Big Man Power Rankings: Is Joel Embiid Really the NBA's Most Skilled?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 30, 2017

Big Man Power Rankings: Is Joel Embiid Really the NBA's Most Skilled?

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    James Harden is ready to crown Joel Embiid the king of NBA big men.

    "Offensively, he's just skilled, man," Harden said in a postgame interview Friday. "He's probably the most skilled big man we have in this league, man. Shooting the three at a high level, 7'2", finishing about the basket, making plays for his teammates. And then defensively, he blocked my shot. He's everywhere, man. He has a bright future, and Philly has got something special here."

    What about the rest of us, though? Are we prepared to declare Embiid's meteoric rise through the Association's jumbo-sized participants complete? Or is he still, as Harden also indicates, working toward a future takeover?

    We must dive through the NBA's expanding slough of giants to find the answer.

    This trek will visit only players who spend time at power forward and/or center without soaking up minutes at traditional wing positions. (i.e. Kevin Durant and LeBron James sometimes function like towers, but it's unfair to pit Embiid and the rest of the league's biggies against them.)

    Career context and future upside will be used for anecdotal purposes throughout, but this is neither a reflective nor predictive activity. We are interested in the NBA's best bigs for this season only.

Honorable Mentions: Nos. 20 to 16

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    20. Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets

    Here's every NBA player who has averaged at least 20 points per game while posting Brook Lopez's current assist (16.8), block (4.3) and three-point (35.9) percentages: No one.

    19. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

    Andre Drummond collects double-doubles in his sleep and has never met a rim he couldn't destroy. But his value has peaked on both offense and defense, and it's definitely time to start asking if he can be the best player on a contender. Especially when he's not even the Detroit Pistons' best player now. (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a beast, by the way.)

    18. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

    Sneaking into the top 20 is a fantastic accomplishment for Myles Turner. He is looped into the same circle as Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns, and deservedly so—after all, he has unicorn tendencies too.

    As he becomes a better passer and more dependable scorer, expect him to vault another 10 to 15 spots up this ladder.

    17. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

    Hassan Whiteside's situation is complicated. The Miami Heat aren't goodrecent seven-game win streak notwithstandingand he doesn't make them markedly better.

    But this is Whiteside's first season without veteran safety nets surrounding him, and he's still finding ways to obliterate box scores. This is the second time he's surpassing 17 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks per 36 minutes—splits that, until he came along, had only been posted by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes, Robert Parish and Bill Walton.

     

    16. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks

    Dwight Howard is everything he's always been: a devastating pick-and-roll finisher, quality rim protector and bouncy defender. He is older and still cycles through too many post-ups, but the Atlanta Hawks wouldn't be on course for 47 victories without him.

    Just Missed the Cut: 21. Serge Ibaka, Orlando Magic; 22. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder; 23. Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves; 24. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs; 25. Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors.

Honorable Mentions: Nos. 15 to 11

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    15. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks

    Kristaps Porzingis is a 7'3" center playing power forward for a New York Knicks outfit that doesn't generate enough meaningful ball movement or know how to utilize its rim-runners. Imagine how good he could be for a team that lets him play center and, most importantly, knew what in the actual heck it was doing.

    14. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Kevin Love is averaging more than 20 points and 11 rebounds per game while swishing almost 38 percent of his triples. You can make a top-10 case for him without inciting laughter. But third-wheel Love isn't as flashy a passer, and his defense, though improved in some areas, doesn't inspire confidence.

    13. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

    LaMarcus Aldridge isn't the San Antonio Spurs' most valuable player on either end of the court, but his production is steady. He's clearing 17 points, seven rebounds and two assists per game while shooting almost 50 percent from the floor, showcasing a little bit of everything that compelled San Antonio to sign him in the first place.

    Mix in a higher defensive IQ compared to his days with the Portland Trail Blazers, and Aldridge's star is constant—not rising, but far from falling.

    12. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

    Blake Griffin would have surely displaced a member of the top 10 if he didn't miss more than 40 percent of the Los Angeles Clippers' crusade. On the bright side, his protracted absence wasn't enough to yank him from the Terrific 12 (or whatever).

    Despite appearing in just 28 games, Griffin has added more points to the Clippers' bottom line (59.79) than Aldridge has contributed to the Spurs' efforts (59.76), according to NBA Math.

    11. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

    So much of DeAndre Jordan's offensive worth is tethered to supporting factors, but he has transformed into a viable defensive cornerstone.

    This is the third season in which he's grabbed more than 30 percent of available defensive rebounds on the floor with a block rate north of three. Dwight Howard and Hassan Whiteside are the only active players who have done the same more than once.

10. Al Horford, Boston Celtics

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    Age: 30

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.7 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting

    Al Horford is proof it's possible to be a slight disappointment while remaining one of the NBA's most valuable bigs.

    It's tough to detract too much when he's missed one-quarter of the season. but his defensive rebounding percentage is near a career low, and the Boston Celtics' defensive rating craters with him in the game.

    Any of Horford's struggles on the less glamorous end are mostly owed to the lineups in which he plays. Isaiah Thomas is a liability no matter how hard he tries, and that throws off Boston's half-court stands. Even so, Horford leads all Celtics in defensive points saved, according to NBA Math.

    You (probably) can't construct a league-best defense with him as the main fulcrum, but that's hardly a knock—especially given everything he does on the offensive end.

    "Despite the fact that he is tallying an unimpressive (though expected) 15.5 points per game, Boston's offense averages 113.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 103.7 points per 100 possessions when he sits," Bleacher Report's Michael Pina underscored. "That's the difference between the Golden State Warriors' slaughterhouse and whatever it is the Chicago Bulls think they're doing."

    Good luck finding a big with better court vision than Horford. DeMarcus Cousins and Nikola Jokic are the only centers sporting higher assist percentages, and the threat of Horford's almost-average outside touch exponentially boosts his team's spacing.

9. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Age: 21

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks, 59.3 percent shooting

    This isn't about Nikola Jokic's nightly detonations since returning to the Denver Nuggets' starting five as its lone big.

    OK, fine, before being forced out of action with a hip injury, he was averaging 20.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 62.5 percent shooting—including a 37.5 percent clip—over a 19-game span.

    "I feel," Jokic said, per the Denver Post's Nick Kosmider, "like I can do anything on the court."

    No kidding. Jokic is one of the few bigs through which an NBA offense runs. He routinely leads fast breaks, has great vision off the bounce and anticipates off-ball movement better than any other skyscraper.

    Denver places first in points scored per 100 possessions since tabbing Jokic for starter's duty, with a top-four assist rate and effective field-goal percentage. This is not a coincidence; those standings improve whenever the 6'10" whiz kid is in the fold.

    Jokic does need to become more of a defensive asset over the long haul. He is a wild card when protecting the rim and still learning how to defend in one-on-one situations—two developments complicated by the Nuggets' absence of plus-stoppers around him.

    That's not enough to strip Jokic of a top-10 designation. He has the smarts to improve and will only get better—a terrifying thought knowing how good he is now.

8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Age: 24

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.6 blocks, 65.8 percent shooting

    Rudy Gobert is good enough on the defensive end alone to skate into this discussion.

    Opponents are shooting a mind-meltingly low 43.3 percent against him at the rim, even though he has challenged nearly 100 more such shots than anyone else. It's scientifically impossible to catch him sleeping on pick-and-rolls, and back-to-the-basket brutes would be better off trying to score versus a miles-high and -long brick wall.

    Not surprisingly, Gobert ranks third overall in points saved for the league's second-best defense, according to NBA Math. Somewhat surprisingly, he has thrust himself into All-NBA territory with a more expansive offensive armory.

    While the Utah Jazz don't use Gobert as a featured weapon, he's averaging an impressive 1.15 points per post-up possession. He's shooting better than 60 percent off cuts and as a pick-and-roll diver, and the screens he sets are a ball-handler's dream. If Gobert ever pairs his current body of work with quicker passes or reliable accuracy outside eight feet of the bucket, he'll morph into a fuller offensive dynamo.

    In the meantime, he's added about as much value to Utah's offense, per NBA math, as Nicolas Batum has to the Charlotte Hornets' machine.

7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Age: 22

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.5 blocks, 46.6 percent shooting

    Controversy! (Except not really.)

    There is no question Joel Embiid's already a star, or that he absolutely belongs on a list slighting LaMarcus Aldridge, half-season Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, among others. Tim Duncan and David Robinson are the only rookies in league history to match Embiid's scoring, rebound, assist and block averages. No player of any experience level has ever sustained his per-36-minute output.

