Re-Ranking the Best Centers in the NBA, Post-Free Agency
Remember how center used to be one of the weakest positions in the NBA?
Yeah, so much for that.
Led by seven truly elite big men and followed up by a bevy of contenders vying for a chance to ascend into the realm of the premier standouts, the position is back. Traditional back-to-the-basket play might not have returned, but dominant big men have.
And the scary part is that the ranks are only getting thicker.
Players like Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic aren't good enough to merit honorable mentions right now, but they will be by the end of the season. In fact, I'd be shocked if one or more of the aforementioned players doesn't supplant a top-10 guy by the time the 2013-14 campaign comes to a halt.
Plus, there's Andrew Bynum.
The new member of the Cleveland Cavaliers has too much uncertainty swirling around him right now, but he was the second-best center in the league before an injury kept him out for an entire season and effectively ended his Philadelphia 76ers tenure without a single second on the court. Bynum could ascend back up the rankings, but he could also fail to ever play significant minutes again.
Like I said, center is getting pretty deep.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks
Although the New York Knicks' defensive ace struggled to stay healthy and defensively effective during his 2012-13 campaign, he was still one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in basketball and a constant alley-oop threat.
His days of being truly dominant are done, but he's still a highly affective big man.
Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
It will be interesting to see how Greg Monroe meshes with both Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, but the big man is versatile enough that he can do it without skipping too many beats.
Although Monroe isn't an athletic marvel, he makes up for his diminished jumping skills with heady play and a great knack for distributing.
Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves (?)
Assuming Nikola Pekovic ever completes the re-signing process with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he'll resume being a physical bruiser on both ends of the court.
Pek still needs work on the whole finesse thing, but he's got the physicality down to a science.
Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks
Larry Sanders was more than just a shot-blocker during his breakout season. He was a defensive anchor for the Milwaukee Bucks, which is even more impressive when playing alongside the two sieves known as Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
Now he just needs to figure out how to play offense.
Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers
Let's not forget just how dominant Anderson Varejao was before he got injured.
The long-haired big man averaged 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds (which would have paced the NBA had he played enough games to qualify) and 3.4 assists per game.
10. Al Jefferson
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Charlotte Bobcats
Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks, 20.9 PER
Al Jefferson is teetering right on the edge of stardom, and going to the Charlotte Bobcats certainly won't help him in the public-recognition department that's so necessary in order to become a true household name. However, it was a great move for his actual basketball career.
In Charlotte, Jefferson can continue to be a primary source of offense, and his defense will keep the team from becoming good enough to hurt its stock much for the stacked 2014 NBA draft.
That, in a nutshell, sums up Jefferson.
He's a dominant offensive big man, particularly when he goes to work with his back to the basket on the left block.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Jefferson scored 0.89 points per possession on post-ups during his last season with the Utah Jazz. That was good enough for him to rank 59th among all qualified players, but his value is tempered by his defensive porosity.
Jefferson is a capable defender when guarding roll men in pick-and-roll situations, and he's slightly above average slowing down big men in the post, but he gets abused when forced to show any semblance of mobility.
In both isolation and spot-up situations, opponents managed to shoot 50 percent against him during the 2012-13 season.
9. Pau Gasol
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 16.7 PER
Pau Gasol may be 33 years old, but he's trending upward after a putrid beginning to the 2012-13 season sent him plummeting down the positional rankings.
He finished the season in strong fashion, especially after Kobe Bryant went down, and he's now poised to take on an even bigger role offensively with Dwight Howard lining up for the Houston Rockets. When healthy and engaged, Gasol is still one of the most versatile players in all of basketball, regardless of position.
The Spaniard showed that off to close the regular season, averaging 16.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game over the last nine contests.
Gasol's age and inconsistency keep him from rising too much further, but he can still make plays that most other centers can’t even dream of.
8. DeMarcus Cousins
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Sacramento Kings
Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks, 0.7 steals, 20.2 PER
Ah, the curious case of Boogie.
DeMarcus Cousins has the physical tools necessary to be an all-time great. He's a remarkably strong center with soft hands and a knack for picking up techniques quickly, but he can't stay on the court.
