Ranking the Best Defensive Centers in the NBA
In the final installment of a five-part series ranking every rotation player in the NBA who played at least 1,200* minutes last season, here are the center** rankings.
The first four articles ranked the point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards based on two new metrics, Weighted Averaged Metrics (WAM) and WAM with Scouting (WAMS). The method for them is explained in excruciating detail in the point guard rankings.
Broadly speaking, over 7,000 pieces of data on 226 players, in 16 different categories, were compiled into a database. Then, over 10,000 video clips were viewed, and players were evaluated based on subjective criteria.
Then, all of that was reduced to a simple number, which projects what a team of like-skilled players would give up in 100 possessions. Therefore, the lower the score, the better it is. The WAMS for the top 10 players is listed next to their names.
The number in parentheses next to the WAM and scouting scores in the slide represents each player's rank in that category.
*There are a small number of players, Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum, who have been selected to at least one All-Star Game and are still in their prime but did not play sufficient minutes to qualify last season. In those cases, the numbers from 2012 were used to rank them.
**Some players, such as Andre Iguodala, play multiple positions. In such cases, they are usually listed by what position they are expected to play more minutes in next season's rotation, although there are exceptions. Overall, don't get too hung up on which position is "right."
Notes and the Rest of the Field
As a clarification, the rankings are WAM and WAMS. WAM is purely objective weighted averages of various traditional and advanced stats. It is only statistical analysis.
Recognizing that "stats don't tell the whole story," WAMS adds subjective scouting reports to each player, ranking them on a scale of 18 to 22, with 18 being the best possible score. Its purpose is to weed out the statistical anomalies.
Typically, I don't do scouting reports outside the top 10 because it takes a lot of time. Each player takes about two hours to scout thoroughly and write up.
Ideally, I'd have the time to do every player in the NBA, but that would only take almost 500 hours to do, which would is roughly three months of full-time work.
So, that's not going to happen.
The result, in the past, has been that the bottom players in each of the rankings aren't really top-10 players, and their reviews have been viewed as overly critical. Some of the players in the 11-15 range are actually better than the players in the 8-10 range, but they don't have the benefit of the scouting scores to "bump" them.
There's just not enough time to scout every player thoroughly. But I made more time.
For this final installment, I went one step further and scouted the top 20 but only doing write-ups for the top 10. As a result, the rankings are more realistic, with a true top 10, absent David Lees and Monta Ellises.
Also, players who statistically fell out of the top 10 for various reasons but who are better than their stats would suggest move up. So we're not left trying to explain how Roy Hibbert is not on the list but Kendrick Perkins is.
Basically, there are no "weird" results here. Not everyone will agree the list is perfect, but there's nothing crazy.
This indicates the scouting portion adequately filters the statistical realities from the anomalies, which is its intended purpose.
Schematically, the process works, filtering out the "real" defensive players form those who are masked by systems and coaches. Logistically, it would work better if there were more manpower on it.
Ideally, there would be a group of analysts who worked together, scouting every player and using certain agreed-upon parameters. The more players who are scouted, and the more people who are involved in the process, the more both statistical and personal bias would be weeded out.
So you might ask, "Why not just do a purely 'subjective' rankings and skip the statistical analysis all together?" There are two reasons.
First, the objective analysis gives us a better starting point, helping to eliminate preconceptions. Some players are overrated, and some players are underrated. Objective analysis helps to identify those instances.
Second, if a player is an anomaly, usually there's a reason why. David Lee looks better than he is because of Mark Jackson's system. Zach Randolph and David West are helped with Marc Gasol's and Roy Hibbert's help defense respectively.
The stats actually help identify those instances. Identifying those instances can help people get the credit they might not otherwise receive. For example, seeing how well David Lee is compensated for in Mark Jackson's system is a credit to Jackson, not Lee.
Objective analysis is flawed if you ignore anomalies just because they are anomalies. Those results should cause the analyst to question, "Why does this exist? Why is David Lee statistically a better defender than he 'really' is?" Don't dismiss the anomaly; understand it.
You can't find the answer until you ask the question, and you'll never ask the question if you don't know it needs to be asked. Recognizing the existence of anomalies helps us to understand better what is happening in the game.
So with that, here is every center in the NBA, with at least 1,200 minutes sorted by WAM. The WAMS will give you the refined top 10. The averages for each category are also included.
A heartfelt, "Congratulations!" goes out to Byron Mullens, the worst defensive center in the game.
All stats are obtained from the following websites unless otherwise posted.
Opponents’ player efficiency rating (oPER), defensive rating (DRtg) and net defensive rating (Net DRtg) can be found at 82games.com.
Minutes and the traditional data for rebounds, blocks and steals were obtained from Basketball-Reference.com. Play index and play index plus were also used substantially.
The points per play and total plays were obtained from Synergy.
All predraft measurements were obtained from the Draft Express database.
All splits and zone data are from NBA.com/STATS (account required).
On/off stats were obtained from NBAWowy.
10. Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks, 97.95
Defensive Usage: 8.2
Defensive PPP: .84
Net DRtg: -6.1
Speed and Athleticism: 18.3
Larry Sanders is one of the most athletic centers in the league. He is in the mold of the new breed of big men who can step out to defend the perimeter. The problem is that he doesn't always do that.
He's great when he steps out and defends a ball-handler in isolation. His .62 points per play is outstanding, especially when you consider that he's often taking on the opposing team's small forward when he does it.
However, when it comes to closing out on perimeter shooters, he doesn't utilize that athleticism nearly as well, yielding 1.1 points per play, which places him in the bottom third of the league. Since that accounts for 33 percent of his defensive plays, it's hard to ignore.
Size and Strength: 19.7
Sanders is a mix of good and bad in the size and strength department. He has terrific length. His wingspan is a gangly 7'6.5". That was the longest of any player in the NBA last year, although the Utah Jazz's freshly drafted Rudy Gobert will pass him this season.
Sanders isn't just unusually long, he uses his length well, blocking shots at a rate of 3.7 per 36 minutes. His 13.0 total defensive plays per 36 minutes was second best among all NBA players.
On the other hand, he still needs to add strength. Of the players historically who shared his tremendous wingspan, none failed to do more reps on the bench press than the seven Sanders did. His lack of strength causes him to get backed off the block, and he compensates by fouling. More than half his shooting fouls came in the post last season.
Sanders generally tries, but sometimes it's ill-placed effort. He averages 4.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes. He fouled out of three games last season. He had five or more fouls 17 times in 63 games, as well. When you're in foul trouble a quarter of your games, it hinders your ability to be a defensive help.
Not only are you required to spend more time on the bench, you can't be as aggressive when you're on the court.
The other issue is that Sanders is ambivalent when it comes to closing out on shooters, particularly from deep, where he yields a 39.6 percent field-goal percentage.
Basketball Intelligence: 21.3
Right now, the only things separating Sanders from being an elite defensive player are experience and knowledge. There are too many times where the Bucks opponents scored because of mistakes Sanders made in the rotation.
He has the ability to be great, but he needs to become more aware of what he can and can't do. He needs to learn to play team defense better and to communicate with his teammates more.
Granted, he's still very young. He's had a revolving door of teammates, and he's on his second coach. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons that he's not learning as much as he could. But, that doesn't make it untrue.
Once Sanders gets this thing figured out, and I believe he will, he will be the type of player who can, by his presence alone, make his team an elite defensive unit. He's just not there yet.
The Milwaukee Bucks were 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with Sanders on the court, and that's a fact which simply cannot be ignored. He is certainly a positive factor on defense.
When you couple that with the fact he spent 1,799 minutes playing with Monta Ellis and masking his defensive ineptness, that's even more impressive.
However, there are also Sanders' own deficiencies that can't be overlooked, including the lapses in judgment and effort.
He has the ability to make the Bucks an elite defensive team. He's entering a point in his career where things should lock into place. If the Bucks can have some stability and if he can step up his understanding of how to play, he is Defensive Player of the Year material.
9. Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks, 97.51
Defensive Usage: 9.0
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: .2
Speed and Athleticism: 19.7
Tyson Chandler was never the most athletic center in the league, even when he was young, and he's not young anymore. He measured a 33.5-inch vertical at the combine 12 years ago, and it's not likely he could match even that now.
He doesn't have particularly great closing speed either, and defending the jump shot is the weakest part of his defense, especially when he needs to step outside of the paint to take on the more athletic bigs.
That's not to say he's bad there. The .9 points per play against the spot-up and the 1.11 points against the roll man are still both well above the league average on those play types, but they are merely "solid" as opposed to "great" numbers.
Size and Strength: 18.2
One of the biggest, strongest centers in the league, Chandler is 7'1" and 240 pounds. He uses that size to do an impressive job of keeping opponents out of the restricted area. He is definitely at his best in the block, where he's just not pushed off of it, even when playing other big, strong centers.
He gives up just .64 points per play on the post-up, which accounts for 34.1 percent of his defensive plays. This is, without question, the best part of his defense.
Chandler has been the defensive champion of the New York Knicks since arriving—and rightly so. It's how he earned the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012. However, this year he seems to have taken a step back in the effort department.
That is probably due to a combination of things. It could be partly frustration with having to bear the entire burden for the defense, seemingly all the time. It could be partly due to the fact that he had an injury collection this year, including knee and back problems.
It's worth mentioning that these two things are not mutually exclusive. Either way, or both ways, this year, there were times when Chandler just grew visibly frustrated and dropped in the effort level. His placement at 26th of 38 in defensive plays per 36 minutes is indicative of this.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.1
With Chandler, you see a player who has developed tremendously in his understanding of the game. When he was with the Chicago Bulls, he wasn't exactly JaVale McGee, but he wasn't the type of player you would think of as a future defensive captain either.
Now he's doing an outstanding job of piloting the defense from inside the paint, communicating to his teammates what they need to do. Communication is easily the most overlooked aspect of defense, and Chandler is one of the best at it.
On the other hand, once he gets out of his comfort zone, i.e. the paint, Chandler looks confused and disoriented. He is not good in the role of the new-school centers who do a lot of rotating, but he's terrific in his old-school role of staying at home and protecting the paint.
Last year, he would have scored much better here, and there will be some who scream that he should be scored higher this year. However, the Knicks were slightly better defensively with Chandler on the bench.
While there's more involved as to why that is than his own play, it's hard to give him a perfect score when his impact is a net negative. He does get an above-average score, though.
He does a good job of backing up his perimeter players when they get beaten, altering shots and protecting the paint, but he was dropped slightly because of his inability to rotate and help the perimeter players better.
8. Omer Asik, Houston Rockets, 97.48
Defensive Usage: 8.0
Defensive PPP: .87
Net DRtg: -6.5
Speed and Athleticism: 20.1
There are two kinds of athleticism when you're talking about centers. There are the new-style centers who possess agility, speed and quickness. They jump out of the gym. They can step out and guard the perimeter.
Then there's a kind of "down-low athleticism." It's not as useful in the open court. It doesn't lend itself to being able to cover a lot of lateral space. It's more about reflexes and responding to players in the post. It's keeping in front of players from pivoting around you. It's sort of the NBA version of ground-and-pound.
In many ways, Asik can be a little slow, and perhaps you could even use the word "clumsy." But when it comes to defending the post, he has that kind of athleticism. He utilizes good footwork, and he has quick hands. He makes it difficult to get off a clean shot.
Size and Strength: 18.3
Asik is not a Bull anymore, but he's still a bull. He's one of the stronger players in the league, and he doesn't get pushed back easily, even by players like Dwight Howard.
He's a pure 7-footer who is officially 255 pounds, but he may actually be heavier than that now. He has the type of frame that comes with a great defensive center. His strength appears to be natural strength too, coming from his core, which transfers better into play than weight-room strength.
When he's playing next to Dwight Howard, it's going to make for a frightening pair inside. While it's been postulated that Asik could move to power forward, it makes more sense to play the more athletic Howard there, and Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, seems to agree.
Asik gives the effort he's asked to give. He closes out on jump shots. He hustles back on defense. He competes for rebounds. He does everything you expect to see from a defensive center.
The problem is that he's not asked to do as much as some of the other players on the list. He's an old-school center, so he doesn't have to rotate as much. He mostly stays at home with the opposing center, doing a good job of keeping him out of the restricted area and keeping him from scoring.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.1
Last year was Asik's third in the NBA, and he is developing his understanding of the game quite nicely. One area you saw a big improvement last year was his foul rate, cutting down from 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes to just 3.3.
For a player lacking elite quickness, that's an indication that he's getting better at knowing where he's supposed to be and when he's supposed to be there. It could also be a result of playing in a system that doesn't require as many rotation responsibilities as he had in Chicago.
He has good defensive instincts, and he's developing them nicely. Playing with Howard by his side should only help him improve his grasp of the game.
The Houston Rockets were not a very good defensive team last year, placing only 16th in the NBA in defensive rating. They were a much better defensive team when Asik was on the court than when he was off of it, though, giving up 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions.
That can be largely directly attributed to him. When he was defending the shot inside the restricted area, Houston's field-goal percentage was just 62.1 percent. That's compared to 72.2 percent when anyone else was defending it.
The biggest difference between Asik and the other top defenders is that they took good defensive teams and made them great defensive teams. Asik's help defense took a poor Rockets defense and made it into an average one.
Teamed with Howard now, the pair should make the Rockets a great defense.
7. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks, 97.20
Defensive Usage: 7.9
Defensive PPP: .84
Net DRtg: -1.9
Speed and Athleticism: 18.8
Al Horford is probably one of the most underrated players in the league, and I hate using the words underrated and overrated. When you talk about the elite centers, though, his name is rarely brought up, in spite of the fact that he's near the top of almost any type of statistical analysis.
In large part, it's because he's not a "wow" athlete, but he is a solid athlete. He's a bit of a poor man's Tim Duncan, in that he's a fundamentally sound player who gives you the good play every time instead of the spectacular play some of the time.
He moves his feet and uses his arms well. He's quick enough to keep players from pivoting around him and uses his 35.5-inch vertical to keep them from shooting over him.
He doesn't have the height to play the center, but his athleticism partly compensates for that.
Size and Strength: 20.0
It would be interesting to see what would happen if Horford could actually play his more pure position of power forward full time, but he's not playing there. He mostly plays center, where he's a little small at just 6'9.75".
He has good strength, though, doing 20 reps on the bench at the combine. He's not easy to push out of the way.
His lack of length, however, can be problematic, especially when it comes to defending the jumper, where he gives up 1.03 points per play.
Horford generally plays hard—but not always, especially when it comes to clamping down on shooters. He just doesn't close hard. He doesn't show a sense of urgency, and as a result, he gets lit up from there.
Furthermore, he compounds that with not rushing back to position himself for the defensive rebound. He ends up spending far too much time in that nether region, between the shooter and good rebounding position, where he can't do much with either.
It would be good to see a bit more alacrity from time to time.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.8
He might spend too much time in that nether region, which is a strike against him, but that's the only strike against him in terms of his basketball intelligence. The Hawks like to throw a lot of different looks at you, and Horford manages to keep them straight, also helping to keep his teammates on track.
He also does a nice job of something a lot of players seem to have trouble with, switching.
When he steps out in help defense, he stays aware of where his man is at, not letting him wander too far. He's able to keep track of when it becomes more dangerous to leave his man alone than to help and makes the switch accordingly.
The Hawks are 1.9 points better with Horford on the court, and he is a good help defender, but he also had Josh Smith, who ranked No. 1 in our power forward rankings, playing alongside him, and that helped him out too.
When he was with Smith, the Hawks gave up 102.8 points per 100 possessions, but that number rose to 109.7 with Smith sitting, indicating that a good portion of that overall improvement with Horford on the court had as much, or more, to do with Smith as Horford.
6. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers, 97.03
Defensive Usage: 10.0
Defensive PPP: .75
Net DRtg: -2.2
Speed and Athleticism: 19.5
Hibbert is good with his feet in the post, using them well enough to keep offensive players from pivoting around him. However, apart from that, he's a little slow, and that gets more exposed the further he has to step out from the restricted area.
When it comes to closing out on jump-shooters, he's improved from last year and is in the top third of players in the league. He's just not as good as some of the centers who can, and do, close harder.
He also doesn't have the quickness to step out and take on better ball-handlers in isolation the way some of the new breed of centers do.
Size and Strength: 18.0
Hibbert is mostly a rim-protector. His main job is to stay at home and affect the shots of the players who beat the Pacers' perimeter defenders, and when he's in that role, he's arguably the best in the business. The 51.5 percent field-goal percentage he gave up inside the restricted area is phenomenal and easily the best of any rotation player in the league.
As a result, the Pacers, as a team, give up very few points close to the rim. The 13.5 field goals per game they give up from there are the fewest in the NBA. Only two teams' opponents attempt fewer shots, and no opponent makes a lower percentage of the shots they take.
That brings up the "deterrent factor." Hibbert's very presence makes opponents reluctant to bring the ball inside, and that's not something you can measure in his defense statistically.
When he's on the court, Hibbert mostly applies himself diligently, although sometimes he gets winded. That gets more exposed when he's deep into games.
Surprisingly, last year the Pacers were better defensively in the fourth quarter with Hibbert on the bench, and in terms of overall net rating, he was their worst player in the clutch, as well. Playing just 28.7 minutes per game, he should not be so spent at the end of games.
Furthermore, his rebound rate for a player his size is pretty deplorable. Only two of the 23 players at least 7'2" and with 2,000 minutes in NBA history have a lower career defensive rebounding percentage than Hibbert's 18.2 percent, and that's a number that went down last year, not up.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.1
Hibbert is a great example of someone who has developed his basketball IQ over the years. Gradually, he's learning the game to the point where he can be identified as a plus-player in the brain department.
Credit some of this to assistant coach Brian Shaw, some to head coach Frank Vogel, but mostly credit Hibbert, who seems to have applied himself to learning. He knows his assignments and doesn't miss them. He plays his counterparts well, knowing their tendencies.
He still needs to learn to know when to foul and when to let things go. He has a high foul rate at 4.4 per 36 minutes. He fouled out of five games last season and once more in the playoffs. He also had five or more fouls in eight of the Indiana Pacers' 19 postseason games.
No matter how good you are defensively, you can't help your team on the bench.
Hibbert does a great job of help defense, and the fact that David West did so phenomenally in the power forward rankings is a testament to just how good Hibbert is.
Hibbert backs up everyone, helping everyone on the team to boost their defensive stats. When he was on the court, the team had a defensive rating that was 2.6 points better, but that number is more impressive when you consider the help he was giving West.
5. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 95.98
Defensive Usage: 7.7
Defensive PPP: .88
Net DRtg: -4.2
Speed and Athleticism: 18.8
Duncan is actually almost unrealistically quick for a big man who was drafted in the lottery during Bill Clinton's first term, especially considering that he spent four years in college. He's not one of these newfangled whippersnappers who go one-and-done.
He lost 15 pounds during the summer of 2012, which helped him regain some of the quickness he once had, and as a result, he experienced a bit of a rejuvenation defensively. His .76 points per play against in isolation are a testament to that.
He struggles more against the pick-and-roll when he covers the roll man. He might be quicker than he's been for a few years, but you can only roll the clock back so far. He gives up 1.12 points on those situations, mostly more pick-and-pop. He has the will but not the speed to close well enough.
Size and Strength: 18.5
Duncan has learned every trick in the trade and probably invented about a half-dozen more. He uses his strength extremely well, making him one of the league's elite defenders in the post, where he gives up just .67 points per play.
He's tough to shoulder out of the way, so teams are more effective trying to lure him out with the pick-and-pop and then taking their chances with Tiago Splitter.
Duncan gives good effort, but it's meted out more now than it was in his past. Just as he's let Tony Parker take over more of the offensive responsibilities, he's let Splitter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard—all good-to-elite defenders in their own right—carry more of the defensive load.
He's just not that young anymore, and like the other elite aging players, he's learning to pace himself for the postseason, where it's safe to say he accommodated himself reasonably well, even if he did make one big mistake.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.0
You don't get nicknamed the Big Fundamental if you're not fundamentally sound, and fundamentals are a pretty strong indication of basketball intelligence. So is everything else that Duncan does on defense.
Whether it's rotating, backing up his perimeter players or just knowing how to play his own man, Duncan rarely makes mental errors. He's simply the smartest big man in the league right now.
Having Tim Duncan listed at center is going to generate some "Tim Duncan is a power forward!" vitriol. According to 82games.com, Duncan spent 100 percent of his time as a center, and Tiago Splitter played 29 percent of the Spurs' minutes at center, compared to just 20 percent as power forward. They are both "centers," and they both start. It's not my fault.
Basically, the problem is more about how they play than where. Duncan is a center on defense and a power forward on offense. Regardless of where he gets placed, it doesn't impact the rankings here much.
How he plays matters more than where he plays, and how he plays is exceptionally well. When he plays, the Spurs defense is 4.2 points per 100 possessions better. He does play alongside two other elite defenders, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, though, so they also get some of the credit for that.
4. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets, 95.46
Defensive Usage: 5.2
Defensive PPP: .74
Net DRtg: -5.1
Speed and Athleticism: 18.0
Dwight Howard is the most athletic center in the NBA, bar none. He's taken more flak than is reasonable over the last two years, to the point where criticisms in one area will cross over into other areas. He didn't handle free agency well—that's true. That didn't make him any less athletic, though.
However someone feels, he's still just as fast and athletic as he has always been. He is almost impossible to pivot around, and he's quick closing out on shooters. He gives up just .8 points per play against the spot-up, which is in the top 10 percent of all NBA players.
That's not even taking into account his ridiculous hops. His max vertical reach of 12'6" is the highest recorded in the history of the NBA, albeit with a couple of qualifiers. First, it was done by ESPN's "Sports Science," not the combine. Second, he got multiple jumps to try to break Shaquille O'Neal's record.
Size and Strength: 18.5
Dwight Howard is immediately distinguishable from most players who are in the seven-foot range. He's buff. He's ripped. He has muscles on his muscles. He has guns that require an open-carry permit.
He uses his strength well too. He is just about impossible to push off the block. The .58 points per play he gives up in the post prove this. His phenomenal rebounding is another. The last time a player grabbed more total defensive rebounds than Howard in a season was 2007.
Bottom line, if you get a chance to arm wrestle Howard, don't.
If there's a fair criticism of Howard over the last couple of seasons, it's of his defensive effort. When he wants to be, he is the most dominant defensive force in the NBA. By extraction, we can only deduce the reason that he hasn't been the most dominant force the last two seasons is that he doesn't want to be.
With all the distractions surrounding his free agency, his trades and his antics on and off the court, the on-court performance has really suffered.
There were too many times where he has looked disinterested, frustrated or even bored. He hasn't been happy, and Howard is the type of player who needs to be happy to play well. With all of the shenanigans hopefully behind him, look for him to have a bounce-back year in this department.
Basketball Intelligence: 19.8
Here we have the Tale of Two Dwights. On one hand, Howard is a brilliant defender and on-court coach. He knows what his job is, even if his coach, Mike D'Antoni, doesn't know what job to give him. He doesn't just rotate well; he reacts well. When the defense breaks down, he knows where to go and how to help.
He communicates well with his teammates and, generally, uses his understanding of defense to better them defensively.
On the other hand, there is the whole stupid thing going on off the court and in the locker room. How a player handles things off the court carries onto the court. There's a reason his entire team has been in disarray the last two years, and it's not a coincidence that so much discombobulated "chemistry" has accompanied Howard during his circus.
Howard is an elite help defender, and this year's Lakers are as much a testament to that as any Orlando team he ever played with.
The Lakers were only the 20th-best defense in the Association this year, but they were 5.1 points better when he was on the court. The only player who wasn't better defensively sharing the court with Howard was Pau Gasol, and that has more to do with Gasol being better at defending the center than power forward position, than anything to do with Howard.
How much more help can you give than making every one of your teammates better?
3. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, 94.62
Defensive Usage: 6.7
Defensive PPP: .76
Net DRtg: -6.5
Speed and Athleticism: 19.1
For a player who has the vertical of an obese elephant, Marc Gasol is a surprisingly athletic guy. Seriously, it is rare to see him get actual space between the floor and the bottom of his shoes. Yet, he is remarkably nimble on those earthbound feet of his.
He uses them well in the post and in coming out to defend the mid-range shot, though he's not as quick getting out to the perimeter as some of the elite centers.
When he gets switched up and the point guard has the "mismatch," Gasol does a surprisingly good job holding his own.
He's aware of what he can do, so he's able to give the right amount of space to lead the shooter to think he can pull up for the jump shot, but Gasol is quick enough to close the space and challenge it better than the shooter expects.
He is also quick with his hands and forces turnovers 11.7 percent of the time, mostly by just swiping his massive mitts in and batting the ball to a teammate. He seldom fouls when doing so.
Size and Strength: 18.2
Gasol is the best traditional defensive center in the league right now. At 7'1" and 265 pounds, he's a big man, and he uses his weight well. He is not only tough to move, but he does most of the moving too, doing an exceptional job of pushing the play away from the rim.
According to 82games.com, his opponents only attempt 45 percent of their field goals inside the paint against him, which is just 1 percent off of what Joakim Noah has. But what's phenomenal about that is that Noah is a player who defends a lot of perimeter players, so by default, he is going to defend more shots outside of the paint.
Gasol is a strong, strong man and pushes his opponents out of the paint, forcing them into difficult shots.
Because of that bumping, he's also able to draw his opponents into offensive fouls. They average 5.6 fouls per 48 minutes.
Gasol just physically bullies his opponents, and there's not much they can do about it.
Gasol does not run a lot. He’ tends to stay right outside the paint and protect it like a mama grizzly protecting her cubs (pun intended). He's not burning calories like a player who is running all over the court is, but all that bumping around takes a different kind of effort.
Gasol is physically grinding every game. The Grizzlies don't play a soft defense, and more than any player they have, he typifies what they do. That he goes through 35.0 grueling minutes a night, playing that physically, is a remarkable accomplishment.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.6
One thing that stands out with Gasol is court awareness. Many players, when coming over in help defense, will lose track of their man. You'll see them actually have to stop and determine where he is.
But Gasol seems to have an internal homing beacon. When he comes over in help or even on a switch, he'll still know exactly where his player is. In fact, you'll rarely see the player he was switched onto—or from—score. He knows the precise moment when to switch back, and he knows exactly where to go when he does so.
The Grizzlies don't run the most complex system in the NBA, but they do run one of the best. Last year, they were second in the Association with a 100.3 defensive rating. Much of that has to do with Gasol seeing and filling in the defensive needs as they present themselves.
The Memphis Grizzlies were 6.5 points better defensively with Gasol on the court, and a lot of that time was with the defensively challenged Zach Randolph playing beside him.
The Grizzlies had an elite defensive backcourt this year too, which didn't hurt. Mike Conley finished second in the point guard rankings, and Tony Allen finished first. When Gasol was playing without those two on the court with him, the Grizzlies gave up nearly nine more points per 100 possessions.
He deserves some credit for that 6.5-point swing, but so do Conley and Allen.
2. Kevin Garnett, Brooklyn Nets, 94.46
Defensive Usage: 6.9
Defensive PPP: .76
Net DRtg: -9.4
Speed and Athleticism: 18.5
Kevin Garnett is among the first of the new breed of center/power forwards. As the rules changed to favor perimeter players who could put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim, the defensive bigs who could step out and defend them rose in priority.
Garnett has the foot speed and lateral quickness to guard the entire court. While he's spent the bulk of his career playing power forward, this year he spent more time as a center, though no matter what position he was technically playing, he played the same way.
Per the eyeball test, among centers, Garnett spent more time than anyone but Joakim Noah on the perimeter. He's not quite as quick as he used to be, but he's still quick enough to stay in front of all but the most elite offensive players.
Size and Strength: 18.8
Boston Celtics fans used to get mad at me for saying Garnett is dirty. The only reason I say he's dirty, though, is that he's dirty. The thing is, they may not understand that when I say he's dirty, I don't mean it as a bad thing.
If you can get away with being dirty, it doesn't count, and Garnett is great at getting away with it. He is especially talented at dirty play in the post. He knows how to foul, cheat, smack, dig, claw, frustrate and annoy his opponent in the post.
He knows how to use every molecule in his body to make him a better defender. He's not the strongest center in the league. But he knows how to utilize his strength well enough to play like he is, and that's evidenced by the fact he gives up just .64 points per post-up play.
Few players in the history of the league have been as fierce or competitive as Kevin Garnett. He brings every iota of effort to every minute of every game he is in. There doesn't need to be a lot of elaboration here. He leaves it all out on the court.
The only reason he's not scored better is that, because of his age, he's playing fewer minutes, averaging just 29.7 last season.
Basketball Intelligence: 18.1
Garnett is a coach on the court. Last year, he probably actually had a better grasp of what the Celtics did defensively than most, if not all, of the coaching staff. He doesn't just keep his grasp of what he needs to do to himself either.
He is constantly barking orders to his teammates, directing them to go where they should be.
He is to an NBA defense as Peyton Manning is to an NFL offense. His very presence and mentality make the team better. He has had player after player shuffled around him, even going back to his Minnesota Timberwolves days, and they always seem to be better when they play with him.
That's not just Garnett's help defense. That's his helping brain and his helping voice.
