NBA centers are the biggest of the behemoths, possessing a frightening combination of size and strength. They’re usually in the best position to score because they set up closest to the basket, and are typically the final fortress of a team’s defense.
This list does not take into account a player’s future prospects or past salad days. The criteria is simple: Which NBA center is best suited to being an integral part of a championship team this year.
Due to the way some NBA lineups are presently constructed, a handful of teams have two potential centers in their lineup. For that reason, Antonio McDyess, Pao Gasol, Amare Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, Ben Wallace, and Jeff Foster are listed as power forwards, as they will probably play the power forward position in their team’s starting lineups.
No rookies made the list, as neither you nor I have seen them play in meaningful games against meaningful competition to know where they should be ranked. By all accounts, Greg Oden will be good. Nobody can accurately say how good.
With that said, the list:
1) Yao Ming—Houston Rockets
When Yao's healthy, he has the right combination of strength, finesse, offense, and defense to be the best center in the game. He’s an uncanny mid-range jump shooter, a willing passer, and he’s comfortable in either box, though he has a noticeable hitch in his hook shots which allow smaller players chances to alter or block the attempt.
Also, because of his towering height, dribbling is a problem, as is passing on the move —meaning turnovers will always plague him.
He’s intelligent, humble to a fault, a terrific rebounder, and sets earth-shattering screens because referees let him move while setting them.
On defense, his massive frame is his best weapon as he towers over any attempts to post him up. Players with face-up skills cause him difficulty, and he’s often a half-step slow against ball-penetration.
Considering how crude Dwight Howard’s offensive arsenal and defensive instincts are, Yao is the reigning center supreme in the NBA until Howard’s brain catches up with his body.
2) Dwight Howard—Orlando Magic
Howard is already the best rebounder in the entire league, sets bone-breaking screens, is a ferocious dive-cutter, and is a gifted shot blocker. When he’s able to use his massive shoulders to muscle away an opposing defender, he has an effective, if simple, right hook from the left box, and a left hook from the right box with virtually no counter moves.
On defense, Howard is still learning the nuances of timing, footwork, and how to attack ball-penetrations, though his court-awareness is very low. Good post players and penetrators aren’t discouraged by Howard’s presence, and in an offense without Orlando’s spacing, his production would be limited to put-backs and the occasional right hook.
Still, the sky is the limit for this phenomenally talented youngster.
3) Rasheed Wallace—Detroit Pistons
If Rasheed Wallace wanted to, he could easily be number one on this list. His post moves and reverse-pivot counters are infinitely more advanced than anything Ming or Howard can put up in the low post.
He has range out to the three-point line. He’s a physical rebounder and screen-setter who can also handle some and pass. He’s an elite defender, both on-ball and on help.
Too bad he’s a coward who prefers to wallow aimlessly at the three-point line, and blames others (teammates, coaches, referees) for his shortcomings.
4) Tyson Chandler—New Orleans Hornets
Sure, his only offensive moves include dunks and tip-ins, but his defensive skills and athleticism are second-to-none.
The best all-around defensive center in the game, Chandler can guard the post, block a shot from the weak side, and even hang on the perimeter against big men with face-up skills.
Chandler is also smart enough to know when to set screens, and when to slip them and catch Chris Paul’s lob passes for dunks. He changes games with his defense and his athleticism alone.
5) Zydrunas Ilgauskas—Cleveland Cavaliers
Ilgauskas’ massive frame and long wingspan make him an elite post defender and rebounder, even against players with quicker first steps and first jumps. Zyggy Il also features a feathery jumper and an array of nifty hooks, turnarounds, and reverse pivot fadeaways with his back to the basket.
Unfortunately for Cavs fans, injuries have wrecked his feet, and Ilguaskas is a challenger for slowest player in the league. And while his post-up game is refined, it isn’t really potent.
Still, his power defense has been one of the main components to Cleveland’s exceptional defensive squads the last handful of seasons.
6) Shaquille O’Neal—Phoenix Suns
Shaq’s proven that he can still score around the basket with tremendous success, bang with slower players in the post, and take up space in the paint—which by itself is an effective form of defense.
As always, any opponent who can turn-and-face, and any screen/rolls targeting the Big Diesel will undoubtedly result in open shots. The difference was that in the past, teams could live with the tradeoff, since Shaq was single-handedly decimating opposing frontlines.
If not for the inconsistencies, the question marks, and the downright lack of prolific centers below Shaq on the list, he’d probably be farther down.
7) Andrew Bynum—Los Angeles Lakers
Bynum has a blooming right handed sky-hook, and a duck-under counter going back to his left, but all his post moves are predicated on finesse. He’s too small to be an effective screen-setter, though he’ll slip and cut with the best of them.
