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Center Stage: Replacing Perk’s Minutes

 

The Boston Celtics of the Big Three Era have never been on the cutting edge of positional flexibility. All around the league, towering long-range gunners and tiny shotblockers are making people wonder why we distinguish the positions at all. But not in Boston, where the point guards run the offense, the power forwards rebound, the small forwards do a little of everything, and the shooting guards shoot. And until last week, the center stood under the basket.

But now Kendrick Perkins, prototypical NBA pivot, is gone, and there seems to be a shortage of players to fill his minutes at the position. Nenad Krstic is the only healthy player listed at center on the roster (Chris Johnson omitted on purpose), and it’s unclear which of the other bigs would be best suited to back him up. Troy Murphy’s now in the mix, and he’s without question an essential boost to the Celtics’ increasingly worrisome rebounding. But is he a center? And if not, who is?

Defining a center is often misleading and dumb, like when everyone says that Magic Johnson played center in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals just because he took the jump ball (he didn’t play defense on Darryl Dawkins for one possession). Labeling positions in general can be a pretty pointless exercise. But we can agree that most NBA basketball teams still have a guy who hangs out underneath and pulls down boards or puts up shots at the rim, then checks the opposition’s best post player on the other end. In this post we’re going to see who can be that guy for the Celtics.

So what qualities does a player need to fill the center position, traditionally? A typical NBA center is 6’10″ or taller, says Wikipedia, although the article needs additional citations for verification. But we’re going to lower that figure by an inch to include Glen Davis and Jeff Green, who’ve each played the power forward position for most of their careers and are therefore considered “bigs.” Looking at all the players who qualify by height, we’ll focus on three primary statistical attributes:

Centers take 46% of their shots at the rim, according to Tom Haberstroh writing for Hardwood Paroxysm. That’s compared to 38% for power forwards, and about 25-30% for the other three positions.

Centers average defensive rebound rate of 19.6. (It’s 18.4 for power forwards, 13.8 for SFs, 11.2 for SGs, 9.4 for PGs.)

Centers average 1.77 blocks per 40 minutes. Blocks are kind of a stupid measure of defensive ability, but they probably set centers apart more than any other stat (PFs only average 1.12, downhill from there). And that’s what we’re going for here, it seems.

After the jump, see all the Celtics big men make their case for being centers, and then see most of them come up “short.” Heh.

Glen Davis: 30.4% at the rim, 15.9 DRR, 0.4 blocks per 40 minutes

Before the trade deadline, Big Baby played some heavy minutes at center in the extremely common event of Shaq, Jermaine, and Perkins being out. But, as has been documented to a pretty tedious degree on this site, Davis shoots a ton of jumpers and is a bad rebounder. On the defensive end, his stubby-arm disease prevents him from blocking shots, but he compensates by drawing offensive fouls, which are more valuable anyway because blocks don’t always swing possession. In any case, whatever Davis is, he’s not a traditional center.

Nenad Krstic: 29.7% at the rim, 14.6 DRR, 0.7 blocks per 40 minutes

Pretty much the only thing Nenad Krstic has to qualify him as a center is that he’s a) Eastern European and b) 7 feet tall. So he’s a center as far as Hollywood casting is concerned, but it ends there. He’s a jump shooter, doesn’t block shots or defend the post in any way, and his rebounding is completely awful for his size. Nonetheless, he’s been listed as a center for his entire career, probably because he reminds everyone of Ivan from Eddie.

Nenad make basket.

Kevin Garnett: 31.1% at the rim, 29.4 DRR, 1.0 block per 40 minutes

Other than Krstic, Garnett is the the tallest healthy guy the Celtics have right now, and center is one of the five positions he can defend. His mesospheric rebounding numbers also place him among the most promising guys for the job. Still, that 31.1% at the rim stands in the way of his playing the traditional center’s role: he’s more valuable offensively nailing 19-footers than banging inside.

Jermaine O’Neal: 35.6% at the rim, 17.6 DRR, 2.7 blocks per 40 minutes

Jermaine is generally thought of as a center, but the biggest thing keeping him from actually being one (other than the fact that he’s physically broken) is his shot selection. Like Garnett, he’d rather float a long jumper than go inside. He does defend the position well, but again, there’s no reason to believe he’s going to be healthy enough to make a difference this season, so he’s disqualified (stamp sound effect).

