For most of NBA history, centers were considered the most important players. If nothing else, teams serious about competing for a championship had to have a top-tier center. Not surprisingly, an outsized number of the NBA greats served as centers — players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal.
In recent years, the importance of the center position eroded significantly, due to changes in both NBA rules and dominant strategies. Now, however, a new and improved generation of big men are making a comeback. Let’s look at the shifting landscape of the league to see how players like Karl-Anthony Towns have restored the center position in the NBA.
The center’s role throughout NBA history
From the beginnings of basketball, right up through the ’90s, most NBA offenses flowed through the low post — an area of the court just outside of the key. Centers thrived at the low post. All a team had to do was feed the center the ball there. From that position, the big man could back down his opponent until close enough to dunk or lay up the ball.
Aside from 2-to-5-footers, centers weren’t really expected to shoot at all. Meanwhile, they benefited the offense by setting screens and passing back out of the post to open shooters. At the other end of the floor, the center anchored his team’s defense. A towering center made it difficult — if not impossible — for opponents to score at the hoop.
The decline of the big man
The NBA has instituted many rule changes over the years. A surprising number of them were implemented to reduce the dominance of centers. For instance, back in the ’50s, the league doubled the width of the key in order to make life harder for Minneapolis Lakers center George Mikan. In the 1960s, the lane was widened yet again to limit center Chamberlain.
Other rule changes like instituting a 24-second clock and the three-point shot also worked against big men. Those kinds of revisions forced centers to spend more time running up and down the court. That extra running took a disproportionately greater toll on big men; it wore them out and ultimately made them more injury-prone.
In recent years, increased reliance on three-point shooting only intensified the weaknesses of big men. Traditional centers found themselves ill-equipped to chase wiry point guards. Teams with ace shooters like Warriors guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson took advantage of teams still playing with slow-footed traditional centers.
How players like Karl Anthony Towns have restored the center
Over the next few years in the 2010s, traditional big men began dropping out of the NBA at an unprecedented rate, unable to adapt to the changes sweeping the league. Many analysts thought the center position would disappear. After all, if speed and shooting continued to be the two most important skills, then how could big men ever hope to stay relevant?
However, centers still had one undeniable advantage: their size. So teams simply started shifting their search toward centers who also possessed the mobility to keep up with the fast-paced modern style of play. Al Horford, Anthony Davis, Clint Capela, and Rudy Gobert are all great examples of big men who have the athletic skills to play a high-tempo game.
Centers also had to adapt at the offensive end of the floor as teams moved away from post play. In the past, few big men had ever shot three-pointers. Of course, this didn’t mean it wasn’t a skill they could pick up. Karl-Anthony Towns is the perfect example of a modern center. He can dominate in the paint but also shoot a blistering 41.2% from three-point range in the 2019-20 season.
Even centers who didn’t start out their careers shooting threes found they could evolve. Through the first eight seasons of his career, Al Horford never took more than 0.5 three-pointers per game. This number jumped to well above three attempts per game in the last five seasons. Now, Horford shoots an above-average 36.1% from long distance on his career.