The center is finally getting its time in the sun as a central focus of the "how the NBA is changing" conversation. While it was once the point forward or the stretch four that was the cutting edge way to create mismatches that could expose inherent flaws of the typical skill set that opposing players at those respective positions held, now the talk has seemingly shifted to whether or not you can play the classic oak tree, rim-enforcing center off the floor by downsizing and creating more space on offense. The answer to that is probably too loaded and circumstantial to answer with any sweeping certainty, because, yes, of course it’s possible — at least for short periods of time — but the problem, of course, is that most teams don’t have a Draymond Green, someone who can efficiently turn a high screen pick-and-pop type situation into a shoot, drive, pass triple threat, while also still having the strength and conditioning to do the low post defensive grit work against much larger opponents.
It also helps that Steph Curry puts the fear into opposing defenses enough to legitimately warrant double teams coming off that screen 28 feet from the basket. My point is that the Warriors have historically unique circumstances that won’t be easy to replicate at that sort of a level, but pace-and-space, in some capacity, probably isn’t going anywhere. So having versatility at center — and just versatile lineups in general — is going to become more and more important moving forward.
Center is the Cavs’ murkiest position. You could make an argument that there is some added depth and flexibility that Cleveland could use to create a deeper cast of characters around the big three. That with Timofey Mozgov, Anderson Varejão, Sasha Kaun and Tristan Thompson, there’s enough defense, rebounding and energy to do the dirty work, make hustle plays and sneak easy baskets. On the other hand, you could make the argument that with one injury — and/or if one of the players recovering from injury (Mozgov, Varejão) loses mobility — center could quickly dissolve into a problem. And, of course, there’s Tristan’s holdout, which, if elongated, will significantly damage the Cavs’ ability to tinker with lineups early on, figuring out what works best, and building synergy within the team. It also obviously impacts the team’s offensive rebounding and the big man rotation’s foot speed on defense.
The center position could be fine or there could be some turmoil. There are quite a few factors circling the Cavs bigs right now. It could easily go either way. At the most basic level, Tristan needs to be signed quickly and everyone needs to stay healthy, especially Varejão. But, even if Andy starts playing well — maybe especially if he starts playing well — the Cavs will have to seriously consider trading him, because his contract should be moveable and may provide a decent return with the bigger trade exception still lingering, and, as has been consistently proven, he’s incredibly injury prone. It doesn’t matter if he kills it at the beginning of the season — or, on the opposite end, all of the bigs struggle out of the gate. The early season will be about chemistry and playing well enough to allow LeBron to rest. But they have to put themselves in a position to be a post-All Star weekend well-oiled machine.
At this point, I think we know what to expect from the Cleveland centers offensively. Mozgov might be able to add a more consistent and confident mid range game. Tristan may continue to develop as a rim crasher off the pick and roll. But, more or less, we know their strengths and weaknesses. To have a major impact on the team’s season, they’re going to have to progress defensively. They have a unique set of components — Mozgov’s ability to alter shots at the rim, Tristan’s athleticism that allows him to switch onto guards, Varejão’s length and knack for prowling around, disrupting ball handlers and invading passing lanes (which is one of the rationalizations that could be made for keeping them). Kahn will provide an aspect of insurance in case someone goes down, although we're not sure what he's going to bring to the table.
And there’s always the chance that Kevin Love will improve on defense enough to be able to see some minutes at the five, which could periodically turn the Cavs into a long-range firing squad. Small improvements and durability will go a long way, because if they can continue to build on the late round scrappy defensive performances during last year’s playoffs, while reintegrating the offensive stars, the Cavs can make themselves pretty hard to beat down the stretch.