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Why Today’s NBA Centers Shoot from the Arc, Not Just in the Paint

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They don’t make ‘em like they used to...and there’s a reason for that.

Hakeem Olajuwon

The modern NBA features plenty of big men shooting three-pointers, players that once upon a time would have been anchored deep in the post. This provides the topic for today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. If you have a question about the Portland Trail Blazers or the NBA, send it along to blazersub@gmail.com.

Hey Dave,

It seems the trend is to want big men to shoot 3's and I don't get it. Could you explain it to me? I thought the presence of their height would be more useful closer to the hoop. I understand the basic concept of spreading the court. In fact, I remember when Big Men like Hakeem Olajuwon starting shooting more threes. (Remember scenes like this from back in the day against Clyde's Blazers?

However, it seems a low-usage play that only really works when they aren't expecting the player to be able to shoot. Personally, I wouldn't mind a quality big guy with a low post presence to add this to his game (think All Stars like Hakeem), I just don't think it should be the focus of their game and I wouldn't encourage a project center to focus on it.

When a big man misses a three-pointer, which team normally gets the rebound and how does that compare to when the rest of the team shoots three-pointers?

What do you think Dave? If you were Coach Dave, where would you be telling your big men to focus their attention?

-Erik, Mount Vernon, WA

Let’s break this down.

First of all, I’d agree that the Trail Blazers, or any team, should definitely add the next Hakeem Olajuwon when he becomes available. I’m sure every GM in the world agrees. But Hakeem wasn’t just a low-post player. His “Dream Shake” extended outward as his game developed. He wasn’t a modern-day three-point shooter but he was capable of scoring from 10 feet and beyond. Great players aren’t bound by space; they learn to dominate from multiple positions on the floor, making themselves commensurately greater threats. If and when a team does find the Next Olajuwon, there’s no way they’ll make him solely a back-to-the-basket, paint-exclusive player.

Realistically, though, nobody’s developed the next Hakeem Olajuwon because he doesn’t exist. Extraordinary bigs populate the league but they’re not of that mold. Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant are 7-footers with transcendent talent but their offensive games range far beyond Hakeem’s former comfort zone. Forcing them to play inside would be like handcuffing them. Players with more muscle like Anthony Davis—a better candidate for the traditional big man role—also possess speed. He could dominate in the paint but keeping him there would waste one of his main assets.

In the last decade, the closest thing to a paint-dominant superstar we’ve seen is Dwight Howard. He was phenomenal at one point. Nobody could handle him. But even he had to stretch his repertoire (only moderately successfully) as he aged. His inability to adjust offensively has made him far less effective even though his shooting efficiency and rebounding percentages remain as high as ever.

But let’s forget all-time, all-world players for a minute and go back to one of Portland’s former All-Stars: Kevin Duckworth. He was huge, bulky, and had all the physical hallmarks of an inside player in an era where that was the standard for centers. Coach Rick Adelman moved him outside as the years progressed, even though that went against type. Some of it was style: Duck preferred to score rather than bang. (Reportedly the Blazers wanted him to play inside more.) Buck Williams took up lane space, another reason to develop Duckworth’s baseline face-up jumper. But there was a third. Duckworth played alongside one of the best backcourts in that, or any, era in Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. They weren’t just spot-up shooters, but all-around point-producers. They needed the flexibility to drive, pull up, post up, or anything else that came to mind. Duckworth camping inside would have taken away otherwise-credible options. Not having the lane open would have allowed the defense to play Clyde and Terry tighter, knowing that mid-range and beyond was their only fertile scoring ground.

Drexler and Porter are long gone, but thanks to the turn-of-the-millennium NBA rules changes, just about every team has a miniature version now. Because defenses can’t touch dribblers out on the floor anymore, the NBA has become a guard’s league. Those guards find huge advantage in multi-threat moves off the dribble, moves which would become far more predictable if the lane were clogged. Robin Lopez and Mason Plumlee came to Portland with offensive games as credible as a three-dollar bill. As soon as they lined up next to Damian Lillard they started crafting face-up jumpers and flips on the move. There’s no way the Blazers were going to let them plant in the middle, dragging their defenders into the flight path of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The bigs had to adjust, not the guards.

Three-point shooting is just an extension of that concept. The farther a big man can draw his defender outside, the more space opens up for drivers. Nor can the defender recover to the lane for rebounds. The corollary to the “our center needs to be in the middle to clean the glass” theorem is that the other center will be in there too. Eliminating both of them ends up about the same as keeping both of them in there as far as the offensive team is concerned. Clearing the lane for other scorers at the same time tips the balance.

That leads to the final point: the statistical argument. Incompetent shooters attempting shots is always a bad idea. Assuming the shooter has sufficient range, though, it’s hard to argue with a three-point shot earning time-and-a-half versus the regular two-pointer. Adding potential fouls mitigates this somewhat, but the unclouded backcourt attempts we just talked about probably rights the balance again. Competency from the arc may be the biggest single advantage in modern basketball.

Rebounding, on the other hand, just isn’t. Offensive rebounds matter, but they’re comparatively rare in the grand scheme of things. They’re more bonus than foundation for most teams. Defensive rebounding statistics are mostly noise. If you play an entire lineup of 6’1 players, they’ll probably get out-rebounded. Failing that, for the most part boards are boards. Somebody is going to catch the miss. Whether it’s a center, forward, or guard doesn’t end up mattering. that much.

Absent super-rare talents and the occasional offensive-rebounding spree, keeping your big man in the middle isn’t as important to rebounding as you think. Nor are rebounding schemes that critical to the outcome of the game, assuming somebody is doing the glass work. Shooting prolifically, if not well, from the arc offers a much bigger potential advantage than rebounding can provide. That’s why you continue to see big men, young and old, working to extend their range on both ends of the floor.

Thanks, Erik! Hope things are well in Mount Vernon. Our hopes and prayers are with all the folks in Florida and Texas this weekend as well. We won’t forget you. Stay safe.

—Dave / blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard