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Best Candidates to Challenge Dwight Howard as NBA's Best Center

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - OCTOBER 13:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets walks on the court during the game against the Indiana Pacers during the 2013 Global Games on October 13, 2013 at the Taipei Arena in Taipei, Taiwan.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
Dave LeonardisContributor IIIDecember 16, 2016

For the better part of the last decade, Dwight Howard has been widely considered as the best center in the NBA.

The Houston Rockets big man has won three Defensive Player of the Year awards and notched seven All-Star appearances in his nine-year career. 

However, all reigns eventually end.

While Howard enters this season as the league's top interior presence, there are a number of talented big men nipping at his heels.

The center position is the deepest it has been in quite some time, and there are a few legitimate contenders who could take the title of league's best center away from the 2004 No. 1 overall pick. 

There's something to keep in mind as we continue. This is a list of the best candidates, not the only candidates. The players mentioned here represent the most immediate threats to Howard's crown, but there are plenty of up-and-coming prospects who could eventually make their cases. 

 

Roy Hibbert

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 05: Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers dribbles the ball against Carlos Boozer #5 of the Chicago Bulls during action on October 5, 2013 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Chicago defeated Indiana 82-76. NOTE
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Roy Hibbert is the latest in a long line of great Georgetown centers. 

He really came into his own during last season's playoffs.

After averaging 11.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in the regular season, he stepped it up in the postseason to the tune of 17 points and nearly 10 rebounds per contest. 

Like Howard, Hibbert also has the ability to get it done on the defensive end.

His 206 blocks (2.6 per game) were second only to Serge Ibaka, and his 96.9 defensive rating trailed only Tim Duncan. 

A couple of things work in Hibbert's favor going forward.

First, at 7'2" and 290 pounds, he is one of the league's biggest centers. He is a tough man to move out of the paint, which makes it difficult for teams to defend him on offense or keep him off the boards. 

Secondly, under Frank Vogel, the Pacers are going to continue to be among the league's best teams, especially on the defensive end. That is only going to play to Hibbert's strengths, and he'll become more of a household name as the team continues to make deep postseason runs. 

Here's a look at one of Hibbert's best games from last season.

On March 13, Hibbert unleashed on the Minnesota Timberwolves, finishing with 27 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks.

Throughout the video, there is one main constant: Minnesota was no match for Hibbert's size and strength. 

They struggled to keep the big man off the glass, and his size advantage made him look like a college senior playing against high school freshmen.

You'll see, when he gets the ball down low, he favors a little jump hook. His offensive game isn't polished, but it gets the job done. 

On defense, one particular play that caught my eye comes at the 2:05 mark.

T'Wolves forward Derrick Williams attempts to attack the basket and seemingly runs into a brick wall. Despite being 6'8" himself, Williams looks like a child jumping into his father's arms as he is engulfed by Hibbert. 

That kind of presence inside is what makes Hibbert special. He doesn't have the speed that Howard possesses, but he's a mountain of a man who makes opponents think twice about coming into the paint. 

 

Joakim Noah 

MIAMI, FL - MAY 15: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls battles for rebound position against Shane Battier #31 of the Miami Heat in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NBA Playoffs on May 15, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Perhaps it is because he plays with higher-profile teammates or struggles to stay healthy, but Chicago's Joakim Noah doesn't get the attention he deserves as one of the game's best big men.

Like Roy Hibbert, Noah has the advantage of playing for a great defensive coach who brings the best out of him. 

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has molded the team into a defensive machine with Noah at the forefront. The former Florida Gator led the team in steals (1.2), blocks (2.1) and rebounds (11.1) per game during the regular season. 

The biggest obstacle standing in Noah's ascent to greatness is his body.

In six years, he has yet to play a full NBA season. His 66 appearances last season were his best output since the 2008-09 season. 

When healthy, Noah brings a rare blend of speed, energy, athleticism and toughness. He has tremendous moxie for a big man with a rail thin body, and he can be downright pesky in the paint.

Defensively, he's one of the game's best shot-blockers and gets his hands on a few steals with his uncanny hand speed. 

Let's take a look at perhaps one of the best single-game performances of any player from last season.

On Feb. 28, Noah put up video game numbers on the Philadelphia 76ers. He finished with 23 points, 21 rebounds, 11 blocks and three steals in a 93-82 win. 

One of the big takeaways from the highlight reel is how over-matched Spencer Hawes looked going up against Noah. At times, he was a step too slow defending the Bulls big man on the pick-and-roll, and he just couldn't compete on the glass. 

Next, at the 2:23 spot, watch how Noah smothers the ball on the perimeter.

Even after the switch off of the pick, he doesn't back down on defense and uses his long arms to force a bad pass. Speaking of defense, Noah's timing on all 11 of his blocks is impeccable. He knows right when to jump to get his hands on the ball and avoid a foul. 

The key for Noah will be staying on the court.

With Derrick Rose back, the Bulls are once again a championship contender.

As with Hibbert, the team's success will only increase Noah's profile. With his tenacity and personality, he's bound to get the respect he rightfully deserves. 

 

Tyson Chandler 

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 16:  Tyson Chandler #6 of the New York Knicks racts against the Indiana Pacers during Game Five of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 16, 2013 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User
Elsa/Getty Images

Tyson Chandler is a former Defensive Player of the Year and is the best stopper on a Knicks team known mostly for its offensive talent.

However, like Joakim Noah, Chandler's downfall has been his body's inability to cooperate. 

In 12 years with five different teams, he has yet to play an entire 82-game season.

Last year, injuries restricted him to 66 games, and it clearly affected his play when he actually was on the court. He still managed to average 10.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. 

The numbers don't really do Chandler's defense any justice. He has never averaged more than a block per game but is still respected as a great interior presence.

During the 2011-12 season, Chandler won Defensive Player of the Year honors despite averaging 1.1 blocks and 0.6 steals per game. 

The main reason was his ability to hinder opponents from scoring in other ways.

According to 82games.com, Chandler had an Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed of 48 percent. When Chandler was on the bench, that number rose to 49.3 percent. 

Here's a video of Chandler's 21-point performance against the Magic from last season.

The big man shot 10-of-11 from the field mainly because he took a lot of high-percentage shots.

Chandler doesn't have a ton of offensive go-to moves, so he relies on dunks and put-backs for his scoring output. That was evident throughout this clip.

The Knicks find ways to get their prized center involved through alley-oops and pick-and-rolls. He isn't very crafty posting up and lacks a reliable jump shot, but his length and athleticism will always be his primary weapon. 

A good example comes at the two-minute mark.

Chandler sets the pick and then rolls to the basket. J.R. Smith tosses up a perfect lob, and Chandler emphatically puts it down for the easy bucket.

Chandler will never have gaudy offensive numbers like some of the other elite centers, but he contributes just enough to be a well-rounded center. 

Again, Chandler's health will be key.

Last season, he didn't look like himself, and his play suffered. If he can go back to being the disruptive force he was two years ago, the league is sure to take notice. 

 

DeMarcus Cousins

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 10:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings drives against Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers during their preseason game at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on October 10, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Sacramento won 104-86. NOT
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"Boogie" Cousins is the leader of the new school.

The 23-year-old is arguably the best among a talented class of young big men.

Last year, he had a solid season with an average of 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

The year before, however, was the former Kentucky Wildcat's coming-out party.

He contributed 18.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in what was the best season of his young career. He also added 1.2 blocks per contest for good measure.

There are few things standing in Cousins' way on the road to the NBA's elite.

First, like any entitled youngster, there are maturity issues.

In just three seasons in the league, he's managed to feud with coaches as well as teammates. He's also been known to make trade demands when he's feeling out of place. 

Next, he plays on a Sacramento Kings team that doesn't get a ton of attention or wins.

Since Boogie came to town in 2010, the team has yet to eclipse 30 wins in a single season. The Kings also play in a state with three other teams that have had a greater amount of recent success. 

Lastly, Cousins isn't one for defense.

His 1.2 blocks per game in 2010-11 was his best attempt at hindering an opponent's offense. Last season, he had an Effective Field Goal Percentage Allowed of 52.6 percent. When he was off the court, that number dropped to 50.5 percent.

On the bright side, at least he has some geographical stability.

The team gave Cousins a four-year, $62 million extension this offseason with the intention of building around their mercurial big man.

That gives Boogie an advantage over the others on this list. Unlike the other three, Cousins is his team's top option. 

While the others will enjoy more immediate success, Cousins will spend the next few years building his legacy as a terrorhopefully, more so on the court than off of it.

Physically, he's the total package.

At 6'11" and 270 pounds, he has the size and power to be a force in the paint. He also has the intensity and athleticism to go with his uncanny strength. 

His offensive game is coming along.

Last season, he shot 32 percent from 10-16 feet while shooting 33 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point line. He may not be the second coming of Tim Duncan as an outside shooter, but there are reasons to be optimistic. 

In this video from his 36-point, 22-rebound performance against the Clippers, you will see all of the things Cousins can do.

The video starts off with Cousins nailing a long jumper. The rest of the reel is just a showcase of power and determination. He seems to get to the basket whenever he wants and even shows off a little bit of ball-handling skill (at the 1:48 mark). 

Cousins has the talent to be the league's best. It is all contingent on what's between his ears. If he acts less like a petulant child and more like the face of a franchise, he can carry this Kings team out of the basement and get more positive attention.

It will take time to rebuild Sacramento, but the Kings made the first step in the right direction by committing four years to their prized center. As they continue to mold this young core, the Kings could be respectable again. However, they will only go as far as Cousins takes them. 

These four men represent the top contenders to throw Dwight Howard off from the top of the mountain.

However, there are a slew of guys waiting in the wings.

A pair of NikolasVucevic in Orlando and Pekovic in Minnesotahave started to make their mark over the past year or two.

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 23: Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the Toronto Raptors shoots against Andre Drummond #1 of the Detroit Pistons on November 23, 2012 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
J. Dennis/Einstein/Getty Images

Detroit's Andre Drummond and Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas (or Jonas Christ Superstar, as Bill Simmons coined him in Grantland's Raptors' season preview) have generated a ton of summer buzz as potential breakout stars. 

Milwaukee's Larry Sanders was among the league leaders in blocks and will only get better as his offensive game materializes.

All-Star staples such as Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka (technically, a power forward) and Brooklyn's Brook Lopez will also be in the top center mix someday. 

Lastly, if he can stay healthy, Cleveland's Andrew Bynum isn't that far removed from being one of the two best centers in the league. 

(Note: I accidentally excluded Memphis' Marc Gasol in the initial publish. Coming off a career year where he won Defensive Player of the Year, he DEFINITELY deserves to be in the discussion. My apologizes to Grizzlies fans for the mistake.)

In the end, it comes down to Howard's ability to maintain the top spot.

Coming off an "off" year (17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks per game) with the Lakers may give some a reason to believe there's an opportunity for someone else to step into his spot.

However, D12 is now a year removed from back surgery and feeling rejuvenated with his new Houston teammates. If one of these men are going to replace him, it will not be easy. 

Regardless, this season looks like it will be a great one for promising NBA centers. 

 

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