Ranking Every NBA Team's Starting Frontcourt Ahead of 2017-18 Season
As shooting ranges stretch and skill trumps strength in a more free-flowing game, the NBA is increasingly a league dominated by guards and wings. Any doubt about that disappears with a quick glance at the last decade's worth of MVPs: guards and wings all.
The bigs still matter, though. And even if the power forward spot is more about floor spacing than posting up these days, frontcourts impact the game.
Here, we'll organize all 30 of them into an order reflecting projected strength for the upcoming campaign, focusing strictly on the starters at the 3, 4 and 5. No bonus points for depth.
These are based on how each frontcourt will perform in 2017-18 alone. We'll factor in last season's stats and look ahead at how each unit should perform. Fit and chemistry will inform our rankings as much as the overall numbers.
Just a hint: It really helps to have a couple of superstars up front.
30. Phoenix Suns: Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss, Tyson Chandler
First up (or last, if you're going by the actual ranking), we have the Phoenix Suns trio of Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss and Tyson Chandler. It's a gruesome collision at the intersection of painful inexperience and post-prime age.
Jackson has loads of potential, especially if he can get his funky shot mechanics figured out. But his playmaking, scoring and defensive game aren't going to be fully formed for years, and those are his strengths. Say it with me: Rookies are almost always bad.
TJ Warren could push Jackson down the depth chart, but he wouldn't be a big enough improvement to change this ranking.
Chriss may have the worst court awareness and defensive radar of any rotation player in the league. Though hard to quantify, his lack of basketball IQ manifests itself with curious bouts of indecision and inaction. Watch him drifting around in no man's land on D, standing still on offense and generally getting lost, and you'll understand.
Someday, Chriss may grasp a scheme and keep his motor running at all times. That day will not come in his second season.
His dunks are cool, though. That's something.
That leaves Chandler, who will turn 35 in early October but is somehow coming off respectable averages of 8.4 points and 11.5 rebounds in 2016-17. Unfortunately, he cannot save his youthful frontcourt compatriots.
29. Sacramento Kings: Bogdan Bogdanovic, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein
The Kings have even fewer frontcourt reps than the Suns, with Willie Cauley-Stein and his two seasons (and 60 starts) occupying the veteran role.
Cauley-Stein averaged 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds in his 21 starts last season, so he's a good bet to equal or top Chandler's production in the middle going forward.
Bogdanovic isn't a typical rookie, as he has played competitively overseas for several seasons. He should be at least as good as Jackson is for the Suns. And Labissiere showed real scoring chops as his role increased down the stretch last season.
Cauley-Stein's impact depends on him staying consistently engaged. His focus and effort level wavered last year, and slippage could result in Kosta Koufos taking over the starting job. In fact, Sacramento has two other vets—Vince Carter and Zach Randolph—who will likely outperform their young counterparts. But the Kings have no reason to chase wins, so they should give their young players extra minutes while letting the old heads run the second unit.
Sacramento's starting frontcourt will be overmatched almost every night, but it could still be fun if the pace is fast enough to maximize the group's considerable athleticism.
28. Chicago Bulls: Paul Zipser, Nikola Mirotic, Robin Lopez
Robin Lopez is the only certainty here, and his role is still tenuous. A squad hitting bottom like the Chicago Bulls could extract more value by trading a veteran center for future assets than by playing him.
Meanwhile, Nikola Mirotic, the presumptive starting 4, remains unsigned. The career 35 percent shooter from deep amassed that mark with troubling inconsistency. He shot 31.6 percent as a rookie, 39 percent in his second year and 34.2 percent last season.
Which version will the Bulls get in 2017-18...if they sign him?
At the 3, Paul Zipser figures to be in a battle with Denzel Valentine and perhaps even Justin Holiday. Whoever wins, the Bulls lose.
Could rookie Lauri Markannen, Bobby Portis or Cristiano Felicio get involved, possibly cracking the first unit at some point? Absolutely. But it's important to understand something about this frontcourt's myriad possibilities.
We're going to run into situations later on in the rankings where teams choosing between several options reflects depth, which is mostly a positive. This is not one of those situations.
