NBA Superstar Index: Top 5 Players at Every Position
What were once potential flukes of the early NBA season are now firmly entrenched as reality.
Russell Westbrook is well on his way to averaging a triple-double for the entire campaign. Isaiah Thomas is a demon to defend in the fourth quarter, despite his diminutive size. C.J. McCollum is one of the league's best shooters. Giannis Antetokounmpo is capable of breaking physics. Joel Embiid is just unfair.
That list goes on and on, helping solidify superstar hierarchies all the while.
The rest of the 2016-17 season will help provide further clarifications, but based on what we know from recent history and the level of play during the first half of the year, we can confidently identify the best of the best at each position.
As always, we're not concerned with the level these 25 players will reach by the end of the season. The distant past doesn't matter either. This is about who's the best on the floor right now, considering all facets of the game with a heavy emphasis on recent performances.
It's worth noting that injured players are not considered for any of the featured spots, nor will they be listed as honorable mentions.
If a player is expected to be out of action for a prolonged period, he's automatically ineligible for the remainder of this slideshow.
No. 5 Point Guard: Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Per-Game Stats: 29.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.1 blocks
Isaiah Thomas refuses to slow down in the final period.
"We look for him in the fourth quarter," Boston Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown said, per ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg, after Thomas' latest explosion—24 points in the final 12 minutes to reach 41 on the night against the Detroit Pistons. "He's that type of player. He likes that pressure, he likes those type of moments."
The vertically challenged point guard is averaging 10.3 points per fourth quarter, and he's doing so while shooting 48.2 percent from the field, 42.7 percent from downtown and 90.7 percent at the charity stripe. As if that's not enough, he's recording 1.2 assists and just 0.6 turnovers during the same stretch.
It's not hyperbolic to say he's making history.
Since the start of the 1996-97 campaign, no one has finished a season averaging more fourth-quarter points than Kobe Bryant's 9.5 in 2005-06. That record seems bound to fall, and not because Thomas is lofting up ill-advised shots.
He's legitimately helping Boston win games.
No. 4 Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Kyle Lowry didn't get the respect he deserved from fans, media or players during All-Star voting. He's been the Eastern Conference's best guard in 2016-17, even though he'll be relegated to the bench when the midseason festivities begin in New Orleans.
Still, at least he's an All-Star. And at least history doesn't differentiate between starters and backups, even if the delineations are still relevant as we parse how different classifications of basketball fans value players.
Lowry might not be defending at the same level he has in previous seasons, but he's an unstoppable offensive machine who just gets better in crucial situations.
His pull-up jumpers are one of the NBA's deadliest weapons, to the point he deserves similar levels of respect to what Stephen Curry received last year. His passing allows the Toronto Raptors to break from their isolation habits. His knack for playing through contact helps him perform even more efficiently, especially because he doesn't make too many mistakes.
Toronto could survive without DeMar DeRozan. It couldn't without Lowry.
No. 3 Point Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.2 blocks
Don't look now, but Stephen Curry is starting to heat up.
During his last 10 games, the two-time reigning MVP is averaging 26.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.6 assists while shooting 46.9 percent from the field, 44.9 percent from three-point range and 84.4 percent at the stripe. He's starting to create more shots off the bounce, and the crowd-pleasing moments where he pulls up from well beyond the arc are taking place with much more frequency.
There's no doubt Curry has failed to reach the extreme levels of offensive insanity he hit in 2015-16. Regression was inevitable, even without the style-warping addition of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors' list of weapons.
But he's creeping closer, and it's not like he's been performing at anything less than an All-NBA level while adjusting to his new surroundings. Take his three-point shooting as an example: Though he's hitting a career-worst 41 percent of his triples, that's still a mind-numbing number when paired with his 9.7 attempts per game.
At his current pace, Curry would finish the season with 321 treys. And while that's well short of last year's record-shattering 402, let's not forget that no one else in NBA history has ever cleared the 276 Klay Thompson hit last season.
No. 2 Point Guard: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Per-Game Stats: 30.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Oklahoma City Thunder can live with Russell Westbrook's defensive inadequacies. They're fine with his feasting on easy defensive rebounds when the bigs clear out space, since he can start a fast-break opportunity without relying on an outlet pass. They can stomach the astronomical turnover figures and the low shooting percentages.
