It’s all about the power forwards in the NBA these days.
It is fascinating to watch the public treatment of the power forward position in this year’s playoffs. More often criticized than praised, some of these players have been at the crux of various arguments regarding why some teams underachieved in the 2011 NBA Playoffs.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, but then again, so is the power forward position itself. Power forwards arguably did not have a prominent role in the structure of NBA teams until Tim Duncan revolutionized the position in the late 1990s. He is essentially the only pure power forward to ever be named MVP of the NBA Finals (and he’s done it three times). In the past decade, big-time power forwards have become a very precious commodity.
As a result, teams have searched far and wide for great players to fill that position. The two most notable current examples occurred during the most recent free agency season in which the Miami Heat acquired Chris Bosh and the Chicago Bulls acquired Carlos Boozer. Both of those lineups were already fantastically built, but clearly the power forward was seen as the key missing link in the quest for an NBA championship.
But whenever things go south for the Heat, it usually isn’t LeBron James or Dwyane Wade taking the fall; even if they shoot horribly from the field, they almost always end up with 20-plus points, so people look past them. The blame falls upon Bosh. He has been called soft and uninvolved, and the first stone is almost always cast in his direction. There is certainly a great deal of truth to this; Bosh has been passive to a fault at times. But rarely is he at fault as much as the media will make it sound like he is.
Then there is Boozer. The cries for his head have not been as strong because Derrick Rose has been able to carry the team, but Boozer’s numbers are paltry compared to the expectations. He is averaging fewer than 11 points per game, and neither he nor Bosh ranks among the top 10 rebounding leaders of these NBA playoffs.
These two clubs are still going strong, but if they fall (and obviously at least one of them eventually will), the fans will blame Bosh and Boozer. The media will blame Bosh and Boozer. The absence of that extra playoff boost that they were signed for in the first place will lead the public to crucify the power forwards, not James, Wade or Rose.
Need proof that this is going to happen? Exhibit A: the Los Angeles Lakers. The two-time defending champions certainly had a host of problems that led to a downright humiliating sweep by the Dallas Mavericks. But one has been singled out fiercely: the lackluster play of their power forward, Pau Gasol. His scoring and rebounding averages dropped significantly, and he seemed to just disappear from the floor at times. It certainly stands to reason that he had an awful series and absolutely contributed to the Lakers’ embarrassment.
But like I said, the Lakers had many more issues than Gasol. Why isn’t anyone criticizing the bratty, perpetually immature actions of Andrew Bynum both on and off the court? Why not the Lakers’ defense that allowed Dallas to torch them from behind the arc? Why not Kobe Bryant’s lack of late-game heroics? No, the onus has fallen almost entirely on Gasol, especially for reportedly letting some off-the-court relationship issues affect his level of play.
However, praise for power forwards is harder to come by; Dirk Nowitzki is a case-in-point. Sure, everyone recognizes how good he is, but he is rarely commended in the media to the same degree that guys like Bosh are. He has arguably been the most consistent scorer among the NBA scoring elites, and his fourth quarter scoring is consistently among the league’s best. He is also one of only four players in NBA history with career postseason averages of at least 25 points and 10 rebounds per game. Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle, who has been playing and coaching in the NBA for nearly 30 years, said that Nowitzki was a “top 10 player in NBA history.” Whoa.
Then there is Zach Randolph, who is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. Randolph has been the engine that has kept the underdog Memphis Grizzlies running. He dropped 17 fourth-quarter points to bury the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of that series, and then followed that up with a playoff career-high of 34 points in a surprising Game 1 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. But this certainly did not come out of nowhere; Randolph has averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds five different times in the past eight seasons. His production has been off the charts, yet he does not draw praise like he should.
The criticism of power forwards is not necessarily a bad thing. Nearly every NBA title winner in this decade has been anchored by a phenomenal power forward (Gasol, Duncan and Kevin Garnett come to mind). It has become a more important and consequently more scrutinized position.
But I have a message for the fans and media: You can’t have it both ways. You can’t place all blame on Gasol for tough losses and then praise only Bryant for big wins. You can’t harp on Bosh’s underachieving without properly acknowledging Nowitzki’s staggering brilliance.
Either give praise to one as much as you give blame to another, or don’t do either. Even if it is all about the power forwards these days, give them their due when they deserve it.