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Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Centers Right Now

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2012

Ranking the NBA's Top 10 Centers Right Now

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    Who are the top-10 centers in the game? Are there even enough worthy centers to compile such a list?

    Some say there's a dearth at the center position right now, so would answer no. I disagree. I think it's a change in the way the game is being playing that has changed what we need to look at and understand what we want from the center. 

    Certainly we see less scoring form the center position than we did 20 years ago. In the 1992-93 season there were six centers who averaged over 20 points per game. In the 2012-13 season there are none. 

    Changes in the game have forced teams to reconsider how they use centers. Changes like the initiation of the defensive three-second rules have forced centers to play defensively further away form the rim, in turn shifting the responsibility for scoring to the perimeter players. 

    In fact in the last 10 years, since the rule changes designed to do that have gone into place, there have only been 11 player-seasons of at least 20 points per game by only four centers, Shaquille O'Neal, Yao Ming, Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez. 

    What's happened is that we still measure centers in the same manner we used to though, rather than looking at them according to what the new-age center is expected to do. While there are still some conventional centers (Andrew Bynum for example) the majority are expected to score less and do other things more. 

    The new style of center is expected to be able to defend the perimeter, hit jumpers on pick-and-pops, pass the ball, set effective screens and still do the rebounding centers have always been expected to do. 

    Some centers are purely the old-school centers, such as Andrew Bynum. Some, such as Marc Gasol have elements of both styles to their games. Others, such as Joakim Noah are purely the new breed. Consideration was taken into how well they played their role, not just how well they performed traditional center duties. 

Why Isn't ____________ On the List?

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    Here is a short list of names of people who either just missed the list, or had such severe shortcomings in certain areas that they were left off of it entirely. There are also a few others who weren't considered for other reasons. 

     

    Andrew Bogut: Has missed to much playing time the last year and a half to really gauge where he's at. He's worthy of consideration in the bottom half of the top 10, but only if he's playing. 

    Andrew Bynum: Would certainly be high on the list if he could walk. But with all the knee issues, it was just too hard to figure out if he will play this year, or if he does, how much and how well he'll play. In short, the Sixers bought a lemon. 

    DeMarcus Cousins: His complete lack of maturity and 41 percent field goal percentage have the Kings considering trading him. That's enough to keep him off the list. 

    Tim Duncan: If you want to call him a center, feel free. If he were a center, he'd be on the list, but neither the Spurs nor Duncan have ever wanted to call him one so I didn't. 

    Marcin Gortat: Someone has to be the best who's not on the list. In this case it's Gortat. 

    Roy Hibbert: Hibbert should be on the list. I don't mean I should have put him there. I mean he should be playing well enough for me to put him there. But he's not, so I didn't.  

    Chris Kaman: On a per minute basis he deserves consideration, but this isn't a per-minute ranking. There's a reason, i.e. a long injury history, that Kaman is playing only 25 minutes a game. He's fragile. That fragility keeps him off the list. 

    Brook Lopoez: Certainly worthy of consideration as a great scorer. However, weak rebounding and defense keep him from making the list. 

    Robin Lopez: Better defense than his brother but not as good on offense. He has the same rebounding issues though. 

    Omer Asik: He's on his way up the list, but still needs to develop more offensive game. 

T10: Nikola Pekovic

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    Nikola Pekovic is definitely the traditional style of center and he's the perfect compliment to Keivn Love as well. He's harder to move than most NBA arenas. 

    As a scorer Pekovic is one of the best centers in the Association, racking up 16.0 points per game, fourth among all NBA centers. 

    What's hard to understand though is why he doesn't rebound better, as he averages only 7.9 rebounds per game. 

    Defensively, he's similar to what he is on offense. While his tremendous size and strength make him an asset to defending down low—his Synergy numbers both on post-up plays (.77 points per play) and defending the roll man on the pick and roll (.70 points per play) are exceptional. 

