Ranking the Top 5 NBA Players at Every Position, Midseason Edition

Bryant Knox@@BryantKnoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2013

Ranking the Top 5 NBA Players at Every Position, Midseason Edition

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    The NBA is full of great debates, but while we often focus on the big-picture questions, it’s easy to cast aside the topic of who rules each individual position.

    Halfway through the 2012-13 season, we have a solid idea of where each player stands in comparison to others. A ranking of productivity is often subjective in nature, but when looking closely at each of the top candidates, it’s easy to tell who has performed best with All-Star Weekend rapidly approaching.

    The NBA features the best talent in the world, and that talent is diverse enough to be spread across all five positions. From point guard to center, this is a star-driven league. That’s what makes the games so fun to watch, and that’s what makes a debate like this worthy of discussion.

    *Only players who are active as of Jan. 29 are eligible for consideration.

No. 5 Point Guard: Tony Parker

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    2012-13 Stats: 20.1 PTS, 7.5 AST, 52.7 FG%, 23.39 PER

    Tony Parker being No. 5 on this list shows just how stacked the NBA is with All-Star-caliber point guards.

    The 30-year-old floor general is having another great season, and his San Antonio Spurs are reaping the benefits as a result. The team has once again quietly established itself as a top-three seed in the Western Conference, and Parker is the one who puts Gregg Popovich’s plan into effect every single night.

    Parker’s scoring this season is near the best of his career, and it’s only made more impressive by the fact that he’s shooting such an incredible percentage. He’s getting 20-plus points on just 15 shots per game, which is exactly what you would expect from someone so good at finishing in the paint.

    Parker is also near his career high in assists. He’s the perfect facilitator in the Spurs system, but his high basketball IQ makes it easy to picture him succeeding in any offense around the Association.

No. 4 Point Guard: Stephen Curry

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    2012-13 Stats: 21.0 PTS, 6.4 AST, 3.9 RPG, 45.2 3PT%, 19.78 PER

    Stephen Curry is having the best season of his young NBA career, and the case can be made that he was the biggest snub of the 2013 All-Star reserves.

    At 24 years old, the point guard has finally pushed his points-per-game average above the 20-point mark. He’s shooting a ridiculous percentage from the three-point line, and while that number is on par with his first three seasons, he’s averaging more than seven long-range attempts per contest.

    Despite increasing his shots from both inside and outside the three-point line, Curry has also boosted his assists to a career high. He’s getting his teammates involved, and he’s earned himself 38 minutes a game as a result.

    In his first full season without Monta Ellis, Curry is showing how effectively he can handle the ball, and his team is in the playoff race largely because of his production.

No. 3 Point Guard: Kyrie Irving

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    2012-13 Stats: 24.2 PTS, 5.6 AST, 3.6 REB, 41.0 3PT%, 22.93 PER

    Kyrie Irving just keeps getting better and better before our eyes.

    At just 20 years old, the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard has established himself as one of the league’s best players in just his second season. He can score, he can facilitate, and as we've seen on more than one occasion, he can be trusted with the game on the line.

    Although Irving has increased his steals from his rookie year, he needs to improve his one-on-one defense. The truth is, though, on a Cleveland team that struggles to score without him, he more than makes up for what he lacks defensively with his offensive production.

    Among point guards, the youngster is the top scorer in the game. He shoots a decent percentage, and he makes smart plays despite shooting almost 19 times per contest.

    If the NBA has truly become a point guard’s game, it’s possible that Irving will become one of the most prominent faces of the league before we know it.

    That is, if he hasn’t already.

No. 2 Point Guard: Russell Westbrook

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    2012-13 Stats: 22.5 PTS, 8.4 AST, 5.4 REB, 1.9 STL, 22.73 PER

    Despite all of his flaws, Russell Westbrook is having the second-best season of any active point guard in the NBA.

    Playing behind Kevin Durant, Westbrook is arguably the most dangerous second option that the league has to offer. He’s absolutely ferocious above the rim, and with his world-class athleticism, he makes defenders look foolish every time he steps out on the court.

    The best part about Westbrook is that he’s smarter than he often gets credit for. Defenses know they have to back off him, so what does he do? He takes advantage with one of the most lethal transition pull-up jumpers in the game.

    We’ve seen Westbrook put up career numbers in the assists department, and that’s again because his decision-making is improving.

    None of this is to say that the 24-year-old has shed all his imperfections, but if he continues trending in the right direction, he’ll stay near the top of the list when it comes to the league’s best floor generals.

No. 1 Point Guard: Chris Paul

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    2012-13 Stats: 16.6 PTS, 9.7 AST, 2.6 STL, 26.12 PER

    If any point guard in the game deserves to be called a quarterback, it’s Chris Paul.

    In the past, one of Paul’s biggest flaws—if not his only flaw—has been that he's unselfish almost to a fault. He is a pass-first point guard who is always looking for his teammates, and while that’s the kind of player everyone wants to play with, there are times when his team simply needs him to take over.

    But while we all want to see Paul use his scoring ability to wreak havoc, he’s too smart to give in to temptation. The 2012-13 season has seen his scoring drop a bit, but that in no way means he’s having a down year.

    His PER is third in the league, and he facilitates one of the game's best offenses. The Los Angeles Clippers have one of the deepest rosters there is, and with Paul being intelligent enough to recognize who needs touches, there’s nobody else you’d rather see take control.

    The best part about the guy is that if you only focus on his offense, you’re disregarding half of what makes him such a great player. He averages the most steals in the Association, he holds his opponents to a PER of just 12.5 (according to 82games.com) and it seems as if every year he's atop the rankings for best point guard in the NBA.

    Point Guard Honorable Mentions: Jrue Holiday, Deron Williams, Damian Lillard

No. 5 Shooting Guard: Monta Ellis

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    2012-13 Stats: 18.8 PTS, 5.6 AST, 3.7 REB, 1.8 STL, 15.76 PER

    Monta Ellis is the kind of player who can frustrate fans on a nightly basis, yet they’ll keep coming back because they know there’s brilliance somewhere in that 6’3”, 185-pound frame.

    Ellis hasn’t shot well from the field throughout the 2012-13 season, but if you’ve watched the Milwaukee Bucks play, you know that the reason for this is far more complicated than it seems. He’s not necessarily slumping; his percentages are more a product of an unorganized offense that often relies on him to turn lemons into lemonade.

    It’s no secret that Ellis is an offensive-minded player, but he’s always fallen into the trap of being labeled a bad defender because of his teams' style of play.

    According to 82games.com, Ellis only allows his opponents to record a PER of about 13.0 whether he’s defending the point guard or shooting guard position. Nobody is going to claim he’s the best defender on his team, but the criticism that comes his way is oftentimes unjustified.

No. 4 Shooting Guard: O.J. Mayo

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    2012-13 Stats: 17.8 PTS, 4.2 AST, 3.7 REB, 41.8 3PT% 16.6 PER

    O.J. Mayo began the 2012-13 season in brilliant fashion. Nobody knew what to expect out of an inconsistent player on a new-look roster, but he established himself as a go-to option, and he at least made the Dallas Mavericks fun to watch while they were losing games.

    As the year has progressed, his performances have begun to look more like what you should realistically expect the rest of the way. Dirk Nowitzki is back in the lineup, and while Mayo is still a viable option, he’s slowly handing the offense back to its franchise player.

    The thing that you like to see out of Mayo, possibly even more than his increased scoring, is his ability to simply make plays. He’s been one of the league’s most talented shooting guards since his rookie season, but now that he has the ball in his hands, he’s forced to make plays both for himself and for his teammates.

    His assists have jumped up to a career high, and while his turnovers have also increased, he’s playing a much more efficient brand of basketball overall.

No. 3 Shooting Guard: Dwyane Wade

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    2012-13 Stats: 20.7 PTS, 4.6 AST, 4.6 REB, 23.22 PER

    Dwyane Wade is no longer the No. 1 option on his team, and if we’re being honest, he hasn’t been for quite some time.

    But if you think that takes him out of the top three when it comes to 2-guards, you haven’t watched him play since the injury-riddled campaign he put together in the lockout-shortened season.

    Wade could be the No. 2 player on this list, and you wouldn’t hear many arguments. He’s one of the best two-way players at his position (according to 82games.com, he allows opposing shooting guards to record a PER of just 9.4), and he can still be counted on in crunch time.

    His numbers are a bit down from years past, but that’s more a testament to how good he’s been and not how much he’s dropped off.

    If his shot is falling, get him the ball and let him go to work. If it’s not, he can get to the foul line. And if all else fails, he knows how to get the ball to LeBron James better than anyone else on the Miami Heat roster.

No. 2 Shooting Guard: James Harden

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    2012-13 Stats: 26.0 PTS, 5.5 AST, 4.4 REB, 1.8 STL, 22.7 PER

    We all knew that James Harden had it in him to be a great scorer, but he showed that he can be downright elite as soon as the 2012-13 season began.

    The 23-year-old 2-guard has made a name for himself with the Houston Rockets because of his incredible scoring ability. While his three-point shooting is down from his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’s shown that where he’s truly dangerous is at the rim.

    He’s always had a bit of a Manu Ginobili in him when it comes to maneuvering through traffic, but while that ability still exists, he has a newfound "get out of my way" attitude. When he puts his head down and attacks, it's clear why he's the Rockets No. 1 option.

    The big question here is whether or not Harden has truly surpassed Dwyane Wade in the shooting guard category. While there’s not a stat in the world that can definitively answer that question, he’s put the Rockets on his shoulders, and he’s established himself as one of the best backcourt players that the league has today.

No. 1 Shooting Guard: Kobe Bryant

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    2012-13 Stats: 28.7 PTS, 5.1 AST, 5.0 REB, 23.78 PER

    If the Los Angeles Lakers were winning, Kobe Bryant would be a top candidate for the league’s MVP award.

    His 23.78 PER is good enough for seventh in the NBA, but what’s even more impressive is the 11.9 PER he’s holding his opponents to at the shooting guard position (according to 82games.com). Bryant has proved time and time again that he can shut down opponents in one-on-one situations, and his 34-year-old body has yet to show signs of truly slowing down.

    Bryant began the season shooting at an extremely efficient level. His percentages have dipped as the season has progressed, but he’s also begun to adapt his style into that of a facilitator.

    The sample size is small, but if the legendary score-first guard can continue deferring when his team needs it, he’ll keep himself near the top of the ranks when it comes to the league’s best backcourt players.

    Shooting Guard Honorable Mentions: Eric Gordon, Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford

No. 5 Small Forward: Nicolas Batum

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    2012-13 Stats: 16.4 PTS, 6.1 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 17.64 PER

    When an NBA player signs a new contract, the dollar amount is determined partly by past production, but mostly by future projections.

    The Portland Trail Blazers must have seen something in Nicolas Batum’s future that they liked, because they barely hesitated to match the four-year, $45 million deal that the Minnesota Timberwolves extended this past summer.

    Batum has come out and been one of the most improved players in the league thus far. He is showing that he can do more than just sit in the corner and shoot threes—his primary role under Nate McMillan—and demonstrating that he can help control an offense.

    The 24-year-old is second in the league in assists for his position—second only to LeBron James—and he has improved his rebounding to a career high. Before this season he didn't have a single triple-double. He now has two, which came during a three-game stretch toward the end of January.

    Whether Portland can make a playoff push remains up in the air, but as long as it has Batum in the starting lineup, its future looks bright.

No. 4 Small Forward: Paul George

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    2012-13 Stats: 17.5 PTS, 7.8 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.8 STL, 17.59 PER

    Paul George is in the midst of a breakout season, and he’s earned a spot among the top five small forwards as a result.

    Set to make his first All-Star appearance, George has become a player who can be trusted to make plays on both ends of the floor. His long frame makes him a threat in passing lanes, he can score from the outside and, simply put, he’s beyond exciting to watch at just 22 years old.

    We’ve seen improvements across the board every year George has been in the league, but rebounding is one spot where he’s jumped into elite company. He’s a top-three rebounder for players at his position, trailing only LeBron James and Josh Smith, who has historically played the 4-spot.

    On an offense that struggles to score, George is enjoying the role of the go-to option, and it’s a role that seems to fit him well. It’s tough to imagine him cracking the NBA's top three small forwards with the talent ahead of him, but it’s going to be fun watching just how good he gets as his career progresses.

No. 3 Small Forward: Carmelo Anthony

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    2012-13 Stats: 29.4 PTS, 6.2 REB, 42.0 3PT%, 24.97 PER

    Carmelo Anthony has looked like an improved player since the start of the season, which is saying something considering he’s always been one of the best small forwards in the NBA.

    We all know that Anthony can make a difference as a scorer, but what’s been nice to see is efficiency and effort. Those two things haven’t always been a part of the star’s basketball vocabulary, but they’re big reasons the Knicks have played so well thus far.

    Despite being a natural small forward, Anthony has played a decent amount of power forward throughout the year. According to 82games.com, his opponents' PER increases from 12.0 to 13.6 when he's playing the 4-spot, but he makes up for it on the other end, where his own PER jumps to 25.2.

    Melo is still more than willing to bring the ball up the floor, but his willingness to swing it and then plant himself inside has helped reestablish his game. New York recognizes how good he can be down low, and both parties have benefited from his new role.

No. 2 Small Forward: Kevin Durant

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    2012-13 Stats: 29.6 PTS, 7.4 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.2 BLK, 29.14 PER

    Kevin Durant is a scorer, and he might be the deadliest one that the game has to offer.

    At 6’9”, the small forward has the length to score against anybody in the league. What makes him so dangerous, though, is the fact that he is one of the most efficient players when it comes to putting up massive amounts of points.

    If you want to nitpick at his strength and inability to shed physical defenses, that’s fine—he needs to improve in both those areas. But those details have become such a small part of his game, and they are overshadowed every time he hits the floor.

    Durant’s game is rounding out nicely as he continues to mature. He’s a solid presence on the boards, his defense is improving and he is averaging a career high in assists.

    I don’t think there’s any question that Durant is the game's top player under the age of 25, as he’s become a legitimate MVP candidate. His team is contending for a championship largely because of his success, and in the eyes of his biggest fans, he's the best player in the NBA today.

    But as good as Durant has become, and as good as he will continue to be, there’s still one player who remains the king of the small forward position.

No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James

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    2012-13 Stats: 26.6 PTS, 7.1 AST, 8.3 REB, 1.7 STL, 30.34 PER

    Kevin Durant may be nipping at the heels of LeBron James for MVP consideration, but the reigning NBA Finals MVP is still the best basketball player on the planet.

    From a scoring standpoint, James has always had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. However, his improved low-post game and willingness to attack the rim are what’s boosted his efficiency as his career progresses.

    James’ ability to fill a stat sheet makes him one of the league's most versatile players. His incredible court vision benefits his teammates, his timing and physicality make him a beast on the boards and a strong defensive presence makes him one of the most dominant two-way players in the game.

    James isn’t the only player in the Association to possess a strong skill set, but he’s easily the best. His league-leading PER is evidence of that, and unless we see an unprecedented drop-off, the 28-year-old will remain atop the small forward position for the foreseeable future.

    Small Forward Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gay, Josh Smith, Paul Pierce

No. 5 Power Forward: Zach Randolph

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    2012-13 Stats: 15.8 PTS, 11.6 REB, 18.78 PER

    Zach Randolph has never been known as a great athlete, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting up big numbers.

    Like most of the power forwards on this list, Randolph is dynamic with his scoring. He can score down both down low and at the top of the key, and he knows how to take advantage of defenders with his frame.

    As a rebounder, there are few in the league who compete with him. Again, he doesn’t make plays by outjumping his opponents; he makes them by knowing where the ball is going to be and by bullying smaller opponents.

    Nobody is going to claim that Randolph is a great defender, but he’s holding other power forwards to a PER of just 13.1 this season (according to 82games.com). That number increases to 21.7 while playing center, but when he’s in his regular spot, he can at least hold his own.

No. 4 Power Forward: David Lee

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    2012-13 Stats: 19.6 PTS, 10.8 REB, 3.7 AST, 51.6 FG%, 19.44 PER

    David Lee is a liability on defense—this we all know. But his offensive abilities are exactly what Golden State’s system calls for, and they’ve been the perfect pairing throughout the 2012-13 season.

    When Lee gets position down low—or in transition—he can finish above the rim. However, when Mark Jackson needs him to spread the floor, he can take it beyond the free-throw line to keep defenses honest.

    His rebounding is also beyond impressive, as he knows how to use his size to take advantage of smaller players.

    Lee has been flirting with averages of 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds all year, and if he’s able to get himself to that level, he might be the only player to finish the season with those kinds of numbers.

No. 3 Power Forward: Blake Griffin

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    2012-13 Stats: 18.4 PTS, 8.5 REB, 3.7 AST, 53.1 FG%, 23.14 PER

    Hate him or love him, Blake Griffin has been one of the best power forwards throughout the 2012-13 season.

    Griffin’s reputation has become that of a player who only knows how to dunk. It’s true that he ends up in the highlights more than just about anyone in the Association, but if you’ve watched him play since the start of the year, you’ve seen a game that’s starting to round out quite nicely.

    It used to be that you could let him shoot from anywhere outside the key and consider it an automatic miss. Consistency is still an issue, but his good form is resulting in more makes, and defenses can no longer afford to simply watch him from the outside.

    Even his back-to-the-basket game has improved, as he has an array of spins and fakes that were nonexistent when he first entered the league.

    He still has work to do, but when you mix his improved offensive game with his freakish athleticism, you get a player who is both fun to watch and great to have on your team.

No. 2 Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    2012-13 Stats: 20.5 PTS, 8.8 REB, 1.2 BLK, 19.54 PER

    It’s true that LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t quite look like himself in the early stages of the season. His shot was off, and his rebounding was a bit unreliable, but since then he’s reestablished himself as the top player on a team fighting for the playoffs.

    Aldridge is one of just two players averaging 20-plus points and eight-plus rebounds; LeBron James is the other. But what’s most impressive about him is how he’s improved his game throughout the years.

    We’ve known since his rookie season that he has a deadly jumper, but following the departure of Brandon Roy from the roster, he’s elevated his game to another level.

    The big man has a consistent back-to-the-basket game. He may choose to fade away a bit too often, but he’s more than capable of turning left, going right or putting his head down and attacking.

    This is the versatility that keeps Blake Griffin out of this spot. The Los Angeles Clippers big man has time to learn, but until he does, Aldridge earns the nod as the better power forward.

No. 1 Power Forward: Tim Duncan

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    2012-13 Stats: 17.5 PTS, 9.8 REB, 2.7 BLK, 24.91 PER

    Tim Duncan has played a number of minutes at the 5-spot, but as someone who will go down as one of the greatest power forwards of all time, he earns recognition as the top player at his natural position.

    What Duncan is doing at 36 years old is incredible. It seemed as if we were watching the legendary 4-man drift off into the distance the past few seasons, but he’s put together a comeback campaign for 2013, and he’s looking like the Duncan of old—not the old Duncan.

    Offensively, we’ve seen Duncan boost his points-per-game average up to the highest it’s been since the 2009-10 season. He’s shooting better than 50 percent from the field, and he remains an integral option on one of the best teams in the Western Conference.

    On the defensive end, Duncan looks just as rejuvenated as he does on offense. It’s still apparent that he’s lost a step or two, but he makes up for his lack of lateral quickness with incredible timing.

    Remember, Duncan was never one of the most athletic players in the league. He’s always been one of the smartest, though, which is why he’s still able to do what he’s doing at this stage of his career.

    Power Forward Honorable Mentions: Serge Ibaka, Kenneth Faried, Carlos Boozer

No. 5 Center: DeMarcus Cousins

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    2012-13 Stats: 17.4 PTS, 10.2 REB, 0.6 BLK, 20.38 PER

    There’s one common question that has surrounded DeMarcus Cousins throughout the early part of his career:

    Does the good outweigh the bad?

    Cousins has the size, the skill set and the potential to be one of the top centers in the NBA. He is a physical player who can dominate the low block, and he's already established himself as one of the league's best rebounders.

    The problem, of course, is whether or not you can rely on him to be a constant source of production. His attitude and conditioning have been problems up to this point, and they’re good reasons to leave the 22-year-old off this list altogether.

    All that being said, you can't ignore what he's already done, even if it's on an inconsistent basis.

    The potential is there, and if he can figure it out, he’ll find himself climbing the rankings as his playing days continue.

