Bigger is better only for some - NBC Sports

Bigger is better only for some
Teams don't need true centers to win anymore, but some still believe it
AP
Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut, right, of Australia, drives to the basket past Phoenix Suns forward Luis Scola, left, of Argentina, on Oct. 31.
January 3, 2013, 12:01 am

In the opposite locker room that night, Bucks coach Scott Skiles was plotting what would turn into victory over the Heat with an approach that had no need for a true center Samuel Dalembert to be bolted to the bench the entire night, as he has been for much of the past month. For Skiles and the Bucks this was nothing new, the franchise that dared make the rare big-for-small trade a year ago, when they sent Andrew Bogut to the Warriors for Monta Ellis.

Yet Spoelstra wasn't giving in to the notion, the coach who turned Chris Bosh from All-Star power forward to championship center. The new-era coach in many way remains old school, a product of his mentor Pat Riley, who had enjoyed just about all of his coaching success surrounded by the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal.

If he had a true center, a true franchise center, Spoelstra said, he would play a true center, run his offense through a true center. He was speaking of it as a better way, even after he had won a championship a different way.

Spoelstra first pointed to the Clippers and how they had the best record in the league while featuring a true center in DeAndre Jordan, as if Jordan was the reason for the Clippers' success. He then cited Marc Gasol and his impact with the Grizzlies, even though it could be argued that power forward Zach Randolph stands as Memphis' power focus.

Spoelstra is not alone in his stubbornness, old-school thinking.

Even as the NBA evolves, as teams thrive by playing smaller, more athletic lineups, some just can't let go.

So Scott Brooks remains steadfast in Oklahoma City with his commitment to Kendrick Perkins, even as the Heat continually expose that slow-footed approach.

The Nets overpay Brook Lopez, when it is clear by now that he is not who we thought he was, closer to Benoit Benjamin than any new-age Nets center.

The Pacers continue to try to convince themselves that Roy Hibbert can replicate last season, as it continues to only get worse for the once-and-perhaps-only-once All-Star center.

Which brings us to the news of the day and questions about the prudence of such ongoing thinking, that big is better, and that biggest is best.

Example A is in Los Angeles, where Dwight Howard's averageness has been linked to his offseason back surgery, as if complete recovery in such cases is ever guaranteed. Through it all, the Lakers remained committed to a maximum five-year, $118 million free-agent contract in the offseason.

Example B is in Sacramento, where the Maloofs demanded DeMarcus Cousins be reinstated, locker-room decorum or front-office preferences be damned.

Because in some precincts, more than you would think, size still matters.

Yet of the top teams just past the one-third mark of the season, center dominance not only is the exception, it largely is a secondary factor to success.

Getting beyond the aforementioned Clippers and Jordan, Grizzlies and Gasol, this is not the inside-out league it once was, Chris Paul clearly the key to the Clippers, Russell Westbrook a barometer for the Thunder, and, arguably, Raymond Felton the catalyst for the resurgence of the Knicks.

That's not to say that a center doesn't help. Big-man functionality remains of considerable benefit, whether it's Tyson Chandler rolling to dunks off the Knicks' pick-and-rolls, Gasol passing out of the post for the Grizzlies, Perkins providing defensive coverage in the paint for Oklahoma City or even the occasional clean-up work provided by Joel Anthony with the Heat.

But the new NBA model shows that you don't have to go to great lengths to make sure you have great length. And even if you feature such size, the game has changed to the point where there has to be much more in place, Howard clearly struggling with the Lakers without a healthy Steve Nash, Cousins hardly able to lift the Kings in the standings amid such roster mediocrity.

In fact, in coming weeks, it will be interesting to see how far Mark Jackson is willing to go with the Warriors to acclimate Bogut.

Ditto with Doug Collins and a possible return of Andrew Bynum.

The Lakers, of course, have to make it work with Howard, the franchise's future predicated on his comfort in the offense.

For now, 2013 draft projections shows the likes of Indiana's Cody Zeller, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and Maryland's Alex Len at the top of the board. But in the 2012 draft, you had to go down to the ninth pick and UConn's Andre Drummond to find anything close to a true center, with Meyers Leonard and Fab Melo the only other centers taken in the top 25, both yet to be heard from this season.

"This league is all about trends," Spoelstra said of playing the final rounds of last season's playoffs without anything resembling a true center. "With us, we weren't trying to make a trend. We tried to play to our strengths."

Remember, this is the same franchise that in the 2003 draft room, Riley lobbied for Chris Kaman over Dwyane Wade.

It is why Riley has been linked to a run at Cousins, albeit hardly with the type of assets the Kings might be looking for.

Yet as Tim Duncan plays out the string, as Howard struggles with a balky back that may never make it all the way back, as Cousins confounds with his immaturity, one has to wonder if even the stubborn, such as Spoelstra, aren't on the verge of coming around, recognizing that the hunger for size now has to have its limits, that NBA success can be sated without supersizing.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

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