Jeff Green: 27.8% of shots at the rim, 13.7 DRR, 0.5 blocks per 40 minutes

The only reason Green is even included in this discussion is to show that he’s not even a power forward by these measures. He’s a small forward (and a below-average rebounding one) who takes more threes than any other shot and has no post defense abilities to speak of. Thank god Troy Murphy’s signing means that he won’t have to play power forward that much.

Small forward v. center comparison

Troy Murphy (2010 stats): 26.5% at the rim, 28.4 DRR, 0.6 blocks per 40 minutes

But Murphy’s hardly more of a center than Green is. Yes, he’s an awesome rebounder, and yes, he’s white and awkward. But he has the lowest percentage of shots at the rim of any of these bigs. He goes to the rim about as much as your average point guard. He shot more threes than anything else last year. He also doesn’t check post players for s-word. He’s not a center.

Well, I guess that’s everyone. Not a center in the bunch. So now the question we have to ask is, how could Ainge trade Perkins when he doesn’t have a–OH RIGHT.

Shaquille O’Neal: 83.6% at the rim, 20.2 DRR, 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes

There he is. There’s a center. Takes shots almost exclusively at the rim, devours boards, redirects a few into the stands. It’s not hard to forget about him in his absence, but Shaq’s the only reliable 5 on the roster, and the engine ran pretty smoothly with him underneath at the beginning of the season. The only issue (a huge one) is that you can only count on him for 25 minutes a game at the absolute most. Unless you believe some pretty tempting conspiracy theories.

A commenter who goes by “Guest” but is otherwise very smart noted under the Troy Murphy post from yesterday that the timeline of Perkins’s recovery, Shaq’s injury, and the various trades and signings the Celtics have made are all evidence for Shaq having been dubbed the go-to playoff center by the Celtics brass a long time ago. Guest (among others) thinks that this latest injury time for Shaq is all a big ruse to give him some time off to lose weight (which he is said to be doing) and rest his dogs for the playoffs.

Picture reportedly taken two days ago.

Whether or not that’s the case, the lack of a traditional center outside of Shaq just shows the degree to which the Celtics are resting their championship hopes on his shoulders, which turn 39 in four days. And in the next two months, as the Celtics find ways to convince us that Shaq’s Achilles tendon is still injured, we get to see what the center position looks like without him.

  • Saxmotronix

    Hayes, Glen Davis is not 6'9. Come on, broseph.

    • CG12

      Seriously. Baby is not 6'8" and may not even be 6'7". He is regularly described as 6'9" and 289 lbs., which is simply a recitation of his listed measurements when he came into the league. Both of those numbers were not accurate then and are not accurate now.

      Baby's one center-ish quality is his ability to defend one-on-one in the low post. His strength, low center of gravity, and quick feet allow him to keep opposing centers away from the basket. He has done some excellent work defending Dwight Howard in recent years. Otherwise, he is an undersized PF through and through.

      • cornellwestside

        Statistically, Dwight has abused Baby in the post. It may seem sometimes that he does a good job on Howard, but Howard pretty much gets his averages fairly easily against Davis.

      • Chris O

        I think baby's actually only a 5'11' leprachaun

  • Celticai

    This article might be a bit concerning, if I didn't know that amongst other NBA teams only few have what might be defined as a "true" Center. Unfortunately, Orlando is one of them. And I bet this article would define Stoudemire as a "true" Center as well. And perhaps even Boozer.
    We might have to deal with these issues come playoffs time, but I bet the coaching staff will figure something out… Like letting Dwight Howard "Punish" you with 30+ points – But shut everyone else down.

    • talesofJP

      If not Boozer then almost certainly Noah. Hopefully we don't meet the Bulls in the playoffs. Could be even tougher than that first round series from a few years back.

      • KBA

        Thank god Ben Gordon is no longer there… that's there weakest spot, the sg and Ben Gordon probably would be a really good fit right now.

  • Guest

    Haha I didn't really think much about my anonymity at the time… I posted pretty much the same thing on Celticslife.com in the comments for the "Troy Murphy Signs with Boston" post. No one over there seemed to think it had any merit… I'm glad that, even if you don't necessarily agree, it's an interesting and suspicious enough time-line to bring up

    • Chris O

      it was def a well thought out point, regardless of accuracy, very possible.

