Over the years, it seems that the center position has been steadily devalued throughout the league. Due to the nature of the expansion of shooting range and the increased 3-point shooting volume, the big man down low has almost become an antique. Still, looking at NBA.com’s MVP ladder for most of the season, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have topped the list. There are two opposing thoughts here: Centers can’t lead their team to the championship, and the two best players in the league are centers. So, what’s the truth?
The truth of this discourse matters so deeply to the future of the franchise because the best player to wear a Timberwolves jersey since Kevin Garnett is a center. It seems like, since entering the league, Karl-Anthony Towns has had to face criticism about his ability to lead a team at the highest level. Part of the criticism is that the last center to be the best player on a championship team was Shaquille O’Neal. Here’s where the discussion gets more complicated.
What is a center? I’ve long held the belief that the more finite position labels are, the less accurate they become. I prefer to use terms like Big, Wing, and Guard. Better yet, thinking about the game of basketball by defining roles rather than position can more accurately represent the bigger picture. Sure, Towns and Shaq both play center, but the two players could hardly be more different.
The funny thing is the run of championships for 10 years after Shaq won Finals MVP was partially dominated by great power forwards. Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Garnett all played key roles for championship teams — with Duncan and Nowitzki winning finals MVP awards. Really though, unless they were playing shooting guard on this year’s super-sized Cleveland Cavaliers team, they would undoubtedly spend a vast majority of their time nominally playing center were they playing in the league today.
What about Giannis Antetokounmpo? He won finals MVP last year as the biggest guy on the floor for the Bucks for much of the series, but would anyone define him as a center? Many have called him the “Modern-day Shaq.” But that’s unfair to both parties because Shaq could never do this:
Of course, Shaq would never be asked to take a shot like that because he would never be tasked with perimeter creation that Giannis undertakes. A credit to Antetokounmpo for expanding his game in the way he has, but the NBA has changed so much that it was almost necessary for him if he wanted to be a great player in the modern game.
The fact that Towns is a center directly affects how people talk about him. It seems so often the focus on Towns is about what he can’t do. He can’t defend. He can’t be the guy on a team. He’s soft. I wonder if he were in a situation like Domantas Sabonis in Indiana, would he be more of a perennial All-Star/All-NBA guy?
The voting for those awards, specifically All-NBA, is somewhat weighted against centers. Guards and forwards get six All-NBA slots each. With the interchangeability of point guards and shooting guards, small forwards, and power forwards, voters have more flexibility to craft an accurate reflection of the best players in the league. Read or listen to any of the national media folks — they are begging the NBA to let them put Embiid and Jokic on the first team together even though both of those players haven’t played a single minute this season at power forward.
So, Towns is in the middle of the best season of his career, the overwhelming best player on a playoff team, and there’s a chance that he could miss All-NBA entirely. It feels wrong. But if Jokic and Embiid both have to be centers, then either Towns or Rudy Gobert will be left off. Either route feels like an injustice.
All this to say when we constrict ourselves to think about the game of basketball with just five positions, we end up miscategorizing or mislabeling players, which can have detrimental effects on how they are viewed throughout the league. Narrative matters so much in the NBA. We can see it in the MVP discussions. Why is Devin Booker, the presumptive best player on the best team in the league, on the outside of the MVP race? The Ringer’s Dan Devine made an excellent comparison between Towns and Booker. Both played the role of “good stats, bad team” guys for the brunt of their careers after playing on such miserable squads. I’m not sure there is a harder label to shed than that in this league, and we can see that in how the media talks about those two.
Regardless of labels, what Wolves fans see from Towns is an ability to break the mold of his position. He has totally reimagined what an NBA center can be. We know that Towns’ 3-point volume has been mind-boggling for much of his career, but he is also averaging 7.8 drives to the basket per game this season. Depending on how you want to categorize Julius Randle (nine drives per game), that leads the league among centers. He’s expanded his game to be a perimeter threat beyond the shooting and exploiting closeouts. We’ve always seen the ball skills, but he’s really started to put it all together and round out his offensive game.
We’ve all seen the play: D’Angelo Russell and Towns pick-and-pop. Towns works for the switch and gets the ball at the top of the key. He gives a couple of jab steps, a quick pump fake or two, and bam — he’s off to the races, attacking the basket, dunking on his defender’s head. It’s a thing of beauty. And Towns deserves all the credit in the world for his development. Not too long ago, much of Timberwolves nation was howling that the Wolves needed to trade Towns before it was too late. We are now in the middle of the best Wolves season since the Garnett days, rooting for a team that looks like it could have long-term success. What a time to be alive.
Ultimately, a center in the NBA can be so many things. Yes, as the game speeds up and more teams are demanding that players be able to shoot, pass, and dribble, the traditional back-to-the-basket, big, brooding center is going out of style. But the new era of NBA centers is being defined by Jokic’s masterful passing. It’s being defined by Embiid’s crossover moves and James Harden-esque foul drawing. The new NBA center is shaping itself after the fastbreak phenom that is Giannis. And whether or not he gets recognized for it, Karl-Anthony Towns is helping redefine what a center can do in this league.