The changing talents of the NBA
By Zach Miller
Dwight Howard is not the player he once was. He will never be that player again. He still holds value; a center who can average a 15-12 with 1.5 blocks always will. This is not an article on how centers are dying; they aren’t. They are simply evolving. By looking at the case of Dwight Howard, we can see why that evolution is so crucial.
The reason Dwight is an important piece of this puzzle has three parts: his age; his injuries; and his shooting. He recently turned 30, an age at which most centers begin to decline. He has dealt with a slew of back injuries that turned him from a perennial Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate into simply an above average center and a guarantee to miss a large chunk of each regular season. He is also a career 57% foul shooter and someone who has never, ever been able to score outside of the paint. That was fine when he was 24 and flying around like Gerald Green trapped in Nikola Pekovic’s body, but now it means he cannot be on the floor for large stretches of games.
The new pace-and-space version of the NBA isn’t threatening players like Dwight, but it is marginalizing them to an extent. Instead of being hailed as a star, he is now a liability. Talk of ‘unloading’ a player like him never would have occurred 20 years ago, when centers ruled the landscape and, most importantly, were valued above all other positions. Now, centers aren’t necessarily expendable, but they are considerably less crucial than other positions, because the ‘modern big man’ prototype is nearly impossible to find. Teams want Karl-Anthony Towns now, guys that can shoot and run and protect the rim, all at above-average levels.
While the ideal is great, the practice is less realistic. There are far more raw athletes that can run pick-and-rolls and block a few shots than bigs who can step out and hit threes while not getting killed on defense. This abundance of Clint Capela and Festus Ezeli types, cheap young non-lottery picks who take a year or two of seasoning, is pushing out the Dwight Howards of the NBA. These young athletes don’t need to suck in unnecessary post-ups, and they provide basically everything the older guys do minus the ball-magnetism and veteran savvy.
So, who is replacing the behemoths as the superstars of the NBA? Wings. This may be the single most loaded year the NBA has ever had at the wing positions. Why? Because as the centers are being asked to do less, the wings shoulder their load. The best wings today must defend multiple positions, rebound, and shoot, as well as playing in the pick and roll more than ever before. This pace-and-space era is putting more and more wings on the court in smallball lineups and in turn we are seeing the biggest positional glut since, ironically, the centers of the mid-90’s.
Think about it. Out of the best 15 or so players in the league right now, about half play either shooting guard or small forward: LeBron, Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony, and Jimmy Butler all are either perennial MVP candidates or All-Stars at the top of their games for playoff teams. Beyond the top eight, there is still Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Nic Batum, Khris Middleton, and J.J. Redick as guys that are playing out of their minds right now and deserve at least a shout-out when it comes to All-Star consideration.
The NBA has already figured this out. Nearly all of the best teams in the league currently are built around wings that can generate offenses and defenses by themselves, and as they get more skilled, the more their value goes up. We are witnessing a revolution in the talent distribution of the NBA. Now is the time to sit back and enjoy the beautiful basketball it produces.