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Passing centers are nothing new for the Celtics

Celtics missed out on adding Bogut to the list of great Celtic passing centers, led by two redheads

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Unselfishness a dying art amid today's me-first, three-point saturated, dribble-drive generation of "points" guards.

Had the Celtics procured the services of free agent center Andrew Bogut recently as they were reportedly close to doing, they would have added one of the very best passing centers in the game - and the best in Boston since a couple of long-retired redheads, Bill Walton and Dave Cowens, roamed the old parquet floor in Boston Garden.

Instead the Croatian turned Aussie puzzlingly decided to sign with the Lakers, who were already very deep in big men with off-season acquisition/ex-Net standout Brook Lopez, promising Bosnian 20-year old Ivica Zubac and Indiana rookie Thomas Bryant already in the fold.

Boston could definitely have used the hard-nosed Bogut's size, toughness and considerable defensive and rebounding talents, but his Australian Olympic teammate Aron Baynes is a solid, physical big man and a good addition to the Celtic roster.

Bogut has averaged an impressive 11 rebounds a game per 36 minutes over his injury-plagued 12 NBA seasons, and his intangibles are extremely high, as is his basketball IQ.

Bogut, Nugget Mason Plumlee and Denver's Nikola Jokic are, in my estimation, the three best passing centers in the league right now. Bogut, IF he could stay healthy, would have been a perfect addition to the Celtics and the Stevens system of unselfish, crisp passing on offense and tough individual/team defense on the other end of the floor.

Baynes is actually a better shooter and offensive threat than Bogut (particularly at the foul line, where he is a career 81 percent shooter over five NBA seasons), but those are probably the only areas he is better in than Andrew - other than being a bit younger and less injury-prone.

With a dearth of passing skills among guards and forwards in today's dribble and-three-point oriented era, centers today are some of the best passers in the game, period.

And due to the influx and influence of highly-skilled foreign big men, point center play has become more common. With their size they can see over the defense and execute backdoor passes, or thread the needle feeds. Combining size with touch, vision, anticipation, timing and unselfishness, big men have become some of the best passing weapons and offensive initiators in the NBA.

This trend had been evolving for a while as the game changed, but was accelerated by the influx of skilled European big men and a coinciding lack of American passing skills - and the willingness to share the ball.

However, a former American and Boston great was one of the forerunners of the passing center.

Hall of Fame Celtic player and coach Tommy Heinsohn designed a unique point center offense for his small, speedy and underrated title teams of the early and mid 1970s.

Operating without a true point guard - JoJo White, swingman John Havlicek and Don Chaney shared the bulk of the ballhandling duties until Duck left the team in 1975 - an undersized and athletic, skilled and smart 6-8.5 bundle of energy and competitiveness named Dave Cowens served as the league's first point center.

Cowens was a fine passer who saw the floor well, passed crisply (read did not hold the ball unduly) and had good touch. He was unselfish, fed the open man consistently and played admirably on the perimeter as well as in the post.

The fiery redhead led Boston to the 1974 and 1976 NBA titles, playing the decisive role in the clinching game seven win at Milwaukee in '74 as he out-dueled the 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 28 points and 14 rebounds.

Two years later in game six of the championship series at Phoenix, he scored seven crucial points down the final stretch and finished with 21 points, three steals and 16 rebounds as Boston won banner number 13.

His seven-point flurry down the stretch of the decisive game broke open a close, low-scoring battle and won the title, 87-80. The two teams had battled through a three-overtime epic in game five less than two full days earlier, and were mostly out of gas with Havlicek slowed by a foot injury - except for the indomitable Cowens.

Dave all but clinched the crown in the climactic fourth period by daringly stealing the ball off the dribble from opposite number and Rookie of the Year Alvan Adams - despite playing with five fouls.

Big Red then dribbled the length of the court like a guard, head-faked a defender out of position and banked in a gorgeous backhanded layup for a three-point play that finally doused the spunky Cinderella Suns for good.

Amazingly, in 1977-78 the versatile redhead became the very first player in NBA history to lead his team, over the course of a full season, in the five major categories - points (1,435/18.6 per game), rebounds (1,078/14.0), assists (351/4.6), steals (102/1.3) and blocked shots (67/0.9).

Think about that for a moment. No one, not Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, John Havlicek - or even later Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson, LeBron James, Michael Jordan - ever led their team in all those varied categories in a season.

Even Rusell Westbrook in his much-ballyhooed 2016-17 MVP triple-double campaign did not accomplish the feat, falling short in blocked shots.

Truly one of the more remarkable accomplishments in NBA history authored by the ferocious Cowens, who often gets overlooked in Celtic lore, being sandwiched between the glorious Russell and Bird eras. Cowens, the 1972-73 NBA MVP, also shot 49 percent from the field and 84.2 percent at the charity stripe in his watershed 1977-78 season.

But when he retired for good the second time in 1983, the only other smallish center left like Dave in terms of versatility was 6-9 Phoenix center Alvan Adams, an even greater passer himself.

Seven-time All-Star Jack Sikma (who should be in the Hall of Fame) was also an excellent passing and shooting center from 1977-91, as well as a fine rebounder and scorer, but he was 6-11.

Sikma is the only center to lead the NBA in foul shooting (92.2 percent in 1987-88), and canned a perfect 35-of-35 at the line in Milwaukee's epic seven-game eastern semifinal loss to Boston in the 1987 playoffs.

Then another redhead joined the Celtics in 1985, and for one glorious season, won the Sixth Man of the Year award and helped Boston capture its 16th banner on arguably the greatest team in Celtic and league annals.

Bill Walton's enthusiasm and love of passing even got noted non-passing big men Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in on the act of dishing. In the all-too-few minutes Walton was on the floor with fellow passing savant Larry Bird, no center-forward combination ever meshed better.

Bird cut more and moved without the ball best when Big Bill was on the floor, because he knew Walton had the skill and willingness to find him if he was even open by a sliver of daylight.

For once, Larry did not have to be point forward when he was on the court, freed of his taxinggn all-around duties to enjoy the feeds of the redhead.

Unfortunately, recurrent foot problems kept him from playing much the next season in 1986-87 (his last on the floor as a pro), but Bill Walton was a truly great and willing passer with uncommon vision and anticipation for a seven-footer. For to be a great passer, one has to want his teammates to succeed, to score, and be looking for them constantly, with your head up.

Far too many players today want to possess and hold the ball, put their head downn and not see the floor or open teammates, which is frustrating and discourages future movement away from the ball.

By selfishly making the ball stick, the ballhandler loses precious milli-seconds that mean the difference between an unencumbered look for a teammate as opposed to a contested one. For as fast as a defender might be, he can never move as fast as a crisply, well-thrown pass.

Bird often has said that he got as much or more pleasure out of helping a teammmate score than score himself. Walton was the same way, probably even moreso. He was a master of the outlet pass too, often twisting his body in midair to trigger a fast break with a pass off a defensive rebound before his feet hit the floor.

Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-3 Lithuanian Hall of Famer, was arguably the best passing center ever. He and Walton are A1 and A.

Walton was actually 7-1, but insisted on being listed as 6-11, which he was when he first entered UCLA. He grew a few more inches after becoming a Bruin but never wanted to be listed as a seven-footer, because he felt the public considered them freaks.

Walton's debilitating stuttering problem and flaming red hair probably only added to his awkwardness and self-consciousness. Not until he retired and went into broadcasting did Big Bill finally conquer his stutter - with the aid of classy former NBA announcer and Olympic sprinter Marty Glickman - and since then the redhead has scarcely stopped talking, apparently making up for lost time.

When he played, Walton channeled that pent-up rage and boundless enthusiasm into his game, a maniacal combination of energy, athleticism, basketball smarts, great skill and competitive fire.

Until the late 1990s and 21st century, most centers remained low-post players. Fast forward to the 2000s when big men roles were changing radically.

Bogut ranks in the very next tier down of all-time passing center greats, behind only Walton and Sabonis.

The big man is a superb passer who played point center on the fine Australian national team in the 2016 Olympics who went 4-1 (losing only to Team USA) in group play before being nipped by Spain in the bronze medal game, 89-88.

Overlooked in all the talk about Draymond Green being suspended a game and playing poorly until game seven of the 2016 Finals was the devastating knee injury suffered by Bogut in game five.

Had Bogut not been hurt and missed the rest of the series, the Warriors probably repeat, with or without the incendiary Green. Never afraid to mix it up, the former University of Utah star center was the team's interior hub on defense, a top rebounder and a great, unselfish passer.

His heady, quick touch passes off offensive rebounds often led to open Warrior trey tries - were they thrown a second later, Steph Curry and company might not have the space and time to get off the open looks that often make the difference between missing and making.

With the imposing seven-foot shot-blocker out of the lineup, the Cavaliers pounded the glass at will and pulled off the first 1-3 comeback ever in NBA Finals history in 2016.

