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.
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.
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.
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.