The true center is a dying position, but big men haven’t been completely scrapped in terms of their relevance and impact in the NBA. Despite being erased from the All-Star ballot two seasons ago, when you peruse a box score the position is still manned by someone — even if only in name.
The league has a laundry-list of talented big men, but we wanted to ascertain who might be the best at the center position, so we compiled a list of the best in the NBA today. What you will find here are the names of players manning the middle who are important to their teams based on both previous history/accolades and potential impact this coming season. Stats and analytics tell the story for some, while untapped talent and opportunity tell the story for others. It’s all relevant.
With much respect to Steven Adams, Jordan Hill and Larry Sanders, who fell just short of the list, I’d like to say all three have circumstances which could propel them into an amended version of this list at the All-Star break. Nevertheless, we press on.
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20. Robin Lopez, Portland Trail Blazers:
RoLo does many of the same things as some of the others higher on this list, and he’s durable — unlike a certain sibling who you’ll see later. Lopez is another guy coaches never run (or have to run) plays for. He’s perfectly fine scoring off the scraps that come from errant shots released by Portland’s volume shooters. With per-game averages of 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks last season, it could be argued he was one of the most productive “role” players in the league last season.
Lopez is going to have some stiffer competition for playing time with the more offensively talented Chis Kaman added to the roster, but the Blazers need his defense to truly compete this season.
19. Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves:
Pound for pound he might be one of the strongest centers in the league. He maximizes his ability through his physicality and is tough as nails on the block. He was a nice sidekick to the now-departed Kevin Love, giving Minny 17.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game last season. Despite being a bit mechanical in the post, he gets things done from an offensive standpoint.
The knocks on Pek are his lack of quickness, defense and inability to stay healthy. Pek missed 28 games last year and 20 games the season before that. The T-Wolves are expected to play a bit faster with their newly acquired young wing talent and that doesn’t bode well for the plodding Montenegrin. But if they limit his minutes he has a better chance to stay healthy, which really should be his primary goal for Minnesota this season. It’s hard to predict what kind of numbers Pekovic will post this year with another talented big in Gorgui Dieng behind him, who is also starving for minutes, but he’s still better than at least a third of the starting centers in the Association.
18. Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors:
His value is directly tied to the team he plays for, and the Warriors are starved for true depth behind the oft-injured Australian. His presence in the middle as a defensive anchor is the perfect synergy between mindset, ability and team need. An added bonus from Bogut comes in his ability to pass the rock, which he may even do more than necessary. Scoring in copious amounts has never been a staple of his game — even when he was a borderline all-star in Milwaukee — and the Warriors don’t need him to pour in points since the Splash Brothers water board opponents on a regular basis already.
Bogut is in the trenches rebounding, setting those screens that may or may not be legal and playing the role of NHL enforcer for the otherwise friendly Warriors. If he could stay healthy he’d be a cheap double-double candidate right at the benchmarks of 10 and 10. It’s almost impossible to account for his ability to vault the Warriors into title talk, and he could be a lot higher on this list if he hadn’t suffered a series of debilitating injuries, or played for a team that needed him to take some of the offensive reigns. Still, if he stays healthy and plays big minutes in the postseason, the Warriors are a very real threat out West and he will climb this list before next season.
17. Omer Asik, New Orleans Pelicans:
Free from the chains and doghouse of Kevin McHale in Houston, Asik will be counted on to do what he does best in New Orleans: rebound and defend. He’s never complained about getting touches on the offensive end, but what does matter to him is being a starter, which he’ll likely do for the Pelicans. His modest 5.8 points and solid 7.9 rebounds last year inflate to 10.4 and 14.1 respectively when averaged out per-36 minutes.
Asik could lead the league in rebounding if he can stay on the floor and avoid foul trouble for coach Monty Williams. With a budding superstar in Anthony Davis as his running partner to anchor the post for the Pelicans, New Orleans’ woeful defense last season will certainly improve and they might be among the league leaders in fewest points allowed in the paint. Asik should be a large part of that success.
16. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors:
The phrase steady growth is optimized when referring to the third-year Center from Lithuania. His emergence as a go-to-player on the block for the Raptors coincides with the team’s leap from the lottery to division champions. A workman-like 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game were his averages last season but he closed the final month strong with 16.8 points and 11 boards in the last eight games. That’s the Valanciunas the Raptors expect to see this season.
