Centers and NBA Championship Contending Centers. What do you need from your Center to Contend?
By: Aditya Mehta
The past two years have seen a type of renaissance in the center position in the NBA with the spectacular play of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. Jokic’s playmaking ability and pace control make him a trailblazer in a new “Point Center” position where a 7-footer controls the offense. in comparison, Embiid’s game harkens back to the old guard of NBA centers: complete and utter domination in the painted area. Despite their excellence even before the 2020-2021 season, there is only one shared conference finals appearance among them in nine playoff appearances. Instead, we have seen a different type of center in the Conference Finals in the past 15 years. The Clint Capela, Deandre Ayton, (old) Tim Duncan, Al Horford, Kendrick Perkins (twice!), and Tristan Thompson-type centers. Not exactly the world-beaters that Jokic and Embiid are, yet they provided invaluable tools to their team to propel them to or pretty-darn close to an NBA title. What are these traits? And what does this mean about Jokic and Embiid along with the slough of supremely-talented centers in the league? That’s what we’ll delve into next.
Before we do that, we need to set some ground rules. For the purposes of this article, I am considering a championship-contending center to be one that played on a team that made the Conference Finals and played at least 22 minutes a game during the postseason. Additionally, all the statistics associated with a contending center are pulled from postseason data, not regular season data.
Our first graph compares the contending center’s usage rate to that of All-Star centers during that regular season. Additionally, we have a line demarcating the average usage rate of a player in the NBA as defined by a Bleacher Report article which is around 20%. Before we analyze the graph, it is important to understand that usage estimates the number of possessions used by a player while he was on the floor. This estimate is made by the number of possessions that end in a certain player turning the ball over, shooting, or getting to the free-throw line. This estimate is rather useful in determining how much a player is involved in the offense, but as you can probably see, it is missing a significant piece of information: passing. Hence, playmaking centers such as Nikola Jokic, Draymond Green, and Tim Duncan, will have a traditionally lower usage rate that misrepresents their offensive involvement slightly (Duncan and Jokic still maintain a higher than average usage rate ). Even with this limitation, usage is still a valuable tool in analyzing the offensive involvement of contending centers.
As seen in the graph, the usage rate of these contending centers is not only consistently lower than their All-Star counterparts, which makes sense considering All-Star centers are more likely to have their offenses revolve around their play, but within the past nine years, the average usage rate has consistently been lower than the league average. Considering how team building shifted over this time period, this is to be expected. Over the past decade, contending teams have been built around wings and guards leaving the centers on contending teams to usually be ancillary offensive pieces that shouldn’t be primary scoring options. Rather, contending teams need their centers to make their impact in other places.
Other Impact Points:
If these contending bigs aren’t making an impact on the game through their scoring, we have to look at other avenues to see their impact. The first, most logical avenue is rebounding and protecting the paint. Using regular rebounds as the statistic to observe is not quite as useful in determining the impact of centers in a game as with the advent of the three-ball, defensive rebounding has been distributed evenly amongst all positions. In order to see how centers separate themselves, we have to look at offensive rebounding percentage, which estimates the number of offensive rebounds a player picked up out of all possible opportunities. To measure how players protect the rim, we will use BPG even though it isn’t a perfect statistic. We used the same average framework that we used for the last graphic but instead of considering All-Star centers we are considering all centers in the NBA who averaged more than 22 minutes a game.
We see here that there is nothing exceedingly special about what the contending centers do here. Looking at the distribution, we do see that contending centers are generally above-average rim protectors as around 60-70% of the dots are to the right of the cluster of X’s that represent the average totals of centers during that year’s regular season. Additionally, we also see that a majority of the center are actually below the average for offensive rebounding which was quite surprising to me. An explanation for this discrepancy is that during the postseason, players tend to fly around the court and be more aggressive for loose balls, evening out the distribution amongst positions. Nonetheless, the split is pretty close to 50-50, so we can conclude that these centers should be average to above-average paint protectors (respective to their position) and merely average offensive rebounders. If rebounding and paint defense don’t separate contending centers from the rest of the pack, we can look at their ability in the post, three-point-shooting, and passing to see if that is how some of them set themselves apart:
To simplify the data analysis, we can denote a proficient inside scorer, three-point shooter, or passer based on whether they are in the top-right portion in any of these three scatter plots. By inspecting these scatter plots closely, we see that a strong majority of our contending centers excel in at least one of these areas. For example, Draymond and Bam make a large impact on their teams through their passing acumen but don’t separate themselves from the pack in other places. The same could be said for Brook Lopez and Channing Frye in 3-Point shooting. However, there are some centers such as Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, and Roy Hibbert who don’t stand out in any of these places but exceed defensively and whose true paint presence isn’t seen just by looking at BPG. For players like these in the late 2000s to early 2010s, the tracking data is scarce to backup their prowess, but their all-Defensive accolades show what they provide to the team. And looking at the situations of these centers, a realization is clear: contending teams have centers that cater to their star players. Capela and Ayton succeeded as contending centers because of their verticality and how their point guards: Trae Young and Chris Paul, were able to exploit their athleticism on deadly Pick ‘n Rolls. On the other hand, Brook Lopez and Chris Bosh played with superstars that have dominated by going downhill to the rim, so their shooting acumen spaced the floor and gave LeBron and Giannis the opportunity to enter a relatively clear paint. Players who were asked to score inside like Pau and Duncan did so to provide their teams with a scoring boost when other options stagnated. So there is no secret formula to building a perfect center, it is all about building the right team with the right pieces and having a center that dovetails those needs.
But you might be wondering, why are centers often auxiliary pieces on these championship teams. What has held them back these past 15 years? The simple answer is talent. No center in the late 2000s - early 2010s was in the same stratosphere as our current superstar centers. Since 2007, only one center finished in the top two in MVP voting, and within the last two years, four centers have done that. Their names, of course, are Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic whose talent is only matched by the most dominant centers of the 90s and early aughts. While neither of them has had the playoff success that they deserve due to injuries in Jokic’s case and mental breakdowns in Embiid’s case, their time will come and bring glory back to the center position.