    However his slow-footed defense causes him to struggle when he has to step out and defend the perimeter, as he gives up .97 points per play on the spot-up. 

    Overall, Pekovic is one of the most promising up-and-coming bigs in the NBA and his game still has plenty of room to grow. He's the "third reason" the Timberwolves have such a promising future, but a much less celebrated one. 

T10. Greg Monroe

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    Greg Monroe would get more attention if he were playing on a winning team. 

    He's averaging 15.6 points and 9.0 boards a game to go along with 3.3 assists. Offensively he's pretty stellar. 

    Defensively though, he's not as accomplished as you might hope, surrendering an opponent's Player Efficiency Rating (oPER) of 19.7. His Synergy numbers are marginal. He plays on a marginal defensive team too so you can't fault him too much for that. 

    The problem is when he goes head-to-head against the other elite centers, he tends to get outplayed. In terms of efficiency, he has one win and six losses in head-to-head matchups with other players on this list. 

    As Monroe continues to develop and learns to take on the best centers in the game, he should move up this list. 

9. Chris Bosh

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    Chris Bosh is still learning the center position and is one of the best scorers, if not the best scoring center in the NBA. In fact, he leads the center position in scoring with 18.0 points and that's as the second option on his team. 

    The problem with Bosh is that the rest of his numbers are middling to below average. His 7.9 rebounding average is not impressive. His 1.7 assists are merely passable (get it?). 

    The main reason he's not higher on this list though is that his defense at the center position is hideous. His Synergy numbers (.98 ppp against) are the lowest of anyone on the list. Furthermore, the Heat are actually a teeny bit worse defensively while he's on the court. 

    They are better offensively too, which is why he's on the list. 

    Bosh does score exceptionally well and he may have the best jump shot of any center in the league. If the rest of his game were on the same level as his shot, he'd be at the top of the list, but it's not there, so he isn't. 

8. Kevin Garnett

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    Kevin Garnett's move to center has given a bit of resurgence to his career, though that resurgence might have been more brief than the Boston Celtics were hoping for. 

    Garnett's defense has always been one of the hallmarks of his game, but this year it's not up to the same standard. Certainly it's still better than most, but it's not "Garnettian" as it usually is. 

    For example, his oPER is 16.5 this year compared to 14.5 last year. Last year he gave up .80 points per play. This year he's giving up .84 points per play. Last year the Boston Celtics were tied with the Chicago Bulls for the best defense in the NBA in terms of points per play. This year they've fallen to 12th. 

    At least some of that descent is due to the the decline in Garentt's game. While it's also partly due to the change over in personnel, there's a fine line between an excuse and a reason. 

    Garnett is on the list so it's not like that hasn't been taken into account. The fact is though, that if he gets credit for leading a great defensive effort, some of the blame has to belong to him too when the defense isn't up to the same high standard. 

    It's not a swipe at Garnett. He's the most versatile power forward in the history of the game. No other player has ever recorded 20,000 points, 12,000 rebounds, 5,,000 assists, 1,500 blocks, and 1,500 steals. Factor in his Defensive Player of the Year Award and the 12 All-Defensive selections and that's a no-brainer. 

    But he's 36 and a center now and there has been some decline. 

7. Al Horford

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    Al Horford was working his way into All-Star status before he went down with an injury last season that kept him out for much the year. Now he's back and carrying the Atlanta Hawks again this year, albeit in a manner that is very below-the-radar. 

    Horford's all-around numbers are impressive, averaging 15.5 points, 9.8 boards and 3.2 assists per game. 

    So why isn't Horford higher on the list? Because his defense isn't as solid as his reputation might suggest. His Synergy numbers are well below average at .85 points per play, and his oPER is also a subpar 17.2. The Hawks are 1.2 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he's on the bench. 

    And that's come in spite of the fact that he's only had four matchups against players on this list, in which he is 2-2. 

    Now there is also the fair argument that Horford missed a good part of last season and is still getting his sea legs. That's why he's slightly higher on the list than his numbers argue he should be. 

6. Tyson Chandler

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    There's no way you can keep the defending Defensive Player of the Year out of the top five, especially when he's having a career high in field goal percentage. So why is Tyson Chandler sitting at No. 6?

    Chandler is shooting an absolutely ridiculous .705 from the field. Of course, sometimes that can be a misleading statistic too. Most of the reason that his scoring percentage is so ridiculously high is that all his field goals come at the rim. 

    Well technically speaking, not all of them come at the rim. He has had four field goals outside of the restricted area. His percentage there drops down to .267. 

    While his .747 shooting percentage from inside the restricted area is still solid, it's not NBA-leading. He's actually sixth, and second among centers form that range. 

    In other words his high field-goal percentage is more a product of not having a game outside of the restricted area than it is being a great scorer. It's only because 91 percent of his shots come at the rim that he has a great shooting percentage. 

    Of course there are those who are going to argue that he "knows his weaknesses." Well he might know them, but that doesn't mean they aren't there. 

    And as to his defense, he's taken a step back this season. Last year, his defensive rating was 99. This year, it's 105. Last year he was the Knicks defense. This year the Knicks defense is 4.8 points per 100 possessions worse while he's on the court. 

    Tyson Chandler wasn't really considered a top-five center before the Mavericks won the title. When he went to Dallas in fact, it wasn't even considered to be much of a signing. He'd never been named to an All-Defense team, All-NBA team or All-Star team. 

    In the last two years, he's made the All-Defense team and last year for the first time he made it to his first All-NBA team. The point is that he's never had a firm grip on the title of "top-five" center until last year anyway. So a little slip means it's not egregious to drop him out of the top five. 

5. Marc Gasol

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    When doing a ranking like this I tend to lay out the players first, ranking them 1-10 based on my observations and general understanding. Of course, the onus is then to establish those are valid rankings, which means looking at the stats and viewing the film. 

    Because of that, in the process, I always learn a little more. That's what happens when you research. That research also means I move some players up and some players down.

    So why am I saying all this? Because I'm just as surprised as you to see Gasol all the way down in fifth. 

    Gasol is a mix of the old-style and the new-style center. He is able to score virtually anywhere inside the three-point line. He also is the second-best passing center in the game, ranking second in assists. Those are his assets. 

    He also has a reputation as solid defensive player and is one of the anchors of one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. 

    So why is he all the way back at fifth?

    Because he's just not as productive as you think he is. He's only ninth among centers in the NBA in total stats and he's only sixth in efficiency. He's eighth in PER. Furthermore the Grizzlies defense is better when he's on the court, and so is their offense. 

    And it's not like the Grizzlies have a great bench either. They are ranked 25th in the league in net efficiency. 

    Gasol is a good shooter and scorer, and a very fine passer, but he's also an inadequate rebounder for his size, (and yes, I know he has Zach Randolph to compete with, but the fact that his rebounding numbers go down when Randolph is on the court show that's not the reason). 

    I like Gasol. In fact I like him so much when I did my initial rankings I thought he would shake out at No. 2. I just couldn't back that up with the numbers so I had to move him down. 

4. Al Jefferson

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    Al Jefferson is averaging 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds a game this season. All he does, game after game, is be awesomely consistent. In fact, the only center in the NBA with more double-doubles than Jefferson since he got to Utah is Dwight Howard. 

    Yet for whatever reason he gets so little respect. There will be those who have an issue with Jefferson being listed this high. Jazz fans will understandably complain that he's not higher. Unfortunately, I can't see putting him ahead of anyone else.

    One thing about Jefferson that is worth noting is he's an outstanding free-throw shooter, as he makes 83.8 percent of his attempts from the stripe. It makes a big difference when you can use your big man down the stretch. 

    Jefferson leads all NBA centers in field goals in the final two minutes of the game. 