No. 4 Center: Joakim Noah

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    2012-13 Stats: 12.1 PTS, 11.3 REB, 2.2 BLK, 1.3 STL, 17.49 PER

    Joakim Noah doesn’t put up the best numbers of the league’s top big men, but there may not be another player out there who does more to help his team win night in and night out.

    With Derrick Rose out of the lineup, the Chicago Bulls have struggled to score on a regular basis. Noah has boosted both his attempts and his points to all-time highs, but he’s doing so much more than that to make sure his team remains in the race for home-court advantage.

    In case you haven’t watched this team play in a while, the Bulls don’t win very often with their offense. It’s Tom Thibodeau’s defensive mindset that propels them to success, and Noah is the perfect player to fit into that system.

    The center is averaging career highs in blocks, steals and rebounds, and he’s a constant source of energy and emotion. This team needed players to step up in Rose’s absence, and they’ve gotten just that out of Noah this season.

No. 3 Center: Marc Gasol

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    2012-13 Stats: 13.7 PTS, 7.5 REB, 1.8 BLK, 19.62 PER

    When the Los Angeles Lakers gave up Marc Gasol in the infamous Kwame Brown trade, they probably never anticipated Pau Gasol’s younger brother becoming one of the five best centers in the NBA.

    But that’s why we love this game, isn’t it? You never know what’s going to happen.

    Despite not being the most athletic big man, Gasol knows how to move extremely well. He knows the spots on the floor as well as anybody his size, and he can be a difference-maker anywhere between the low block and the high post.

    Defensively, the Memphis Grizzlies are one of the best teams in the Association, and Gasol is a big reason why. He knows how to stay out of foul trouble, he has excellent timing while blocking shots and he knows how to use his 7’1”, 265-pound frame to bully players down low.

    Gasol’s rebounds are down a bit for the 2012-13 season, but that doesn’t mean his impact has lessened. His rotations are solid, and even when he’s not the one pulling down the boards, he’s got a body on somebody, which prevents easy buckets for opposing offenses.

No. 2 Center: Brook Lopez

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    2012-13 Stats: 18.6 PTS, 7.3 REB, 2.2 BLK, 52.3 FG%, 25.24 PER

    Brook Lopez could be ranked virtually anywhere in the top 10 centers, and there would be more than one justification for any spot you chose.

    As a seven-footer who struggles rebounding, Lopez has always had his inconsistencies. He still needs to get tougher on both ends of the court, but there’s no denying he’s become one of the most productive centers in the league.

    With a PER of 25.24, the Brooklyn Nets big man is fourth in the league in that particular category. He’s averaging a career high in blocks, he is his team’s leading scorer and he helps spread the floor, even if his shot selection isn’t always the best.

    Lopez is not a true center, but why does he have to be? In a league that desperately lacks dominance at the 5-spot, why do we criticize Lopez for his style of play?

    The 24-year-old has room to improve, but with Dwight Howard gone to the Los Angeles Lakers, he has become the best center in the East, and he's a big part of why the Nets are finding success.

No. 1 Center: Dwight Howard

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    2012-13 Stats: 16.5 PTS, 12.0 REB, 2.4 BLK, 57.6 FG%, 19.58 PER

    Dwight Howard hasn’t been himself since joining the Los Angeles Lakers, but that doesn’t mean he’s been surpassed as the best center in the NBA.

    Despite a drop in points since returning from injury, Howard is still a top-five scorer at his position. He may not be the high-flying highlight machine he once was, but he’s still scoring at an efficient rate, and he’s getting opposing teams in foul trouble on a night-in, night-out basis.

    We’ve heard a lot this season about how it’s the defensive end of the floor where L.A. needs to improve. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s important to note that Howard is the No. 1 rebounder among centers, the second-best shot-blocker and holds his fellow centers to a PER of just 14.0 (according to 82games.com). 

    Remember, we’re not judging Howard on what we’ve seen from him in the past; we’re judging him in comparison to the rest of the league.

    He may not look like the player we watched dominate the Eastern Conference, but in a league where dominant centers are truly lacking, he's still the best player at the 5-spot thus far.

    Center Honorable Mentions: Chris Bosh, Al Jefferson, Tyson Chandler