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Ranking Top 5 NBA Stars at Every Position: Early 2017 Edition

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2017

Ranking Top 5 NBA Stars at Every Position: Early 2017 Edition

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    Bill Baptist/Getty Images

    The NBA crashed into the new year with its superstar collection bursting at the seams.

    The old basketball guard has yet to vacate its posts, with 30-somethings like LeBron James and Chris Paul still bringing nightly dominance inside the lines. But a new, in-prime group has also forced its way up the pecking order, and the Association's youth looks skilled beyond its years.

    Russell Westbrook and James Harden are promising to make 2017 the year of the triple-double. Anthony Davis has officially crashed the elite party, albeit a year later than many expected. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns are showing superstars don't have to follow any player models or typical ascension timelines.

    This absurdly rich collection of talent demands we hoop heads live in the now, which makes a perfect setup for these rankings. This isn't about forecasting the future or celebrating the past—we're stacking up the top stars at each position and weighing them by the strength of their contributions. Traditional and analytical stats, the trusty eye test and team impact all play a role in this exercise, which willingly includes a recency bias.

No. 5 Point Guard: Isaiah Thomas

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 2.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks

     

    Isaiah Thomas is a modern marvel. The 5'9", 185-pounder has not only found a way to sneak into a league of giants, but he's routinely chopping them down with sharp handles, fearlessness and oversized confidence.

    He's having the best scoring season ever for a sub-6-footer and sending that category into overdrive of late (32.8 points per game over his last 10 outings). His 2.61:1 assist-to-turnover ratio sits above our All-Star collection of honorable mentions, a fact that grows more remarkable when considering he also paces the group in points and usage percentage (32.9).

    He's the offensive fulcrum and on-court leader of the third-seeded Boston Celtics, a club that has lost three of the four games he's missed this season while winning more than 66 percent of the contests he plays. Boston's offensive rating plummets nearly nine points per 100 possessions when Thomas sits, dropping from the fourth-best scoring rate (111.6) to the 22nd (102.7).

    Thomas is one of only four players to have both a 50-point outburst and a game with 15-plus assists. The others are MVP front-runners James Harden and Russell Westbrook, plus John Wall, who edged out Thomas for Eastern Conference Player of the Month in December but slips behind him here for having fewer points, more turnovers and less team success.

     

    Honorable Mentions: Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, John Wall

No. 4 Point Guard: Chris Paul

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.2 blocks

     

    If you needed any proof of the point guard position being historically stacked, this is it. Chris Paul, the NBA's resident point god, only occupies the No. 4 spot.

    And, no, that's not a reflection of the 31-year-old losing a step.

    As per usual, he leads all lead guards in assists per turnovers (4.19). He's never found this combination of volume (2.0 makes per game) and efficiency (40.0 percent) from three, and he's only once averaged more rebounds. His 27.1 player efficiency rating and 20.2 points per 36 minutes are both the third-highest he's ever recorded.

    Over the last month, Paul recorded the first 20-assist, zero-turnover night since 1984 and missed seven games that only reinforced his value. The Los Angeles Clippers went 2-5 in those contests, 23-9 in the rest and have gained 19.4 points per 100 possessions when he takes the floor this season.

    "He's one of the best players in the world," J.J. Redick said, per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register. "On both sides of the ball, we're just better with him on the floor, no question."

No. 3 Point Guard: Stephen Curry

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks

     

    Back-to-back MVP awards, consecutive Finals berths with one world title, the league's best record and only the No. 3 ranking at this position? What gives?

    Well, Stephen Curry doesn't shoulder the same kind of burden as the two do-it-all guards in front of him. Plus, he can't get out from last season's shadow, when he secured the first-ever unanimous MVP and engineered the winningest regular season in league history.

    "Last year, the Warriors won almost every night because the team was loaded and Curry was on full blast," SB Nation's Tom Ziller wrote. "Now, the Warriors win almost every night because the team is loaded beyond comprehension. They don't need Steph to go nuts, so (intentionally or not) he doesn't."

    Curry seems more conscious of keeping his reserve tanks full, which in turn limits his outrageous moments and makes his stats mostly believable (he's still on pace for the second-most threes ever).

    It doesn't strip him of elite status, but it does put him a step behind the runaway point guard leaders.

No. 2 Point Guard: James Harden

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    Team: Houston Rockets

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 11.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks

     

    James Harden met his basketball soulmate this summer when Mike D'Antoni signed on as skipper of the Houston Rockets. Together, the beard and the brain have reshaped this offense into a historically prolific perimeter attack that utilizes the full range of Harden's talents.

    His assists average hasn't been seen since John Stockton laced them up, and Harden's line of 27 points and 11 assists has only been matched by Hall of Famers Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson. Looking beyond the box score, Harden's selflessness and vision have allowed newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to quickly find their comfort spots (251 combined threes on 41.7 percent shooting).

    Harden's impact and Houston's success might nudge him to the top of most MVP lists, but he's a beard behind Russell Westbrook here for a couple of reasons: Harden has remained disastrous at the defensive end (tied for 373rd in defensive real plus-minus, via ESPN.com). And his historically bad turnover woes are even worse than Westbrook's (5.7 per game to 5.3).

No. 1 Point Guard: Russell Westbrook

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 31.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks

     

    Russell Westbrook is the rare vocal assassin. Rather than do his dastardly deeds behind the cloak of anonymity, he'll gut opponents, then unleash a primal scream ensuring everyone witnesses his work.

    It's basketball beauty—Brodie style. Or maybe Big O style is the better description, since Westbrook is doing the most convincing Oscar Robertson impression to date with a triple-double average intact through 38 games.

    "Whenever you get the opportunity to be mentioned with those guys—[Robertson], Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, those guys—it's a blessing," Westbrook said, per USA Today's Sam Amick. "It's something I never take for granted."

    Eight of Westbrook's league-high 17 triple-doubles have come since the start of December, with the Oklahoma City Thunder winning seven of them. That OKC remains playoff-relevant without Kevin Durant is entirely due to Westbrook's ascent, and that, along with his otherworldly numbers, secured this spot.

No. 5 Shooting Guard: Avery Bradley

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks

     

    For years, Avery Bradley has been the proverbial immovable object on the Boston Celtics' perimeter. While he still serves brick-wall duty at the defensive end, he's causing more damage than ever as an offensive force.

    Bradley's two-way development—and badly needed rebounding rise—has made him a central piece of the Celtics' puzzle. Rather than simply complementing Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford, Bradley has forced his way up the pecking order with fiery outside shooting, self-sufficient scoring inside the arc and his trademark ferocious defense.

    He's never made more threes (2.1 per game) or shot them at a better clip (41.7 percent). His minutes (35.0) and field-goal attempts (15.1) have both climbed to career heights, and somehow his true shooting percentage has, too (56.6). That stonewall defense—voted best among all guards last season—allows the Celtics to play Thomas major minutes, and Bradley's rebounding spike has helped fight against Boston's biggest weakness.

    The gap between him and the honorable mentions is wafer-thin. But he has the scoring edge on Nicolas Batum and has made more of a two-way impact than Bradley Beal and Dwyane Wade.

     

    Honorable Mentions: Nicolas Batum, Bradley Beal, Dwyane Wade

No. 4 Shooting Guard: C.J. McCollum

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Age: 25

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks

     

    Every time the Portland Trail Blazers lengthen their leash on C.J. McCollum, the combo guard surges up the statistical leaderboards.

    His first real test came last season, when Portland shed most of a 51-win core and banked on internal development from guys like the former Lehigh standout, who seized the opportunity and then some. McCollum earned Most Improved Player honors while adding 14 points per game to his scoring column and more than quadrupling his assist average.

    This year, McCollum was pressed further out of his shell when Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard missed five games with an ankle injury. McCollum tallied 31.2 points a night over those five nights while shooting 49.1 percent from the field (38.2 outside) and distributing 4.6 assists.

    "Without Damian...a lot more energy has to be utilized on my end," McCollum told reporters after a career-high 43-point outing. "I have to try to keep guys involved and take over as a decision-maker."

No. 3 Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks

     

    Klay Thompson is living proof of the hot hand.

    When he gets in a groove, he's liable to melt the opposition in a way no one else can—whether that's pouring 37 points in a single period or needing only 29 minutes of action and 11 dribbles to notch 60 points.

    "His hot streaks can summon the surreal," ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote. "When Klay Thompson is on, it's as though the shots fly before the thoughts."