For Westbrook, the good outweighs the bad.
By a lot.
He has the No. 4 score in ESPN.com's real plus/minus (RPM), regardless of position. He paces the field by a wide margin in NBA Math's total points added (TPA), to the point he's actually on pace to finish with the No. 3 score of any player since 1973, trailing just 1987-88 and '88-89 Michael Jordan.
And he means quite a bit to the Thunder. Oklahoma City gets outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench, but it posts a 4.2 net rating when he's playing.
No. 1 Point Guard: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Per-Game Stats: 28.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 11.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks
"He played about as good as you can play," Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told the Associated Press, via USA Today, about his star point guard after a second 50-point triple-double of the season. "I've been around a lot of players, but it doesn't get much better than that. I've never seen better than that."
James Harden hasn't just transitioned from shooting guard to point guard in 2016-17; he's done so seamlessly, to the point he's running the show better than anyone ever has for the famed inventor of the "seven seconds or less" offense. That includes Steve Nash.
Perhaps the most astounding aspect isn't Harden's ability to post gaudy scoring tallies in efficient fashion. We all know he can get to the line frequently and convert his looks from the most advantageous areas. His rebounding and assist numbers are similarly impressive, though they're not entirely surprising when considering his do-everything role for the Rockets.
It's Harden's ability to elevate the play of everyone around him: Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson weren't exactly much-ballyhooed offseason signings, but the latter is having a resurgent season as a sharpshooter, while the former has sprung to the forefront of the Sixth Man of the Year race.
No. 5 Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Bradley Beal is finally staying healthy and providing the Washington Wizards with the season they wanted when drafting him No. 3 overall in 2012. After four years of relative stagnation and near-constant rehabilitation, he's taking plenty of strides on the offensive end.
Rather than relying on mid-range jumpers, the 23-year-old has bought into the idea that shots around the hoop and from beyond the arc are more efficient. He's taking 2.1 more triples per game than he ever has, and that's freed up space for him to use longer twos as a secondary option.
The result? A career-high 21.8 points per game on a career-best 58.6 true shooting percentage.
Beal will have trouble climbing further up the 2-guard hierarchy without developing as a playmaker and providing at least league-average defense. But his combination of scoring volume and efficiency has allowed him to move up the ranks at a position still struggling to find elite two-way talents.
Honorable Mentions: Patrick Beverley, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, J.J. Redick, Dwyane Wade
No. 4 Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons
Per-Game Stats: 14.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.2 blocks
After an injured shoulder knocked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out of the lineup in the first quarter of a Jan. 12 game against the Golden State Warriors, Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy couldn't help but get sarcastic with TNT sideline reporter Lewis Johnson.
"Well, he's our best three-point shooter, our best energy defender, our best energy guy, we won't miss a lot ..." Van Gundy explained about Caldwell-Pope's absence, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press.
He wasn't exaggerating.
Caldwell-Pope has come into his own during 2016-17, thriving as an energetic perimeter defender who can help space the court around Andre Drummond. Even though public perception of his game hasn't yet caught up, he's quickly morphed into one of the Association's best up-and-coming "three-and-D" guys.
The Pistons are also rather reliant on him, improving by five points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. And when he plays without Andre Drummond, the team's net rating is a staggering 16.5, per nbawowy.com.
No. 3 Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Per-Game Stats: 27.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks
If you expected DeMar DeRozan to stop scoring as the season progressed, think again.
The Toronto Raptors 2-guard has averaged 28.6 points during January (behind only Isaiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook and James Harden) while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 88.2 percent at the charity stripe. He's made just three triples on 10 attempts all month, but he's maintained his efficiency by burying mid-range jumpers and making constant trips to the line.
All that said, it's perfectly valid to question how much he means to the Raptors.
Kyle Lowry is quite clearly the best player on the team, and Toronto's net rating actually dips by a shocking seven points per 100 possessions when DeRozan is on the floor. Given his defensive woes and style-shifting offensive proclivities, the team can sometimes find more success when others are replacing him—as Norman Powell did while the starter battled an ankle injury.
But don't mistake a less-than-ideal fit for a lack of talent. Few players can score as much as DeRozan, and fewer still can do so while eschewing the three-point arc and still remaining efficient.
No. 2 Shooting Guard: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Klay Thompson is a coach's dream.
He's been willing to assume a slightly diminished role to make the addition of Kevin Durant more fluid. He's taken on tough defensive assignments every night, even when doing so makes his advanced metrics look worse than they should.
And he's done all this with nary a complaint.
That selfless attitude is quite valuable to the Golden State Warriors, as is Thompson's continuing ability to drain triples in catch-and-shoot situations. He's still capable of scoring explosions when his teammates are struggling, even if his role hasn't allowed him to dribble or facilitate as frequently as he did in 2015-16.
Thompson isn't quite complete as a shooting guard. His passing needs work, and it's tough to square his eye-test-passing defense and his putrid defensive metrics—ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus (DRPM) has him No. 62 among shooting guards alone, and NBA Math's defensive points saved (DPS) leaves him as one of the league's 25 least valuable defenders.
But few can shoot like him, and context indicates he could do even more in a bigger role.
No. 1 Shooting Guard: C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Per-Game Stats: 23.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks
C.J. McCollum isn't an All-Star this year (consider him one of the most notable snubs in the Western Conference), and defense isn't his forte.
But his job is to get buckets for the Portland Trail Blazers, and that's exactly what he does.
No player has emerged as a more valuable jump-shooter. With his silky, elevated release and penchant for keeping defenders off balance with quick elevation on the move, he's been able to get off jumpers whenever he wants.
During January alone, McCollum has averaged 26.4 points and 3.4 assists while shooting 51.1 percent from the field, 41.1 percent from downtown and 87.3 percent on free-throw attempts. He's been unstoppable in clutch situations and has thrived from start to finish, emerging as a virtually unguardable player, as well as the premier scoring threat in Rip City's dynamic backcourt.
This is no fluke. McCollum is here to stay as an elite offensive producer, and any type of defensive growth will make it tough to displace him as the league's premier 2-guard.
No. 5 Small Forward: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Per-Game Stats: 24.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks
It's almost unfair that Jimmy Butler has to be relegated to No. 5 among small forwards during a season in which he's performed like a top-10 player. But that's the nature of the beast for this position, which is just brimming over with elite talent.
Butler has meant everything to the Chicago Bulls.
Sure, you can pick nits by pointing to his leadership style and the feud with Rajon Rondo. But the Bulls wouldn't be in the playoff picture without Butler leading the charge, since he's shouldered an immense burden throughout the season. Whether Chicago needs a key defensive stop, a playmaker who can facilitate for his teammates or a scorer to make big baskets down the stretch, it's consistently turned to Butler.
Averaging 24.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists might not hold too much luster during a campaign in which Russell Westbrook is posting a season-long triple-double. But that's still historically significant, as only four other qualified players in the last decade have posted those marks: Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James and Westbrook.
Honorable Mentions: Carmelo Anthony, Danilo Gallinari, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Otto Porter
No. 4 Small Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Per-Game Stats: 23.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 2.0 blocks
Let's turn to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, who did a fantastic job summing up how unique Giannis Antetokounmpo has been in 2016-17:
He leads the Bucks in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks while sustaining a per-game line that is the first of its kind.
Antetokounmpo has a higher assist percentage than Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving but faces more shots at the rim than LaMarcus Aldridge. He has used more post-ups than Myles Turner but initiated more pick-and-rolls than starting point guards Darren Collison and Ricky Rubio. His three-point clip is crud (28.8 percent), but he's shooting almost 40 percent just inside the arc.
It's not exaggerating to say we've never seen a season like this.
Antetokounmpo has slowed down (slightly) in 2017 and has been unable to push the Milwaukee Bucks into the playoff picture. That's all that's preventing him from rising even higher. But it's still hard to pin too much blame on him when he's doing so much heavy lifting and has excelled in myriad roles at such a young age.
Don't be surprised when this is the lowest Antetokounmpo ranks throughout the foreseeable future.
No. 3 Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks
Kawhi Leonard's ascent into the upper echelon of shooters continues to astound.
Not only is he averaging 25.4 points, but he's doing so while hitting 48.6 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from three-point land and 91.3 percent from the stripe—good for a career-best 62.5 true shooting percentage. Not only is he scoring with such volume and efficiency, but he's doing so while requiring assists on just 36.4 percent of his twos and 81.1 percent of his threes—both easily the lowest marks of his NBA tenure.
