Milwaukee Bucks: Time To Find Out How Important A Center Really Is

Sep 09, 2016; Springfield, MA, USA; Shaquille O Neal speaks at the Springfield Symphony Hall during the 2016 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 09, 2016; Springfield, MA, USA; Shaquille O Neal speaks at the Springfield Symphony Hall during the 2016 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

Are the days of the center being the most prominent NBA position really over? The Milwaukee Bucks sure hope so.

In doing research for the Milwaukee Bucks history month we’re currently running here at Behind the Buck Pass, I’ve run into a lot of interesting historical tidbits.

One of the reoccurring ones is the importance of a center. Here’s a quote from a piece in the LA Times about the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar trade from longtime Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn on how vital a center was back then:

"“You can’t win without a great quarterback in football, a great pitcher in baseball or a great center in basketball,” Hearn said."

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Hearn wasn’t wrong. Many of the great players of the 1960s through the 1990s and even 2000s were centers, and most of them won rings. Starting with Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, then Kareem and Bill Walton, Wes Unseld and Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, and of course Shaquille O’Neal.

All of those players won at least one MVP award, and they all won at least one title. Having a truly great center meant an equally great chance at winning it all in the NBA for most of the league’s history.

Plucking an NBA head from the 1970s and having him or her look at the Milwaukee Bucks roster of today would probably result in a grimace. The Bucks have no center who will ever contend for an MVP award.

Greg Monroe is good, but he’s not nearly a dominant force on both ends like many of the names listed previously were. He’s the closest to a big-time double-double machine, but he’s also the most likely of Milwaukee’s centers to be off the team soon!

That leaves John Henson and Miles Plumlee. Although both players have shown they fit well with Milwaukee’s young core, they combined to score just 12.1 points per game last season. Neither one will ever be up for an MVP award, to put it bluntly.

In the 60s and 70s, that likely meant you weren’t winning much of anything. Teams started to get a little smaller in the 1990s–Michael Jordan was the dominant force on those Chicago Bulls, not a center–but then in the early 2000s Shaq reminded everybody how important big men are.

Fortunately for the modern-day Milwaukee Bucks, there hasn’t been a dominant NBA center since Shaq retired. He was the last true center to win an MVP award–Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have won since, but both played next to true centers in those seasons.

There have certainly been good centers, but not great ones. In the last ten years just two true centers have averaged 25 points per game or more for an entire season. DeMarcus Cousins did it last year. The Kings were 33-49.

Yao Ming averaged exactly 25 points per game for the Rockets in 2006-07. Houston won 52 games, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Utah Jazz.

In that same stretch there have been 58 seasons by perimeter players that have scored 25 points per game or more. Many of them, like Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, were the leading scorers on championship teams in that stretch.

The days of centers being the dominant force on NBA teams is over. For now, at least.

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While it’s true that the Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers all recently won championships without fearsome true centers on their roster, it’s equally true that the next crop of NBA talent includes some truly fearsome big men.

Karl-Anthony Towns is the foremost menace, but guys like Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are also threats to dominate the Association someday. These players may not play the same way that Shaq and Kareem did, but it seems possible that great centers will determine great teams once more in the modern NBA.

The Milwaukee Bucks can at least take solace in knowing it’s no longer completely necessary to have a great big man. The Miami Heat were an undeniable super team with LeBron, and their best three players were a shooting guard, power forward and small forward.

Next: Looking At Milwaukee's Potential Future Rivals

That’s how the Bucks look to shape up as well. Even without a great center holding down the paint for the Milwaukee Bucks, there is a road to a championship that runs through Milwaukee, depending on how the potential of the young Bucks plays out over the next few seasons.