NBA Great Debates: Would the Big Men of the 80s/90s Thrive More Today?


During my tenure with Yahoo! Sports, I wrote of the implications of what would happen if Dwight Howard had played in the late 80′s through the mid 90s, a time in which the league was much more filled with dominant centers.

My next question is similar: Could the backup big men in the late 80s to early 90s have started on teams of today?

I believe in terms of skill sets, there is significant evidence to suggest that bench role players in that era could start on teams today.

Who do you ask?

Consider Example 1 A:

John Salley. Salley was goofy. There was nothing graceful about “The Spider” unless you find grace in chaos. He worked hard, banged, and did everything asked of him defensively. Today, that would prove even more valuable in an era dominated by guys like Andrea Bargnani and Brook Lopez, synonymous with a marshmellow, as soft as can be, softer than 3 ply toilet paper.

There are many other big guys that fall into this realm, but Salley is an obvious one. I also feel that the best power forwards of that era would be near the top of the league in scoring today. Buck Williams and Kevin Willis would dominate the likes of Carlos Boozer and Amar’e Stoudemire (two matches statistically, at least).

The 7'2" Donaldson would make a much bigger impact in today's era of 6'9" and 6'10" centers

It would be interesting to see giants like the 7’2″ James Donaldson in today’s NBA

Example 1 B: Gigantic Big Men

True 7-footers, backing up even better big men. James Donaldson, James Edwards, Ed Pickney. There are others to consider, of course. These true 7-footers would be 2 to 3 inches taller than the so called 7-footers in the league today. Donaldson and Edwards were both 7’2″, for instance, and that isn’t even mentioning guys like Mark Eaton, who did start, and was 7’4″ Rik Smits was 7’4″ too. There were bigger players years ago, and with the shelf life of players like Yao Ming being minimal, we’re not likely to continue to see that many. People do, afterall, value the ability to walk, and a 7’6″ 300 pound body does a lot of damage to human feet and ankles. That’s a lot of weight to absorb after every cut and every impact on the floor.

Today’s players would be wise to study Kevin McHale’s legendary footwork

Example 2:  Skills in big men in the 90s aren’t even found in most players today.

The superior footwork of McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon has not been seen since. There is no equivalent to Ewing, to Olajuwon, to David Robinson, to vintage Shaq. Dwight Howard is developing very good footwork, but no other bigs exhibit that. Brook Lopez does have considerable talent but doesn’t seem too sure about how to best go about employing that talent. Pau Gasol is a fading star, but was a bright one for his time, a crafty and coordinated 7 footer, that fit perfectly in the triangle offense.

I don’t consider Andrew Bynum to have great footwork, though he did make a really impressive spin move past Shaq as a rookie (which prompted Shaq to punish him with a hard jam only one player later). He’s very fundamentally sound — he keeps the ball high — but he hasn’t yet picked up on the nuances of how to slip by defenders, simply by using fakes and step arounds/step throughs.

Ewing may average 28-30 points per game in today's league

Patrick Ewing would be even more dominant in today’s NBA

Example 3:  Great Centers Would be Even Greater

Patrick Ewing was a great center, but would be the best in the league today. He’s been attempting to teach Dwight Howard over the last four seasons, but has been unable to transfer the brilliance he exhibited on the court to the young Howard. I have seen Dwight Howard shoot threes, and you would be surprised to see what a thing of beauty it actually is. Howard’s form is exceptional and he hits a good number when playing around before games.

While it may be a while before he ever considers using such in a game, I have to wonder if the propensity to use it and be good at shooting threes at all doesn’t come as a direct result of Ewing’s tutelage.

Hakeem has imparted confidence into Howard, Ewing laid the foundation. Together, the two should have a great impact on the best center of today. It’s just painfully obvious that both mentors were superior to Howard as he is now, at least offensively. Hakeem was even better defensively, while Ewing and Howard may be equivalent in such comparisons.

Well, I have hopefully convinced you of the decline of the center position. The league has changed and perimeter players now dominate the rock. It’s much easier to score 25 a game when you see the ball twice as much as the post players. In the 80s and 90s, teams weren’t afraid to pound it inside.

Now, as I mentioned, soft centers tee up behind the three point line. Such players are a dime a dozen, and not worth a dime. The game has changed, and from a big man fan’s perspective, not for the better. The quality of play at the center position is at an all time low, with many centers having no post game at all, or even no game at all, for that matter.

I long for a time when true 7-footers roam the paint again. Now it seems the giants are dinosaurs, and with Yao Ming departing, there is only one less. Bring back the Centers; we yearn to see the power and banging beneath the basket, in hopes the whistle is blown less as more bodies fall to the floor.

Basketball is a contact sport.

Tags: Celtics Center Position Featured Kevin McHale NBA Patrick Ewing