    It's the threat of those scorched-earth detonations that helps Thompson hold this spot despite being prone to producing one-note stat sheets. He has a great gravitational pull on defenders, which is absurd considering he's often sharing the floor with Curry and Durant.

    Thompson might be a third option, but he's the third option on the most explosive offense in NBA history. And his ability to seamlessly shift through defensive assignments—while holding his matchups 2.4 points below their normal field-goal percentages—helps the Warriors achieve two-way dominance.

No. 2 Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Team: Toronto Raptors

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks

     

    Given the NBA's analytical shift to the outside, DeMar DeRozan has been running unopposed for mayor of the mid-range. And the All-Star's success could have the NBA rethinking its abandonment of the once-prominent zone.

    He's the obvious zig amid the number-crunching zag, having attempted more shots from 10 to 14 feet (4.1 per game) and 15 to 19 feet (5.9) than the entire Rockets team (3.0 and 4.2, respectively). And he's challenging the notion those looks are efficiency-killers, with a 46.7 percent conversion rate and a top-20 PER (24.6, 12th).

    But this placement isn't about celebrating his unique shot selection. It's also recognizing his gift as a devastating driver (9.0 points per game, second) and uncanny ability to generate whistles (8.9 free-throw attempts per game, sixth). He's a top-10 rebounder among guards (10th) and effective as ever at finding shots for teammates.

    He might not be a perfect player, but he's the franchise face of a top-five team. That's good enough to grab the second spot, though he's a good distance behind the uber-versatile budding baller at No. 1.

No. 1 Shooting Guard: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Team: Milwaukee Bucks

    Age: 22

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.9 steals, 2.1 blocks

     

    It's fitting that Giannis Antetokounmpo would have a nickname like The Greek Freak, because his rapid rise reads like a hoops horror story (for everyone outside Milwaukee, at least).

    At this point, his trajectory is just the up-arrow emoji.

    He's not the next anyone; he's the first Giannis—a 6'11" guard (who can really suit up anywhere, but has logged 64 percent of his minutes at the 2) with a 7'3" wingspan, effortless movement, impossibly long strides and a two-way arsenal that grows by the game.

    "Antetokounmpo's all-around skill set and the gaudy numbers it produces is but one reason his nametongue twister though it is for somebelongs in a breath with the NBA's best," B/R's Josh Martin wrote earlier this month. "He's the only player in the league who can be found among the top 25 in all five major statistical categories."

    He leads the Milwaukee Bucks in each of those columns as well, while cementing his name among the elites. Despite not having conquered the three-point shot, his 61.2 true shooting percentage is fourth highest of anyone with a 25-plus usage percentage (min. 20 minutes per game). And his current averages have him at an unprecedented pace.

No. 5 Small Forward: Paul George

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    Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

    Team: Indiana Pacers

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks

     

    The Indiana Pacers who aided Paul George's All-Star ascent have almost all abandoned the Circle City. The locker room is different, just like the coach leading it and the direction it's being asked to pursue.

    And yet here George stands, sturdy as ever on both ends of the court. He leads Indy in points, field goals and triples, and he's been lethal in the clutch—56.3 percent shooting, 46.7 outside when the score is within five points in the final five minutes.

    The defense has hemorrhaged around him, he has fewer stoppers around him, less protection at the back and he's still holding his matchup—usually the opponent's top optiona full point below their normal shooting rate.

    George's two-way balance keeps him comfortably ahead of Andrew Wiggins (still developing as a shooter) and Carmelo Anthony (defense never developed). Gordon Hayward is right on George's heels, but the latter gets the nod for posting almost identical numbers with less assistance.

     

    Honorable Mentions: Carmelo Anthony, Gordon Hayward, Andrew Wiggins

No. 4 Small Forward: Jimmy Butler

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

     

    Jimmy Butler has the Chicago Bulls to thank for not sitting any higher on the list. If shooting guard remained his primary position, he'd be separating Antetokounmpo from the rest of the pack.

    But at small forward, where he's spent 69 percent of this season's minutes, it's almost impossible to climb higher than this. Doing so would require leapfrogging either a Finals MVP, a league MVP or a player who's won each award multiple times.

    So, fourth it is for the Chicago Bulls star who has more 40-point eruptions (four) than everyone not named Russell Westbrook or Anthony Davis. Three of those outings have come during Butler's last six contests, where he's averaged an astounding 34.2 points on 46.6 percent shooting, 8.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 2.5 steals.

    "He's the cornerstone of this franchise," Dwyane Wade said, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "He's the reason I'm here, the reason we're winning games."

No. 3 Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Age: 25

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.7 blocks

     

    Does anyone have proof Kawhi Leonard was actually born in Los Angeles and not created in a laboratory by Gregg Popovich? Leonard is the perfect San Antonio Spur—absurdly skilled at both ends, humble to his core and somehow maybe even more stoic than Alamo City icon Tim Duncan.

    "He is the rare professional athlete who distinguishes between greatness and stardom," Popovich told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins last March. "He wants the greatness badly. He doesn't give a damn about the stardom."

    That quote grows all the more impressive upon realizing Leonard already has the greatness. Less than six full seasons into his career, he's already been a Finals MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year (twice) and an All-NBA first-teamer. And he's never had a better year as a scorer or distributor.

    Defensively, there's no one better on the perimeter, and there may not be anyone better overall, either. Offensively, he's shattered every realistic ceiling set above him. Once viewed as a non-shooter, he's sporting a .468/.403/.916 slash line.

    And yet, despite all that, his total package doesn't quite match those of the two players he's chasing.

No. 2 Small Forward: Kevin Durant

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks

     

    Kevin Durant is a cheat code personified. He's essentially a 7-foot scoring guard who's starting to reap the full defensive and rebounding benefits of his size and length (7'5" wingspan).

    "I'm trying to round my game out," Durant said, per CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole. "I (take) pride in guarding every position and jumping at every guy coming to the basket. Whether I get dunked on or not or finished over the top of or not, it's just muscle memory now to always get up there and try to protect the rim."

    Remember, this is coming from a player who owns the fourth-highest scoring average in league history and the highest field-goal percentage of his career (53.4).

    And it's not just lip service. He's never averaged more blocks or boards, and he's holding opponents to 48.1 percent shooting at the rim—a lower rate than those surrendered by Bismack Biyombo, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol.

    Durant entered this season as an all-time great and has become his best version to date. If only he didn't share a position with the league's long-reigning king of the hill.

No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Age: 32

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 26.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks

     

    LeBron James doesn't play by the same rules as everyone else. While many have avoided Michael Jordan's shadow, James uses it as a measuring stick. When he decides Northeast Ohio needs a title to celebrate, he rallies his Cleveland Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit—52-year championship drought be damned.

    When he steps inside the lines, he brings along one of the hoops world's sharpest minds. Not to mention the 6'8", 250-pound locomotive he calls a body, which combines with that genius-level IQ to form perhaps the most powerful offensive force the sport has ever seen.

    "LeBron with the ball is as good of a driver and playmaker as there is in the league," Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, per B/R's Greg Swartz. "LeBron rolling to the rim is as good as most bigs in the league. He can pretty much do whatever he wants at any of the five positions."

    James paces himself more than he used to, the result of having made six consecutive Finals trips and played 199 career postseason games. But he coasts at speeds few others can reach and still owns the game's highest gear. Just ask the Warriors, who witnessed James' 31-point, 54.5-percent shooting, 13-rebound gem during their Christmas loss.

No. 5 Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks

     

    LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't had the easiest time learning the Spurs' way. While he's been a 51.1 percent shooter since landing in San Antonio, he's also suffered statistical hits in scoring and rebounding and seen his name run through the rumor mill a time or two.

    But some of the lessons seem to be sticking. The five-time All-Star has scored at least 23 points in five of his last seven games, averaging 23.0 points on 69.5 percent shooting over that stretch.

    He's no longer the offensive centerpiece, but he can play that role in support of the actual No. 1. And he's still the No. 2 scorer and rebounder on one of only two teams with an .800-plus winning percentage.

    That's enough to keep Aldridge just ahead of do-everything veteran Paul Millsap and up-and-comers Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.

     

    Honorable Mentions: Paul Millsap, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle

No. 4 Power Forward: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Barry Gossage/Getty Images

    Team: New York Knicks

    Age: 21

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.0 blocks

     

    Considering Kristaps Porzingis has yet to complete his second NBA season or celebrate his 22nd birthday, it's tempting to say he's coming for the No. 1 spot.

