The NBA’s Top 20 Centers Right Now

09.26.13 3 years ago 14 Comments
Al Jefferson

Al Jefferson (photo. Bethany Gilbert)

So much for that idea of the NBA having run out of quality centers outside of two or three names. You can look at a majority of the league’s teams and give a respectable case as to why those centers could be proclaimed All-Stars. There are so many quality centers in the league. In fact, there are three teams on this list that have two centers within the top 20. The NBA isn’t devoid of centers, they’re actually “hording” them on a few rosters.

It’s made this construction of the top centers in the NBA all the more difficult. To determine the makeup of the list, the offensive repertoire, defensive influence and rebounding capabilities were all weighed.

Injuries also played a pivotal role in the rankings. Use Andrew Bynum as an example. When he’s healthy, there’s no denying that he’s a top three center in this league. However, since he hasn’t played in over a year and may not play for awhile this upcoming season, his stock drops.

Durability is key for a center. It’s the most injury-prone position in basketball, and investing a great deal of money into a player that plays three-quarters of a season every year… those players may not find themselves too high on the rankings compared to a center who hasn’t been prone to injuries.

Don’t spew too much vitriol if you see a few quality centers listed low. They have been passed up by centers who have maintained their health and have proven durable in the past.

Either way, it’s encouraging to see the center position revitalized. Watching 7-footers battle using nimble footwork, soft touches on the rim and throwing their bodies into each other has given us some of our greatest moments in NBA history, and it would have been greatly missed had the position been rendered obsolete.

Thankfully, there are still coaches out there teaching their big men post moves. After dropping a piece yesterday on the game’s 20 best point guards right now, these are the 20 centers who have kept the position alive and thriving.

[RELATED: The Top 20 Point Guards In The NBA Right Now]

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The NBA has been put on notice. They must beware of the titan that is Andre Drummond, whose second season in the league is looming over the heads of the mere mortals that inhabit the league along with him.

At 6-10, 270 pounds, Andre Drummond is going to be a top five center within the next three years. It’s unfortunate he was forced to wallow on a Pistons team that doesn’t attract too much national attention, but there’s enough in highlight reels and the numbers to distinguish Andre as a one-in-a-million type of player.

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Per 36 minutes, Drummond, who only started in 10 of the 60 games he played in, averaged 13.8 points, 13.2 points, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals in a rookie season where he only took home All-Rookie Second Team honors.

Expect Drummond to begin making All-Star teams soon. He shot 66 percent and was the league’s 24th best player, in terms of PPP, running the pick-and-roll, and held opponents to sub-40 percent shooting on post-ups. Drummond’s PER of 21.6 was tops in the league among rookies and 17th in the league overall. His offensive rating was 114 points per 100 possession, while holding opponents to 99 points per 100 possessions at the same time.

The downside? He’s probably the worst free throw shooter in the league after converting 37 percent of his free throw opportunities last year. There’s also the fact that the majority of his minutes came against bench players. With a year under his belt, and with the league on notice, let’s see if he can keep up these incredible numbers against more attention and starter competition.

If this was the league’s top offensive centers, Al Jefferson is arugably a top five player at his position. He’s averaged as much as 23 points and is coming off a season with the Utah Jazz where he dropped 17.8 points and 9.2 rebounds. He has a beautiful soft touch on his shots and ranked among the league’s best when running cuts, post-ups and pick-and-rolls. His jumper extends out to the perimeter, recently hitting 40 percent of the 352 jumpers he attempted in the 16-to-25 foot range. He also made 72 percent of his shots around the rim, once again showcasing the touch he has on the offensive end.

But, man, his defense. It’s holding him back from becoming a perennial All-Star and it’s why he’s now the primary player on Charlotte, because only the Bobcats would give over $40 million to a player as poor on defense as Al Jefferson.

Jefferson is allowing 106 points per 100 possessions over his career, allowed assignments to shoot 46 percent last season and is a turnstile of a rim deterrent. Fortunately, he’s an extremely gifted offensive threat and will dominate opponents on that end. However, he completely cancels it out on defense when he’s letting slashers get to the rim with ease and allowing opponents who utilize the post-up to shoot 42 percent.

Per Synergy, Jefferson ranked 279th in the league in points per possession (PPP) given up. He ranked 102nd in PPP on offense, though.

