B/R NBA 200: Ranking the Top Bigs Heading into 2016-17
Bigs won't dominate 2016-17 NBA highlight reels quite as frequently as guards, but they'll still dominate games. The Association's versatile crop of frontcourt studs is now capable of thriving on both the interior and perimeter, showing off skills previously reserved for littles.
Draymond Green is coming off a year in which he helped lead the Golden State Warriors to a record-setting 73 wins during the regular season, but is he individually superior to Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul Millsap? How high can the frontcourt trio of Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns rise after their respective rookie campaigns?
We aren't projecting how well everyone will perform during the upcoming season, but where they are as 2016-17 gets underway. Thus, we use the end of last season as our starting point. Not every player starts out on level footing, either; The NBA 200 metric identifies those who performed best during the 2015-16 regular campaign*. Potential doesn't matter, and neither does reputation or playoff performance (too variable)—it's all about what happened this past regular season only.
In this edition, we're looking at power forwards (PF), combo bigs (CB) and centers (C). All positions are graded using the same criteria (rim protection was added into the equation for bigger positions), but the categories are weighted differently to reflect changing roles, with max scores in parentheses:
- Scoring (20)
- Non-Scoring Offense: Facilitating (5) and Off-Ball Offense (10)
- Defense: On-Ball (15 for power forwards, 12 for combo bigs and 10 for centers), Off-Ball (15) and Rim Protection (10 for power forwards, 13 for combo bigs and 15 for centers)
- Rebounding (15)
- Durability (10)
For a full explanation of how these scores were determined, go here. And do note these aren't your father's classifications for each position. Spots were determined by how much time was spent at each position throughout the season, largely based on data from Basketball-Reference.com, and we're expanding the traditional five to include four combo positions.
In the case of ties, the order is determined in subjective fashion by ranking the more coveted player in the higher spot. That was done by a voting committee comprised of myself, three B/R National NBA Featured Columnists (Grant Hughes, Zach Buckley and Dan Favale) and B/R Associate NBA Editor (Joel Cordes).
There are 73 bigs considered, so you can click "Next" to start the whole list or skip ahead to Bigs 50-41 if you want.
Note: All statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise indicated. Injury information comes from Pro Sports Transactions. In order to qualify for the rankings, players must have suited up in at least 30 games and logged no fewer than 500 minutes. This intro was adapted from last year's edition.
*Thus, a "retired-in-the-offseason" player like Tim Duncan or Kobe Bryant will still show up here as well. Even though they're (sadly) not playing again, they're a valuable placeholder that helps show where 2016-17's bunch stacks up in comparison at the start of the season.
73. Trey Lyles, PF, Utah Jazz
Can Trey Lyles score? It's easy to believe after he thrived from every range as a rookie, even knocking down 38.3 percent of his three-point attempts and hitting more than 40 percent of his long twos. But the Utah Jazz often had him work as a spot-up player rather than a shot-creator or via scoring opportunities, which depressed his per-game average to a mere 6.1 points.
Lyles will one day be able to space the court as a stretch 4, but his facilitating skills are more questionable. This may stem solely from the team's unwillingness to let him handle the rock, but he had trouble generating assists and finished his first professional campaign with more turnovers than dimes.
No matter how active Lyles may be away from the primary offensive flow, he won't be a quality defensive big until he protects the rim. He hemorrhaged points when not alongside Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert and as the last line of defense. While facing three shots per game (a surprisingly large amount, given his diminished run), he allowed opponents to shoot 55 percent at the hoop.
The issue isn't a lack of volume or an inability to grab contested rebounds, so much as a troubling inconsistency. It's problematic when a guard can't haul in at least half of his rebounding opportunities, but it's far more disturbing when a big can't. Lyles should be thankful he checks the other boxes, because his conversion rate of just 49.9 percent would otherwise be a death knell.
Lyles played 80 games with exactly zero notable injuries, but the Jazz didn't give him a chance to earn a perfect durability score. He averaged just 17.3 minutes and wasn't nearly mobile enough on the defensive end.
Utah should be excited about Lyles' immense two-way potential, but the sharp-shooting big has plenty to work on as his career progresses. He must pick his rebounding opportunities more wisely, show better instincts while playing interior defense and prove he can maintain his impressive shooting percentages with a bigger role.
72. Boban Marjanovic, C, Detroit Pistons
As a per-minute scorer, Boban Marjanovic was unimpeachable. He averaged an even 21 points per 36 minutes while shooting 60.3 percent from the field and 76.3 percent from the charity stripe, displaying touch around the basket and a deft stroke from mid-range. However, the 7'3" behemoth didn't fill a large role for the San Antonio Spurs, relying on his teammates' feeds and putting up his numbers in small doses.