On defense, he’s frail and easily confused, traits that should gradually improve with age. Boxing out is another aspect Bynum hasn’t grasped yet.
What Bynum does have is valley upon valley of untapped athleticism, and the speed and agility to succeed off the ball in the triangle. He’s still a work in progress—albeit a talented one.
8) Al Jefferson—Minnesota Timberwolves
Jefferson’s undersized, and is a center only on the Timberwolves, but the man is powerful near the basket and is a threat for 20-plus points against any defender.
His defense improved last year, but is still a problem, as is passing, and stretching his offensive game out beyond ten feet.
Still, A.J. has developed into a reliable rebounder and post scorer on a team with absolutely no other offense. He’s the last guy on the list capable of someday being a good team’s centerpiece.
9) Mehmet Okur—Utah Jazz
A bit of an anomaly, Okur’s defense is all power, and his offense is all finesse. He has easily the best range of any center in the league—well beyond the three-point line. He also has an effective, if awkward, pull-up jumper, and will crash the boards with as much force as anybody.
He’s a solid post defender, though players who can spin quickly, or turn-and-go, leave him in the dust. Because he’s devoid of athleticism, Okur is subpar as a help defender, unable to block shots or get in front of players attacking the basket.
Since defending the post is one of the biggest concerns a team can have, and teams can rarely adjust to a three-point shooting seven-footer, Okur earns his bones in the top ten.
10) Jermaine O’Neal—Toronto Raptors
O’Neal’s always been overly content shooting 20-foot jumpers, and venturing into the low post only when being defended by a weaker, inferior player. He can’t pass, is turnover prone, is soft mentally and physically, is defenseless, overpaid, and a gust of wind can break his bones.
He’s athletic enough to sometimes put up points, but is one of the games true overrated players. Still, 20 points is 20 points, and there aren't too many dynamic forces behind him in the list.
11) Chris Kaman—Los Angeles Clippers
Kaman isn’t dynamic enough to carry a franchise, but he does a number of things reasonably well. His swinging hooks, more often than not, are effective, he’ll try to make the appropriate pass, he’ll rebound, he’ll work hard, and he’ll defend.
12) Udonis Haslem—Miami Heat
Out of position at center, Haslem is a rottweiler, who’ll loyally perform any defensive job with a perfect combination of skill and aggression. He’ll lock down post-threats as well as big men who can turn and face. He’s a bear on both backboards, and is exceptional at screening and floating out to the wing to knock down 18-footers.
Haslem’s overall offensive game is limited, and he can be overpowered by stronger players on the defensive end. In truth, the less you ask of him, the better he’ll perform, especially offensively. Still, Haslem’s a fighter, and an underappreciated role player.
13) Kurt Thomas—San Antonio Spurs
Thomas can still defend the post as well as anybody in the league, and his mid-range baseline jumpers still ring true time and again. He’s getting up there in age, but he’s still reliable.
14) Emeka Okafor—Charlotte Bobcats
Okafor certainly is athletic, can rebound, and can block shots, but that’s virtually all he can do. He’s never developed any legit offensive moves, and gets all his points by crashing the glass, or crude, clumsy post moves.
On defense, Okafor’s athletic, but fragile, and can be pushed around easily by bigger, stronger players. Whether it’s been injuries or Sam Vincent’s inept coaching, Okafor’s never developed into what he was projected to be.
15) Andrew Bogut—Milwaukee Bucks
Bogut’s too slow, too unathletic, and isn’t talented enough to come close to justify being the first pick in the NBA draft in 2005. However, he’s big enough to be an adequate post defender, is a skilled passer, and has a decent right-handed hook around the basket. He’s mediocrity personified, which lands him smack dab in the middle of the list.
16) DeSagana Diop—Dallas Mavericks
Diop is probably the best post defender in the league, thanks to his diligent work ethic, quick feet, and massive frame. He’ll even move his feet on switches., and uses angles well to hang with guards and wings for a beat or two before being outraced.
His screens are massive, but he has poor awareness offensively and no refined offensive skill to hang his hat on. He can’t pass, or shoot, and is turnover-prone.
17) Anderson Varejao—Cleveland Cavaliers
When Varejao isn’t doing Sideshow Bob imitations, he’s actively defending, constantly hustling, rebounding, running, jumping, and flopping. His offensive game is non-existent, but he’s a madman on defense where his quickness and unbridled energy enable him to be a quality defender in the league.