It took a few years, but the Milwaukee Bucks were finally able to wise up and give Larry Sanders the minutes he deserved in his third season in the league. Sanders responded with strong averages of 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in his first year receiving consistent minutes and starting. His block percentage of 7.6 percent was tops in the league and he finished second in blocks per.

The 15th pick of the 2010 Draft made his presence felt on the defensive end. He forced opponents who tried to post up on him to 36 percent shooting and held those who used isolation to a horrific 30 percent from the field.

His offense, however, is limited anywhere outside the rim. He shot below 30 percent in the 3-to-10 foot range and was a 27 percent shooter in the 16-to-25 foot range. The majority of his points are scored in the pick-and-roll, where he shot 55 percent last season.

The Golden State Warriors are going to need Andrew Bogut this year if they want to seriously compete for a title. Without him, they’re using second-year big man Festus Ezeli and Jermaine ‘I can’t believe he’s still in the league’ O’Neal.

What Bogut brings to the table in terms of his greatest impact is size. At 7-0, 245 pounds, Bogut is not a player who is going to get pushed around easily. He commands the respect that one usually receives when they’re wider and taller than everyone else near them.

Before injuries began to throw him off, which is why he’s not a top five center anymore, Bogut had three consecutive seasons averaging double-doubles and was coming off a career season in 2010 when he dropped a career-high 15.9 points and 2.5 blocks per. The former No. 1 pick would lead the league in blocks per the year after, sending back nearly three attempts a night.

However, injuries have limited Bogut to only 44 games in the past two seasons. His most recent work could be seen in Golden State’s playoff run where he averaged 7.2 points on 58 percent shooting, an impressive 10.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 12 games.

Before getting hurt, Bogut was in the top five in defensive rating, holding opponents to less than 100 points per 100 possessions, was in the top five in blocks and defensive win shares, and had made it on his first All-NBA team, earning third team honors in 2010.

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Omer Asik is about to become the league’s best backup center.

Things are looking up for the Houston Rockets, especially after somehow convincing Asik to stick around after making the blockbuster trade to acquire Dwight Howard. With Asik in tow, the Rockets will have the league’s most formidable 1-2 punch at the center position.

It’s going to be tough to score on the Rockets around the rim. If Howard wasn’t enough of a presence, the opponents get a dose of one of the league’s top defenders and rebounders.

In his first two seasons with Chicago, Asik-led lineups held opponents to less than 100 points per 100 possessions, including only 92 PPP 100 possessions in his final year with the Bulls. The fact that he was able to hold Houston opponents to 103 points per possessions, considering the Rockets NBA-best pace of 98.6 possessions per game, is a feat by itself. Listed at 7-0, 255 pounds, Asik is a brick wall and is not someone you want to drive on.

Asik, who dropped 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds last year, has yet to miss a game through his three-year career and led the league in total rebounds last year — partly because of the pace Houston runs at — with 956 boards.

On offense, Asik thrives as Houston’s pick-and-roll man, ranking 55th in PPP and converting 58 percent of his attempts.

If Andrew Bynum is healthy and is playing like the Andrew Bynum from as recently as 2011-12, he’s arguably the best center in basketball. His offensive repertoire exceeds that of Dwight Howard’s and his defensive and rebounding capabilities are at an elite level, too.

The problem is we’re not even sure when Bynum is going to play again. He missed the entire 2012-13 season, and didn’t seem that adamant about making a return anytime soon, and is now already ruling himself out of the preseason with his new team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Injuries have been the theme of Bynum’s career. He played all 82 games in 2006-07 and hasn’t played in more than 65 games since, although he did play 54 out of 66 games in the lockout year. Nevertheless, Bynum has missed 248 games since entering the league in 2005. That number is only going to rise with Cleveland. Bynum already doubting himself for preseason action is just a sign of things to come.

But when he is healthy, Bynum is one of the league’s toughest players to defend. He’s 7-0, 285 pounds, has arms that double as crossing gates on train crossings during the offseason and has a jumper that extends out to 10 feet.

Most recently in the 2011-12 season, where Bynum dropped a career-high 18.7 points, he converted 75 percent of his shots at the rim and 39 percent of his 411 field-goal attempts in the 3-to-10 foot range.

Bynum grapped a career-high 11.8 boards a game that same season, too, and made the All-NBA Second Team for the first time in his career.

