NBA Position Power Rankings: Top 10 Centers Before 2017-18 Season Tips Off

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 9, 2017

NBA Position Power Rankings: Top 10 Centers Before 2017-18 Season Tips Off

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    What do we call someone who says the NBA's center position is losing its luster?

    A liar.

    Small-ball lineups continue to take the league by storm, and many of them spell the demise for certain bigs. But not everyone is feeling the stylistic crunch.

    The Association is oversaturated with towers more so on the bench. Most starters still serve a meaningful purpose, and superstar skyscrapers remain superstars, even if they've needed to make adjustments.

    Point being: The center position continues to matter, sweeping changes and all, and this latest pecking order will prove as much.

    Counter to the shooting guard, small forward and power forward hierarchies, the 5 spot doesn't have to worry about as many positional crossovers and conversions. Some players will move across multiple slots, but determining who qualifies as a center is fairly straightforward. Almost all the top guns are career fixtures, while any newbies sliding over from power forward already had the change announced or leaked. (Howdy, Kevin Love.)

    These rankings aim to predict where every player will stand by the end of 2017-18, and that alone. Past performances were taken under advisement, but age, health, projected playing time and role changes (new teammates, playing style adjustments, etc.) were more pivotal to the forecasts.

Nos. 15 to 11

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    15. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

    Age: 23

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.2 blocks, 64.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.4 PER, -0.35 RPM, 32.31 TPA

    Clint Capela is the Gary Harris of bigs: in full command of his role yet underappreciated at every turn.

    Consistency should not be mistaken for simplicity. Capela is a good screener and roller, with length and touch ready-made for catching lobs and finishing on the run, sometimes in tight spaces. Last season, he shot 72.5 percent inside three feet, from where more than three-quarters of his attempts came. He's in the rare position to build upon both quality and quantity from his sweet spots, with James Harden and Chris Paul co-steering the offense.

    Capela's accuracy from the free-throw line is Andre Drummond-esque; he's put in 43.3 percent of his freebies since entering the league. But he fattened that mark to 53.1 percent in 2016-17, and his errancy is tolerable since he's not as high-maintenance as Drummond or Dwight Howard.

    The Houston Rockets don't need to draw up post plays to keep Capela engaged on the defensive side. He nudges and needles his way to rebounds amid thickets of brawn and has his rotations down pat. He's scrawny enough to get pushed around the block, but he compensates with improving switchiness beyond the paint.

    That he's hardly a ball-stopper permits the Rockets to lean on him more—he's never averaged 25 minutes per game—without fear of halting the offense. It helps, too, that Capela is entering a contract year, all but guaranteeing he won't grow weary of doing more of the same.


    14. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

    Age: 24

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 13.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 53.0 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.9 PER, -0.25 RPM, 38.15 TPA

    Placing Drummond this low is not a metaphor for abandoning his bandwagon. He only turned 24 in August, binges on defensive rebounds like they're candy and has all the requisite trimmings to be a high-end shot-swatter and rim protector.

    Last season, however, must go down as a red flag. The Detroit Pistons defense improved by more than nine points per 100 possessions when he left court. His reads around the rim were plain bad, and he's inconsistent in how he attempts to break up pick-and-rolls.

    Detroit placated his ego by feeding him, on average, 4.1 post-ups per game—10th most in the league. He shot under 42 percent on these possessions while vomiting up ill-advised hook shots.

    Drummond doesn't need to do away with the post touches altogether. Bigs should be rewarded for running the floor and working tirelessly on defense. Whether Drummond does the latter is up for debate; either way, though, he needs to establish deeper position before or after entry passes. 

    Dishing the ball back outside is also a must. It helps keep defenses in check and renders the half-court offense a little less scripted. Drummond passed 8.6 percent of the time in the post—the lowest rate among 61 players to receive three or more of those touches.


    13. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Age: 24

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.0 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 16.5 PER, 1.38 RPM, 24.34 TPA

    Steven Adams can be the middle-most mainstay for an elite defense. He's also incredibly interesting to place. He's not overly exceptional in any one area, and the Oklahoma City Thunder's schedule-long love letter to Russell Westbrook minimized a lot of what he does best.

    Opponents packed the paint free from consequence, knowing the offense didn't have the shooters to make them pay. Adams was used to wide-open passageways, so this translated to rougher sledding within the pick-and-roll. And like everyone else on the team, he eschewed rebounding opportunities in search of more triple-doubles for Westbrook.

    Everything changed with the acquisitions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Adams will never be asked to widen his offensive scope, but he will finish as one of the NBA's most efficient pick-and-roll divers.

    This should be a career assist year for him as well. He's always been a willing passer, but only now does Oklahoma City have the snipers for him to hit in the corners while barreling toward the rim.


    12. Brook Lopez, Los Angeles Lakers

    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.7 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.4 PER, 1.95 RPM, 70.34 TPA

    Brook Lopez is the entire shebang on offense. The Brooklyn Nets gave him the go-ahead from three, and he unleashed almost 400 attempts, of which he drilled a respectable 34.6 percent. Head coach Kenny Atkinson's motion offense also tunneled into his untapped vision. Lopez never encountered so many off-ball options before and proved both willing and capable of making better reads.

    Cake in two blocks per 36 minutes, and he became the billboard for everything teams seek in a 7-footer who cannot whip from body to body on defense like a wing. And if he were in Brooklyn, he would be ranked higher. But he's promised nothing with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Though Lopez's game spills over nicely into head coach Luke Walton's uptempo system, he is a one-year placeholder—cap space in 2018, as far as team president Magic Johnson is concerned.

    The Lakers have every incentive to chase wins with their first-rounder headed to Boston or Philadelphia, but Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac figure more prominently into their future. The addition of Andrew Bogut—not to mention the prospect of rolling small with Julius Randle or maybe even Kyle Kuzma at the 5—could portend a musical-chairs rotation up front that gnaws into Lopez's court time.


    11. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

    Age: 21

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 0.9 steals, 2.1 blocks, 51.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 18.5 PER, 2.66 RPM, 111.69 TPA 

    Sleep on Myles Turner at your own peril. From ESPN Stats & Info:

    "There's massive potential for a star turn from Turner, who is entering his third season and will be Indiana's focal point following the trade of Paul George. Though he might not scream 'superstar' upon first glance, Turner is one of just five players in history to average 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game by the age of 20. The others: Anthony Davis, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber and Shaquille O'Neal."

    The Indiana Pacers compiled a swarm of competent scorers, so their offense will often parrot an all-hands model. But Turner is a good bet to earn more touches, and he shot 53 percent last season while averaging an unfairly high 1.17 points per possession whenever George stepped off the court, according to NBA Wowy.

    Worst-case scenario: Turner gets lost in the Pacers' mess of mediocre ball-handlers and resumes his post as a low-key rim protector and sneaky superswitcher.

10. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Age: 23

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

    Advanced Metrics: 24.1 PER, 1.70 RPM, 51.61 TPA

    Joel Embiid, meet The Hedge.

    Depending on how you feel about his health, this slot is either much too low or stupidly high—which, in turn, means it's just right.

    A fully healthy Embiid would make this too easy. That dude puts the "dent" in "transcendent." The Philadelphia 76ers outscored opponents by 67 total points with him on the court, one more than the plus-66 the Miami Heat tallied during Goran Dragic's minutes. That is...something.

    Embiid flashed almost the entire package right out of the gate. He has three-point range; an ocean-deep well of post moves; the handles to face up and score in one-on-one situations; near flawless placement on screens; a nice touch around the basket; high-IQ decision-making as the roll man; strong rim-protecting instincts; some traces of defensive switchability; and so much more.

    In hindsight, Embiid is the unicorn the Association didn't know it had. The uprisings of Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and even Giannis Antetokounmpo took place, at first, without mention of Embiid. He's since shown he belongs in that same building-block sphere.

    No rookie has ever cleared 20 points, one block and one made three per game—except him. Lower the scoring scope to 15 points, and Embiid joins Jerry Stackhouse and Paul Pierce—a pair of wings.

    Crappy luck on the health front makes all of this conditional. Embiid missed the first two seasons of his career and then made it through 31 appearances in 2016-17 before a torn meniscus ended his year. He has never logged 30 minutes in a single game, hasn't played since Jan. 27 and was only cleared for full-blown practice Thursday, per the Philly Inquirer's Sarah Todd and Keith Pompey.

    Pretty much anyone else in his situation would be excluded altogether, and the inevitable minutes cap he'll adhere to limits how high he can actually go. But he's already shown too much, done too much and meant too much to the Sixers to veto his inclusion. Thus, The Hedge.

9. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.1 blocks, 55.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 22.6 PER, 2.03 RPM, -24.92 TPA

    Hassan Whiteside is better than you think—unless you think he's better than this.

    Bigs who don't shoot threes or attack off the dribble must brandish a specific set of skills to thrive in the pace-and-space NBA. Whiteside has cornered the market on most of them.

    Protect the rim? Done deal. He inhales point-blank bunnies, in volume, for mid-game snacks. Only Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green and Porzingis prevented more points around the iron last season.

    Devastate off the pick-and-roll? Duh. Whiteside finished in the 84th percentile of points per possession as the roll man.

    Survive long enough in space off switches for the team's defense to regather itself? He does this, too—and doesn't get enough credit for it. Whiteside guarded more isos than anyone else on the Heat. He doesn't have the lateral teleportation device attached to Nerlens Noel's feet, but he uses his wingspan to cage ball-handlers before they reach the paint and, should they get by, swat their shot from behind.

    Diversifying his offensive penchants will be paramount to climbing any higher on this list. The most ideal non-ideal bigs still have a cap on their ceiling.

    Whiteside has long campaigned for the opportunity to shoot threes. He even increased his volume between 16 and 24 feet by more than 43 percent, from 51 total attempts in 2015-16 to 73 in 2016-17.

    Chucking threes and more long twos isn't necessarily the answer if it's not married to a fully developed handle—though Whiteside is surveying the basket a tick longer when catching possession on the outside. Becoming less predictable on the block will work just as well. If he's going to receive nearly eight post touches per game, he should be looking to find cutters and shooters on more than 10.5 percent of them.

8. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 42.7 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.1 PER, 5.03 RPM, 26.44 TPA

    Kevin Love is a center now?

    Kevin Love is a center now.

    Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue plans to start his All-Star power forward at the 5, per The Athletic's Jason Lloyd, a switch that, barring disaster, should prove permanent. He will sponge up some minutes at the 4, but the available options behind Tristan Thompson, now a second-stringer, suggest most of Love's time will come as the de facto center.

    Sorting him relative to more established 5s was a mysterious process. Lineups featuring him in the middle last year scored with league-leading efficiency and then some, according to NBA Wowy. On top of that, Lue sounds like someone who wants to funnel Love more possessions, per's Zach Lowe:

    "Kevin is going to have the best year that he's had here. I thought he was great anyway. You keep bringing up [Chris] Bosh. What did Bosh average in Miami? Kevin averaged almost 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] with two other All-Stars. If you are on a championship-caliber team, you have to sacrifice. But this year is going to be a big opportunity for him. We're going to play through him more. He's going to get those elbow touches again."

    Believe this when you see it. Elbow touches aren't a fixture in LeBron James-led drive-and-kick offenses. More than that, Love's livelihood at center isn't the least bit tied to his offense. He's going to score. His 37.3 percent clip from three-point range is significantly more valuable at a position that continues to house slowpokes.

    Defensive returns will define this experiment. Love has the size and box-out knowhow to feast on the glass no matter what; his defensive rebounding rate spikes when he plays without Thompson. But offenses will attack him in the pick-and-roll, and he remains vulnerable on switches.

    Unless he approaches every possession like it's inside one minute to play in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Love's place among the stars faces something of a glass ceiling.

7. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.7 blocks, 71.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.8 PER, 4.55 RPM, 205.81 TPA

    DeAndre Jordan is one of two picture-perfect role models for big men who don't intend to stretch their offensive utility beyond pick-and-roll dives, put-backs and cuts.

    Step 1: Take ownership of this role. Bear hug it. Recognize that you're not trapped in some stereotypical coffin. Jordan's dalliance with the Dallas Mavericks in 2015 proved he's not immune to being seduced by the promise of more, but he stayed put.

    Step 2: Be more than a rim protector on defense. Jordan is an imposing presence in the middle but not an idle one. His block totals would be higher if he exclusively patrolled the paint. He doesn't. He covers up for blown assignments and incurable liabilities.

    Just four players guarded more isolation possessions than Jordan last season. He contested fewer shots per game than Alex Len but challenged more spot-up shooters than Harrison Barnes and doesn't let loose misses within his vicinity get away. Among 228 players to average six or more rebound chances per game, he notched the second-highest success rate—without the Los Angeles Clippers dedicating substantive time to padding his totals (shout-out to Westbrook).

    Step 3: Tinker and fiddle until your value exists outside a vacuum. This part is intentionally vague. It's also one of the biggest misconceptions about Jordan.

    Paul flung passes and lobs his way for six years, a span that just so happened to coincide with his rise to stardom. But Jordan is past being totally dependent on Paul—and even Blake Griffin—for his offense.

    Someone needs to set him up, because duh. Off-ball finishers always need that helping hand. But Jordan has improved his timing, touch and routes so that he's now the same hyperefficient threat alongside anyone. His field-goal percentage hovered above 70 percent when he played without Paul, without Griffin or without Paul and Griffin.

6. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Age: 32

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.3 blocks, 45.9 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.3 PER, 2.58 RPM, 204.41 TPA

    General managers voted Marc Gasol the league's third-best center, an honor that feels both high and difficult to argue.

    David Fizdale-era Marc Gasol is by far the best Marc Gasol. The Memphis Grizzlies head coach gave him the green light to jack threes and pushed him to be more aggressive in the aggregate. Gasol responded by trading in long twos for treys and recording the highest usage rate of his career.

    Exerting this extra effort on offense cost Gasol some of his defensive stamina. He's still a plus rim protector but not as stout versus pick-and-rolls or, based on last season alone, back-to-the-basket scorers.

    Evolving shot distributions aren't doing him any favors. Playing center is no longer a safe haven for trudging bigs. Gasol spent more time contesting shots outside his wheelhouse than in 2015-16, and rival offenses are sticklers for targeting traditional towers.

    "In the pace-and-space era, building a championship team around a bulkier 7-footer like Gasol is always going to be difficult," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote. "Gasol is a great defender, but he will always be at a disadvantage against a five-out team like the Warriors that can put him in pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green."

    Credit Gasol for modernizing his shot selection. Shooting 38.8 percent on 268 three-point attempts is no small feat. And, once more, he hasn't disappeared on defense. He'll be in the All-Star mix, even if he chills on the peripherals of it.

    But he'll also turn 33 in January. Age has to be a factor. The Grizzlies are looking to play faster, making it that much harder for Gasol to solidify himself as an average rebounder, and his defensive assignments won't get any easier.

    JaMychal Green's return will help diminish the ill effects, and Gasol is shrewd enough to counter opposing speed with deliberate gaps between him and the ball. But putting him any higher when Memphis might inch away from his optimal playing style would be shortsighted.

5. Al Horford, Boston Celtics

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 47.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 17.7 PER, 1.82 RPM, 137.10 TPA

    Points-per-game fusspots are going to be so mad.

    Al Horford doesn't consistently dominate one aspect of the game. On any given night, he can take over in a variety of areas, but his schtick is sweeping ubiquity—getting his hands dirty in every facet, even the ones in which he's deemed insufficient.

    Averaging under 15 points per game won't get you flattering headlines, but Horford generates so much offense on an indirect basis. Lanes open up for ball-handlers because defenders have to respect his range. He's constantly popping out of screens to exaggerate those seams but also to create initial separation for teammates.

    Friendlies are either instructed or compelled to cut all over place when he's working with the ball. Horford revels in dropping dimes, and everyone around him knows he'll find them.

    Those maneuvers don't allow for a score-first identity. He racked up more screen assists per game than anyone else on the Boston Celtics, and not one center in the league generated more points off their passes. He's scooting toward the three-point line off screens so much, he'd have to jailbreak Boston's offensive setup to register on the featured-option radar.