18) Samuel Dalembert—Philadelphia 76ers
Dalembert is a big-time shot-blocker who’s much better defending from the weak side than the strong side as he can be attacked directly by stronger players. On offense, Dalembert has a somewhat reliable 16-footer, though he hoists too many bad shots for somebody with limited range and an iffy jumper.
19) Al Horford—Atlanta Hawks
Horford isn’t a very good defensive center yet, though the commitment to playing defense is certainly there. While he has the strength, Horford has to get tougher and be less disinclined to bump and bang. His post moves are limited, though he has a reliable elbow jumper and is a powerful rebounder.
In actuality, Horford is a power forward playing center on the Hawks only because of the franchise’s lack of quality big men.
20) Brad Miller—Sacramento Kings
While his numbers certainly look stable enough, Miller is one of the softest, slowest, most defenseless players in the entire league. His only skills that stand out are his elbow jump-shooting (easily duplicated by many), and his wonderful passwork (duplicated only by a select few).
There’s more to being a good center than simply being able to pick-and-pop and pass.
21) Kendrick Perkins—Boston Celtics
Perkins is a goon, and I mean that with all due affection. He’s a great post defender, but his tireless motor and his non-stop desire to bump and bang leave him in perpetual foul trouble. He’s not shy to take you out down a screen, nor does he care about your personal safety going up for a rebound.
He’s also smart enough to find holes in a teams defense leading to easy dunks and layups. If he can avoid foul trouble, he’ll get more playing time and become a better center.
22) Andris Biedrins—Golden State Warriors
Biedrins is one of the most active bigs in the league, scrambling around, blocking shots, and rebounding defensively, while slipping screens and collecting tip-ins offensively.
However, Biedrins is too lean to be a good individual defender, and he has no offensive game to rely on. There are better hustler/scrapper types out there.
23) Eddy Curry—New York Knicks
When Curry is able to catch the ball with a foot in the paint, he’s unstoppable.
However, that’s seriously all he can do. He can’t run, he can’t jump, he can’t pass, he can’t move, he can’t fight for position, he can’t score unless he’s six feet or closer to the hoop, and until he improves those deficiencies, he can’t be higher than twenty-third on my list.
24) Brendan Haywood—Washington Wizards
If Haywood is supposed to have a big-time post game, how come he never shows it off? If Haywood is supposed to be a good rebounder, how come 7.2 is his career high, set on a team with no other rebounders?
He’s not an impact defender, and often falls into foul trouble, curtailing his minutes and production. Haywood’s fool’s gold, and not worth the time.
25) Rasho Nesterovic—Indiana Pacers
Nesterovic is large enough to give post scorers a big bang and push them farther off the block than they’re accustomed. If he’s slow, he’s sturdy, and smart enough to move to the right help spots on defense, and open areas on offense when his defender turns his head.
There are far worse options than having to rely on Nesterovic as a starter—though in a perfect world, he’d be a good backup on a good team.
26) Joel Pryzbilla—Portland Trail Blazers
Pryzbilla is a big, strong, cumbersome creature able to defend in the shadow of the basket, and rebound on the defensive glass. Foul trouble is part of his repertoire, but offensive skills aren’t. He doesn’t do much, but he does it well.
27) Erick Dampier—Dallas Mavericks
The word “Dampier” in the dictionary is listed as a synonym for “foul trouble.” Sure Dampier is big, sure he’s strong, but he can never stay on the court, and isn’t as tough as he looks.
This can be proved by examining how Tyson Chandler pushed him around with ease during last year’s playoffs, forcing Dampier to reaffirm his toughness by shoving Chris Paul late in a blowout Game Three loss.
Dampier is consistently unreliable.
28) Darko Milicic—Memphis Grizzlies
Milicic is slow, he’s lazy, he’s defenseless, he’s hands are made of concrete, he blames others instead of working to improve himself, and he always takes short cuts.
Clearly, Darko is one of the biggest losers in the NBA.
What saves Milicic is the fact that he’s stronger than some NBA creampuffs, and is able to sometimes execute bulky and mechanical hooks and step-throughs against the league’s weaker players. That’s it.
29) Nene Hillario—Denver Nuggets
Nene has the talent to be higher up on this list. He’s got a quick first step and is athletic when facing the basket. He has crude but effective moves with his back to the basket. He’s an earnest rebounder and a willing defender.
Unfortunately for his sake, he simply can’t stay healthy enough to show off his talents.
30) Sean Williams—New Jersey Nets
Williams is still learning the ins-and-outs of the NBA, but he’s a fantastic athlete with often spectacular shot-blocking skills. Unfortunately, he’s deficient in just about every other area of his game.