Quietly, Greg Monroe has emerged as one of the league’s top centers on a Detroit Pistons team that was starved of talent before the acquisitions of Andre Drummond and Josh Smith.

A season after dropping a PER of 22, Monroe recently posted career numbers with averages of 16 points and 9.6 rebounds. However, his third season seems to pale in comparison to his sophomore year in the league when he posted 17.6 points and 11 rebounds and shot 52 percent.

Monroe’s only missed three games in his first three years. Durability is going to play a role in these rankings. With centers so prone to injuries, it’s becoming rare for a center to not miss at least 20 games per season, so any five who misses only a few games per year is automatically more valuable.

The Pistons’ center ranked among the league’s top pick-and-roll players last season, converting 53 percent of his attempts in such situations. He also held opponents to 43 percent shooting in similar scenarios and finished with a career-high 3.2 defensive win shares. He’s also proved to be himself to be a quality passer at his size, dishing out nearly four dimes per last year.

As we all expected (yeah right), it was the Orlando Magic getting the best of the deal that sent their franchise player to Los Angeles and receiving a bunch of prospects in return. The best part? The Magic will be paying their top return only $2.7 million next year to average a double-double. The same can’t be said for Cleveland and Andrew Bynum or Houston and Dwight Howard.

Nikola Vucevic, who was traded from Philadelphia in favor of Andrew Bynum, overachieved in his first year with the Magic, starting 77 games and finishing the season with averages of 13.1 points on 52 percent shooting to go along with 11.9 boards. He finished second in the league in rebounds per, only a few points behind Dwight Howard.

Vucevic proved to be quite the steal for Orlando. He’s a multidimensional offensive threat who shot 42 percent on 198 field-goal attempts in the range from 16-to-25 feet. He shot 40 percent overall on jumpers, with 87 percent of his makes coming off assists.

His top accomplishment of the season came in a loss to the Miami Heat when Vucevic recorded a franchise-record 31 rebounds. That’s a huge accomplishment considering this Magic team has employed the likes of Howard, Horace Grant and Shaquille O’Neal.

He’ll turn 23 before the season starts and could be a fixture in Orlando as a replacement to the big shoes left behind by Dwight.

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Chris Bosh

Chris Bosh (photo. David Alvarez)

Vastly underrated, partly because he’s in Cleveland and also because he’s played 81 games in the past three seasons, Anderson Varejao has encountered the best years of his career over the past two seasons.
In 25 games last year and before he got hurt, Varejao was on his way to winning the rebounding crown, grabbing over 14 boards and almost six offensive rebounds a game. It’s expected for those numbers to eventually drop, but it wouldn’t have been a substantial decrease.

Varejao had just averaged a career-high 11.5 boards the year before, a season where he only played 25 games. It’s tough to get a read on just how good of a center Varejao is, but there’s enough evidence in his seasons with LeBron James to know how great of a teammate he is.

He’s one of the best bigs in the league when it comes to setting screens, is an extremely underrated defender, making the All-Defensive Second Team in 2010, and can rebound, especially on the offensive glass, arguably better than anyone else in the league.

Take a few of his 2012-13 games as an example. Varejao debuted with 23 rebounds, 12 of them offensive, and had 18 rebounds in a loss to Brooklyn where he had 11 offensive rebounds and 35 points. In another outing, 11 of Varejao’s 17 rebounds came on the offensive end.

His face may annoy you and his flopping may make you violently wretch, but there’s no denying that Varejao is one of the league’s hardest workers and an excellent teammate.

Where Tyson Chandler travels, defense will follow.

Since playing the role of the cornerstone piece of the Dallas Mavericks championship team, in which Dirk Nowitzki likened the Chandler addition to Kevin Garnett going to Boston, Chandler has performed a similar service for the New York Knicks.

The Knicks, who used to rank among the league’s worst defensive teams only two seasons ago, finished fifth in defensive efficiency in Chandler’s first year with the team. They have since regressed, finishing 16th this past season, but it didn’t keep the NBA away from giving an All-Defensive First Team nod to the New York center this past season.

Chandler took home Defensive Player of the Year following his turnaround of New York’s defense. Despite the team’s overall regression on defense, Tyson’s numbers were still impressive. He held assignments who posted-up to 36 percent shooting, while also having the fifth-highest PPP in basketball. He shot 64 percent overall and once again continued to prove himself as one of the league’s top pick-and-roll men, shooting 67 percent on such opportunities.

