NBA big men are finally back in the hunt for MVP

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Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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The centersaurus – tall and long-limbed – roamed the land for a century, dominating basketball games with size and power.

Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal once towered over the competition and were unstoppable at the rim, often at both ends of the court.

From 1960 to 1980, a center or combo center-power forward won the league’s MVP 20 times – Russell, Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo, Bill Walton and Malone.

But then the smaller players began taking over with their inside-outside game, rendering the center less prominent.

“The center position is going the way of the dodo bird,” said Denver coach Michael Malone.

The NBA center never disappeared. Their role just changed as the game evolved.

Nonetheless, a big man hasn’t won MVP since Tim Duncan in 2003 and a true center hasn’t won the award since O’Neal in 2000. Dwight Howard is the highest-finishing center in the past decade – voted second in 2011.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the MVP frontrunner because of stats like these: 26.4 points per game, 11.1 rebounds per game, 8.1 assists per game, 42% shooting from the 3-point territory.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the MVP frontrunner because of stats like these: 26.4 points per game, 11.1 rebounds per game, 8.1 assists per game, 42% shooting from the 3-point territory.

That could change this season with Denver’s Nikola Jokic favored by oddsmakers to win MVP and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid with the next best odds.

"He was extremely dominant. I feel like that’s what I’ve been all season – dominant," Embiid said of O'Neal. "Just impossible to guard. He’s either getting to the free throw line or scoring. Obviously that’s something that I want very much. Then again, I’m trying to win a championship."

In order to win an NBA championship, all teams needed an elite big man. Consider what Sixers coach Doc Rivers once said when he previously coached the Boston Celtics more than a decade ago.

"I remember making the comments, ‘There are no point guards in the NBA.’ Think how outlandish that comment is now," Rivers said. "I think everything goes in cycles. So now I think teams are looking at best players. If your best player is a big, you’re going to play through him. Denver is doing that. We’re doing that. And others will. But that player has to be good and has to be talented.”

Jokic, 26, has improved season by season, but he elevated his game this season with career-highs in points (26.4 per game), rebounds (11.1), assists (8.8), steals (1.4) and 3-point shooting (42%). He has 15 triple-doubles, and the Nuggets are in fourth place in the Western Conference.

“I have the luxury,” Malone said, “of coaching the best big man in the NBA in Nikola Jokic.”

Malone will get an argument from Rivers on that point.

Embiid, 27, is also having his best season, averaging career-highs in points (29.9), field goal percentage (51.2%), 3-pointers (37.8%) and free throws (85.3%). He also collects 11.2 rebounds per game and has 25 double-doubles for the first-place Sixers who are 30-9 when Embiid is in the lineup. The Sixers have the NBA’s second-best defense, allowing 106.6 points per 100 possessions.

“He’s the guy we lean on the most on both ends of the floor,” Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey said. “It’s pretty rare to say that. We’re ranked the second-best defensive in the NBA and offensively, he’s our highest usage guy, the guy we run everything through. We’re first in the East for a reason, and it’s because of him.

One might think there is some irony in Morey relying on a big man to help put a championship on his resume. He helped pioneer the modern-day smallball lineup that featured five players on the court 6-7 or shorter last season in Houston.

But Morey never had a big man like Embiid.

“They’re more skilled now,” Morey said. “The future of the NBA looks like Joel Embiid. It’s someone taller who can handle the ball, shoot, pass and do everything at a bigger size. Centers are still the most important player on the floor for a defense.

Malone was just joking about the dodo. “That position is not extinct,” he said.

76ers center Joel Embiid is averaging a career-high 29.9 points a game and has dominated on both ends of the court.
76ers center Joel Embiid is averaging a career-high 29.9 points a game and has dominated on both ends of the court.

Like the game, the center has evolved – required to do more and different things than the big man from previous eras.

Yes, players like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant had their success during the big man’s heyday. But the center, by and large, still had a leading role.

That began to diminish as guards and wings became more explosive and versatile and as the 3-point shot became an important part of a team’s offense.

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“The game has moved on to the perimeter,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s much more of a wing game these days. So guys like LeBron (James) or Kevin Durant or even in the backcourt with Steph (Curry), it’s really much of a game that is centered on – no pun intended – guards and wings.

It is a chicken-and-the-egg type question. Did the big man have to evolve because of the way the game was being played? Or did the big man’s evolution change the way the game is played?

Could be a combination of both.

Either way, the big man – out of necessity for survival or because of desire to expand his skillset or both – had to become more versatile as a passer and outside shooter. The big man of yesteryear can plant his size 17s on the low block and go to work from there. That’s no longer the case.

“I think it’s really good for big mans, especially in the last years when the small ball was really active,” Jokic said. “I think there’s a lot of bigs that can do a lot of things on the court, especially in today’s NBA. So I’m just glad the world doesn’t put bigs aside. We’re still popular.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA big men back in MVP hunt, including Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid