Ranking New-and-Improved Anderson Varejao with NBA's Best Centers

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 28, 2012

Ranking New-and-Improved Anderson Varejao with NBA's Best Centers

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    The definition of an NBA center has become so confounding that the league actually removed the position from the All-Star Game ballot earlier this year (via NBA.com).

    The hybrid bigs of today's NBA often enjoy minutes at both the center and power forward positions. There are power forwards playing center, small forwards playing power forwards and backcourts with two point guards.

    Somewhere (probably along the white, sandy beaches of Maui), Hall of Famer Don Nelson is smiling. If the league hasn't fully embraced his small-ball style, the NBA has taken enough elements from it that it's now approaching copyright infringement. 

    But true centers still carry their massive weight around NBA circles. It's the reason that Golden State (Andrew Bogut) and Philadelphia (Andrew Bynum) gambled on a few high-priced, injury-prone players within the past calendar year. Or why Indiana dished out a cool $58 million to keep Roy Hibbert in the navy and gold.

    But who's the best center in the NBA? Cleveland coach Byron Scott says right now it's Anderson Varejao, according to Fox Sports Ohio's Sam Amico. That's awfully high praise, but just how off-base is it really?

    All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 11/26/2012.

10. Tyson Chandler (NYK)

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    Notable numbers

    11.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 70.4 field-goal percentage

    Making the argument

    Besides anchoring the improved Knicks defense, Chandler's are-you-kidding-me field-goal percentage is more than 10 percentage points higher than any player averaging 25-plus minutes.

    But defense is still his calling card. His defensive energy has infected some of his previously offensive-only teammates. The Knicks are talking on defense and rotating crisply.

    That line of defensive communication starts with Chandler, and the big man has the Big Apple thinking championship thoughts. His field-goal percentage will level out at some point, but so will his blocks (career low 0.7 per game).

    If this was a ranking of defensive centers, it'd be tough to keep him out of the top spot. But a developing, well-rounded game has him edging out Kevin Garnett, Roy Hibbert and Nikola Pekovic for the list's final spot.

9. DeMarcus Cousins (SAC)

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    Notable numbers

    16.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals

    Making the argument

    If one thing is holding him back from moving up this list, it's DeMarcus Cousins. He's his own worst enemy.

    Given his size (6'11", 270 lbs.) and athleticism, there's a handful of players in the league that even stand a chance matching up with him. He's one of the few bigs with the handles and quickness to grab a defensive rebound and initiate a fast break.

    But he has to learn to check his emotions. He bothered members of Team USA with his immature play during scrimmages with Cousins' USA Men's Select Team. For a Kings franchise hungry for leadership, Sacramento needs him to figure things out quickly to keep their younger players from being affected.

8. Al Horford (ATL)

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    Notable numbers

    15.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 54.5 field-goal percentage

    Making the argument

    The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week (via usatoday.com), Horford has played a large role in keeping the Atlanta Hawks relevant after the offseason departure of Joe Johnson.

    He's nearly everything a GM looks for when searching for a center. He can score around the basket or step away and hit a mid-range jumper. He's an underrated passer (3.1 assists per game in 2012-13) and a good free-throw shooter. (Expect his surprising 47.2 percent this season to climb back toward his career average of 75.0.)

    If there's room for improvement, it's on the defensive end. While he attacks opposing defenders with a highly skilled finesse approach on offense, Atlanta has to lean on Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson for the defensive toughness that Horford lacks.

7. Anderson Varejao (CLE)

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    Notable numbers

    14.1 points, 14.7 rebounds, 51.0 field-goal percentage

    Making the argument

    Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be given to Varejao is that he maximizes his natural ability.

    Truth be told, he probably plays above his skill level.

    He's limited on offense to mostly putbacks and baskets set up by his teammates. Given that he's now in his ninth NBA season, it's probably a safe bet that an offensive post game just isn't in the cards for him.

    But he doesn't let that keep him from leaving his imprint. He's the league-leading rebounder this season, with two 20-plus rebound efforts already under his belt. Throw in his improved passing ability (3.2 assists per game) and fully charged motor, and Varejao has entrenched himself in the Cavaliers' future and in the discussion of the league's elite big men.

6. Brook Lopez (BKN)

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    Notable numbers

    19.2 points, 2.7 blocks, 54.0 field-goal percentage

    Making the argument

    In terms of scoring, Lopez is as good as it gets at the center position. He'll draw the most attention for his throwback set shots, but he isn't afraid to mix it up near the basket. And he has the kind of footwork and touch to play effectively at the rim.

    His rebounding struggles are well-documented (6.5 in 2012-13), but they often lead to overgeneralized characterizations of Lopez being a finesse player. His shot-blocking numbers have him on pace for a career high, and his rebounds aren't nearly as poor as they were during his injury-riddled 2011-12 campaign (3.6).

    He's not Dwight Howard. But he's far from the dead weight he appeared on his way to being after Brooklyn's attempts to include him in a Howard trade fell through.

5. Marc Gasol (MEM)

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    Notable numbers

    15.3 points, 4.8 assists, 52.1 field-goal percentage

    Making the argument

    He's one-half of the best frontcourt in the NBA (along with Zach Randolph). 

    For fans looking for the source of the Grizzlies' 10-2 start, a lot of the credit has to go to Gasol. He's the best passing center in the NBA. And his high basketball IQ only enhances his passing ability.

    Like Randolph, Gasol has an inside-outside offensive attack that allows the two to rotate between the low and high posts to maximize mismatches. He also plays with the requisite physicality to set momentum-killing picks and has a reliable mid-range jumper to exploit pick-and-pop situations.

    He's also an underrated defender. He's not the most gifted athlete at the position, but his positioning and timing have led to a respectable 1.2 blocks per game. If there's anything keeping him out of the top four, it's his relative rebounding struggles (6.9 per game in 2012-13, 8.0 for his career).

4. Al Jefferson (UTA)

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    Notable numbers

    16.4 points, 10.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks

    Making the argument

    Whether or not Jefferson is good enough to be a franchise center may well determine the pending free agent's future in Utah.

    He has a wide array of post moves and a good enough mid-range jumper to keep defenses honest when he moves away from the basket. If the Jazz could place more reliable outside threats around him, Jefferson could increase his scoring numbers given his post prowess.

    He's also a solid free-throw shooter (78.8 percent in 2012-13), so he's not a player whom coaches are forced to pull off the floor in late-game situations. 

    His contributions aren't limited to the offensive end, either. He attacks the glass on both ends of the floor and uses his length to bother shots around the rim.

3. Chris Bosh (MIA)

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    Notable numbers

    20.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 56.0 field-goal percentage

    Making the argument

    He's a power forward by trade but has accepted his role as the center on Erik Spoelstra's position-less team.

    He has given Miami the necessary interior defensive presence (1.3 blocks per game) for the team to find enough stops to complement the highest scoring offense in the league (104.8 points per game).

    Bosh has quietly surpassed Dwyane Wade as the team's second option, and the offense has become even better. If Bosh moved back to a franchise where he was the first option (something that he proved more than capable of over his seven seasons with Toronto), he could actually improve on these already impressive numbers.

    With range that extends to the three-point line, he has opened the floor for LeBron James to operate in the post. And when Miami desperately needs a basket, Bosh knows his way around the offensive block as well.

2. Tim Duncan (SAS)

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    Notable numbers

    18.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks

    Making the argument

    At 36 years young, Duncan isn't just winning his race with time—he's crushing it.

    The Big Fundamental hasn't gotten better with age, but he has avoided the typical erosion of skills.

    He's the best post scorer of his generation. But his range extends away from the basket, aided by his fundamentally sound approach of using the glass from the wing. He also has the strength to bully his way across the paint and finish running hooks with either hand.

    Defensively, he continues to frustrate opponents with his understanding of defensive schemes and positioning. He's near the league leaders in rebounds (10th) and blocks (sixth).

1. Dwight Howard (LAL)

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    Notable numbers

    18.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.7 blocks

    Making the argument

    Despite being tasked with learning two offensive systems already this season and still working his way back to 100 percent from season-ending back surgery last year, Howard continues to be the benchmark of the position.

    He's already the best defender at the spot—and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year award winner. And when the Lakers find their groove in coach Mike D'Antoni's offensive system, Howard could finish the season as the best offensive center as well.

    The scary thing for his opponents is the fact that the 26-year-old still has room to grow. He uses his strength and athleticism to overcome a work-in-progress offensive post game. Not to mention his unsightly free-throw numbers (49.7 percent in 2012-13) that the Lakers coaching staff will be determined to improve.