The rebuilding Bulls have every incentive to be terrible, and their choices up front should make achieving that goal relatively easy.
27. Brooklyn Nets: DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Timofey Mozgov
The Nets roster includes just two players 6'10" or taller, which speaks to the way they're embracing more modern positional concepts. Size doesn't necessarily dictate role anymore, something that became abundantly clear when 7-footer Brook Lopez shot 387 triples last year, 79 more than anyone else on the roster.
That's partly why Hollis-Jefferson, who lacks traditional power forward size, will likely start at the 4. He took over that role last season and figures to keep it. Though he isn't a floor-spacer, he'll still contribute defensively and in the open court as a finisher. He'll lead the team in steals again and may finish second to Timofey Mozgov in blocks.
Carroll isn't wholly washed, but he isn't the prototypical three-and-D small forward he was three years ago in Atlanta. At 31, he's now best suited to play power forward, which is where he spent more than a quarter of his minutes last year with the Toronto Raptors. Carroll is a career 36.1 percent shooter from deep and can still hit an open three, even if his 34.1 percent conversion rate in 2016-17 represented a mildly concerning four-year low.
The Nets lack top-end skill at any frontcourt spot, and by at least one key metric, Mozgov is one of the worst players at his position. Unless Hollis-Jefferson makes a leap and Carroll reverses his downward trajectory, this group will be overmatched against just about everyone.
26. Atlanta Hawks: Taurean Prince, Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon
A lot depends on Taurean Prince continuing the mini-breakout he enjoyed during the Atlanta Hawks' brief 2017 playoff run. If he can average something like 12 points and six rebounds (he was at 11.2 and 5.3 in the postseason) while playing solid defense against opponents' best wings, he'll be a strong contributor.
If he struggles, it leaves a lot of work for Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon, who are capable role-fillers but hardly top-end starters.
Still, the rough outlines and niche jobs spread across Atlanta's frontcourt make sense. Prince is the rangy wing, Dedmon defends the rim and Ilyasova shoots threes and takes charges. One thing to watch for: the possibility of Mike Muscala pushing Dedmon for the first-unit gig at some point. Muscala shot 41.8 percent from long range last season, and the Hawks could always use more spacing.
"If he's able to continue his solid defensive production in a larger role and against starting players, Muscala might supplant Dedmon in the starting unit while bringing a much more versatile offensive game to the table," Jeff Siegel wrote on Peachtree Hoops.
There's nothing close to a star in this group, and it's possible Prince (playoff fluke), Ilyasova (30 years old) and Dedmon (not on the Spurs anymore) all fail to improve on last year's numbers. But at least the construction of the unit makes sense.
25. Orlando Magic: Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic
Between Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon, the Orlando Magic's frontcourt will populate highlight reels with plenty of dunks. But that fact is a good representation of how this group looks good cosmetically without producing in ways that lead to success.
Ross' shooting percentages dipped as his minutes increased after he came over from the Toronto Raptors via trade last year. He'll have to prove he can contribute volume and efficiency at the 3, but defenses should at least honor him and his career 37.4 percent conversion rate at the arc.
Orlando could go with Jonathon Simmons and his superior defense over Ross' scoring, but that won't move the needle much.
Gordon is another story. Heading into his fourth season, he must show the league he's more than a dunker. Playing the 4 full time will help, as he was miscast in the small forward spot for most of last season.
Meanwhile, Nikola Vucevic's performance is almost impossible to predict. A positive contributor in DRPM last year after spending most of his career as a sieve, he also stopped getting to the foul line while taking his game further out on the perimeter. As a result, he posted his worst true shooting percentage since his rookie season.
For him, the "yeah, but..." hasn't disappeared. It has flipped.
Evaluations once praised his scoring skill before knocking his defensive ineptitude. Now they're reversed, and it's hard to tell who Vucevic is anymore.
Does that mean Bismack Biyombo will steal the starting center job? It isn't out of the question.
If Gordon makes the leap his lottery pedigree suggests is possible, it'll make a difference. But this group has a long way to go.
24. Los Angeles Lakers: Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez
This group is a lot of fun on paper. On the floor, less so.
