NBA coaches are stubborn in regards to line-ups. They like to establish a concrete rotation rather than a fluid one where the starters change in response to the opposing team. Part of this is because the team is composed of people with self-esteems that can influence their game, and an active flux of starting to not-starting can affect players. However, there is a tendency for coaches to cling to familiar models and safe choices.
One of the most apparent effects is the “phantom center.” To explain the term, think back to the seasons when Shaq was most dominant. Each team needed a behemoth center if it wanted to be competitive when playing the Lakers. There’s also a history of hall-of-fame big men of the past like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain destroying other teams. These men were responsible for the dread that kept coaches up at night, and consequently a coach’s attention was spent on defending them and management responded by locating other giants. If you’re in the wilderness and you’re afraid of being attacked by an animal, you want a gun that can protect you from the biggest beast in the forest just in case you encounter one.
Unfortunately, coaches carried their elephant gun into battle against fleet foxes and crafty wolves when they would be better served with a faster, lighter weapon against the agile creatures. Their inclination to have a static rotation didn’t allow for deploying the weapon when needed. It’s fine if your huge center can be productive no matter what kind of opposing center is featured. Maybe he’s a great rebounder like the 7’ 1” Chandler or a great outside shooter for his size like the 7’ 3” Ilgauskas, but not every center that size is productive in most aspects of the game. Guys like Nesterovic and Ostertag received numerous starts despite a lack of basketball skills. Their massive size was paradoxically a perfect camouflage to mask their deficiencies, as people would assume with that kind of height and stature they should be valuable on the court.
The Collins twins – Jason and Jarron – are perfect examples of phantom centers. No center could contain Shaq at the height of his dominance, but Jason in particular was relatively competent. However, when Jason wasn’t matched up against Shaq or someone similar like Dwight Howard, there is no reason to start him. No one expected him to lead the team in scoring, but he wasn’t good at the center things that need to be done like rebounding, blocking shots, and scoring in the paint. This is a center who for his career has averaged 6.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. He wasn’t much of a shot-blocker either and relied on taking charges to adjust for his lack of jumping ability. That does not sound like a player you want playing for large stretches of a time.
Today Joel Anthony is continuing the legacy of good defensive centers who are only useful in certain situations and have terrible offensive skills but start for competitive teams anyway. Anthony, like Collins, is one of the worst players in the league at the offensive end and a terrible rebounder. The Heat do have one of the worst set of centers in the league, but they don’t need to use them in most situations. Haslem, more of a power forward at least in size, can do all the dirty work of a center and reward you with an accurate jump shot to space the floor.
Darko Milicic is another example. Ever since Detroit took him for the second pick in a deep draft, teams have been disappointed with the seven-footer despite an intriguing combination of size, athleticism and skill. He’s big enough that the old school media can label him a “true” center, and he has a set of moves that mimic a real post game. However, on the court he’s an inaccurate shooter, lazy defensively, and a poor rebounder especially for his size. His one positive is shot-blocking. Regardless of what he produces, he’s an NBA starting center.
One of the most perplexing cases is Timofey Mozgov, a Russian center in his second year in the league. Sometimes identified as a promising young international player, he’s already 25 and has shown few signs of talent. While Collins can defend the post, Darko can protect the rim, and Anthony is a nimble defender, Mozgov has nothing except for some New York hype for his short stint there. He’s listed at 7’ 1” and 250 lbs, and that’s where his positives end. He’s an inefficient shooter even while camping out near the rim, he’s a below average rebounder ranked 40th out of 60 centers in rebound rate last year (using ESPN’s classification of center that includes some part-time PF’s), a subpar passer, a poor shot creator, foul prone, and a turnover machine. The frustrating part is that they just signed a highly coveted center to a long-term deal in Nene and don’t even need the Russian to round out a complete line-up with every position covered.
A counterargument is that they need a rim-protector next to Nene, but the Nuggets have Chris Anderson on bench, an excellent shotblocker who can also rebound, unlike the two frontcourt players starting. Like so many players his size, Mozgov is a decent post defender but nothing to warrant major minutes. He does have an okay jump shot, but there are plenty of other players who are better shooters who don’t start. Box score stats can be deceptive for certain players who do the unnoticed things off the ball, but Mozgov’s +/- statistics are all terrible, meaning there is no evidence for his worth as a basketball player. There is simply no rational explanation for starting him, and it’s bewildering this is happening to one of the deepest teams in the league, although I suspect if they had Kenyon Martin back Mozgov would go back to the bench.
The Charlotte Bobcats present the ultimate test of mettle for coaches keeping with their seven-footers. The starting center is Boris Diaw, a 6’ 8”, 215 lb Frenchman known for his passing more than his abilities to crash the glass or clog the lane defensively. Next to him is the 6’ 9” D.J. White, a jump shooting power forward without above the rim abilities. So far they’ve faced, savagely enough, the Orlando Magic and the Milwaukee Bucks, but they’ve also played Miami twice. Joel Anthony started both games, even with a healthy Udonis Haslem and LeBron James actually being larger than the Bobcats’ starting center. Diaw responded in the first game with a near triple double, undeterred by Anthony’s status as a true center with superior size. Interestingly, the Bobcats have a couple of phantom centers in Diop and BJ Mullens, but they chose not to start them against Dwight Howard or Andrew Bogut.
Throughout the rest of the season, look for how the starting line-ups for teams like Minnesota and Denver won’t change versus Charlotte. If the rosters stay the same, Milicic will start and fling awkward jump hooks off the front rim, unable to capitalize on his vaunted size. The effect of imposing centers like Shaq has left the league polluted with seven-foot men devoid of skill and incapable to even accomplish the things we assume someone of that size can do. They are phantom players, defending imaginary giants on the other team who do not exist.
As an epilogue, I would like to note that there’s hope. Collins found a niche in Atlanta playing fewer minutes and starting only part of the time, effectively a designated post defender only used when needed. The Hawks’ surprising win against the Magic was in large part due to his ability go guard Howard one-on-one. Brave coaches in search of an edge in a competitive league may experiment more with adaptable line-ups, which would eliminate the problem of the phantom center.