Traditional ‘bigs’ give way to roaming centers

Basketball in recent years seems to have moved from the traditional setup – two guards, two forwards and one center – to “small ball,” which Golden State popularized during its three NBA championship runs in four tries.

“We don’t label guys…a five,” ESPN Scouting Analyst Mike Schmitz told reporters, including the MSR, during a media call last week. ESPN Front Office Insider Bobby Marks on the same call added, “I don’t know if we’ll ever revert back to the [Patrick] Ewing and [Hakeem] Olajuwon, Shaq-type era where we had that traditional five.”

Is this also the case in the women’s game?

“Certain teams play small lineups,” Dallas Coach Fred Williams told the MSR. “I’ve utilized a small lineup to get some of the [other teams’] bigs off the floor. But I don’t think it’s gotten there yet” in going the Warriors’ way, he stressed.

This season there are 25 WNBA players officially listed as centers, and seven others are listed as center-forwards. Williams, who has coached in the W for 15 seasons, says, “You need a big to alter shots or at least have [an] opportunity in the paint, a person with length who can move off screens and can play good defense. You got about five or six bigs who are top scorers in our league.”

He specifically referred to Phoenix’s 6’-8” Brittney Griner and Minnesota’s 6’-6” Sylvia Fowles as two easy examples. “I consider [Washington’s Elena] Delle Donne a big, and now you have the rookie in Vegas. [A’ja] Wilson is doing a good job,” he added.

Delle Donne ironically is listed on the Mystics’ roster as a forward-guard; she’s 6’-5”. Fowles, however, proudly calls herself a traditional pivot.

Liz Cambage, Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles All photos courtesy of Wikipeda except Sylvia Fowles photo by Chris Juhn for MSR News

“I am a true center, back-to-the-basket player,” she told us. “I love the physicality. I love to bang, try to block shots and block people out. That’s just the way I am comfortable playing. I don’t know any other way.”

“I guess I’m a hybrid big,” the 6’-5” Wilson admitted.

Although New York lists her as a center, the 6’-4” veteran and former league MVP Tina Charles told us that she rather prefers “a more face-up game. I think I’m more of a forward than a traditional center.”

Williams this season has 6’-8” Liz Cambage, the Australian who returned to the WNBA for the first time since the 2013 season after four overseas seasons. But Fowles says Cambage often “strays away to the three-point line and shoots [threes].”

The 2017 WNBA MVP bemoaned that it seems traditional centers like her are becoming rare these days. “When I have to go up against [non-traditional posts], they tend to shy away from the basket,” which limits her defensively, Fowles said. She noted that the “roaming” centers are found overseas as well.

“I can’t say for the rest of Europe because I haven’t been [there] in a while,” she recalled. “It’s rare that you see [bigs], especially in China,” where she has spent her recent off-seasons – Fowles’ Chinese team has won championships the past two years. “I think my team was successful because we had a true post player on the floor.”

Like this reporter, Fowles easily remembers the days of the “aircraft carriers,” as the late Al McGuire called centers – the Chamberlains, Kareems, Laniers, the Lisa Leslies and other great pivots. Going small isn’t for her, she said.

“I don’t want to say it’s bad for the game,” Fowles said, “[but] you really can’t get it done without a true center.”