Chandler, who averaged a double-double for the second time in his career, finished with the highest offensive rating in the NBA — scoring 130 points per 100 possessions — for a third consecutive year and also finished with the league’s highest true-shooting percentage for a third straight season as well.

He’s not just the guy who got dunked on by Harrison Barnes. Nikola Pekovic deserves far more than to be known as the guy who was on the opposite end of one of the biggest poster dunks of the season.

On both sides of the ball, Pekovic was among the league’s most efficient centers, and only in his third year no less. He held opponents to 41 percent shooting, including those who utilized the post-up to 39 percent and those who used isolation to only 38 percent.

His defensive win shares of 2.1 were a career-high, as was his 19 percent defensive rebounding percentage and 15.9 percent total rebounding percentage. His PER of 20.2 was only a few points off the career-high he set last season.

When it came to offense, however, there were few players in the league as prolific as the Timberwolves’ center. He ranked 39th in the league in PPP and shot 52 percent, was the 16th best pick-and-roll man by shooting 62 percent on 119 attempts (it helps to have Ricky Rubio distributing) and ranked 72nd in post-ups, converting 41 percent of his attempts. He averaged a career-high 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds last year, earning a starting spot after sporadic starting jobs in his first two seasons.

Pekovic is a mammoth of a player in terms of size. He’s 6-11, 243 pounds and is an absolute load to handle on the defensive and offensive ends. Even with a jumper that doesn’t extend further than 10 feet, Pekovic is supported by a 63 percent conversion rate on layups and 61 percent on tip-ins.

He’s simply too gargantuan of a center to stop, even though every defense he faces knows exactly what he’s going to do on offense.

There are a lot of criticisms that surround Chris Bosh, but most of them, such as this belief that he can’t play defense, are flat-out wrong. But, hey, I guess it’s natural to criticize the starting center of the two-time champions.

Per Synergy, Bosh was actually one of the league’s top defenders when it came to stopping pick-and-rolls. He held pick-and-roll big men to only 35 percent shooting, while also holding spot-up shooters to 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from beyond the arc. Overall, Bosh held assignments to sub-40 percent shooting.

As for this idea that he can’t play center, it’s another misconception and generalization. While he’s certainly more effective in his natural position at power forward, he still loaded up a PER of 20.5 when playing as the Heat’s center, per, and also held opposing centers to a PER of 17.1.

On the offensive end, he proved to be nearly unstoppable last year. Averages of 16.6 points per game seem to indicate that Bosh struggled last season, but it’s actually the opposite. Bosh shot a career-high 54 percent from the field and the 41 percent he shot on three-pointers was a huge key during Miami’s championship run.

He was also the best shooting big man in the NBA last season. Bosh converted an absurd 49 percent of his 419 field-goal attempts in the 16-to-25 foot range and was a 44 percent jump shooter overall. His ability to stretch the floor has been the point of focus in his role in a Heat offense that thrives on creating space for its shooters and slashers.

According to Synergy, Bosh ranked within the top 30 in PPP on isolations (44 percent), as the pick-and-roll man (57 percent overall and 78 percent from three) and cuts (72 percent on 124 attempts). With a higher emphasis on his shot and less on his post-ups, Bosh managed to thrive amidst making another adjustment in an attempt to find a larger role in the offense.

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Some team out there needs to save DeMarcus Cousins from the dream-killing franchise that is the Sacramento Kings. The 23-year-old has spent three years with the Kings and is suffering as a potential All-Star trapped on a team that won’t escape the basement of the Pacific Division for a long time.

Cousins is coming off another impressive season following averages of 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per, while also shooting a career-high 47 percent from the field. He ranked near the top in rebounds per, defensive-rebound percentage and total rebounding percentage.

Although his jump shooting percentages, 29 percent last year, leaves much to be desired, no one can doubt that he’s among the most skilled big men in the league, especially as a ballhandler and facilitator. Among his career-highs last year include 2.7 dimes per game, as well as continuing to show off his skills in the open court.

He also shot 42 percent on post-up attempts and ranked 37th on transition opportunities, converting nearly 70 percent of his 82 shot-attempts.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cousins’ 2012-13 campaign was his improved defense. He held opponents to 39 percent shooting on post-ups and pick-and-roll men to 43 percent, holding assignments to less than 42 percent shooting overall.

