (don’t take into consideration number of games played – watch) Tyson Chandler work through five fully healthy seasons in 12 campaigns turned in. Haslem and Bogut haven’t been the same since injuries suffered in 2010 and 2011 (not Bogut’s shoulder sprain from 2010, but his foot and ankle issues), and the still-shelved Joakim Noah hasn’t looked right running since January – after starting the season playing nearly 40 minutes a night.

Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, and Rasheed Wallace did well to make a lasting career out of mixing the finer elements of previous-era low post defenders, and Scottie Pippen-type eliminators of the 1990s. These future Hall of Famers probably need to be looked at as the exception moving forward, and not the norm. The do-it-all center with perimeter gifts may not be able to hold it together forever.

Or even until their early 30s, possibly. We hope Nene and his ilk, after a summer spent recovering, prove this theory wrong.

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