This type of self-created offense is typically anathema to the San Antonio Spurs' organizational philosophy under head coach Gregg Popovich, but the staff has been willing to bend the rules for Leonard. He's just that talented and won't seem to stop improving.
Tim Duncan is gone. Tony Parker's level of play has dipped dramatically. Manu Ginobili can't handle too many minutes.
But San Antonio just keeps winning games, to the point that it boasts the NBA's second-best record with room to spare. Above all else, it has Leonard's all-around excellence to thank for that.
No. 2 Small Forward: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Per-Game Stats: 26.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.7 blocks
Incredible as it's been, forget about Kevin Durant's offense. Focus instead on the defensive chops of the first-year Golden State Warrior.
"Im trying to round my game out," he told 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."
Durant is now allowing opponents to shoot only 48.9 percent at the rim while facing 4.7 shots per game—numbers just 23 other players have cleared, of whom only one (Al-Farouq Aminu) similarly spends no time as a center.
And if that's not enough, he's thrived as a rebounder while playing lockdown perimeter defense against even the toughest matchups. Durant won't get much love in the Defensive Player of the Year race—the favorite for that award may even be one of his teammates—but he deserves some All-Defense love at the very least.
Oh, and he's still scoring a lot of points without missing many shots.
No. 1 Small Forward: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
It's easy to be distracted from LeBron James' greatness.
The Cleveland Cavaliers aren't winning games and have posted a meager minus-2.3 net rating during January. He's asking for additional playmakers and calling out his teammates. Even a feud with Charles Barkley has drawn headlines lately.
Truthfully, he does need more help, if only because of injuries to core roster members. Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney explains:
All throughout January, James had the statistical profile of a player forcing the issue. Watch him in action and you’ll see the premise confirmed. J.R. Smith is injured. Kevin Love is ailed by lingering back problems. Those two tweaks—insignificant as they might seem for a team that has both the best player in the league and a worthy supporting star in Kyrie Irving—forced James into a role as an end-to-end playmaker, if only for the lack of alternatives.
But James still excels, even during this down period. Though it wears on him, he does everything—and then some—for the Cavaliers. Without him, they'd be in even more trouble, especially since Kyrie Irving would be back to those pre-James years in which he was forced into doing way too much.
Lest we forget, Cleveland posts a minus-5.4 net rating without James. With him, that number rises to 6.8.
No. 5 Power Forward: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Since returning from arthroscopic knee surgery, Blake Griffin has suited up in only two games. The Los Angeles Clippers have lost both, and he's averaged a mediocre 16.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field.
But give him time.
In an ideal world, Griffin would have the luxury of easing his way back into a featured role. Except Los Angeles has also lost Chris Paul (torn tendon in his left thumb), which forces the 27-year-old power forward into more responsibilities right out of the gate. Struggles are inevitable, though it shouldn't be long before he resumes his All-Star-caliber play.
When Griffin is rolling, he's capable of averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds while serving as a primary playmaker. Few are blessed with his combination of athletic prowess and vision as a distributor, and that allows head coach Doc Rivers to use him rather uniquely. Throw in his continually improving interior game and burgeoning defensive chops, and you have yourself a complete power forward.
Griffin should be able to move his way up these ranks by the end of the season. But right now, it's tough to justify any higher placement.
Honorable Mentions: Harrison Barnes, Gorgui Dieng, Serge Ibaka, Jabari Parker, Kristaps Porzingis
No. 4 Power Forward: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Per-Game Stats: 19.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
The Cleveland Cavaliers can't function as smoothly without Kevin Love helping space the court. That's been evident while he recovers from lower-back spasms, as it's been every other time he's missed action. The Cavs are just 3-3 when he doesn't play, and their net rating plummets from 9.2 to minus-4.2 without him.
Love should get plenty of credit for his ability to average nearly 20 points and 11 rebounds. He does so without sacrificing efficiency, and his knack for scoring both on the interior and the perimeter adds new elements to Cleveland's offense.
But it's just as important that he's been comfortable leading the second unit when both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving need breathers. Nothing makes his superstar resurgence more obvious than his ability to help carry Cleveland's role players to a 17.7 net rating when the other members of the Big Three are resting on the pine, per nbawowy.com.