Brandon Ingram was brutal before the All-Star break last year, and even significant second-half improvement wasn't enough to avoid a dubious distinction. Ingram was worth minus-2.32 wins, according to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, which ranked dead last in the entire NBA.
During his post-break "surge," Ingram shot just 26.9 percent from deep, dragging his full-season hit rate down to 29.4 percent. At least he finished at an average rate, 60.7 percent, from within three feet.
Dramatic improvement might get Ingram to break-even status. He can still be great someday, but he's likely to be a negatively impactful force in 2017-18.
Randle remains intriguing as a hard-charging, playmaking 4. But his lack of length makes him a liability on defense, and he has yet to show any threat of perimeter accuracy.
Brook Lopez has plenty of that, and he's one of the best floor-stretching centers in the league. He'll have to be at least as good as he was last year to compensate for the youthful mistakes and low-percentage play of his inexperienced forwards.
23. Detroit Pistons: Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond is, in theory, the Detroit Pistons' best frontcourt player...and yet the Pistons' net rating was 10.9 points per 100 possessions better without him on the floor last season.
Not only that, but Drummond's gaudy rebounding numbers—he averaged over 13 boards for the fourth straight year—didn't correlate to superior glass work for his team. The Pistons rebounded better when Drummond sat.
That's to say nothing of the free-throw woes that rendered him unplayable late in games and his nonexistent post-up arsenal.
And this is Detroit's best big.
Alongside Drummond, the Pistons figure to trot out Tobias Harris, a slashing scorer with some stretch who makes no one else better, and Stanley Johnson, who averaged 4.4 points per game on 35.3 percent shooting in his second NBA season.
Johnson and Drummond have to be better this season, if only by default. But there's a difference between being better and being objectively good. The latter feels unrealistic in light of last year's performance.
22. Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner
Something for the Indiana Pacers to think about: In the 98 minutes Glenn Robinson III played with the first unit last year in place of Paul George, Indy outscored opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions. It'd be nice to see a little more of him with Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young, but Bojan Bogdanovic figures to occupy the starting job.
Why? In part so he can pump up his trade value for a midseason swap when the Pacers fall out of playoff contention.
Turner could hit stardom as early as this season, which is nearly enough to get this group out of the bottom 10 spots. But Thaddeus Young is a ho-hum, moderate-efficiency, moderate-volume scorer. And Bogdanovic is a glaring negative on defense.
A bigger Turner leap than expected could get Indy's frontcourt into the middle of the pack.
21. Charlotte Hornets: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard is playing on his third team in three years and fifth overall, and it's not because he's ineffective at age 31. His personality, which probably angles closer to sensitive and childish than malcontented, is what has made him a nomad.
For the umpteenth time, he's looking for a fresh start.
Rick Bonnell, the Hornets beat writer for the Charlotte Observer, pointed out a decent reason to expect a longer stay than usual: "Howard is entering the best locker room I've covered in nearly 30 years on the NBA beat. There are leaders in there—Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—who set the tone, both in work habits and in being genuinely vested in teammates’ success."
Howard is going to get his double-doubles; we'll have to wait to see if the functional locker room prevents another worn-out welcome. If things go south, Cody Zeller is waiting. And he was quietly integral to the limited success Charlotte enjoyed last season.
Williams isn't exciting, but he's a stretch specialist—who better come closer to the 40.2 percent he shot in 2015-16 than the 35 percent he shot last year—who has had positive on-court net ratings in each of the last three seasons for the Hornets. He does his job.
MKG's shooting struggles are well-documented, but he's an ace defender who makes use of his athleticism in transition.
20. Houston Rockets: Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela
Ryan Anderson was healthy enough to play 72 games in 2016-17 and hit 40.3 percent from deep on a hefty seven attempts per contest. Yet the Houston Rockets still often looked elsewhere for fourth-quarter options, as Anderson averaged fewer minutes in the final stanza than he did in any other quarter last season.
His defensive shortcomings cost him playing time, even as he was excelling on offense.
Trevor Ariza is a fair spot-up shooter and defender, but he, like Anderson and big man Clint Capela, is wholly dependent on setups for his shots. That's fine, because James Harden and Chris Paul have teamed up to form one of the most potent backcourts in league history.