    There is a calming smoothness to the way Embiid plays. It belies his age and trickles down the rest of the Philadelphia 76ers squad. He commits a bunch of turnovers and burns through a ton of possessions, but his teammates feed off his aggression.

    Defenses collapse around Embiid whether he's in the post or putting the ball on the floor. Philly's starters, with the exception of Nik Stauskas, shoot lights-out from three when he gets them the ball.

    Embiid is also anchoring what has been the Eastern Conference's best defense since Nov. 10—a streak-turned-new normal that has spanned 38 games. The Sixers are outscoring opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions during this time with him on the court, a net rating that would rank fifth overall for the year.

    "When he has been healthy, he hasn't had to adjust to the NBA," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote. "The NBA has had to adjust to him."

    What remains to be seen is whether Embiid's world-domination tour will hold steady once he's playing both ends of back-to-backs and free from a minutes cap. His continued excellence seems like a formality, but until it's put into practice under normal circumstances, he's the future more than the present.

6. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks

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    Age: 31

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks, 44.1 percent shooting

    Please don't make the mistake of forgetting that Paul Millsap is amazing.

    The counting stats speak for themselves: Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant are the only other players clearing 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and one block per game.

    Like them, Millsap is equal parts wings and big. He is at his best with his back toward the basket, but defenses have to respect his jumper. His pump fake is among the most convincing in the league, and he's turned into a lethal one-on-one option, averaging an absurd 1.09 points per possession.

    Few players are as adaptive on the defensive end, either. The Hawks have him flying around in a Draymond Green-like capacity, zipping between an unfathomable number of play types. No other player, in fact, has defended as many ball-handler (38) and rim-runner (69) possessions in the pick-and-roll.

    Somehow, Millsap continues to fly under the superstar radar—a darn shame when he's one of the most valuable talents, period.

5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Age: 21

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.5 blocks, 50.7 percent shooting

    Hey! Remember Karl-Anthony Towns? The dude who was doing the unicorn thing before a not-insignificant number of fans realized Nikola Jokic wasn't a made-up "My Player" legend from NBA 2K? Who was so good as a rookie that people thought the Timberwolves would be playoff locks under head coach Tom Thibodeau?

    Yeah, him. He's still ridiculously good. And we shouldn't forget or downplay it simply because the Association is overrun with potential All-NBA bigs.

    Minnesota's defensive warts coupled with its 11-26 start has helped mask Towns' terrific season. His defense remains spotty, even as the Timberwolves have posted a top-seven rating over their last 23 games. But two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard himself would go batcrap crazy trying to chase around the most difficult 4-5 assignments while logging heavy minutes behind Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins.

    Towns is nevertheless giving more than he's taking on defense. He does a nice job recovering when he over-helps and is learning how to survive in space.

    Playing even average defense is a boon for offensive monsters such as Towns. His outside touch is still rounding into form (33.5 percent), but he's one of the NBA's most underrated passers. DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez are the only other bigs topping 20 points per game while matching Towns' assist percentage (14.8), and he has the highest effective field-goal percentage (54.0) of the quartet.

4. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Age: 32

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.5 blocks, 46.9 percent shooting

    Correct: At age 32, almost a decade into his career, Marc Gasol has reinvented his game without enduring a learning curve. 

    Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale wanted him to shoot threes, so Gasol is shooting threes...at a 40.7 percent clip. He is setting personal highs in points, assists, field-goal attempts and usage rate, but his efficiency hasn't waned.

    Not even those eager to usher in the next era of superstructures can deny Gasol's late-career brilliance. Take what Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer while arguing for Joel Embiid as the NBA's best two-way high-rise:

    "Embiid is in a category of his own. He’s one of the best two rim protectors in the NBA, as well as one of the most offensively skilled 7-footers. Gobert could not do what Embiid does on offense, while Cousins and [Anthony] Davis could not do what Embiid does on defense. The one other guy who pops up near the top of every category is Marc Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year who has expanded his shooting range this season and is playing at a career-high level on offense."

    Gasol will never wow the masses with his rebounding percentages or block totals. The Grizzlies prefer him to get back on defense rather than chase second-chance scoring opportunities, and his rim protection is prided on verticality, not his vertical.

