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In the middle, counting to two is tough

11/21/2002

Tim Duncan would be the second-best center in the NBA, except that he prefers to be the finest power forward instead. Call him a center and he'll bank you off the glass.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas could be the second-best center in the NBA, and very well might be at the minute. Trouble is, not even Big Z himself dares to promise you that his blasted feet will hold up.

Alonzo Mourning should be the second-best center in the NBA, of course, and you know the sad story why he isn't. All we want from Zo now is good health.

So ...

"The second-best center is so far from the first," sugggets one veteran coach, "that this really isn't a good article."

OK, then. Glad we asked.

"Everyone's asking that question lately," Indiana president Donnie Walsh said. "Shaq has been first and last for a while."

That's how Shaquille O'Neal likes to tell it, too. He is scheduled to return to work for the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday against Chicago, on that famously painful big toe, and it shouldn't be long after that before the LCL quotes start popping up again on SportsCenter.

"Last Center Left," as you've undoubtedly heard Shaq say.

The question here, though, is actually different. It is: Is there any hope? Now that Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon have left us, with Mourning facing an enforced retirement and David Robinson on his farewell tour, is O'Neal really the last pound-it-in post player?

Ever?

It can't be as bleak as it looks, even allowing for the sport's massive evolutionary shifts. Gone are the days when, at the least, teams had a Bill Laimbeer or Mark Eaton or James Donaldson, burly men with four years of college coaching. At almost every developmental level in this country -- NCAA or even minor leagues such as the NBDL and CBA -- big men are largely given grunt-work assignments. Pick-setting and rebound-chasing, mostly.

The modern 7-footer arrives in the NBA much younger, sleeker and invariably with a perimeter upbringing, often from Europe. The preference for today's big man is to shoot the ball from deep and handle it as much as the coach will let him, and the success of Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol -- 7-footers as apt to play small forward as center -- makes every team want their own. All of which is only encouraged by the new zone rules that have taken the game farther away from the bucket.

The consolation is that little is permanent in sports. Cyclical is the safer word. Things can change and undoubtedly will. Who knows? Post-based offenses could be resurrected someday. Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett might actually relish banging down low when Shaq is pounding that toe on the police beat.

In the meantime, we reject the doomsday notions and submit that it's not as bleak as advertised. Because ...

1. We still have Vlade.
Lots of you hate his flopping. Others are laughing at the sight of him sporting Webber's shoes this season (Dada C Dubbz for Vladee-Dahddee?). Fact remains that Divac and only Divac has shown the ability to flummox O'Neal one-on-one, in spite of the weight disparity. We need more guys like that, just willing to take Shaq on. Kudos as well to Kurt Thomas in New York. Instead of complaining about playing a position he really doesn't want to play, Thomas averages 16 and 9 at 6-9. The return of Atlanta's Theo Ratliff is another boost. While somewhat one-dimensional, Ratliff blocks almost four shots a game and leaves no doubt about what position he plays. Shawn Bradley's resurrection also helps.

2. We have a few good tag teams, too.
This is even better. O'Neal himself, at 7-1 and 350 pounds and freakishly agile, is the Last Shaq Left for sure. But there are new tandems developing that offer a nice (read: realistic) alternative. We already had Duncan and Robinson in San Antonio, and the Divac/Webber duo in Sacramento that stretched the Lakers to seven games last spring. Now comes Brad Miller and Jermaine O'Neal in Indiana to make the Pacers a legit contender in the East. The Clippers' 4-8 start, meanwhile, is doubly disappointing when you see Michael Olowokandi (16 and 10) and Elton Brand (16 and 12) both averaging double-doubles. Only eight players in the whole league are In-N-Out worthy.

3. We actually do have a few post prospects.
Olowokandi is going to leave the Clippers in the summer and, if he chooses San Antonio or Miami, will wind up playing for a hard-line coach who won't let him float like he has in the past. Pat Riley would make him better, surely, and Gregg Popovich (with Duncan as an example and prodding teammate) would as well. Kandi has finally found some consistency to validate his 16-and-9 play over the final 23 games last season, and the second team that gets him stands to get (dare we say it) a full-fledged traditional center.

Chicago's Eddy Curry is another who has a chance, at a very traditional 285 pounds on a 6-11 frame. Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire (6-10, 245) is another growing lad who's off to a much better start than Curry had. Plus there's a big kid in Houston you might have heard about. Even Shaq says "he's no slouch."

"If you look at Yao Ming, you can see there will come a day when he's really hard to deal with," said Indiana's Walsh. "There are going to be (other) good centers in this league."

Maybe a clear-cut No. 2 eventually.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.