Early in his career, foul trouble plagued him. He led the league in personal fouls during both his rookie and sophomore seasons out of Kentucky. But after cutting back on his fouls per 36 minutes for the third straight season, Cousins is staying away from whistles enough that he can actually remain active.
Now it's just the space between his ears causing him trouble.
Technical fouls—not personal ones—ejections and suspensions have all reared their ugly heads, and Cousins needs to take the proverbial chill pill if he hopes to maximize his immense talent.
Right now, there's a rather large gap between the Sacramento Kings' star player and the rest of the center rankings. He's fully capable of closing the chasm rather quickly, but to do so he'll have to improve his spot-up jumper and start making more of a concerted effort on the less glamorous end of the court.
Cousins has the ability to be a top-three center in the rankings. Now it's just all about putting the pieces together.
7. Al Horford
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Atlanta Hawks
Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks, 19.8 PER
Al Horford is the perfect example of the discrepancy between glamour and effectiveness.
You'll never mistake this 27-year-old Florida product for an athletic marvel. He won't create many posters, and the blocked shots that make SportsCenter are few and far between.
But Horford will produce consistently in all facets of the game each and every time he takes the court. He's one of the most well-rounded players in basketball, and every team could use a player like that.
If the Atlanta Hawks centerpiece does stand out in any one way, it's with his passing.
He averaged 3.2 assists per game during the 2012-13 season, and Hoopdata.com shows that only five high-usage big men (40 games played, 30-plus minutes per game at either power forward or center) had higher assist rates: Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin and Greg Monroe.
Horford is also one of the league's more underrated defenders, largely because he doesn't rack up the glamour stats. Just another case in which blocks and steals don't paint an accurate picture of overall defensive prowess.
6. Brook Lopez
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Brooklyn Nets
Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals, 2.1 blocks, 24.7 PER
With Brook Lopez, it's all about offense.
The big man averaged 19.4 points per game, but it was even more impressive that he did so while shooting 52.1 percent form the field. Only three players in the league were able to top 19 and 52 during the 2012-13 season: Brook, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Last I checked, that's not bad company.
Only two things are holding Brook back from ascending even higher up the rankings: rebounding and defense. Although he's clearly improving in each area, he has a long way to go.
Thanks to massive strides forward on the defensive glass, Lopez was able to increase his rebounding numbers back to where they began following his departure from Stanford. They're still rather lackluster, but at least he's not a complete liability on the boards.
Defensively, the seven-footer has started blocking shots with much greater frequency and performed better in all areas other than post-up situations. That's where his primary focus must rest while he continues to improve, as allowing 0.88 points per possession, via Synergy, isn't going to cut it.
5. Roy Hibbert
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Indiana Pacers
Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.6 blocks, 17.3 PER
How you feel about this ranking boils down to how legitimate you think Hibbert's improvements during the playoffs are. If you think he was benefiting from a hot streak and small sample size, then this is too high.
Obviously, I don't think he was.
Hibbert began the season in awful fashion, leading to plenty of questions about the stupidity of his max contract. However, he rounded into form as the year progressed.
Take a look at his per-game numbers before the All-Star break, after it and during the postseason:
|Pre All-Star Break||10.0||8.3||1.5||0.5||2.6||41.4|
|Post All-Star Break||15.7||8.2||1.3||0.4||2.5||50.8|
The obvious takeaway is that Hibbert got better as the year rolled along.
He figured out that the goal of basketball was to put the orange sphere through the circular thing suspended 10 feet in the air. I have serious doubts he knew that at the beginning of the season.
But if you dig deeper, it gets even more impressive.
Hibbert faced much stiffer competition in the postseason, and we're not exactly dealing with a small sample size. He spent 19 games squaring off against Al Horford, Tyson Chandler and Chris Bosh, and he thrived.
In fact, the seven-footer averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per contest on 55.7 percent shooting against the Miami Heat. He was showing off expanded range with his jumper and a devastating hook.
It was enough to convince me he belongs within the top five and has the potential to rise even higher.
4. Joakim Noah
Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
Team: Chicago Bulls
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 11.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 2.1 blocks, 18.1 PER
Joakim Noah doesn't make sense.
The long-haired center has one of the most unorthodox shots (especially from the charity stripe) in basketball, and yet he's incredibly proficient leading the fast break and distributing the ball among his teammates.