Passing may well be the only distinct weakness here. Marjanovic's ability to space out the court as a shooter certainly didn't qualify, but the 28-year-old struggled to make proper feeds during his rookie season. It was far too easy for opponents to throw double-teams at him in the hopes he'd force up a shot or make an ill-advised attempt to pass back out to the perimeter.
It was brutally difficult to score against Marjanovic in the post or when driving the lane, but his off-ball work failed to meet the same standard. His immobility left him uncomfortable against quick bigs who liked working outside the paint, and he was a liability as soon as he left the restricted area, even if his size sometimes allowed him to recover where other players couldn't.
While it's impressive that the Serbian center recorded 13.7 rebounds per 36 minutes, it's not that relevant when he averaged just over a quarter of that time. He did everything he could in his small sample, but no player is capable of posting elite numbers without more run.
Though the Spurs constantly bounced between activating and deactivating Marjanovic, that was more due to the depth of the team's frontcourt than any injuries the center suffered. He'll get more opportunities to prove he can remain durable now that he's signed with the Detroit Pistons.
Marjanovic played well enough as a rookie that he asserted himself as a nice high-upside gamble—one the Pistons chose to go for. No one truly knows whether the 28-year-old can continue to look this good when filling a larger role, but it's a risk they should be willing to take after he thrived in small doses and posted a jaw-dropping player efficiency rating of 27.7—better than any rookie not named Wilt Chamberlain among those who logged at least 500 minutes.
71. Meyers Leonard, CB, Portland Trail Blazers
So much for those dreams of back-to-back seasons in the 50/40/90 club. Hampered by injuries and a slow release, Meyers Leonard could only connect on 44.8 percent of his field-goal attempts, 37.7 percent of his treys and 76.1 percent of his shots from the stripe. That's still not terrible for a stretchy big, but it represented severe regression for a young player who didn't start creating any more of his own looks.
Despite the shooting slump, Leonard continued to draw defensive attention. The slowness of his shooting motion allowed opponents to close out with ease, but they still had to pay mind or risk giving up a momentum-swinging bucket. As for his passing, it improved, but not without the Portland Trail Blazers suffering some extra turnovers.
Leonard was decent on the ball—he could read and react to post moves, and his lateral quickness allowed him to avoid tricky situations against smaller players. His off-ball defense was similarly mediocre, though he struggled immensely against spot-up shooters. It was his rim protection, however, that needed the most work. Allowing opponents to shoot 52.5 percent at the rim is less than ideal for anyone who spends time at the 5.
Leonard's rebounding plummeted as he filled a bigger role. He did a nice job converting his chances and showed strong form while boxing out, but he was too content to let the ball elude him when it was a bit outside his vicinity. The aggression after a shot went up all but disappeared.
Leonard dislocated his left shoulder twice, ultimately requiring surgery to fix the issue. The malady kept him out 21 games, and it's not like he was filling a ridiculously large role when healthy.
A strong breakout candidate heading into the 2015-16 season, Leonard failed to live up to the hype. Injuries didn't aid his case, but it was troubling that his shooting percentages declined across the board, he stopped protecting the rim and he couldn't maintain his skill on the boards while filling a bigger spot in the rotation. He's still filled with potential, but we now have to temper the long-term expectations.
70. Alex Len, C, Phoenix Suns
The biggest positive for Alex Len as a scorer is his ability to create some of his own offense. Though the rare triples he makes are always the result of passes, he only needed assists on 66.9 percent of his two-point makes and showed an improved ability to score in the post. Now, the big man desperately needs to develop a consistent jumper.
Opponents had no reason to fear Len's offense unless he caught the ball right around the hoop. He was a woeful spot-up shooter from the perimeter who could safely be left free in open space, and he had no idea how to facilitate on the rare occasions he wound up with the ball. Not many of Len's turnovers resulted from bad passes, but it was still troubling that he coughed the ball up so frequently without making many plays for his teammates.
Masterful as Len may have been on defense during his sophomore season, his junior year failed to prove that was anything but a fluke. He was average (or worse) in every area, failing to stand out for post defense, close-outs against shooters or deterrence at the rim. The Phoenix Suns have to hope that, not the 2014-15 campaign, was the real fluke.
Len has consistently improved on the glass throughout his professional career, and the trend continued in 2015-16. Only a lack of playing time kept him from perfection in this category, since he produced an impressive number of per-minute chances, thrived when boards were contested and converted a lofty percentage of his opportunities.
Alex Len played 78 games, only missing time to recover from a sprained left hand and right ankle. But with a smaller role, he needed perfect attendance to earn the perfect durability score.
Even if Len doesn't develop a jumper, he'll retain value as a dominant rebounder and solid defensive presence who can score easy buckets around the basket. That halt in growth would keep him in the smaller role he currently occupies for Phoenix, but it's better than flaming out entirely. Of co