    But that would only be true if power forward were his permanent home.

    For his sake—and that of the blue-and-orange faithful—let's hope the 4 is only a temporary dwelling. He's a transformational center-in-waiting, a 7'3" source of three-point range and above-the-rim protection.

    He's wading into uncharted waters, even without having the frontcourt to himself. This season, he became the first player in three decades to tally 500 points, 200 rebounds, 50 blocks and 50 triples over his first 30 games. And he's on course to become the league's first player to average two blocks and two threes.

    Porzingis is already one of the league's most productive power forwards, and he's playing out of position. A unicorn, indeed. 

No. 3 Power Forward: Kevin Love

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.4 blocks

     

    It took some uncomfortable moments over the past two-plus years, but the Cavaliers have finally found the right role for Kevin Love.

    He's not a top option—and never will be on a good or great team—and he's overqualified as a Plan C. But by embracing a role that may be beneath his skill level, he's become the potent weapon Cleveland envisioned when parting with Andrew Wiggins to acquire him.

    This is the most points Love has averaged with the Cavs. And the most assists. And the best field-goal percentage. And the highest three-point percentage. And the best PER by a mile (24.0).

    "I think my first year, year and a half, I never knew when to be aggressive," Love told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin. "Not necessarily not knowing the right play to make, but I didn't know how to walk the walk in this offense or with this team. So, I think that evolved, and this is definitely the most comfortable I’ve been."

No. 2 Power Forward: Blake Griffin

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks

     

    Blake Griffin has the numbers for the top ranking, but it's tough to put someone No. 1 while they're sidelined by knee surgery. Especially when said player lost all of his rookie season and more than half of the last one to injuries.

    But before going down, the high-flying forward put himself in rarefied air. He's still one of only five players averaging at least 21 points, eight rebounds and four assistsa distinction shared with four perimeter players, all of them All-Star locks.

    And the Clippers have crumbled without Griffin, even with All-NBA players at point guard and center. They have gone 7-7 without him (compared to 19-7 with) and have fared 16.7 points worse per 100 possessions when he's not on the floor.

    Those are impossible numbers to ignore, even with the injury. But it's not enough to fend off the all-over-the-court activity of our top power forward.

No. 1 Power Forward: Draymond Green

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.2 blocks

     

    Averaging two steals and one block is special—only Dwyane Wade has pulled that off in the past decade. Averaging 10 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals is almost unheard of—only Michael Jordan, Fat Lever and Magic Johnson have previously done that. It takes more than counting categories to appreciate Draymond Green's greatness, but for those who prefer simple stats, those two are the most revealing.

    For the deeper-digging crowd, let's get into Green's two-way versatility, since that could quietly be the key to Golden State's dominance.

    The 6'7" "big" man is simultaneously an elite rim protector (44.6 percent shooting against inside) and pesky perimeter stopper (opponents shoot 3.6 points worse against him than they do on average from distance). Offensively, he's a buzzsaw as a pick-and-roll partner with the touch to bury jumpers, the strength to finish at the rim and the vision to spot open teammates any step of the way.

    "Multiple Warriors staffers share the opinion that Green is their most important player," Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote for ESPN The Magazine. "Nobody replicates his set of contributions."

No. 5 Center: DeAndre Jordan

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 13.4 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.7 blocks

     

    DeAndre Jordan is a role player extraordinaire. He is a specialist among specialists—content within his lane and dominant at what he does.

    Maybe that's because his particular skill set and assignments look incredibly fun. He's essentially a 6'11" high-jumper with a wide receiver's hands. So, the Clippers keep him airborne as much as possible, either wrecking rims off alley-oops or ferociously attacking the glass.

    It's not exactly thankless work, even though his shot total (6.9 per game) doesn't reflect his stature. But most of his makes are highlight-reel material, and the growing appreciation for his defense and glass work has led to consecutive All-NBA selections.

    Jordan has been his reliable self in 2016-17, while sprinkling a few encouraging developments into his steady contributions. The best news for Clippers fans is he's never been less of a liability at the charity stripe (career-high 52.6 free-throw percentage). That rise, and the extra level he's found of late (15.2 points and 14.6 rebounds over his last five games), have helped him hold off the loaded honorable-mention crew. 