In an era where teams look for their own cryptic version of a “Big Three,” he seems to be the missing part of the trinity the backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will need to continue success in Toronto. He’s separated from the pack of bigs on the Toronto roster and should be rewarded with the minutes justifying that separation.
15. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic:
Here you will find the tale of another young center on the rise in the NBA. He stunned the world in 2012-13 with his tenacity on the glass, and his ability to score, especially from mid-range. He made the Sixers look like fools for trading him, especially in lieu of the Andrew Bynum debacle. Philly’s oversight was, and continues to be, Orlando’s delight as Vucevic adjusts to the NBA game and his role on a rebuilding team.
Last season he battled injuries but still averaged a double-double in 57 games with 14.2 points and 11 rebounds per game. He was 25th in field goal percentage and his jumper continues to be a developing part of his offense. Last season he knocked down 50 percent of the shots he took between 10-16 feet compared to 43 percent in the previous season. His defense is the next area he needs to develop, but he possesses the physical tools necessary to be impact on that end of the floor.
14. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers:
To put it bluntly: it’s a put up or shut up year for Hibbert. This isn’t about amassing statistics worthy of his max deal (although that would be nice). It’s about finding the confidence offensively and on the glass that allows him to be a consistent contributor to a team sans Paul George that’s in desperate need of low-post scoring. With the way he finished last season, this might even be a generous ranking. He has the potential to be a top-10 center, so placing him here seems safe as he flip-flops the chasm between excellent and abysmal. My outside trio of centers are probably shaking their heads as we speak, but he’s a top-3 DPOY nominee, and rim protection is a must for any team with dreams of a Larry O’Brien trophy.
It remains to be seen how the Pacers construct their offense without George, but one would figure Hibbert and David West have to be a large part of that change in priority. Opportunity knocks for Hibbert, and to his credit he usually makes honest assessments about his shortcomings as a player. Even when he’s a ghost on offense, Hibbert still protects the paint and is a deterrent to opposing penetrators. Nobody wants to see him have a bigger year than his team, and the Pacers would love to see their investment pay some dividends in what is predicted to be a down year for the franchise.
13. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets:
If the poor chap could keep his feet right he would easily be a top-five candidate despite his seeming aversion to crashing the glass. Lopez is a very good offensive player, both inside and out. As a 51 percent career shooter from the floor and 78 percent from the free throw line, there isn’t much he can’t do when it comes to scoring. On the other hand, he surprises many with his very fundamental approach to defense. Lopez stays grounded and doesn’t try to jump at everything. He is adept at using his length and strength to post a career average of 1.7 blocks per game, providing Brooklyn — during those rare instances when he’s healthy — a nice presence in the paint. Let’s hope his most recent surgery will give the 7-footer the balance and health he needs to sustain a long career.
12. Marcin Gortat, Washington Wizards:
It’s hard to believe that Gortat is entering his eighth season already, but the Wizards can certainly appreciate his levity and veteran presence in the locker room. That said, Gortat isn’t just a fun guy to have around. He is quite productive and was a key reason the Wizards were able to reach the playoffs for the first time since the days when Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas making Wizards fans cheer. Gortat was a mainstay in the frontcourt and took on a larger offensive role when Nene took his annual injury sabbatical from the league.
His 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds on 54 percent shooting are impressive enough. But when you throw in 1.5 blocks and the fact he played 81 games last season, it becomes evident he’s one of the league’s best at the position. The Wizards are led by John Wall and Bradley Beal but Gortat means the world for them on both ends of the floor.
11. Tyson Chandler, Dallas Mavericks:
The 2012 Defensive Player of the Year tried his best to help an underwhelming and poorly coached Knicks team last season. Defense was never really a priority for the cast of Knicks who surrounded him after he grabbed a big money deal following his role as the defensive bulwark of the 2011 title-winning Mavs team. Still, Chandler is a force to be reckoned with when opposing perimeter players scoot past the first line of defense, and he knows Rick Carlisle‘s defensive principles well since returning to the Mavs in an offseason trade. Then again, he only appeared in 55 games for the Knicks last season and his durability — like a lot of centers on this list; humans just aren’t designed to be seven feet tall and pound up and down an NBA hardwood eight months a year — is always a factor.