While we were all enamored and shocked at how devastating a player Nate Robinson can be when he’s attempting floaters 23 feet away from the basket, Brook Lopez quietly had himself a great postseason going against the likes of Joakim Noah.

Lopez finished the Brooklyn Nets’ seven-game series loss to Chicago with averages of 22.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and three blocks per. I know, 7.4 rebounds at nearly 38 minutes per game is impressive for Lopez, even though it shouldn’t be.

One of the few knocks on Brook’s game has been his inability to rebound. He just averaged less than seven rebounds for the third consecutive season and his defensive and offensive-rebound percentages are putrid. However, he makes up for it heavily at other aspects of the game, specifically on offense and at the rim. Lopez, who finished with the fifth-highest PER in the NBA last season at 24.7, averaged at least 18 points for a fourth consecutive season and is one of the few centers in today’s game who is truly worth defending every single possession. Per Synergy, he ranked 39th in the league in PPP overall, 40th on post-ups with a 44 percent conversion rate, and 43rd as the pick-and-roll man with a 56 percent shooting percentage. There’s still room to work with on his jump shot, after shooting 39 percent on such attempts, but he is a lethal offensive threat anywhere within 20 feet of the rim.

On defense, Lopez averaged a career-high 2.1 blocks and ranked seventh in the league in total blocks with 154. There’s an obvious need for Lopez to move his feet quicker, but a 25-year-old with his skill-set is still an accomplishment that’s worthy of recognition.

The cornerstone of the Indiana Pacers top-rated defense, in terms of Hollinger’s defensive efficiency, the 7-2 Roy Hibbert is beginning to realize that he’s 7-2 and that should be terrifying news to the rest of the league.

The Miami Heat encountered that problem of Hibbert being tall throughout the Eastern Conference Finals. Unlike the previous year when the two teams met and Hibbert wasn’t aggressive to call for the ball, the Georgetown product made it a purpose to demand the ball in the low-post so that he could shoot over the top of the likes of Chris Bosh, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem.

Hibbert averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds in the series with the Heat, finishing off the postseason with solid averages of 17 points and 9.9 rebounds per, while leading the Pacers to their first conference finals since 2004.

He was actually considered disappointing in the regular season following averages of only 11.9 points on 45 percent shooting, but something seemed to click come postseason time. Hibbert essentially turned into a combination of Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, baby-hooking and shooting jumpers over defenders who had no chance of affecting his shot.

Hibbert ranked second in the league in offensive-rebounding percentage, garnering nearly four per contest and nearly five per 36, and second in total blocks with 206. He also held opponents to 39 percent shooting on post-up attempts, per Synergy, and shot 42 percent himself on post-ups.

Hopefully, at least not for the Eastern Conference, Hibbert figured out how to put that 7-2 frame of his to good use. He still needs to work on playing without fouling, averaging nearly four per contest, but obvious improvements are being made in his game and it’s why the Pacers are the favorite to knock Miami off the top spot of the Eastern Conference.

One of the league’s most underrated centers — that’s what happens when you play on a middling team like Atlanta — Al Horford quietly had himself the best season of his career last year, dropping career-highs in points (17.2) and rebounds (10.2).

It was a strong bounce-back season for Horford, who played only 11 games in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. His Synergy percentages are off-the-charts on both ends of the floor as his role in offense increased with a career-high in minutes per (37.2) and field-goal attempts per (14.3).

Horford ranked 83rd in PPP overall, including ranking 66th on post-up attempts, converting 46 percent of his shots, and 59th as the pick-and-roll man, shooting 51 percent on 280 attempts. He also continued to showcase his efficiency as a shooter, converting 42 percent of his jump shots, and proving to be quite the pick-and-roll player.

On his 159 makes in the range from 16-to-25 feet, where he shot 42 percent, Horford was assisted on 138 of those conversions.

On the defensive end, Horford had a career-high 4.1 defensive win shares and was the 37th-best defender in the league when it came to defending pick-and-rolls, holding opponents to 37 percent shooting on such attempts. He also held opponents who used isolations on offense to 37 percent shooting.

Unfortunately, Horford will continue to be ignored as his Hawks secure a six or seven seed and bow out in the first round. This team needs to stop being so predictable.

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