Injuries have derailed much of the former overall number one pick's career. But at one point before the bad shoulder injury took place on a fall after a hard-charging dunk at Milwaukee, Bogut was on his way to being the best all-around center in the NBA several years ago.

You can bet the Warriors were glad they did not have to face their former teammate in the 2017 Finals after he broke his lower leg in a collision with LeBron James in very his first game as a Cavalier after being released by Dallas, missing the rest of the season.

Cleveland and Boston's loss is, I am afraid, the Lakers' gain, if Bogut stays off the disabled list - and that is a big if.

Middle Plumlee brother Mason (the best of the family trio of bi gmen) is a great athlete with a high hoops IQ who just keeps getting better. A superb leaper with improving post skills, he never has been a good shooter. But he was the best passer on the Blazers last year before being traded to Denver for Jusuf Nurkic, playing point center often on a guard-oriented perimeter offense.

Plumlee is great at the backdoor feed, has great timing, throws the bounce pass well in traffic, and is very unselfish. He sees the floor very well and excels at touch passes. I can't understand why the bumbling Nets and then Portland traded such an up and coming athletic talent, unless it is an off the court issue.

Yes, he is not a true low-post center, but few are today. He rarely holds the ball and appears to be thinking one or two steps ahead of the defense, with an almost Larry Bird-like anticipatory skill the fellow Hoosier possesses. Hopefully Mason will stick on a team that will use and appreciate him best.

If Denver wants to part with him I think Plumlee would also fit in well with Boston - even if he was part of the Duke team that beat Butler, coached by Brad Stevens and starring Gordon Hayward, in the 2010 NCAA finals.

The relatively unknown Jokic might be the best passer of them all. The gangly 6-10 Serbian does not look like the stereotypical NBA player with his unorthodox moves, slow motion gait, big ears and unusual body type for a cager.

But the big man possesses uncommon improvisational passing skills, anticipation, touch, court vision and feel for the game. His creative touch passes, hook passes and perfectly timed tosses are hoops sublimity.

Extrapolated over 36 minutes per game last season, he averaged an impresive 6.2 assists. He posted several triple-doubles as he averaged just under 17 points, 10 rebounds and five assists a game in just 27.9 minutes an outing in the 2016-17 campaign. He is probabyl the most tunderrated center in the league.

Unfortunately his Nuggets just missed the playoffs and thus his high skill level remains largely a secret, except among NBA cognoscenti. But not for long.

Marc and Pau Gasol. Greg Monroe. Roy Hibbert. Spencer Hawes. Cody Zeller. Zaza Pachulia. Joakim Noah. This group comprises the second tier of top passing big men, although Hibbert may be done now.

The Gasol brothers are very unselfish and see the court well, and possess good hands/touch. They really understand how to play the game and are very smart, skilled players. I got excited when I heard the rumor of Marc Gasol coming to Boston, as I think that would have put them on par with the Warriors, or maybe even better.

Hibbert and Monroe played in college under the recently-deposed John Thompson III at Georgetown and his version of the Princeton offensive system, so they see the floor well and pass well. Both are unselfish players.

Zeller has good court version, a high basketball IQ and is unselfish to a fault. He comes from a basketball family - his uncle Al Eberhard was a 1970s All-American at Missuori and played several season with the Pistons, while both of Cody's brothers - Luke and Tyler - played in the NBA.

All three were won the coveted Mr. Basketball award in Indiana, and two of the three were valedictorians (the third was salutatorian). A taller Matthew Modine-lookalike, Cody is also a very fine athlete who runs the floor well, does the dirty work and jumps higher than any seven-footer ever measured at the NBA draft combine.

The aging and injury-plagued Noah has always been a willing and quality passer, partly because early in his career he was not a skilled scorer or shooter. He has very good fundamental passing skills.

Hawes, whose uncle Steve played many years with the Hawks, Rockets and Sonics, has superb feel and court vision, and is a tremendous backdoor feeder. An unselfish player, he has a good feel for the game inherited in his genes and just from being brough up around the game.

Surprisingly, he has bounced from team to team despite playing well at most if not all of his stops.

I think any or all of these big men could fit well with Boston, although Baynes has looked impressive early on.

The physical Pachulia, Bogut's replacement with the Warriors, is also a good passer, although not as creative or on the same level as his predecessor.

One advantage all these big guys have is the ability to see over the defense. But you still have to possess the timing, hand-eye coordination, court vision, anticipatory skills, unselfishness, timing and touch to physically complete the pass.

Kevin Love, a 1.5 big forward/center at 6-10, is the best outlet passer since Wes Unseld retired 35 years ago. And he is also a very good passer in the halfcourt offense. He has a high hoops IQ, with his father Stan having played for the Lakers and Bullets (with Unseld) in the NBA of the 1970s.

Kevin's name has also been mentioned over the years in trade rumors to Boston, but unfortunately nothing ever came to fruition. In fact, had someone asked which recent Cavalier was most likely to become a Celtic, most would have said Kevin Love.

Too bad Boston did not get him, because I could see K-Love helping put some more banners in the rafters at center/power forward. He is one of the best combination shooter-passer-rebounders at his size since Bird himself.

In the more recent past, Sabonis and Bill Walton were probably the two best passing centers ever. Former Suns 6-9 center Adams, the 1976 NBA Rookie of the Year, was also an incredibly skilled and unselfish passer.

Flashy Johnny "Red" Kerr (better known as the Bulls announcer later), Sikma, Bill Russell, Jabbar, Cowens, Sam Lacey and Jerry Lucas are other long-retired centers who passed exceptionally well.

Wilt Chamberlain became the only center ever to lead the NBA in assists in the late 1960s with the 76ers, although most of his were simply solid post feeds out of double teams.

At the end of his career with the Lakers when he did not shoot much, he really increased his passing creativity and proclivity, often whipping behind the back passes to cutters like Gail Goodrich, Jerry West and Jim McMillian.

Now name some current guards who are really good passers. Steph Curry passes well but can get sloppy or too fancy, and turn it over too much.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden rack up a lot of assists, but are not as great as all-around passers as their assist toals might indicate. Both tend to hold onto the ball too long (especially Westbrook), over-penetrate and then kick it out late to spot-up shooters (who often need maximum time to get their shot off)- if at all.

In OKC, I think Carmelo Anthony and Paul George will have trouble adjusting to not having the ball as much as they did in New York and Indiana. Westbrook monopolizes the ball and passes when he has to - he is a "points guard" who looks to shoot or penetrate for his own offense first.

Harden is similar, although more willing to dish th eball off sooner. He gets a lot of cheap assists due to the wide-open offense Houston plays. Both players tend to hold onto the ball too long and pass too late, especially Westbrook.

In his heyday before injuries, Derrick Rose (and his coach John Calipari) helped spawn a new breed of lead guard, a "points" guard who looked to drive and score first and pass last. Tony Parker is another pseudo-point guard, while Manu Ginobili has long been the best Spurs passer and one of the best in the league, for that matter.

Westbrook, Harden, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker and others have become similar "points" guards following the path Rose blazed nearly a decade ago now.

They can all get good assist totals too, but in large part because they have the ball so much and assists are given more leninetly today by statisticians. Rajon Rondo gets assists because he can't shoot well for a playmaker, and would much rather pass.

Backup 76er starting point guard T.J. McConnell might be one of the best pure passing playmakers today, someone who looks to pass first and shoot second, a rarity among quality guards these days.

In fact, few pass-first point guards of the John Stockton/Maurice Cheeks ilk exist in the NBA of 2017. Neither the Warriors or Cavaliers possess a true playmaker, pass-first guard.

James, a hybrid forward-guard, is a tremendous and willing passer, partly because he was a poor shooter until becoming adequate in recent years -and at 6-8 he can see over smaller defenders much like predecssors like Oscar and Earvin Johnson.

His style really resembles Johnson's game far more than Michael Jordan, since he is more of a facilitator than a natural scorer.

Reasons why

Guards today, more than ever, over-dribble for long stretches. They tend to jockey around too much dribbling while looking for an open shot, often a three, or an opening to drive. The bad influence of the dribble-drive offense and a look-at-me culture, plus a dearth of low post play and willingness or skill to feed the post.

The streetball influence is on your handle and one on one play, not passing, unselfish team play and maximizing your teammates.

Foreign players tend to have better fundamentals passing and shooting. The game over there relies more on moving without the ball than with it.

Big men in Europe have long been encouraged to develop traditional guard skills (Sabonis, Kresimir Cosic, Vlade Divac and the Gasol brothers, to name just a few). But not until Dirk Nowitzki's great NBA success did American big guys start to want to play on the perimeter.

Dirk himself has said that big schools like Kentucky and North Carolina recruited the German ex-tennis standout in the mid to late 1990s, but he turned them down because he felt they would force the mobile seven-foot sharpshooter to play inside with his back to the basket instead of his preferred face-up, perimeter style.

Dirk's success opened the door to the new style of perimeter-oriented big men and position-less basketball the NBA has been evolving into.

To contact author Cort Reynolds, you can e-mail him at

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