He's not a scorer, but the offense often runs through him. Although Noah doesn't compete for the league lead in blocks per game, he's a bona fide contender for Defensive Player of the Year.
The Florida product is just a walking, running, screaming, vein-popping oxymoron of a basketball player.
But there's one thing that isn't confusing at all: Noah's über-elite defense. He's one of those rare players who excels both as an individual defender and a cog in the team's system.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Chicago Bulls allowed 106.3 points per 100 possessions when Noah was recharging his seemingly inexhaustible battery on the pine. Prorated to 48 minutes, that would rank them 18th in the NBA, tied with the New York Knicks.
However, when Noah played, that number dropped to 101.2, a mark beaten out by only the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies.
That's a pretty big disparity.
Synergy also looks favorably upon Noah's defense (how could it not?), showing that he allowed only 0.81 points per possession. He especially thrived guarding post-up players and roll men in PnR sets.
3. Marc Gasol
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Team: Memphis Grizzlies
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.7 blocks, 19.5 PER
Everything Joakim Noah can do, Marc Gasol can do just as well—with the exception of rebounding, although that's affected by the presence of Zach Randolph and his glass-eating ways. Plus, his offense is slightly better.
That's the main difference between the two DPOY contenders, even if the voters decided that Gasol's defense was marginally better (a sentiment I agree with).
While Noah scored 11.9 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting, Gasol topped that with 14.1 and 49.4. He was more efficient and scored with more volume. As for their passing, Gasol and Noah were the two top distributing big men, but the former was superior to the latter thanks to the relative dearth of turnovers.
The offensive disparity is also easily viewed by looking at offensive win shares.
Gasol's 5.4 defensive win shares beat out Noah's 4.7 by a small margin, but his 6.1 offensive win shares leave the former Gator's 2.7 in the dust.
Scream away, Marc. You've earned the right to do so in this battle of the bigs.
2. Tim Duncan
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Team: San Antonio Spurs
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.7 blocks, 24.4 PER
Is Tim Duncan a power forward or a center?
It's a question that will plague humanity for all of time (which is my best guess at how long Duncan's career will last) and spark plenty of debates.
Historically, Duncan is a power forward, and he'll go down as the greatest power forward of all time. But using that as an argument for his current positional status is kind of like saying that Kobe Bryant is still better than LeBron James because he won a couple titles in the early 2000s.
While the factual support is true, it doesn't logically lead to the conclusion.
Right now, he's a strange hybrid between power forward and center, as Tiago Splitter is the offensive center while Duncan functions as the defensive one. Given Duncan's new-found tendency to hang around the paint, though, he's more of a center than ever before, hence appearing in this set of rankings.
Perhaps the only thing more confusing than Duncan's position is how he's managed to remain so ridiculously effective as the years continue to pile up. Thirty-seven-year-olds aren't supposed to compete for DPOY while remaining offensively dominant.
Duncan's fundamental play continues to let him thrive, even as Gregg Popovich limits his minutes to right around 30 on a nightly basis.
It isn't Albert Pujols who should be featured as a robot in a SportsCenter commercial.
1. Dwight Howard
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Team: Houston Rockets
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.4 blocks, 19.4 PER
Dwight Howard was not the best center in the NBA during the 2012-13 season. Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah all enjoyed better years.
However, we aren't ranking players based solely on how they performed throughout the past 82 games (plus playoff performances when applicable). Instead, these are rankings going into the next year, and Dwight has ascended back up to the top of the positional ladder.
An offseason of rest should allow him to let his back fully heal, and he won't be constantly fighting through pain like he was with the Los Angeles Lakers. There's also sure to be less off-court turmoil now that he's with the Houston Rockets and has escaped the purple-and-gold media circus.
D12 led the NBA in rebounds per game while playing injured.
He's that dominant.
Even though he spent the first half of the year playing defense with his hands instead of his feet, he was still one of the most affective point-preventers in the Association.
Now, Howard is playing in a system perfectly tailored for his talents. He's surrounded by shooters and a ridiculously dynamic offensive stud (James Harden), which will allow him to torch defenses in one-on-one situations with his Hakeem Olajuwon-aided post moves.
Last season proved that Howard's perch atop the center rankings isn't as safe as it's been in recent years, but it's still the spot he belongs in.