Ballots are big news in 2012; for the NBA’s purposes, however, the way it defines “big” on its own ticket is dramatically changing. Today the NBA was reported to reveal that instead of voting for two guards, two forwards and a center for the All-Star teams, it had eliminated the center position. Now you’ll just vote for three big men — a victory for forwards playing center everywhere (looking at you, Tim Duncan).
Even against the valid calls of, “It’s just All-Star Weekend,” it’s impossible not to look at the decision as anything but a big deal. Ever since its infancy stages of Mikan — when All-Star games were chosen by writers regardless of the position — the NBA has never dictated position changes like this. Even as modern teams have tinkered for years with the point-forward, four-guard lineups, etc., it’s a huge change. It’s a natural progression across different sports, too, with football seeing its teams introduce the hybrid Wildcat QB, a “rover” safety/linebacker blend and defensive ends who mix time between the line and outside linebacker. The difference is the NFL has never dictated, from the top down, positional changes like the NBA is doing by removing a position from consideration. Few teams use the fullback anymore, but it hasn’t been deleted from the glossary.
You can see this as either a broad shift in how basketball is played after the success of Miami’s small lineup last spring, or a realization of what had been brewing since the early 2000s. Chris Bosh started two games at center last season and asked not to play the five when he arrived from Toronto in free agency, but his shift to center allowed LeBron James play the four, which helped lead to the NBA title. Or, as Bosh’s position identity crisis — and maybe more importantly, the free agency recruiting bonanza for Roy Hibbert, a still-unproven true center — shows, maybe this was about recognizing there are simply few true centers playing today. As lineup cards stand, someone will always play center, but few are traditional posts in the mold Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal were in the 1990s, our last great era of centers. Trends about best style of play practices come and go in the NBA, so why did the NBA choose now to consolidate the forwards and center? It’s because of both of those reasons.
The three new, ambiguous big men All-Star positions will always be filled. When the day comes that no true center is on the floor at tip-off, let’s remember the game’s best moments that were supplied by centers.
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5. SHAQ JOINS THE JABBAWOCKEEZ
We’ll discuss his three MVP awards from this game, second all-time, later. For now, let’s remember the introduction to the 2009 All-Star game. The mask doesn’t quite fit O’Neal’s face, but for a 7-footer pushing three bills, Shaq fits into the troupe of half-Shaq-sized dancers oddly well.