"He's the Kevin Love of old and this is everything we expected out of him," James told Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor in late December. "That's what we want out of him. But there's no added pressure for him. He's going out and just playing his game right now. He's at a point where he's just comfortable with everything and it's great to have him."
No. 3 Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks
LaMarcus Aldridge isn't the same player he was while suiting up for the Portland Trail Blazers.
He could probably resume functioning as a No. 1 option without skipping a beat, but the San Antonio Spurs have asked him to play second fiddle to Kawhi Leonard. Rather than holding the ball at the elbows and creating his own looks with that high-release mid-range jumper, he's patiently waiting for his opportunities as a scorer.
Meanwhile, he's doing all the little things better than ever.
The 31-year-old rarely turns the ball over anymore and is posting just 1.5 turnovers per 36 minutes—his lowest mark since 2009-10. He's averaging 2.3 assists and another 2.6 screen assists per game. He's even functioning as an elite rim-protector by allowing opponents to shoot just 42.9 percent on their 5.3 attempts per contest. Among the 76 players facing five or more shots in their average outing, just Joel Embiid has been stingier.
When Aldridge called Rip City home, he put up glamorous stats that made his value abundantly clear. Now, you have to dig a bit deeper to see what he provideS: It's still quite a lot.
No. 2 Power Forward: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks
Paul Millsap needed just 61 minutes to justify his selection to the 2017 NBA All-Star Team.
In a quadruple-overtime victory over the New York Knicks, the Atlanta Hawks power forward logged over an hour of action—just the 13th player to do so in a single outing since 1983. He never stopped contributing in every way imaginable, finishing with 37 points, 19 rebounds, seven assists, a steal, a block and only three turnovers while shooting 13-of-29 from the field, 3-of-8 from downtown and 8-of-10 from the stripe.
Even if he hadn't grabbed the crucial offensive rebound and knocked down a jump-hook to score Atlanta's decisive 140th and 141st points of the night, he would've meant everything to his team. His willingness to do the dirty work on defense and play tireless basketball throughout the overtime periods was just that valuable.
"There was no chance I was coming out," he told the Associated Press, via ESPN.com, after the unending game finally ended.
This just about sums up Millsap's game:He doesn't ever blow you away with his gaudy statistics, which may be why there's been such an unjustified backlash against his presence on the All-Star roster. He just helps Atlanta win games by doing everything within his power.
No. 1 Power Forward: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Per-Game Stats: 10.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 2.0 steals, 1.4 blocks
Everything Draymond Green does on defense has been exceptional, to the point he should be the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year after barely losing to Kawhi Leonard each of the last two seasons.
The men he guards typically shoot 45.8 percent from the field, but they only muster a mere 41.1 percent when he's assigned to them. Inside six feet, he drops their percentages a whopping 11.1 points. Despite his 6'7" frame, he's allowing opponents to shoot just 44.4 percent at the rim while facing 6.8 shots per game—joining Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis and Rudy Gobert as one of just four players to clear each of those marks.
Along with Gobert and Andrew Bogut, he's one of only three players to post a DRPM north of four, per ESPN.com. NBA Math's DPS has him leading the field. Most importantly, the always-stingy Golden State Warriors allow 103.1 points per 100 possessions without him and an even 100 when he plays.
The numbers all check out, and the eye test confirms our calculators' conclusions. And remember, this is before we factor in his incredible work as a facilitator and ability to provide even more spacing for the Golden State offense.
No. 5 Center: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.5 blocks
Of all the spots to fill in these rankings, this was the toughest. Al Horford could easily earn the nod for his all-around abilities (save his rebounding weaknesses). Rudy Gobert could take the honor with his awe-inspiring defense and improved offense. Nikola Jokic and his ability to spark the Denver Nuggets' deadly offense could run warrant a the featured slot.
But it has to belong to Joel Embiid, who has single-handedly pushed the Philadelphia 76ers back toward relevance while propelling his troops to play some of the NBA's best defense.
We no longer have to look at prorated stats to marvel at what he's done as a rookie. Along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, he's one of just three players averaging 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks per game—benchmarks only 23 players have surpassed throughout NBA history.
