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What are the differences between the Power Forward (PF) and Center (C) positions?

Several PF/C players, such as Tim Duncan, have been considered a power forward and/or a center. Based on the differences between the positions, which position best defines players like Tim Duncan?


ORIGINAL

On the Dan Patrick Show: http://msn.foxsports.com/topics/m/video/57663322/dan-patrick-show-karl-malone.htm At the 11:15 mark, Karl Malone calls Tim Duncan a center; however, Duncan is usually considered to be a power forward. Often times, he is called the "greatest power foward of all time" by such media as the following:

What is the difference between the two positions? And considering Tim Duncan's style of play, which position is a better label for him?

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I would like to add a bit to @DSeita's answer; in many cases the old PG-SG-SF-PF-C categorization of players is a bit outdated. Historically the roles would be defined something like this (simplified of course):

  • PG: play-maker, distributes the ball, typically the best player with the "in-game intelligence" and the very high dribbling skills (an old school example for text-book PG would be John Stockton)

  • SG: "the sniper", very high shooting accuracy, often focused on punishing bad matchups with sinking 3-pts. (e.g. Reggie Miller or Ray Allen)

  • SF: these players are typically the most athletic players, playing a physically demanding role both in offense and in defense. They need to be competent enough in shooting, dribbling and driving in to basket. (e.g. Scottie Pippen)

  • PF: "the vanguard", these guys would typically be the heavy hitters, fighting constantly in the inside, still competent from mid-range. Blocks and rebounds would typically vital stats for these guys (many examples for stereotypical PFs; but I happen to think of Karl Malone first)

  • C: king-of-the-hill, hill being the basket. These guys almost exclusive work under or around the basket. I guess the most typical example I can think of would be Shaq. He's as pure of an traditional center as I can think of.


You might realize that I have left some very obvious names out of my list, for instance Michael Jordan, or Kobe Bryant... or Tim Duncan. The reason behind this is that these players (and many other famous players of today) transcend the original roles. Both MJ and Kobe are originally SGs but I would go on to say that both have played like a point guard, both have played like a small forward. It's perhaps their flexibility that allowed them to penetrate the defense in a way they did.

No matter how you look at it, Tim Duncan has one of the most remarkable careers amongst the league's big boys. He started playing with David "Admiral" Robinson who was, as @DSeita put it, an established C at the time. Which led him to play a role that can co-exist with another player of his size and caliber.

Long story short, Tim Duncan is neither a typical PF nor a typical C. He's both. I think the 5-position categorization is dying out in its essence. As the game develops the players use their strengths to their advantages and the roles change. For instance, you have 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki that is essentially a SG, or at least made a career out of sinking shots, instead of dunking/blocking. I think we shouldn't try and put labels to players, but instead understand and appreciate what they have to give to the game.

  • +1 for ,, appreciate what they have to give to the game" ... I'm tall and everyone forces me to play C, but I hate it, I have good dribbling and love to assist. – Buksy Mar 6 '13 at 21:44
  • Sounds familiar; back in high school I was forced to play as a guard, since I am not that tall. I was arguably the strongest player however and I would have much rather played PF/C which would have suited my play style. On the other hand when the other kids grew taller I wasn't which meant that I had a growing disadvantage for an inside player :( – posdef Mar 7 '13 at 7:05
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This question has been asked numerous times, so I'll try to explain just the things that immediately pop in my mind when I think of center or power foward.

The center is typically designated as a team's tallest and/or biggest (though often both) player on the floor at a time. An ideal center may stay close to the rim, play defense, block shots, rebound well, take jump balls, and score near the basket (possibly using post moves). Many well-known centers were also notorious for their poor free throw shooting. Nowadays, of course, we're seeing more and more centers extending their skill set to include long-range jumpers and thus playing more perimeter-oriented.

The term power foward invokes, in my mind, a player that's a smaller version of a center who doesn't spend as much time near the basket. What he may lack in size or strength, the power forward may make it up with increased mobility and a better midrange game.

Obviously, many of my explanations have a whole list of exceptions, but I think they generally hold true among fans when they try to describe what an ideal center or power forward would be. For instance, I'm sure most NBA players labeled as centers in their careers have been at least 6'9'', but Wes Unseld was 6'7''. I'm also sure that it's rare to see an NBA player taller than 7'0'' consistently labeled as a power forward.

Duncan is an interesting case as he started his career playing with an established center in David Robinson, which may have played a role in people viewing him as a power forward. I wouldn't try to force a label on him, especially when categories like this aren't easily nor rigorously defined.

  • Good read. C Ben Wallace is 6'9". PF Charles Barkley is 6'6", the same height as SG Michael Jordan and SG Kobe Bryant, but we know Barkley was definitely built during his playing days. – user527 Jan 29 '13 at 14:35
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    And even those heights may be inflated for Wallace and Barkley, which may make their accomplishments even more impressive. – TakeS Jan 29 '13 at 14:47
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Even though this question already has an accepted answer, I'd like to add mine.

These days, basketball positions are generally defined both by a player's role and their size relative to their four teammates on the court. So out of the five players from a given team currently on the court, the PG is usually the shortest, followed by the SG, then the SF, then the PF, and finally the C is the tallest. That is the reason these positions are often respectively labelled the 1, the 2, the 3, the 4, and the 5: they have an order, and that order is player height.

With that said, the issue of the player's role on the court can overrule their relative height, because positions are of course directly defined by the player's role, while height is just one factor (though arguably the most important factor) that can help players fill that role.

The PF and C positions are similar in requiring size and strength for the purposes of rebounding, blocking shots, and scoring close to the basket. However, traditionally speaking the PF is somewhat shorter, lighter and more athletic than the C, and is therefore more likely to drive (a short distance) past their defender to attempt a shot at the rim, and more dependent on their explosiveness (as opposed to their size) to block shots and grab rebounds. Their lesser height also means it is more important for them to have some shooting ability, since they cannot rely quite as much on dunks, hook shots and layups for scoring. This is why PFs will often flash a nice little midrange jumper; they need one more than a Center does.

As the accepted answer mentions, many of the most successful players in history have achieved that success precisely because they've blended the size of one position with the skills of another. Perhaps the most extreme example of this was Magic Johnson--the tallest, and many argue the best, PG in history. At 6'10", Magic was at least 6-8 inches taller than most players at his position, but he was quick enough on his feet and good enough with his hands to run, dribble, shoot, and (most importantly) pass like a PG. Tall enough to see, pass, or shoot over most of his defenders, but quick enough to drive right past those defenders' taller teammates, Magic was an unstoppable offensive force due to his unique combination of size and skill. Today, LeBron James, being only two inches shorter than Magic was but with much greater athleticism and similar skills, is terrorizing the league using the exact same principles (his superior athleticism offers him an even greater advantage on defense, allowing him to easily guard every position on the court except C).

So how does this all relate to good ol' Timmy? Well, it's as the others have suggested in their answers: Tim Duncan can play the PF and C positions equally well precisely because he has the skills of a PF combined with the size of a C. So which is he? It depends on who else is on the court! When Duncan played with the Admiral, he was always going to be a PF because Robinson was taller, Robinson was already one of the best Cs ever, and Robinson couldn't play PF as well. But after Robinson retired, and whenever he was the biggest guy for his team on the court, Duncan often played the position of Center, and was pretty darn good at it. Furthermore, in today's NBA, where teams are increasingly playing "small-ball", the scenario of PF-turned-C simply by virtue of being his team's biggest player on the court has become even more common. But from what I've read, Duncan has always considered himself a PF first and foremost, so my guess is he's happiest when Tiago Splitter is around to claim the 5.

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