A Dominant Center Equals an NBA Championship

By David Wilson

It is said by nearly every NBA writer and commentator that the game has changed for good. No longer are dominant centers necessary to win championships. After all, didn’t Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls teams prove that point? Just look at the Phoenix Suns 2005-06 season, as they played the overwhelming majority of the year without Amare Stoudemire.

Today the game is dominated by point guards like Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker. It is ruled by versatile swing men like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Tracy McGrady. Perimeter scorers lead teams – as they go, the team goes. Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Gilbert Arenas, and Richard Hamilton rule the roost in the 21st century NBA. Yet, for all the highlights these and other players like them provide, in the end they do not win championships.

Teams with dominant centers win championships.

These are not the ravings of a mad basketball purist. Saying dominant centers win championships doesn’t banish me from ever typing another word on hoops. It doesn’t mean I wish for “days of yore” or Daisy Dukes on men wearing Chuck Taylor’s while the fans – after games, many of the players, too – smoke in NBA arenas. I am a purist in this respect: I believe that the key to an NBA dynasty is the ability of a team to keep its stars, the ability for a coach to establish a flexible hierarchy within the team’s structure, that a team must have a true center – a big man capable of scoring when necessary and defensively capable of, not necessarily blocking shots, but altering shots in the lane. I contend that in the modern history of the NBA (from 1957-present), with the exception of four years, and two of the four should have asterisks next to them, each NBA champion had a, or a combination of centers that were competent on both ends of the floor.

The names of dominant centers are by now legendary: Bill Russell, Bob Pettit-Ed McCauley, Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Elvin Hayes-Mitch Kupchak, Jack Sikma, Robert Parish, Moses Malone, Bill Laimbeer, Scott Williams-Bill Cartwright-Will Perdue-Stacey King, Hakeem Olajuwon, Luc Longley-Bill Wennington-James Edwards, Luc Longley-Bill Wennington-Bison Dele-Robert Parish, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan. These are the centers or center combinations of all but four of the championship teams in the past 50 years, or 92% of all the winning teams.

Of all the championship teams of the past 50 years, only nine, or 18%, were not multiple winners. However, only two of those teams had no dominant big man or men, which brings the percentage down to 16%. Additionally, if we discount the 1958 St. Louis Hawks and the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers because of the Boston Celtics dynasty (we can eliminate that Sixers team because Wilt Chamberlain also won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972, making Wilt a multiple winner), the 1972 L.A. Lakers because Wilt won previously with the Sixers and because the New York Knicks won multiple championships during that period, the Portland Trailblazers because of injuries to Bill Walton, and the 1983 76ers, as the Celtics and the Lakers were dominant then, we are left with only four teams, the 1978 Washington Bullets, the 1979 Seattle Supersonics, the 1998 Chicago Bulls , and the 2004 Detroit Pistons who won championships without someone dominant in the middle. And even then, we are left to wonder if the 1977 Bill Walton-led Portland Trailblazers would have won in 1978 and 1979 had Walton been healthy.

All-in-all, discounting Walton’s balky feet, 92% of all NBA champions of the past 50 years were able to control, if not dominate the paint. If you include the injuries to Big Red, the only other season a teams left are Chicago and Detroit – 48 out of 50 NBA champions.

The 1998 Bulls triumvirate of Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, and Joe Kleine together averaged 16.9 ppg, 8.2 assists per contest, and 1.3 blocks per game. These aren’t shabby numbers, by the way. But what excludes then from dominance is their poor performance in the playoffs. By this time Kleine was on IR, so the Bulls were left with only Longley and Wennington. The two centers averaged a paltry 10.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, and 2.8 bpg.

I excluded Wallace purely because of his lack of offensive production. However, he the was runner-up to Ron Artest for defensive player of the year, had the second-best rebounds per game average (Kevin Garnett was first and Wallace was tied with Tim Duncan) and was second to Theo Ratliff in blocks per game. Had Wallace averaged six more points per game (15.5 rather than 9.5) he too would have qualified as an overall dominant center.

That the Jordan-Scottie Pippen combination was the sole reason for the run of the Bulls is a misnomer. Taking, for instance the 1993 four-headed center combination of Scott Williams, Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, and Stacey King (I know he also played some forward) we have the following per game averages: 21.6 ppg, 14.7 rpg, and 2.1 bpg. In the playoffs that season the four combined to average 17.8 ppg, 14.7 rpg, and 4.2 bpg. Those are, by any measure, dominant statistics for the center position.

Now let’s move ahead and look at the 1997 Bulls center combo on Longley, Wennington, Robert Parish, and Bison Dele. These four averaged 23.4 ppg 13.5 rpg, and 2.3 bpg during the first 82. In the playoffs with only Longley and Dele, the two came out with solid numbers: 12.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, and 3.9bpg. The overall season effort was easily enough to qualify them as more than competent on both ends of the floor. Looked at from this angle, the question becomes, without solid-to-dominant inside play, how many rings would the Jordan-Pippen have today?

Taking a cursory glance at “deep statistics,” if we exclude a seven-year run by Jordan, 75% of the players with the season-high Player Efficiency Rating (PER) were centers.

All of this leaves us with the very high probability of being able to discount any team without a center capable of dominating, at least for long stretches of games, both ends of the floor from winning the 2006-07 NBA crown. So, take a close look at your favorite team or your preseason prediction.

There aren’t but a select few squads that will be holding the Larry O’Brien in June.

If any heads out there have further evidence to support or refute this post, please do comment. I’d love to be able to write an update that includes your knowledge of the game.

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3 responses to “A Dominant Center Equals an NBA Championship

  1. On a related note, here’s 82games.com’s analysis of what makes a championship club.

  2. Jeff – Thanks for pointing that out because I saw that page in 82 Games and, obviously, disagreed. Seven of the 11 top-tier players don’t have rings! Now that you point it out and put it back into the “Important Box” in my head, I’ll include it in an updated piece.

  3. Whoops – and nine of the 12 2nd tier players (what I get for writing before I’m fully awake)…

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