For the fourth time in four nights, an official walked to the middle of the court Thursday at Staples Center to begin a basketball game by tossing the ball in the air for the opening tip.
On one side there was 7-foot JaVale McGee, the kind of player who possesses the qualities of an NBA center. He’s long and lean, a good athlete who can block shots on one end and set screens and catch lobs on the other.
And on the other side, there was James Harden — the Houston Rockets guard who, at 6 feet 5, is just as tall as the team’s new center, P.J. Tucker.
“We might just introduce them by name,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni. “’This is James. This is P.J. ...”
Positions are extinct — point guard, small forward, power forward, shooting guard and, most notably, center — in Houston.
“It’s meaningless,” Tucker said. “For sure.”
Still, basketball people are creatures of habit and prone to classification. Not every team has fully embraced Houston’s new attitude, one in which height can be subbed out for more shooting.
But if you watched every game at Staples Center last week, you might have seen the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat and the Clippers all take their shots at tearing down conventions about what a center should do and who can be a center on the court.
Houston is taking it to extremes, though, and Tucker is the perfect player to be in the middle of it. Built like a 6-5 post office mailbox, he’s never easily fit into any traditional role on the court. So his new job doesn’t feel that different.
“I love it. There was no place for me in this league when I came in. I didn’t fit any definition,” he said. “I wasn’t a long, athletic wing. I wasn’t a big, post-up, back-to-the-basket four. I wasn’t a 6-foot-5, 6-6 shooter coming off screens either. Back then, when you were a tweener, it was a bad thing.”
One night before the Rockets beat the Lakers, Miami’s Bam Adebayo and the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell battled throughout the second half as “centers,” even though both players could bring the ball up the court and get their teams into their offense.
For Harrell, the playmaking is a perk to go with his ferocity around the basket and his agility in pick-and-roll plays with Lou Williams. As Harrell enters free agency this summer, he’s shown he can be more than a dunker, showcasing floaters in the in-between post while having his most productive season as a pro.
“A lot of people like us, Miami, Denver, they use that five man to initiate the offense and be a playmaker,” Harrell said. “It’s evolved so much in so many ways. You can see how the game itself has evolved with how far [centers] have come along.”
With Adebayo, it’s more cut and dry. The lineup cards might say “center” but that label is not exactly true.
“Bam and Jimmy [Butler] are basically our point guards,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “… He’s really worked at it. He’s developed. It’s not something that’s happened overnight. This has been a 2½-year process, jumping in all the drills with the guards, the perimeter, spending a lot of time in the summer on his playmaking and ball handling, and then growing in that role and taking on more responsibilities as the season goes on.”
The work’s paid off — Adebayo will be in next week’s All-Star game thanks to a breakout season for the very dangerous Heat. He’s done it without shooting three-pointers, but by defending, finishing at the basket and excelling at playmaking.
Of players 6-8 and taller, only LeBron James, Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo are averaging more assists than Adebayo, who dishes out 4.8 per game.
“If you watch clips of me from high school, I’ve been doing this. It’s not a thing that just happened. I’ve been doing guard drills since I was 12,” Adebayo said. “Just sometimes, you have to sacrifice. And in college, I felt like I had to sacrifice and everybody thought I couldn’t do it. Now, I’ve got my chance.”
He added that Spoelstra “knew I could I do it; we just had to wait for the right time. And this year is the right time.”
If Harrell and Adebayo are representative of what centers can be in 2020, San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge is proof that old dogs can learn new tricks.
Always a deadly shooter from the deep mid-range, Aldridge finally has stretched his game beyond the three-point line where he’s become one of the best big shooters in the NBA, making 41.7% from deep. Before this season, he’d made more than 30 three-point shots only once. This year, he’s already sank 55 in just 47 games.
“Players are who they are. I think the way the game is played now it became even obvious to him, after playing one way so long, that he probably needed to change a little bit,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “The rules ... they don’t favor big guys down on the block. There’s not much that can be done down there. They beat the hell out of each other. And if they do happen to score, it’s a two-point deal. It doesn’t really glean you much. And he’s smart enough to understand that. He’s changed up and trying to get the threes.”
On Saturday, the Clippers saw Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns, who is taking a whopping 8.1 threes per game. On the same day in the Bay Area, the Lakers saw (but didn’t have to face) one of the modern godfathers of the small-ball movement, the Warriors’ Draymond Green, one of a handful of players who spent time as a fill-in point guard in college before winning an NBA title as a starting center.
At Staples Center last week, there still were signs of what used to be. Dwight Howard’s resurgence off the Lakers’ bench features him doing the kind of dirty work centers always have been asked to do. Clippers youngster Ivica Zubac has plenty of old-school center in his game.
But being big isn’t enough anymore, not at center, in this NBA.
“It’s just the league, overall, is just skilled. Every night somebody else. Everybody is skilled now,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You can’t play this game anymore if you don’t have great skill. And it’s probably the way it should be.”
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