Basketball

Centers adapting, thriving away from basket in Western Conference

DeMarcus Cousins is happy a big man won the Skills Challenge

Kings center DeMarcus Cousins lost to eventual winner Kristaps Porzingis in the first round of the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend, but he was glad a big won for the second straight year.
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Kings center DeMarcus Cousins lost to eventual winner Kristaps Porzingis in the first round of the Skills Challenge during All-Star Weekend, but he was glad a big won for the second straight year.

NBA centers receive little respect.

Aftera all, the league removed the position from the All-Star ballot.

But in the Western Conference, there’s still a place for big fellas. The center position isn’t dying; it’s simply evolving. Big men are no longer confined to the paint on offense, and those who can’t play defense away from the basket have little value.

West All-Stars DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan all play in the post on offense. And all but Jordan can shoot from 3-point range.

“It kind of becomes habit throughout the years,” Cousins said. “You’re running back straight to the paint, ready to defend. But you’ve got bigs now stopping and trailing at the (3-point line), and you may be back in the paint because it’s a habit. It creates a little problem for you. The game is changing. You’ve got to shake some old habits, but it shows the evolution of the game.”

The evolution has changed rosters. Most teams are moving away from centers in favor of smaller, more athletic players.

It’s a reason for the push to remove the center position from the All-Star ballot. Some complained that players like Roy Hibbert made the team because of their position and weren’t true All-Stars..

“There are fewer and fewer traditional big men now in the league,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr. “It’s what makes Memphis a very interesting team. They have two very traditional bigs in Marc and Zach (Randolph), and even Marc has taken his game out to the 3-point line, too. He’s adapting.”

Young big men like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid have shown the ability to dribble and shoot from distance.

Kerr said defense for big men today is “much different. It’s much more difficult. If you look at it from a math perspective, there’s such a wider radius of floor to cover. It used to be you could help out on a cutter in the paint and you could get out to the guy at 20 feet. Now you have to get out to a guy at 25 feet, even 28 feet. Steph Curry, Ryan Anderson, Klay Thompson, guys like that are shooting 28 footers with ease – it’s a math thing.”

Perhaps no center knows this quite like DeAndre Jordan. One of the NBA’s better defenders, he’s a first-time All-Star.

Jordan has a rare ability to run the floor and cover space on the perimeter while getting back to contest shots at the rim and rebound.

“You just can’t stand in the paint anymore,” Jordan said. “You’ve got to guard those guys, especially guys like DeMarcus, Karl who can handle the basketball and just take off with the break. You’ve got to be ready for anything with those guys, inside and out.”

So what is it like defending a big man like Jordan who can’t shoot from the perimeter?

“It makes your job that much easier,” Cousins said while laughing at his good friend.

Those easier nights are becoming harder to find in today’s NBA, especially in the West.

The Sacramento Kings added two more players to their list of injured during Wednesday’s 109-86 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena after Arron Afflalo and Malachi Richardson both left the game with injuries.

Jason Jones: @mr_jasonjones, read more about the team at sacbee.com/kings.

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