    Horford only ranked in the top 50 of post touches per game last season, despite shooting better than 62 percent when finishing them. And he still passed 36 percent of the time in these situations—tops among the 61 players who averaged three or more post grabs.

    Similar misconceptions cloud his defensive value. He isn't a glass-crashing enforcer or impervious rim protector, but that's partially by design. He contested more three-point attempts than any fellow center, and 41.4 percent of all shots he challenged originated more than 15 feet from the hoop.

    Compare that to Gobert (26.7 percent), Gasol (32.1), Jordan (38.5), Whiteside (27.1) and basically every other big, and Horford has more in common with Draymond Green (44.6 percent).

    Add to this that he guarded the second-most spot-ups and fifth-most isos among centers, and his run-of-the-mill block and rebound rates don't look so bad. He's not around the basket nearly enough to try being the player so many say he's not. Nor does he have to be. He's a helpful defender largely because he leaves an imprint while working outside conventional confines.

4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Noah Graham/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 57.8 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.3 PER, 6.73 RPM, 342.24 TPA

    Feel free to complain that Jokic is ranked too high. Your gripes will be duly noted before they go in one ear and out the other.

    If push comes to shove, Jokic should be moved up before he slides down. He averaged 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists on 58.7 percent shooting (34.2 percent on threes) after he earned a permanent starting job, during which time the Denver Nuggets rattled off a league-best offensive rating and top-three net rating whenever he took the court.

    Pore over the catch-all metrics for 2016-17, and Jokic grades out as a top-10 player, bar none:

    Rudimentary defense precludes Jokic from an MVP-level outlook. He has no trouble grabbing defensive rebounds; he couldn't go coast-to-coast or toss transition touchdowns if he did. His strengths beyond that are unknown—or, perhaps, don't exist.

    Jokic sometimes looks like he could be a sound rim protector, but it never holds. Of the 125 players to defend at least 200 shots around the basket, he ranked 109th in points allowed per shot.

    Going to battle beside Paul Millsap, a slick switcher, should help Jokic find his footing in the long run. For now, he remains an incomplete project until he can be part of an average—or even close to average—defensive squad.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

    Age: 21

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks, 54.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.9 PER, 2.13 RPM, 304.55 TPA

    Towns' 2016-17 was a paralyzing demonstration by any measure. Few bigs were as comfortable on the offensive end, and he never once seemed as if he couldn't roughhouse down low with the grown-ups. He flaunted a smoother handle—he shot 48.3 percent after using two dribbles—and more than tripled his three-point volume while improving his efficiency.

    Love is the only other player in NBA history to match Towns' scoring and rebounding averages while downing one three per game—an unreal accolade even by today's pace-and-space and bigs-are-wings standards.

    Looking up Towns' birthdate, as a refresher, solicits more awe. He won't turn 22 until November. Someone this young shouldn't be so polished—so ostensibly ready to stake his claim in the race for MVP deliberation.

    Sloppy defense is all that's stopping him. Most of his issues are fixable. He knows where to be, even on last-second rotations, but he's haunted by indecision and negligence.

    Spot-up shooters appear to intimidate him. He'll hesitate before closing out, giving opponents more time to gather themselves and release, or lunge haphazardly, inviting unimpeded pump-and-drives. His reflexes around the rim are generally noncommittal. He sees cutters and drivers but often fails to react.

    Reasonable excuses are available in huge supply: He's afraid to leave his man. He doesn't want to foul. He shouldn't have to shoot gaps against wings and playmaking 4s. He's tired. Last year's Minnesota Timberwolves could make any half-competent defender look completely and utterly lost.

    Whatever the root cause, Towns' issues must remain a concern. He's no lock to make defensive strides just because Jimmy Butler is around or because another year with head coach Tom Thibodeau should work wonders.

    Minnesota still doesn't have the personnel to exempt Towns from chasing smaller, quicker players. The combination of Cole Aldrich, Nemanja Bjelica and Taj Gibson provides zero cover beyond the paint, and Gorgui Dieng shouldn't be tracking down guys much farther out. Andrew Wiggins bathes in the same inattentiveness Towns occasionally exudes, which can and does and will continue to throw half-court sets off the rails.