  • Guest

    Also, I can't find the data on 82games and Hoopdata doesn't have PJ Brown even listed on the roster for that year, but I will point out that the year of the championship the only "centers" we had were Perkins, PJ Brown and SCOTT POLLARD.

    Perkins definitely did not play more than 25 minutes a game those years.

    Of course, the Lakers didn't have Bynum, and Dwight Howard wasn't what he is today…

    Nonetheless, we did it before with no more true center play than we're likely to get this year

  • Guest

    http://www.nesn.com/2011/03/will-shaquille-oneal-

    "Shaq has been out for a month with an inflamed Achilles, a rather long absence for a rather benign injury."

    "The Celtics have been remarkably tight-lipped about the specifics of Shaq's injury."

    "The C's don't want to show their hand at this stage in the game."

    NESN seems to practically be talking openly about something fishy going on but they just never quite put it all together…

    • Ryan DeGama

      Midseason vacation for Shaq.

      • Guest

        To quote Willem Dafoe, "That James Bond 5h!t doesn't happen in real life!?"

        This conniving, mastermind gameplan stuff never actually goes on in professional sports. Teams are too focused on winning every game to bother cultivating a serious trump card and sacrifice winning now for winning later! It's too storybook. No team ever does that.

        If Shaq was playing as well for me as he was for Danny and Doc this year, I think I'd probably pull him aside and say "I want to offer you a spotlight in the postseason. I want you to go out with bang, not as some reserve role guy riding our coattails to another championship. Take a month. Put it all on the line. Show us what you got."

        Am I just beating this whole thing to death right now? The idea is such a storybook conspiracy theory but the prospects are so exciting I'm giddy at the thought. How can we be talking about Greg Oden next year when this kind of mischievous stuff is going on right now?

  • cos

    I bet Greg Oden could be classified as a 5. and he's not getting an extension next year. With the way boston takes care of injuries and their interest in him at the draft time, I wouldnt be surprised he's playing here next year. never too early to discuss offseason!

    • Robert

      Phoenix is definitely the franchise to go to if you're injury-prone. Their medical staff seems to be able to work miracles ie. Grant HIll. As for Boston…well we've certainly DEALT with a lot injuries, but I'm not sure if the Celts' medical staff is more skilled then any of the other non-Phoenix teams.

  • Guest

    Oden to Miami if there are exceptions left after the next CBA.. New york won't want to risk the cap space for the following year… Miami needs to fill it's holes and is exactly the type of team that would see taking the risk on Oden worth it.

  • torpid bunny

    The conspiracy theory about Shaq is plausible but it's more like what management would like you to believe. The fact is that Shaq is old and has a history of injuries. Resting up for a month isn't going to change that, although he might feel a bit perkier. I'm sure Ainge is aware of that.

    • Chris O

      Agreed, I don't believe Shaq is not injured. It is however a great and intriguing theory. I think Doc wants home court and so does Danny and they wouldn't trade wins for a healthier Shaq. Plus that would cause more risk to the rest of the roster like Ray, Rondo, KG and Pierce having to carry more of the load. If it is tendonosis it could take a long time to heal

  • Ross

    Hayes, great piece! I’ve been thinking all along that Shaq is our center (his play was off the charts in the first couple months). I'm glad someone did the homework to show with numbers who our center is. I hope the big Shamrock can keep up the pace when the time comes, 39 is old for any NBA player, but utterly ancient for a big.

    • Robert

      Actually, bigs probably age better then smaller players. Hollinger has frequently said that the two best signs for career longevity (assuming at least passable nba-level skill) are:

      1. Height – Peaking at around 6'10" before chances at a long career start to go down again. Freakishly tall guys like Yao and Gheorghe Muresan, etc…generally aren't built for long-term careers. Basically, guys aren't shrinking as they age. As long as Shaq can get on the floor, he'll always be a load inside.

      2. Shooting ability – The mechanics of shooting aren't really affected by age either. This is probably why Ray will have a job as long as he wants.

  • dtla la

    I totally agree with Guest's conspiracy theory re: Shaq.

    The proof will be in the pudding, or the lack of it: when Shaq finally returns, he'll be noticeably Diesel'ed up, and they'll play him over twenty minutes regularly.

  • geg

    Krstic is not Eastern European. Serbia is South Europe.

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