Meanwhile, he's also putting up arguably the best rim-protecting numbers in basketball. Gobert could take umbrage with that because of his ridiculous combination of volume and efficiency, but none of the other 75 players facing at least four shots per game at the rim are stingier than the 22-year-old who's allowing just 41 percent shooting.
Embiid's ceiling is ridiculous. His floor is also pretty darn high, so long as he stays healthy.
Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gobert, Al Horford, Dwight Howard, Nikola Jokic, Hassan Whiteside
No. 4 Center: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.5 blocks
Marc Gasol's shooting exploits can no longer be called fluky.
Throughout his career, the 32-year-old big man had gone just 12-of-66 from downtown heading into this season. Now, he's taking 3.7 triples per game and connecting at a 40.9 percent clip—numbers just 15 qualified players, among whom only Channing Frye plays center, can match or exceed.
For the first time in his career, Gasol is looking to thrive as a score-first player. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has more:
But now that Gasol's streak [of 24-point games] has reached five games, he's finally willing to admit that his mindset has changed. The guy who used to routinely talk about 'playing the right way' and making plays for others is now on the floor believing that a bad shot for him is better than an open shot for, say, Andrew Harrison.
'Obviously, it's going to require a different mindset but I think the last few games I've been trying to do that a little bit more,' said Gasol, whose previous career high was 38 points. 'I'm going to keep doing it.'
Without Gasol on the floor, the Memphis Grizzlies can only produce a 98.7 offensive rating, which would trail every team in the full-season standings. When he plays, that number rises to 106, which would sit just inside the league's top half.
No. 3 Center: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.5 blocks
Karl-Anthony Towns is finally putting the pieces together on defense.
Though he still makes some careless mistakes as a help defender and occasionally finds himself out of position, he's learning the nuances of head coach Tom Thibodeau's complicated schemes. And the Minnesota Timberwolves defense is rising right along with him, posting a 105.1 defensive rating since the start of January, which ranks within the top 10.
Once Towns fully realizes his defensive potential, he'll have a serious chance to become the NBA's best center. He's that complete offensively, even if there's currently a substantial chasm separating him from the last two players in these rankings.
How many 21-year-olds can average 23 points and 11.9 rebounds while still finding time to dish out 3.1 dimes per game? How many can torture their opponents with advanced post moves and a quick-release jumper that makes them nearly impossible to guard?
Towns has arrived. And he's not going anywhere.
No. 2 Center: DeMarcus Cousins
Per-Game Stats: 28.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks
The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings have had discussions about a trade involving All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins according to Arizona Sports' John Gambadoro.
Gambadoro reports the discussions have centered around involving small forward T.J. Warren, center Alex Len, Phoenix's first-round pick this year and possibly more. The Suns own all of their future picks and also own two future Miami Heat first-round picks from the Goran Dragic deal.
If this somehow comes to pass, it would be a coup for the Phoenix Suns.
The Sacramento Kings' star has a legitimate claim to the "best big man in the NBA" title, even if he's slightly shy of that crown in these rankings. No one mixes together strength and finesse better than Cousins, who is now adding range to his jumper, continuing to serve as a dangerous distributor and growing on the defensive end.
If MVP literally stood for "most valuable player," the center who helps up Sacramento's net rating by seven points per 100 possessions while on the floor would be right in the thick of the conversation.
No. 1 Center: Anthony Davis
Per-Game Stats: 28.0 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.3 blocks
Of course, so too would the center who helps lift the New Orleans Pelicans' net rating by 8.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays.
Anthony Davis is a machine.
He's capable of contributing in every way imaginable for the Pelicans, especially now that he's shored up his interior defense and makes an impact matching his gaudy block totals. According to ESPN.com's DRPM, only seven players throughout the Association have been better at any position—a stark contrast compared to last year's No. 61 finish.
Whether Davis is scoring with his mid-range jumper, extending his range out beyond the preferred zones of typical bigs or pounding away on the interior, he's been unstoppable. Only injuries have slowed him, and the Pelicans should thank their lucky stars all the maladies have been minor nuisances.
The rest of the roster still isn't strong enough for Davis to lead a contender, but it's now clear that the anointments he received after his sophomore campaign weren't premature. Three seasons later, he's just continuing to improve, constantly showing what he can do as an individual when blessed with the luxuries of health and continuity.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.