     

    Honorable Mentions: Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol

No. 4 Center: Rudy Gobert

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Team: Utah Jazz

    Age: 24

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.5 points, 12.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.6 blocks

     

    Rudy Gobert's defensive gifts are both obvious and remarkable: He can almost touch rim just by lifting his arms (9'7" standing reach), the result of a massive 7'8.5" wingspan jutting out from his 7'1" frame.

    And he's not only long, he's also light on his feet and eager to defend. The end result is a defensive monster who leads everyone in blocks, sits fifth in rebounds and holds opponents to an ugly 42.8 percent shooting at the rim (third among high-volume bigs).

    But it's his growth at the opposite end that cemented this spot. Over his three-plus NBA seasons, his scoring average has jumped more than 10 points (from 2.3 as a rookie), and his field-goal percentage has risen by 17.3 points (65.9, up from 48.6).

    "He's been consistently getting better," Boris Diaw said, per ESPN.com's Tim MacMahon. "That's because he's been listening, not getting out of his role, not trying to do things that he's not comfortable with."

    Gobert has embraced life as a garbageman, limiting his shot selection to almost exclusively point-blank looks and developing enough as a free-throw shooter to not be a bail-out option for defenses (66.2 percent). Given his age and relatively light usage—last season was his first of 30-plus minutes a night—this won't be the highest he climbs.

No. 3 Center: Karl-Anthony Towns

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Age: 21

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.4 blocks

     

    Karl-Anthony Towns has made imagining the ideal modern big man infinitely easier. Now, one only needs to watch the Minnesota Timberwolves' sophomore.

    Skill-wise, he's still a bit of a work in progress. His field-goal percentage has fallen seven points since last season, and he's too talented to have nearly as many turnovers (2.6) as assists.

    But his raw materials are drool-worthy, especially since he's already putting them all together. He has twice cleared the 40-point plateau this season, while also having outings of at least 15 rebounds (10 times), five assists (eight times), three triples (five times) and three blocks (four times).

    "Towns isn't just the big man of today," ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz wrote. "He is the first big man of tomorrow."

No. 2 Center: DeMarcus Cousins

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    Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks

     

    Few NBA sights elicit more fear than the one captured above.

    At 6'11" and 270 pounds, DeMarcus Cousins moves like no one his size should be capable of doing. With ballerina footwork, he's racked up 5.7 points per game off drives alone—more than McCollum, Durant or Curry. And stopping that look is one of several steps required in containing Cousins, since he's long been a low-block bully and has never been more successful from three (1.8 makes on 37.3 percent) or as a setup man.

    "Beyond doubt Cousins remains one of the game's most talented players. Period," CBS Sports' Bill Reiter wrote. "Even now, in a golden era of raw talent brimming throughout the league, he has few equals. There is LeBron James, and then there are a handful of other names on the list. Cousins is one of those."

    Indeed, Cousins is one of only two centers with a 50-point outburst this season. ,He ranks first at the position in steals, second in both points and threes per game and fifth in assists.

    No, the Sacramento Kings haven't built anything substantial around him to date, but it's tough to put their struggles on Boogie.

No. 1 Center: Anthony Davis

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Age: 23

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.8 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.5 blocks

     

    What is Anthony Davis—an evolutionary modern big? A throwback bruiser on the low block? An above-the-rim destroyer of dreams? A prehistoric predator who has somehow emerged as a single-browed basketball savant?

    Yes, to all of the above. Also, he's unquestionably the NBA's top center, now that he spends 65 percent of his floor time at the position. If the campaign closed today, he'd join Hall of Fame 5s Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo as the Association's only players to average at least 28 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks and two assists.

    "Anthony Davis is one of the most uniquely skilled players in the NBA," B/R's Adam Fromal wrote.

    "He's capable of doing anything on the court, and only his health seems to limit his talent. Whether the New Orleans Pelicans turn to him as a leading scorer or ask him to function as a defensive stalwart, he can carry out the instructions."

    Davis looks like the MVP-in-waiting described by Durant a few years back. It'd be fun to see what Davis could do with more help, but even alongside a wonky supporting cast, he's the best center in the business.

     

    Statistics accurate as of Jan. 7 and used courtesy of Basketball Reference.com and NBA.comZach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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