Blame it on Dirk Nowitzki. Blame it on Magic Johnson. Blame it on college officiating or youth-basketball culture or whatever.
Bottom line, the skill that the Charlotte Bobcats have acquired in free agent center Al Jefferson – reliable low-post, back-to-the-basket scoring – is growing extinct.
“That is the question of the day, the year, the last five years,” said Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
“We’re going through a stretch where there are no low-post bigs. The way the game is being played has a lot to do with it. All the bigs are shooting, all the bigs are trying to be more skilled.
“They’re working on their skills, but they’re often working on the wrong skills.”
A low-post scorer like Jefferson or the Memphis Grizzlies’ Zach Randolph is the best way to force an opposing defense to double-team and expose shooting advantages for others. These guys get paid incredibly even by pro-sports standards: Jefferson will make $41 million over the next three years.
They’re paid that much not just because of what they do, but because so few others have the interest or experience to do it.
“It made me stand out as Old School became New School,” said Jefferson, who has averaged 16.4 points and nine rebounds over a nine-season NBA career. “The game is not like that no more.”
But why? Ask most anyone around the NBA at the current Las Vegas summer league, and you’re likely to hear a dozen theories.
Imitation leads to outside migration
Jefferson, who is a burly 6-foot-10 and 289 pounds, pinpointed when it stopped being cool for big men to hunker down next to the rim.
“I hate to blame it on him, but it started with Dirk,” Jefferson said. “That’s when the (power forwards) became shooters. But Dirk is in a class by himself.”
That’s Nowitzki, the 7-footer from Germany who became one of the NBA’s best jump-shooters. He entered t he league in 1998 and has been a perennial All-Star, averaging 22.6 points for the Dallas Mavericks.
As Jefferson said, Nowitzki is in a class by himself, but that doesn’t stop other tall guys from trying to emulate him. That moves big men further and further from the basket.
Rivers uses a different name to illustrate a parallel point.
“I jokingly blame Magic Johnson for trying to ruin the game,” Rivers said of the iconic 6-9 point guard. “Every big, when he was a kid, saw Magic bringing the ball up the floor, so that’s what they want to be.
“Playing ‘big’ is a lost art.”
Rivers also cites underlying reasons. College rules allow defenses to converge in the lane in way that doesn’t let scoring big men operate, so everyone scatters offensively to the perimeter. And college referees are so quick to call fouls when two big men jockey for position that it stifles their development.
Rivers mentioned the center matchup of Ohio State’s Greg Oden and Georgetown’s Roy Hibbert during the 2007 NCAA tournament. Rivers was at the game because his older son, Jeremiah, played for the Hoyas, before transferring to Indiana.
“You can’t touch anybody,” Rivers said of college refereeing in the lane. “I was so looking forward to that game, and within three minutes they both were on the bench in foul trouble.”
Big Mo the muse
Rivers was Jefferson’s first NBA coach when the Boston Celtics drafted him 15th overall in 2004. Rivers asked Jefferson if he had ever heard of Moses Malone because their body types and offensive games were so similar.
Malone retired in 1995, so Rivers had the Celtics video department burn a DVD of Malone’s post moves. Jefferson immediately saw the connection, and started copying some of the style that allowed Malone to average 20.6 points over 19 NBA seasons.
Not that Jefferson had to appropriate everything from someone else.
“Al is the most instinctive scorer on the post in the NBA,” Rivers said.
“The second practice I had with him – he was 19 years old – he made a couple of moves where I turned around to someone and said, ‘No one taught him that!’
“He shoots from all different launch points. You’ll be amazed how good he is as a scorer.”
Jefferson’s model, Malone, agrees.
“This guy has some stuff on the block,” Malone said during a visit to Charlotte last week for Bobcats president Fred Whitfield’s charity golf tournament. “He’s not afraid to play on the block. He’s not afraid to take the bumps. He brings the center back into the game.”
Malone says Jefferson provides something the franchise has never had during its first nine seasons: an offensive force in the post.
“The hardest thing to do is guard someone in the low post,” Malone said. “He’s going to give the Charlotte Bobcats someone who changes the defense every night because he scores in that low block.”