    Still, finding a more well-rounded and consistent big is an exercise in futility. Just three players are duplicating Gasol's offensive and defensive value per 100 possessions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—not one of whom is a fellow giant.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.4 blocks, 44.6 percent shooting

    Draymond Green's placement is only controversial if you don't consider him a big—or if you think he's being unjustly penalized for offensive regression while playing beside Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

    Perhaps there's something to the second argument. But the first one holds no weight. Green, despite standing 6'7" (in moon boots), spends most of his time at power forward, and almost 25 percent of his spin comes at center.

    Try singling out a more important defensive component, and you'll fail. Green remains the heart and soul of Golden State's league-lording fortress. His stinginess at the rim is rivaled in volume and efficiency by only Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Kristaps Porzingis, and he has challenged more overall shots than anyone not named Robin Lopez or Gobert.

    Green's cross-position stands are irreplaceable to the Warriors' scheme, even with Durant bent on stealing Defensive Player of the Year votes. Green can get torched switching on pick-and-rolls, like most other bigs, but he's defended more ball-handler sets than anyone on this list—in addition to more isolation possessions than anyone else in the league

    Offensive drop-off was unavoidable following Durant's addition, and Green's plunging three-point success rate (32 percent) is a concern. But he once again paces the Warriors in dime percentage and racks up enough screen assists to be a noticeable plus—even a historical plus.

    According to NBA Math, Green is on track to add more than 80 points to Golden State's offensive cause while saving more than 250 points on the defensive side—benchmarks reached by just five other players in the three-point era: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.

2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

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    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.4 blocks, 45.3 percent shooting

    Folks who want to crown DeMarcus Cousins this year's No. 1 big person are forgetting two things: There is an untweezed superhuman in New Orleans, and regular defensive interest matters.

    "If he was the best big man in the game, his team wouldn't rank 25th defensively (in the bottom 10 for the sixth straight season)," NBA.com's John Schuhmann wrote. "Being the best big man in the game requires consistent effort on both ends of the floor and the leadership that Cousins is lacking."

    The Sacramento Kings have since dropped to 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions and are 29th over their last 25 contests.

    Adjust the scope however you want; they don't improve at all with Cousins in the lineup.

    Complete defensive implosions are not on the league's most enigmatic superstar alone. Possession-by-possession letdowns are still there. He doesn't always get back in transition and wastes too much time chirping after no-calls. But he has never been more engaged overall, and offenses are having a tougher time destroying him off switches.

    Apply Cousins' defensive interest across an entire season, and others will have a hard time catching up. Keeping pace with him is already a tall task, because it's nigh impossible to do on the offensive end.

    Prime-time Kevin Garnett is the only other spire to clear 20 points per game with an assist percentage north of 25. Account for Cousins' actual scoring average or knack for knocking down triples, and he'll stand alone—an unprecedented offensive talent who is a defensive baby step or five away from a total takeover. 

1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Age: 23

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.8 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.3 blocks, 50 percent shooting

    We are starting to take Anthony Davis for granted, largely because an influx of talented young bigs has coincided with the New Orleans Pelicans' extended stay in the mud.

    DeMarcus Cousins is the only real competition to Davis' spot—a two-man heat that's close but not really that close.

    Where Cousins is the better passer and more accomplished floor-spacer, Davis is the more trustworthy defender. With the exception of a brief spell at the beginning of 2015-16, his commitment to stops has never wavered amid the Pelicans' longstanding malaise. And he's validating his value as a defensive centerpiece now more than ever.

    New Orleans is sixth in defensive efficiency and forfeits fewer points per 100 possessions when Davis takes the court. He equals, if not transcends, Cousins' value when switching onto smaller players, and shimmying between power forward and center duties doesn't mitigate his effectiveness one bit.

    That the Pelicans offense is often a clumpy muck has nothing to do with Davis. His usage rate has never been higher, and yet he's shooting a tick better from the field than he was last season (49.3 percent).

    Honing his three-point touch is imperative if Davis is to stave off future surges from Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Cousins et al. But we can at least envision him becoming a more intimidating threat; he's shooting better than 42 percent just inside the arc.

    Not that Davis necessarily needs to get much better. Draymond Green of the championship-contending Warriors is the lone big sniffing his per-100-possession value on both offense and defense.

    So for all this talk about the up-and-comers and Cousins, Davis remains the best of them all.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on Sunday.