He’ll never be an offensive dynamo, but his crashes towards the rim on high screen and rolls with Monta Ellis, new point guard, Jameer Nelson, and Devin Harris will mean more than a few towering alley-oop james this coming season. Chandler has been in the league for 13 years, a lifetime for a player his size, but he’s lean enough to keep his knees at least partially healthy as he heads into the twilight of an impressive career. He’s no longer one of the top 10 centers in the league, but if he can stay on the court, the Mavs will do a lot better than a No. 8 seed in the loaded West, and they could grab home court in the first round as some analysts predict. Chandler will have to be a large part of the team’s defensive effort if they’re to prove those prognosticators correct.
10. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks:
The absolute heart and soul of the Atlanta franchise, Horford looks to recover from a season-ending pectoral injury last year. Despite playing out of position his entire career, he’s made the best of his situation and has remained efficient as a center in the NBA. Before suffering his injury he was leading the Hawks at 18.6 points per game on a blistering 56 percent from the floor. Keep in mind Horford takes about 49 percent of his shots from 10 feet and beyond.
Since Horford is a natural power forward, he often has the speed advantage against opposing centers, which he uses to help him on both sides of the ball. He’s averaged 0.8 steals and 1.1 blocks per game for his career — not too shabby for an undersized center. Look for a bounce-back year from Horford as the Hawks look to surprise teams in a vastly changed Eastern Conference.
9. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons:
The former UConn product is developing at a freakish pace and could be in line for the league’s rebounding title this year or very soon thereafter. He was just an absolute terror in the paint last season with per-game averages of 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.1 steals on 62 percent shooting from the floor. His free throw shooting is also terrifying at just 41 percent but let’s look at the glass as three-quarters full with Drummond, and Shaq won four titles with the Hack-a-Shaq strategy firmly entrenched in the NBA lexicon.
He has to stop fouling people so he can remain on the floor, but he should learn discipline under new head coach Stan Van Gundy. He’s only 21 and is getting by on raw ability for now. But with some footwork and attention to a jumper (maybe out to 12 feet or so) he could be a top -light center in the league for years to come. Stay tuned.
8. DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers:
Maybe Doc Rivers should have been hired in L.A. a long time ago because what he got out of Jordan last year was awe-inspiring. Jordan played in all 82 games, led the league in field goal percentage (67 percent) and rebounding (13.6 per game). He also averaged double-digit points for the first time in his career while swatting 2.5 shots per game, and 1 steal for the icing on the cake during his breakout season.
It would be hard for DJ to top the impact he had last year, but he’s very capable of duplicating it. The Clippers need his presence on defense to help cultivate the next step in their evolution as legitimate title contenders.
7. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets:
Nobody saw his move to Charlotte coming last summer. I even dismissed it as something the Hornets (then Bobcats) would probably overlook as an option. Luckily for both parties, they took the plunge and the Hornets are one of the up-and-coming teams in the East largely because of the arrival of Jefferson. Big Al did work last season posting 22.5 points per game and tying his second-highest average in rebounds per game at 11.2. He led his team into the playoffs but was hobbled by plantar fasciitis, which resulted in a sweep. Still, he was a wrecking ball after the all-star break last season and it was a sign he can still carry a playoff team — at least in the East.
Jefferson has good footwork on the post but is slow when moving his feet defensively…it’s the darndest thing. Nevertheless, in the defensive-minded scheme of coach Steve Clifford, Jefferson had a career-best defensive rating of 100 last year. That truly is the next step for him as he enters his 11th year of service in the league. Aside from feet that seem stuck in concrete when he’s defending he pick-and-roll, he’s big money everywhere else.
6. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat:
We will probably not see the 24 points and 11 rebounds per game Bosh that we saw in his last season in Toronto, but that’s OK. Miami understands that Bosh’s usage rate will increase from 22.6 percent last season, but they don’t expect him to duplicate his gaudy numbers as a member of the Raptors. They like who he has become as a two-time champion and underrated defender since joining the Heat. That said, opportunity is there for Bosh, who was paid a king’s ransom (see what I did right there) to become the undisputed first option on a team who desperately wants to cling to the elite status they achieved coming out of the Eastern Conference in each of the last four years.
He’s anxious to be the face of the franchise and should come close to averaging a double-double with some massive games in point production throughout the season. They are still playing him out of position but he’s adjusted to being a center in the league. His quickness and touch from beyond the paint area gives him a huge advantage even at the age of 30. Bosh may not be Toronto-like in production but he’s going to be very close.
5. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies:
It could be argued the younger Gasol brother is the most important player on the Memphis roster and that he has been so for a while. He could also be higher on this list, especially when you see who goes No. 1. Gasol contributes in every single facet of the game, making him the lighthouse for the Grizz organization. His ability to pass from the mid-post, particularly from that right elbow he loves, creates offense and clear looks for a team that desperately needs to be open to make shots. He is physical and tough-minded which gives Memphis much of its Grindhouse identity. Gasol is a year removed from winning the Defensive Player of the Year award and last year’s injury slowed him down more than he’d ever admit. He should be fully healthy, after an early exit from the playoffs and FIBA World Cup and ready to bring his defensive rating back under 100 this season. Memphis continues to be a team nobody enjoys playing and Gasol should lead them to another playoff berth this season — though some believe Memphis could be one of the teams to drop out.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings:
He might already be the best center in the game and it’s not for a lack of talent why he isn’t ranked first here. The book on Cousins is that for all his talent, he struggles with his emotions, which are still a work-in-progress. That book is becoming an easier read as he continues to mature into a leader and legitimate franchise player. He was fifth in player efficiency rating last season (26.1) and there aren’t many — or any at all — people his size with his offensive skills. I feel like Boogie is the NBA cuzo Shaq never had while Howard represents a not quite adequate enough Bizzaro version of what O’Neal believes centers should be.
Boogie has touch and range out to about 20 feet and is an ever-improving passer/facilitator all while ranked third in usage percentage (32.7) last year behind only Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Think about that for a second. With that type of importance, he needs to stay on the floor because the Kings can’t afford to have his 22.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks muted by time on the bench. Hopefully he can lower the 3.8 fouls per game he committed last season to give him added minutes on his way to greater growth as one of the best centers/players in the NBA.
3. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Even though Gregg Popovich listed him as a power forward and played him alongside David Robinson and other NBA big men for the first decade of his career, Duncan is San Antonio’s center these days, which we knew all along. The former Wake Forest grad even earned his 14th All-NBA First Team nod at that position for the 2012-13 season — breaking up a half decade where the next guy on this list appeared.
The lanky Duncan shed some weight as he got older, but it’s had the desired effect of alleviating the stress on his knees. His per-minute numbers haven’t dropped much at all over his 17 NBA seasons, and his defense is still first-rate, where he helms Popovich’s communication-heavy fortress. Duncan still hasn’t finished an NBA season with a PER less than 21 in his entire career, and if he stays in shape and continues to make up the backbone of San Antonio’s team, he’ll also be considered one of the top big men in the league. Yes, he’s the greatest power forward of all time, but in this day and age of the stretch four, he’s also a top-3 center.
2. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets:
This is a “what have you done for me lately” league, at least in my opinion, and that keeps Howard out of the top spot. The talent is still running through his veins to be as dominant as Shaq was back in the day. A mindset to again realize his dominance has always been the question, and for the record, I think he may finally be ready. But he has to do it on the floor. There should never ever, ever-ever be a time where Howard shoots the ball less than 10 times in a game. There were 22 such occasions where that happened for D-12 last year in the 71 games he played. I know he’s fouled a lot but not getting double-digit shot attempts is inexcusable for someone at his talent level and he and coach Kevin McHale need to be held accountable.
For all the criticism you still have to give Howard for his off-court antics, he’s one of the best shot-blocking/changing defenders of all time. He’s still a plus rebounder and a guy capable of 20-20 whenever he feels right. With Chandler Parsons out of the picture, there should be a few more shots for Howard on the block as long as the Rockets understand they need to feed him the ball.
1. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls:
Noah was a Swiss Army knife for the Bulls last season which made him a sleeper as a M.V.P candidate and the overwhelming choice for the Defensive Player of the Year. Across-the-board production anchored his season, highlighted by his 5.4 assists and league-leading defensive rating of 96. The former Florida Gator willed Chicago to a four-seed in the East despite the loss of Derrick Rose and trade of Luol Deng. It was a remarkable season.
This year Noah has more help, which should lessen his load — and numbers — considerably. The addition of Pau Gasol and return of Rose directly impact much of what Noah excelled at last season. But with less responsibility to facilitate offense and help on the glass, we may see him really lock in defensively. It should be another banner year for the seven-year veteran on one of the NBA’s best teams.
What do you think?
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