A player’s position has never mattered less than it does in today’s NBA, but only in the 1940s were the All-NBA awards given to the top 15 overall players in the league.
On Tuesday, the NBA announced the 2020-21 All-NBA teams.
James Harden, Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Russell Westbrook were conspicuously absent, among other headliners. These players were not snubbed for their talent or basketball prowess but for their height — none of them play center.
The NBA needs to alter its All-NBA parameters to account for the positionless nature of the modern game. Year after year, elite guards and forwards miss out on legacy-changing recognition as well as significant salary raises.
Of the 15 players named to All-NBA teams, each is deserving in some capacity, but it is hardly an argument to say these are the best players in the league today. The above players who missed the cut are all better than Rudy Gobert, for example.
Yet none of them are eligible to take Gobert’s spot because it is a spot reserved for a center.
In the last decade, the game has moved away from the rim, and centers have been deemphasized in lieu of three-point shooting.
After Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers won back-to-back championships, the league began to shift. Traditional centers like the Lakers’ Andrew Bynum and, to an extent, Pau Gasol, became relics of an old-fashioned league that valued high-volume post-up play.
The league left behind big men in large part because most could not stretch the floor. Soon enough Stephen Curry’s Warriors revolutionized the game — they popularized ultra-long range shooting and positionless small ball on their way to an NBA-record 73-win season.
James Harden’s Houston Rockets pushed the three-ball trend to new heights when they set the league-record for most threes made in a single season — not once, but three times in a row from 2016-19. The team did this with nuanced analytics and a high-octane offense that included few, if any, post-ups by a big man.
Centers today can catch lob passes, bolster defenses and protect the rim with their height and reach. But only the ones that can pass and shoot threes and free throws (see: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid) can realistically vie for top-15 contention.
Even Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal would perhaps be less dominant in today’s game than he was two decades ago. Threes were not in his game, and he shot just over 50% from the free-throw line for his career.
Basketball purists may object that an All-NBA team that does not feature a center fails to represent an actual starting lineup. I’m not saying that Booker or Westbrook should jump at the opening tip, but today’s game features few centers that can compete — in skill, value or popularity — with headlining guards or forwards.
The idea of playing basketball with five distinct positions has been thrashed asunder. Bigs play a smaller role than ever, but they are still featured as prominently on All-NBA teams as they were pre-small ball revolution. This is an indirect punishment for guards and forwards who suffer because a big who can’t shoot is awarded for his height.
The league has been positionless for years. The All-NBA teams should follow suit.