    Right now, Towns' defensive activity half-mirrors Horford's bustle—except, whereas Horford flies around by design and with careful control, Towns' workload is unplanned and ineffective.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

    Age: 25

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.6 blocks, 66.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 23.3 PER, 6.37 RPM, 308.95 TPA

    Here, with Gobert, we have the second and final picture-perfect gem for non-shooting skyscrapers to imitate.

    Other bigs have more perimeter responsibilities. They play within faster systems, their team schemes call for more switches, and some share more common ground with wings. But Gobert is a monster all his own.

    The Utah Jazz actively siphon ball-handlers of all kinds in his direction when he's around the rim. That doesn't happen for anyone else—not to this degree. No one in the league contested more shots inside 10 feet, and even with that volume, he held opponents to clips 10.3 percentage points below their season average.

    Much like DeAndre Jordan, though, Gobert doesn't stop in front of the basket. He hounded more isolation possessions per game than any Jazz teammate and hassled more spot-up shooters on average than Gordon Hayward, an actual wing. He also ranked third among centers in defensive distance traveled despite playing for a squad that curbed possession totals for both sides by dictating a painfully slow pace. 

    Quin Snyder, Utah's head coach, has not indicated Gobert will absorb a more glittery offensive role following exits by Hayward and George Hill. He will set picks, slip screens, roll to the basket and clean up misses. The Jazz will toss him the sporadic post touch, but he'll never fender-bend the usage of the typical All-Star.

    Lucrative offensive talents are inherently more impactful than lockdown defenders. That Gobert gorges on what's perceived as offensive fluff hurts him. He works for his points, and to wrench out breathing room for Utah's playmakers, but he'll never strain himself the way Horford, Jokic, Towns, DeMarcus Cousins et al. do. He's more reliant on his supporting cast, which is potentially problematic in a post-Hayward system.  

    Obsessing over this still won't strip Gobert of the star's honor he deserves. He is a lifeline in his own right, and the Jazz didn't need Hayward's departure to see it. They posted a positive differential per 100 possessions no matter which one of their players left the court, with the exception of one: Rudy Gobert.

1. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 25.8 PER, 4.20 RPM, 319.12 TPA

    Disputing Cousins' rank should come pretty naturally. He's a megastar talent, but he's never shuttled a team to the playoffs, and the Sacramento Kings flipped him to the New Orleans Pelicans for what amounted to Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson and Frank Mason III, knowing full well the designated player extension could have locked him up long term.

    Failing to spark a postseason push after swapping locales doesn't boost his credibility, either. The Pelicans went 11-14 following the trade as the Cousins-Davis coupling navigated a steep learning curve.

    Solo time didn't even do the trick. Opponents pounded New Orleans by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in the 179 minutes Cousins played without Davis. But this quarter-season sample proves nothing.

    Relevant still, it doesn't disprove anything. Cousins remains a timeline-shifting force and has toted volume his contemporaries never carried. His usage rate last season outstripped every other center by an enormous margin. None of them came close to shouldering his offensive contributions when accounting for scoring and points generated off assists. Not even Jokic's post-Dec. 15 tear did Cousins in.

    Sure, his splits without Davis are an immediate concern. But the most used lineup in those situations tied him to Jordan Crawford, Dante Cunningham, Tim Frazier and E'Twaun Moore (and produced plus-6.4 points per 100 possessions). Neither the Pelicans' depth nor the size of these samples warrant definitive conclusions let alone stark write-offs.

    Next season marks a fresh start for Cousins. He slimmed down over the summer, and if we're investing in small samples, New Orleans wrapped 2016-17 by outscoring opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions in the final seven games Cousins and Davis played together.

    Some bigs space the floor while merging volume with efficiency. Others plant their flags as brute forces down low. A few specialize in putting their foot on the gas and attacking like wings. A handful serve as playmaking hubs. Cousins does all this at a high level. He'll even devote himself to snuffing out opposing offenses when the mood strikes.

    Baggage and all, he's the closest the NBA gets to a center with the whole package.


    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or Total points added totals via, and real plus-minus totals via Salary information via Basketball Insiders, Spotrac and RealGM.


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