They'll make contributors out of anyone. And that's kind of the key to what may seem like a low ranking for members of a promising Rockets team.
This trio slots so low because Houston's success starts and finishes with its guards. You could substitute any number of other frontcourt players and expect 50-plus wins out of the Rockets. Give this team two average guards, though, and you're looking at a lottery berth.
19. Portland Trail Blazers: Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic
If the version of Jusuf Nurkic that showed up after the All-Star break last year sticks around indefinitely, the Portland Trail Blazers might deserve a better ranking than this.
But Nurkic's post-trade breakout lasted just 20 games. Will he be similarly motivated over a full season? Can he stay healthy enough to make a sustained impact?
Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu are interchangeable forwards; they're technically 3s who can shuttle around and guard several positions. Aminu's shooting fell off last year after a career season in 2015-16, and how he rebounds will go a long way toward Portland's success. Harkless hit 35.1 percent of his threes last year, but he was a low-volume shooter who conspicuously holstered his treys down the stretch to preserve a bonus in his contract.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are dynamic guards. Both are clearly above-average performers. Portland, though, projects as something like a .500 team, which makes it easier to label its frontcourt as below-average.
18. New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez
If this feels like a slight to a team that has names as recognizable as Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis sharing a frontcourt, consider something for a moment.
Melo and KP were New York's best players in 2016-17. They ranked first and second in both points and minutes per game. They're easily the two biggest names on the roster and the key factors determining the club's success.
And the Knicks went 31-51. So, reputation and name recognition aside, how good are these guys, really?
Granted, there was front-office ineptitude, Derrick Rose's poor production and several zillion other factors dragging the Knicks down last year. But the frontcourt wasn't good enough to get New York anywhere close to .500 in a soft Eastern Conference. This is mostly because defense is conducive to winning, and none of these guys played any.
Anthony is a dangerous scorer, Porzingis may yet become a star and Willy Hernangomez eventually projects as an above-average center.
Based on last season's results, though, this trio hasn't done enough to crack the top half of these rankings.
17. Toronto Raptors: CJ Miles, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas
Diverse strengths make the Raptors frontcourt seem appealing, but all three members of the group—CJ Miles, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas—come with distinctive weaknesses that detract from the unit as a whole.
Miles is a spot-up destroyer. With the Pacers last year, he made 152 catch-and-shoot threes at a 42.6 percent clip. But he isn't an ace defender and could lose minutes to the younger and more athletic Norman Powell.
Ibaka offers spacing and rim protection, but he likely should be playing center.
Valanciunas' best skill, post scoring, isn't exactly in demand these days. And if the Raps aren't going to dump the ball into him and ask him to get buckets—which they haven't and won't because nobody does that anymore and it would marginalize their guards, the strength of the team—Valanciunas doesn't defend or rebound well enough to be a positive contributor.
All three members of Toronto's frontcourt have skills that make them quality NBA players. But each comes with a caveat that prevents the Raptors from getting into the top 10.
16. Memphis Grizzlies: Chandler Parsons, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol
This is ultimately just about Marc Gasol, who is coming off the best offensive season of his career. Not only did the Memphis Grizzlies center set a career high in scoring, he also suddenly morphed into a high-volume three-point gunner. Gasol made 104 treys at a 38.8 percent clip after attempting a combined total of 66 in his previous eight seasons.
As long as he's around, Memphis can stay competitive on both ends.
But JaMychal Green remains unsigned, and Chandler Parsons' ongoing knee issues make his production uncertain. If Green eventually inks a deal and sustains last year's averages of 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds, it will help. But Parsons, if he plays at all, must prove he's more than the ground-bound, slow-footed plodder he was in an injury-bludgeoned 2016-17.
With the 3 and the 4 looking like question marks for different reasons, Memphis will lean even harder on Gasol, who'll turn 33 in January.
Come to think of it, pricing in some regression for him feels reasonable. We'd better move on before further thought results in the Grizzlies dropping a few extra spots.
15. Washington Wizards: Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat
If familiarity breeds chemistry and chemistry leads to success, the Washington Wizards are in good shape.
No returning frontcourt unit played more together last year than Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris and Otto Porter, who logged an incredible 1,529 simultaneous minutes. Washington outscored opponents by a combined 267 points during that time.
It didn't hurt that both John Wall and Bradley Beal were also on the court with that group for all but 182 of those minutes. Sustaining the health necessary to play that much is nearly impossible, and we shouldn't expect Gortat, Porter and Morris to miss a combined eight games again in 2017-18.
Still, this group is proven. Gortat's mind meld with Wall is strong, and when he times his rolls perfectly, he either gets the rock or draws a defender away from Porter, who shot the lights out from long range last year and earned himself a max extension.
Morris is the forgotten man here, and he averaged 14 points and 6.5 rebounds while hitting 36.2 percent of his shots from three-point range last year.
14. Dallas Mavericks: Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel
It'll take scholars decades to figure out how Harrison Barnes went from being a spot-up shooter whose gears audibly ground whenever forced to dribble to a one-on-one killer in the span of a summer.
Only Jamal Crawford devoted a higher percentage of his offensive possessions to isolation sets than Barnes last year. Though Barnes wasn't especially efficient, he ranked in the 70th percentile in points per possession and posted a higher iso effective field-goal percentage than Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Isolation plays are relatively inefficient, but there's something to be said for having someone who can reliably get his own looks—especially on a Dallas Mavericks team bereft of dynamic creators.
Dirk Nowitzki will suit up for his 20th season, and he's still a reliable scoring hub in short stints. And as long as Nerlens Noel doesn't hold a grudge over extension negotiations that resulted in a one-year qualifying offer, he should compensate for much of Nowitzki's immobility on defense.
If Noel's health and Nowitzki's age didn't present real risks to two-thirds of the Dallas frontcourt's playing time, this group might even threaten the top 10. Factoring in those concerns, they slip a bit.
13. Miami Heat: Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside
If you know who'll be starting up front for the Miami Heat, you're either clairvoyant or Erik Spoelstra.
Hassan Whiteside is the lone certainty, but James Johnson or Kelly Olynyk could wind up starting at power forward. Meanwhile, Justise Winslow could be in a fight with Josh Richardson for the final first-unit spot.
Ultimately, it depends on what the Heat want from their frontcourt. Olynyk would provide spacing but might be untenable defensively next to Whiteside. Every team would put one or the other in pick-and-rolls on an endless loop. Johnson would be the better playmaker and defender, but would he create enough room for the guards to attack the lane?
Winslow is a nonthreatening shooter as well, but he might be the best defender on the roster. Richardson, though, is the more useful offensive weapon, and he just signed a new deal that'll pay him more than $10 million per season. It's worth asking which investment—the lottery pick spent on Winslow or the new cash handed to Richardson—is more likely to lead to playing time.
The Heat have depth, which is a plus. But the fact that they have several good options also means they don't have one great one.
12. Philadelphia 76ers: Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid
We all know the Philadelphia 76ers are basically "Team Tantalization," and the prospects of this frontcourt line up with the organizational theme of fragility and promise.
Robert Covington is the best defender you've never watched, and he's a big-volume shooter who's bound to improve upon last year's 33.3 percent hit rate from three. More games from Joel Embiid, better passing from Ben Simmons and the terror JJ Redick inspires should get Covington, a career 35.4 percent three-point shooter, heaps of clean looks. He'll be one of the NBA's best three-and-D weapons.
Simmons will struggle in his first NBA action, but he can facilitate as a fifth option among the starters. His size, playmaking and transition game will serve him well in what should be a lower-pressure environment than most top overall picks get to play in. Fultz and Embiid will both draw more scrutiny.
Embiid's health is the key reason these guys don't finish comfortably in the top 10. Thirty-one games is all we have from him in three years. And while those games were remarkable, we can't assume he'll be able to a) start the season or b) survive a full 82-game slate.
Not yet, and especially not with Sixers head coach Brett Brown alluding to what might be some issues with Embiid's commitment to preparation, via Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com: "The competitive side that Joel possesses is not to be denied. Helping him really prepare his body, helping him be able to play NBA basketball in multiple games and back-to-backs, all those types of things, that's a health thing, that's a discipline thing."
Embiid hasn't been cleared to scrimmage yet.
If we're just ranking potential and likelihood of producing delighted giggles among viewers when healthy, the Sixers frontcourt would rank in the top five. Other factors push them down to this spot.
11. New Orleans Pelicans: ???, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins
Anthony Davis is an MVP-caliber talent in the early stages of his prime, and DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most physically dominating presences in the league. There may be fit issues, and the small forward position will be a wasteland, but I can't in good conscience put this group any lower.
Not with Boogie and the Brow, whose sheer talent overshadows other major concerns.
The New Orleans Pelicans went 7-10 in games those two played together, but they posted a plus-2.8 net rating in Cousins' and Davis' shared minutes on the floor. Notably, New Orleans defended extremely well with its twin-tower set, holding opponents to a 99.6 defensive rating that would have ranked first in the league.
If Darius Miller snags the starting 3 spot while Solomon Hill recovers from a hamstring injury, he could provide passable defense and shooting in a low-usage role. If New Orleans goes small with E'Twaun Moore in a three-guard look, it could help up the pace and spread the floor but might also result in too many mismatches on D. Meanwhile, Tony Allen would destroy spacing.
If Cousins is committed to conditioning, running the floor and meeting his potential in a contract year, this ranking will seem low—even if we're essentially making it without knowing who'll play the 3. That's how potentially overwhelming an actualized Boogie and a still-blossoming Brow could be.
The downsides—Cousins doesn't give full effort on D, piles up the technicals and agitates for a trade ahead of free agency—are real.
But let's not start the season on a cynical note. There'll be plenty of time for that later.
10. Los Angeles Clippers: Danilo Gallinari, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
Even if that's true, we must price in his health record along with the one attached to new addition Danilo Gallinari, who has missed 71 games over the last three seasons.
Whenever those two are fit enough to play alongside DeAndre Jordan, the Los Angeles Clippers will score in bunches. Griffin will thrive with expanded playmaking responsibilities, hopefully getting more opportunities to run the pick-and-roll after ranking in the 94th percentile in efficiency on such plays last season.
Gallinari is a terrific floor-stretcher who can shoot over most small forwards and blow by bigger defenders. He's a foul-drawing savant who also shot 38.9 percent from deep last year, resulting in a career-best 62.2 true shooting percentage. As secondary scorer/playmakers go, he's tough to top.
There'll be defensive issues with Gallinari matching up against small forwards, and Jordan might not lead the league in field-goal percentage without Chris Paul feeding him. But if healthy, this group should bury opponents on offense.
9. Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thon Maker
The Milwaukee Bucks check in ahead of more established groups (like the Clips) for several reasons, even though Thon Maker is wildly unproven in the middle.
Giannis Antetokounmpo will contend for MVP this season and might take yet another leap after vaulting to Most Improved honors last year. He's practically an entire frontcourt on his own—gifted with more than enough ball-handling and passing to play the 3 but also long enough to play center.
Khris Middleton is a tremendous secondary playmaker with the size to guard three positions in a pinch and a career rate of 40.4 percent from long range. He and Antetokounmpo are among the most versatile 3-4 combos in the NBA, a tandem with few weaknesses.
Maker plays with an unteachably high-revving motor, but he must get stronger and improve as a rebounder. He took over the starting center job last year and flashed intriguing skill as a pick-and-pop big (which is huge for Milwaukee's spacing as long as Antetokounmpo is a suspect shooter), and he has the requisite length to defend the rim.
Any growth from Maker could make this ranking seem comically low. Antetokounmpo and Middleton are that good.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns
If Andrew Wiggins' gains as a three-point shooter are real—he shot 35.6 percent last year after making only 30 percent the season before—Minnesota's spacing issues up front won't be as pronounced as many expect. And while Wiggins must improve on defense and ditch his tunnel-vision approach to scoring, his ability to threaten defenses as a spot-up option unlocks so much of what could be an excellent offense.
Like Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns must be better defensively. He regressed on that end in his second season, curiously failing to benefit from Tom Thibodeau's presence on the sideline. On offense, Towns is singularly skilled, perhaps the most complete scoring big man in the NBA. He also doesn't turn 22 until Nov. 15.
If Towns becomes an average defender, he'll be a top-10 player in the league and a sleeper MVP pick.
Taj Gibson is clearly the weak link of this group, but even he has value. As a defensive tone-setter, he could coax the other two frontcourt options into competing a little more often. It's hard to know how to measure an impact like that, and Gibson's lack of a perimeter game contributes to the spacing crunch. But he's going to rebound and push Towns to get serious on both ends.
This group should be fantastic. But Minnesota has three players who don't necessarily make one another better and a possible lack of perimeter shooting. Those uncertainties are why a unit this talented doesn't crack the top five.
7. Utah Jazz: Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert
A frontcourt unit composed of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and a cardboard cutout of Bryon Russell would defend at an elite rate. And that has to be your starting point with this group: It's going to be brutal to score against.
It gets better, though.
Joe Ingles is no anonymous stand-in. He's a deadly outside shooter with phenomenal court sense and excellent hands on defense. It's fair to wonder if his spike in pull-up three-point shooting last year is sustainable. He hit 40.3 percent of such shots after making only 29.3 percent the season prior. Even if that new facet fades, Ingles is still going to drill at least 40 percent of his threes overall while setting up teammates with clever passing.
Also, Gobert, Favors and Ingles were more effective than any other three-man unit on the Jazz last season. In 230 minutes together, they managed a plus-26.5 net rating. It's unrealistic to expect that again, but cut that figure in half, and these guys are still dominant.
Favors' health looms large. Can he regain the mobility and scoring efficiency he lost in last year's injury-ravaged campaign? At 26, a resurgence is possible.
After ranking sixth in NBA in wins added, according to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, Gobert must be recognized as one of the league's best players. Full stop.
Together with Ingles and Favors, he gives Utah a clear shot at a top-three defense. It won't take much scoring to turn that stopping power into lots of success.
6. Denver Nuggets: Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Paul Millsap adds badly needed defensive grit and smarts to Denver's frontcourt while also giving Nikola Jokic one more weapon to set up with his otherworldly passing vision. Those two complement each other about as well as any duo in the league, and they have Wilson Chandler slotting in at the 3 to plug the few remaining holes.
Jokic's upward trajectory may not continue unabated, and perhaps Millsap's age-related loss of athleticism accelerates as he approaches age 33. But giving Jokic an All-Star partner up front should result in numbers at least as good as the ones he posted in a breakout 2016-17. And Millsap ought to benefit from no longer having to defend the opponent's best forward while also shouldering the top scoring load.
His burdens in Atlanta were immense. Here, he can cut back the breadth of his role and focus on what he's best at.
This feels like the first frontcourt where there just aren't any red flags: two All-Star-caliber studs and a solid glue guy coming off the most efficient scoring season of his career.
The Nuggets are in great shape up front.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Paul George, Patrick Patterson, Steven Adams
If Patrick Patterson is fit and ready after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in August, the Oklahoma City Thunder's frontcourt looks fearsome.
An on-off darling with the Raptors, Patterson is a dead-eye shooter from the corners and an able defender as an undersized power forward. He was the free-agent steal of the summer at three years and $16.4 million, and he gives OKC exactly what it needs at the 4.
Oh, and the Thunder also have Paul George now. We may have buried the lede.
PG13 is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, and he has led teams to the conference finals as a top-option scorer. Capable of switching across four positions, firing daggers as a catch-and-shoot threat or creating his own offense, George is in that rare class of player who can win games on both ends and go head-to-head with any elite wing.
With Steven Adams setting bone-jarring picks, rebounding and generally being tougher than 99.9 percent of the human population, the Thunder have everything you could want in a top-flight frontcourt.
4. Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Al Horford
We're deep enough into the rankings now where individual comparisons can make a difference.
The Boston Celtics check in ahead of the Thunder because Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, both All-Stars, are a bit more valuable than George and Adams are for the Thunder. Last season, Boston's small forward and center combined to produce 16.7 win shares. George and Adams were at 13.6.