All of this praise is vindicated by one simple number, minus-9.4. That's how much better the Celtics were in their defensive rating when Garnett was on the court.
That's a number all the more remarkable when you consider that he spent most of his time playing with two of the most elite defensive guards in the NBA, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. Yet, when he was playing without those two, the Celtics were one point better defensively than when he was with them.
That means the big difference wasn't the result of him just altering shots of guards getting past weak defenders.
It means there's something more than backup defense there. Garnett made the Celtics a better defensive team because he made them a better defensive team. His presence on the court was synergetic. He made the entire group, through his help defense and his coaching, greater than the sum of its parts.
1. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls, 94.25
Defensive Usage: 9.2
Defensive PPP: .81
Net DRtg: -5.2
Speed and Athleticism: 18.0
Joakim Noah must be the most awkwardly athletic person in the history of the world. At times, he looks like Bambi trying to ice-skate. He doesn't look smooth by any stretch, with arms and legs seemingly flailing everywhere in some kind of disorganized fashion.
But you can't argue with the results. He is probably the one player in the NBA, other than LeBron James, who can guard virtually anyone in the league.
Noah will step out and defend elite point guards, shooting guards and small forwards—and do so with impressive effectiveness. He gives up just .79 points per play in isolation, with the players he's guarded ranging from speedy guards like Kyle Lowry, Dwyane Wade and Monta Ellis, to small forwards like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, to big men like Brook Lopez.
He'll step out to the perimeter and challenge shooters. He'll stay at home and guard the post. He'll guard whatever happens to be the spot where he's most needed on the court at any given moment.
His versatility is a direct result of that awkward athleticism.
Size and Strength: 19.1
Once, strength was a liability for Noah. He was easily pushed off the block by bigger centers. He's added considerable bulk by hitting the weight room over the last few summers, and the result has paid off. He's no longer so easy to push around.
In fact, the .73 points per play he gives up on post-up plays is downright impressive.
He's still not as strong as players like Roy Hibbert or Dwight Howard, but he's able to hold his own against them.
For example, before 2012, Howard averaged 19.7 points on .611 shooting against Noah, but over the last two seasons, that number has fallen to 12 points on .526 shooting. Noah has gotten stronger in the post, and his Synergy numbers reflect that.
Noah plays so hard that it literally aggravates fans of opposing teams. He is like a younger version of Kevin Garnett, playing with controlled ferocity and desire to win.
He played that hard for the most minutes of any center in the game, and that might not even be the whole story. According to the new LLC tracking technology, Noah ran 2.74 miles per game (account required), which is the most of any player in the league—not just any center—any player.
Oh yeah, and he did all that in French shoes and plantar fasciitis.
Apparently, he'd rather suffer the agony of de-feet than the agony of defeat (badump).
Basketball Intelligence: 18.5
Also, similar to Garnett, Noah is the vocal leader of his team on defense. He captains the Bulls in a similar way, coaching up his teammates, not just in terms of communicating where they need to be, but in terms of helping them to get their heads and hearts into the game.
On more than one occasion, he gave power forward Carlos Boozer a stern "talking-to" that issued in an upgrade in play shortly thereafter.
Noah captains the most complex system in the NBA, and he does so well. He has one advantage in that. He has help from his teammate, Luol Deng, so he doesn't have to carry that burden to the same degree as some of the other bigs.
The Chicago Bulls were better by 5.2 points with Noah on the court, which is impressive enough, but it's an even more remarkable achievement when you consider the fact that, unlike the other elite defensive centers, Noah doesn't spend the bulk of his time playing with his teams' other elite defensive players.
When the Bulls had their best five defenders on the court, led by Noah, along with Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich, they gave up a ridiculously low 87.7 points per 100 possessions. Sadly, they played just 55 minutes together.
In fact, Noah played less than 500 minutes with Gibson and Butler together, whom he gave up just 98.6 points per 100 possessions with. That's compared to the 1,577 minutes he spent with the far more defensively challenged Carlos Boozer and Marco Belinelli, and when he was with them, the Bulls surrendered 107.2 points.
Yet, in spite of the fact that he spent nearly 75 percent of his time with the Bulls' worst defenders, the team was better with him on the court, and he is still, statistically speaking, the best defensive center in the NBA, with the league's best WAM.
That he could come up with the best numbers statistically, when he's at a disadvantage, says a lot about the impact of his help defense.