MIDDLE MAN REAPPRAISED NBA teams question need for dominating center

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEATTLE -- One bygone day, some basketball Moses (long before Malone) went to the mountaintop. Among other things, he received the prescriptions for the full-court press, the pick-and-roll and, for future reference, the slam dunk. Finally came the first, and only commandment:

"Thou shalt not win without TFC."

"TFC?" the roundball Moses asked, for clarification.

"The Franchise Center," came the reply from hoops heaven. "You know, the Aircraft Carrier, the Big Fella, guys named Russell, Wilt the Stilt, and, yes, even Moses."

For years, the National Basketball Association faithfully heeded the word. Ballclubs scoured the land for TFCs as if on a quest for the holy grail. Those who succeeded ended the season kissing NBA championship rings.

Then, in a less enlightened era, the dogma was challenged.

The Los Angeles Lakers, with a flagging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the middle, won consecutive NBA titles. The devilish Detroit Pistons, with a less-than-dominating Bill Laimbeer, followed with two. Last season, it was widely worshiped Michael Jordan, the deity guard, who led the Chicago Bulls to the championship.

"Anybody can win without a center, I suppose," said Pat Riley, who as the new coach of the New York Knicks happens to pencil Patrick Ewing's name into the starting lineup every night. "But can they win it all? I still think you have a lot better chance of winning championships with a gifted center."

Riley dismisses the exceptions as "one-shot wonders." He maintains that Laimbeer "was a great center," and as the man who coached those dominating Laker teams of the '80s, no doubt thinks Abdul-Jabbar retained his greatness even in decline.

Yet Riley's assertion that elite centers are necessary ingredients in a championship recipe contradicts emerging NBA reality.

TFCs have become liabilities to teams seeking a title.

They're more trouble than they're worth. You have to give up half a team to acquire one, and use half a payroll to sign one. With that kind of investment, of course you're going to build your offense around him. And, with today's defenses more sophisticated, and the gap between TFCs and their lesser brethren shrinking, it is a useless pursuit.

Maybe the league finally is getting hip to the trend. Faced with the closest thing to a TFC candidate the 1991 draft had to offer, three teams passed. It wasn't until the No. 4 pick that the Denver Nuggets claimed Dikembe Mutombo, the 7-foot-2 center out of Georgetown.

But according to Bernie Bickerstaff, the Nuggets' general manager, "All the league has said is that the teams are so good, the players are so good, that just because you have a dominating center doesn't guarantee you're going to be good. If you can't get the other parts, you aren't going to win.

"The precedent has been set."

Ah, yes, the precedents.

Today's three TFCs -- New York's Patrick Ewing, Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and San Antonio's David Robinson -- have among them four division titles, but eight first-round playoff ousters, only one appearance in a conference championship round and one appearance in the NBA finals. No first- or second-team All-NBA center has played in the league's final four the past five years.

The they-lack-a-supporting-cast argument is the one most frequently trotted out to explain why Ewing's, Olajuwon's, and Robinson's teams haven't won more. Yet examine how one goes about getting a TFC. A team must be disgustingly bad to draft one, or must mortgage half its roster to trade for one.

In either case, the team has its elite center, but little else. Teams then overestimate the TFC's value, allowing him to hog so much of the payroll that the club has little room under the league-imposed salary cap to add other good players.

Bickerstaff, whose Nuggets had the worst record in the NBA last season, is trying to avoid the pitfalls. First, with a couple of trades, he added first-rounders Mark Macon and Kevin Brooks to his draft-day catch. Second, he used the salary-cap argument during negotiations with Mutombo.

"We have flexibility," Bickerstaff said. "We can manage the cap, and hopefully build around it. You've got to have room under the cap to put people around the center."

Denver can only hope to do better in that regard than the Knicks, who in trying to build around Ewing have wickedly demonstrated the potential for blunder.

Once the Knicks' future, Ewing now is 29, frustrated over his team's lack of success, unhappy over money and coming off a summer during which the possibility of his being traded was discussed openly. He also faces the prospect of adjusting to yet another "supporting cast," which remains riddled with holes.

But even a mistake-free construction of a championship-caliber team requires a specific type of center as its foundation. The most important requirement is defense -- shot-blocking, positioning and rebounding. A secondary requirement is enough offense to keep the opposition honest.

But today's TFCs are dominating presences at both ends of the floor. And it is their offensive dominion that has limited their teams.

Big players confined to a small area under the basket called the post, centers are the easiest for the defense to find. And centers, even at the highest level, are among the least instinctive ballhandlers and passers. The defense creates confusion, putting one man in a center's face while another, just as large, pummels his backside with elbows and forearms.

"Today in the NBA, there's so much doubling down in the post, you don't get hurt as much if you're outsized," said Miami Heat coach Kevin Loughery. "Your best scoring comes out of the post in the NBA -- that's the way we all wanted it a few years ago. Now, because of the sophistication of NBA defenses, and all the doubling down, it's really tough to score from the post."

Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and the Lakers' Magic Johnson dominated the 1980s. Their Air apparent for the '90s is Jordan. The trio has combined to win the past eight Most Valuable Player awards; the most recent winner among centers was Moses Malone in 1983.

That's no coincidence. Bird, Johnson and Jordan share a distinction TFCs lack -- the ability to use the entire floor. The game has changed, placing a premium on speed, mobility and creating room to maneuver on a court that has become choked with jumbo-sized players.

Teams increasingly isolate their multi-dimensional offensive players, making it difficult for defenders to get help. Also, coaches seek long-range shooters to "stretch" defenses away from their big men, or penetrators to lure them away. More are skirting the issue altogether with running attacks or so-called "passing-game" (pass-and-cut) offenses.

The wild West's run-and-gun stratagem, long considered an aberration, steadily has crept to the fringes of the Eastern time zone. The last haven for old-school basketball is the Atlantic, which Orlando Magic coach Matt Guokas calls "a punch-it-inside type of division." It also is the NBA's weakest.

Time is a factor. Bickerstaff says the 24-second shot clock becomes a defensive ally when centers, swarmed, slowly search out open teammates. The clock, says San Antonio coach Larry Brown, "puts a premium on guys who can create shots for themselves and their teammates."

The result of these developments, Brown adds, is that "teams with the dominating centers don't necessarily win anymore." This season, Brown is trying to get his Spurs to run more, open up offensively and relieve some pressure from their TFC, Robinson.

Olajuwon's conversion to a share-the-wealth team player, after he returned from an injury, led to a dramatic reversal in the Rockets' fortunes last season.

"Hakeem has taken the back seat, in terms of being the No. 1 player on the team, although we all know he is," Houston coach Don Chaney said. "What I like about our center is his ability to make the adjustment to modern times. He can take his game outside and contribute more with his passing. The old days of throwing the ball inside and letting the action start in the post are out."

TFCs are becoming basketball's modern-day dinosaurs. NBA super scout Marty Blake annually decries the dearth of elite centers emerging from college. With the rules so stacked against them, is it any wonder?

Years engulfed in zone, "freak," and other gimmick defenses has changed post skills -- at both ends. The process has been accelerated by increased exploitation of the NCAA's drop-in-the-bucket, three-point line. Still, enormous athletes who

play center continue to stream out of college.

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