Marcus Morris (3.9) was also better than Patterson (3.3), according to that metric.
Win shares aren't everything, and it's hard to deny the way OKC's frontcourt fits together. Not to mention its defensive potential.
But if you want to get simpler about it, the Celtics have two stars and one role-filler. The order is reversed in OKC, where George is the lone frontcourt star playing with two supporting pieces.
Boston could have something special with its trio. Hayward and Horford check every box, and Morris is a fine undersized 4. While the Celtics may struggle to rebound with Horford in the middle, this group's offense should be impossible to stop.
3. San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol
Kawhi Leonard is the best player we've covered to this point, and that's where you have to start with San Antonio Spurs frontcourt. His mere presence makes it dangerous, and a pair of overlooked vets push the ranking all the way up to No. 3.
After all the heat LaMarcus Aldridge caught in last year's playoffs for not being a No. 1 option, everyone seemed to forget he's about as reliable of a sidekick as Leonard could ask for. Last year, Aldridge was one of a dozen players with a true shooting percentage north of 53.2, a usage rate above 24.5 percent and at least a 1.3 defensive box plus-minus.
So he can't carry a team. So what?
Aldridge is still a major contributor who affects both ends of the floor. He should be especially motivated to perform this season given his looming opt-out in 2018.
Then there's Pau Gasol, a genius-level passer who shot a career-high 53.8 percent from beyond the arc and 48.2 percent from 16-23 feet last year. Quietly, he's compensated for declining mobility by becoming one of the most dangerous stretch bigs in the NBA. He'll also block shots as long as he's stationed near the rim.
Leonard and a couple of schlubs would warrant a top-seven spot. With the underrated Aldridge-Gasol tandem, the Spurs frontcourt is among the league's very best. When the Spurs win 60 games again, these guys will be a big reason why.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson
Let's break it down.
LeBron James is the best basketball player alive until proven otherwise, which puts him ahead of Leonard by default.
Kevin Love and Aldridge are close, but the former edged the latter in effective field-goal percentage, rebound rate and player efficiency rating last year. Aldridge was healthier and offered more rim defense, but we've long accepted that Love could do more if given a larger role. The opposite was proven true about Aldridge last season.
That leaves Tristan Thompson and Gasol, a comparison of two polar opposites.
Thompson is an energy guy, dependent on offensive glasswork and high-intensity defense (particularly when switched onto guards) for his value. Gasol is all nuance and feel. Thompson played more games, but Gasol still beat him in value over replacement player and box plus-minus. Unfortunately, Gasol would have to be far better than Thompson to offset the advantages Cleveland's bigs have at the other two spots.
Falling just short of the Cavs frontcourt isn't a knock on the Spurs. It's an acknowledgement that Cleveland's guys are excellent.
But not excellent enough.
1. Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia
If we could cheat and swap Andre Iguodala into Zaza Pachulia's spot, which is where the veteran small forward will be whenever the Golden State Warriors are playing minutes that matter, this would be a landslide win.
Iggy, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green crushed opponents by 19.0 points per 100 possessions last year, and no other frontcourt groups can rival the collective trophy case of these three. They have one MVP, one Defensive Player of the Year and two Finals MVPs between them.
Except...we don't have to bend the rules to include Iguodala.
Last season, Green, Durant and Pachulia posted a plus-21.9 net rating in 641 minutes.
Did that have something to do with the fact that those three played most of their minutes—532, to be exact—with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson manning the guard spots? Sure, but it's still compelling that Pachulia hardly dragged the group down.
We know Green is the league's best defensive player. We know Durant is its most efficient high-volume scorer after watching him become the sixth player in history to average 25 points per game and post a true shooting percentage above 65 percent. They're the standouts.
Pachulia is an intelligent passer and a bruising screen-setter who keeps opposing bigs off the glass—he notably neutralized Tristan Thompson in the Finals—and never gets caught trying to do too much. Maybe 6.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists don't look impressive, but it's clear he's a positive contributor.
And anyway, Green and Durant are both top-10 players in the league. Alone, they're enough to form the best frontcourt. Pachulia's unheralded play is the cherry on top.