Jan 26 2014

The Center Position Is Dead To NBA Fans … And Dwight Howard Killed It

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The National Basketball Association announced the starting lineups for next month’s All-Star Game in New Orleans. Fans vote for two starting guards and three starting frontcourt players for the Western and Eastern Conferences. The NBA changed the All-Star voting categories last year, stripping the center position of its exclusive tag and including it with the nominal forwards.

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Hall-of-Fame centers are now rolling in their basketball graves (NBAMemes/Twitter).

Many will complain about fan voting as long as it exists … Charles Barkley does at every opportunity.  I don’t have a problem with the big world voting in the players they want to see. After all, the All-Star Game isn’t meant to be a complicated abstract on how to select players. This isn’t about, “who would you rather want on your team?” The All-Star Game is a much simpler process for fans – “who would you rather see play?” Professional sports is entertainment, and All-Star Games are the height of sports’ entertainment.

That said, center Dwight Howard finished eighth in the overall fan voting last year, earning a starting spot representing the Los Angeles Lakers. This year? there were no centers selected for either team! In the East, Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving and Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade made the team. Never mind that Irving’s team is 12 games under .500 and that Wade has missed nearly a third of his team’s games. The frontcourt selections were all forwards: Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks, and LeBron James (the leading vote-getter) of the Miami Heat. George, Anthony, and James all have teammates at center who have been All-Stars. Should Indiana center Roy Hibbert have been voted in as a starter? Probably not. That’s what the new voting format has created – you’d rather see James play center in a defenseless game than see Hibbert trying to match his relatively modest scoring average. Besides, the coaches will get Hibbert into the game.

The coaches will also get Howard into the game. But the new Houston Rockets center lost an embarrassing amount of votes this year, allowing Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Kevin Love and Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin to join Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, and Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference starting lineup. Howard dropped all the way to 12th in the fan voting this year, which was still good enough for the top spot among all the true centers in the NBA but a far cry from the top spot that Howard occupied in 2012.

The All-Star voting is as much about popularity and visibility as it is about dominance and consistency. After all, Bryant is an All-Star even though his season resembled 2000-2001 Grant Hill more than the Bryant who will be in the Hall of Fame, while Curry’s postseason shooting show elevated his star past that of Clippers point guard Chris Paul. Howard had been entrusted as the mantle bearer of the center position in the NBA. But his star has fallen steadily every year since he lead the Orlando Magic to a 2009 NBA Finals appearance. The drama that followed Howard from Orlando to Houston, via Los Angeles, has been met with a level of criticism that puts him in a scornful light with fans, media, and legends.

Dwight Howard is still the best center in the NBA – and centers still matter in the NBA. However, in an evolving league, being the best center in a league that was meant to celebrate the big and tall athlete is not something Howard can celebrate at this point of his career.

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