    The chink in his armor though is that his defense isn't on par as his offense. His oPER is a below average 18.7. This has something to do with the Jazz being a bad defensive team, ranked only 24th in defensive rating. Then again, the defense is even worse while he's on the court

    Jefferson is part of the problem, not the solution. 

3. Anderson Varejao

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    If you're looking at things from a purely statistical standpoint, Anderson Varejao deserves to be at the top of this list. Among centers, he leads the league in both efficiency, and in total stats (combined points, rebounds and assists) 

    So then, why isn't he higher on the list? Is he being punished for playing on a terrible team? Not exactly. In fact, playing on a terrible team is working for him, not against him. That's why his numbers are so impressive. 

    For example, Varejao plays on a team that has 86.9 rebound opportunities per game, which is the seventh-most in the NBA. His team misses more shots than any team in the NBA, meaning he has more opportunities for offensive rebounds than anyone else. 

    Add to that the second best rebounder on the team grabs 8.2 boards per game and the only other player with more than five is his backup. So Varejao is a great rebounder, but he's also a great rebounder who gets lots of opportunities and little competition from his own team. 

    His usage percentage, (the percent of time a player uses possessions) is somewhat out of proportion with his true shooting percentage (a measure of how efficiently he uses those possessions). The only player on the list with a higher usage percentage than Varejao's 18.5 percent and a lower true shooting percentage than Varejao's .529 on this list is Greg Monroe.

    This suggests while he's not a great option, he's the best option the Cavaliers have, especially while Kyrie Irving was hurt. He's getting looks he might not get if he were playing around better players. 

    His overall Synergy numbers are impressive at .71 points per play. He tends to win the personal matchups. However, even though the Cavaliers have a weak defense it actually gets worse while he's on the court. 

    Varejao actually isn't higher because he benefits more than he's hurt by playing on a weaker team. Were he on the teams of the two players above him on this list, it's doubtful he could maintain the same level of production he does with Cleveland.

    Add to that the two players above him are also even better defensively because they have similar man-to-man defense but are superior help defenders. 

    Sill, right now, the Most Improved Player Award should go to Varejao. Frankly, I don't understand why he's not getting more chatter for the award. 

2. Joakim Noah

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    If the season ended today and we had the vote for All-NBA teams, I believe that Joakim Noah would be the first-team center. That's how amazing he has been. Granted, Dwight Howard is better than he is, but so far Noah is arguably having a better season. 

    I know that is going to bring some sputtering and some charges of "homer" but that doesn't make that any less true. 

    Consider the facts. right now Noah is second in total stats and efficiency among all NBA centers. He's playing a monstrous amount of minutes for a center, averaging 39.9 per game. 

    He leads his team in steals and rebounds. He's second on his team in assists and leads all other NBA centers by a wide margin in that category.

    He's the first center since David Robinson in 1993-94 to average 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists while carrying a defensive rating below 100. The only other center to accomplish that since the merger is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

    Noah is not on their level and no one is arguing he is. However, that certainly indicates something about his versatility.

    Add to that the fact that both Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver and ESPN's Marc Stein have Noah as the Defensive Player of the Year. 

    Noah is having arguably the second best offensive season of any center in the league and the best defensive season in the NBA. With Dwight Howard struggling with back problems, you could argue that he should be higher, but not any lower. 

1. Dwight Howard

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    Dwight Howard might be a Laker. He might be fighting through a back issue. He might not be as impressive as he's been in years past. But he's still Dwight Howard. He's still able to bench press a small truck. He's still able to lick the top of the backboard. He's still the second-biggest freak of nature in the NBA after LeBron James

    Do you know how know when a player is something truly special? When you're averaging 17.8 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 1.1 steals, 2.0 assists; when you're one of the most dominant defensive players in the league and people are asking what's wrong with you, you're truly special. 

    Sooner or later, the Lakers will get their stuff together. They'll start winning and Howard will start regaining his consensus place as hands down the best center in the NBA.

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