NBA Free Agency Rankings 2018: Top Available Centers

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJune 19, 2018

NBA Free Agency Rankings 2018: Top Available Centers

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    What is a center's function in today's NBA

    Some 5s are bruising bodies who excel at setting screens and cleaning the glass, content to do the little things that don't earn individual glory but contribute toward the winning cause. Others are offensive machines relying on traditional skills—post-up prowess and timing on rolls toward the rim, for example. The new age of centers includes plenty of floor-stretching options who can reasonably step not just outside the paint, but all the way back to and beyond the three-point arc. 

    We've got them all in this year's free-agency class. 

    Need a defensive banger? Aron Baynes and Jusuf Nurkic are here to save the day. Nerlens Noel can provide you with more foot speed on the preventing end. Covet offense? Do you want Brook Lopez's shooting, Nikola Jokic's passing or Clint Capela's unmatched rolling ability? 

    Perhaps more than at any other position in this year's market, the diversity of skills boosted by the center representatives is truly astounding. But how do they all stack up against each other?

    Just as was the case for our point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward rankings, this countdown—based on current level of play, age and expected performance during the next contract—should get you started as you build your free-agent wish list heading into July 1.

10. Aron Baynes

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    Brock Williams-Smith/Getty Images

    Team: Boston Celtics

    Age: 31

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.6 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 12.1 PER, 0.55 RPM, minus-50.49 TPA

    If you're counting on Aron Baynes for offense, you've made a horrible mistake. His buckets are largely the result of cleaning up trash and capitalizing upon second-chance opportunities; the Boston Celtics rarely, if ever, went out of their way to call his number. 

    But even if the 31-year-old is a glaring offensive liability, his defense makes him well worth rostering. A bruising, physically imposing presence finished off with the trademark man bun, Baynes was an overlooked reason for Boston's surge up the point-preventing leaderboard. As much credit as Al Horford (justifiably) receives for his work at the center of the Celtics' schemes, this big man's willingness to do the dirty work propelled the climb. 

    With Baynes on the pine during the regular season, the C's allowed 104.3 points per 100 possessions. That number plummeted to 97.0 when he played, giving him the largest on/off differential of any qualified Celtic. Marcus Smart (minus-3.6), Jayson Tatum (minus-3.2) and Shane Larkin (minus-3.2) were up next, while the defense improved by just a single point per 100 possessions with Horford playing. 

    That's the kind of impact we're talking about here—the game-altering variety which sees fewer challenges on the interior and allows for lively bodies switching freely on the perimeter. 

    Honorable Mentions: Dewayne Dedmon (Player Option), Greg Monroe (UFA), Kyle O'Quinn (Player Option)

9. Alex Len

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Team: Phoenix Suns

    Age: 25

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 8.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 19.4 PER, minus-1.12 RPM, 23.32 TPA

    Throughout the entirety of his disappointing career, Alex Len has managed to hold his own defensively. Since becoming the No. 5 pick of the 2013 NBA draft, he's put together positive defensive box plus/minuses in four of his five seasons—the lone exception coming in 362 rookie-year minutes. 

    Though those numbers are no doubt aided by his excellence on the defensive glass (over eight possession-ending boards per 36 minutes during each of the last three go-rounds), offense has been the problem. Len hasn't displayed any shooting range, barely produced more assists than turnovers in 2017-18 (the first time in his career he's done so) and struggles to convert at the charity stripe. 

    But he showed flashes of growth throughout the most recent campaign—perfect timing by the 25-year-old preparing to enter his first foray into unrestricted free agency.

    Not only did Len score 8.5 points per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the field, but he also stopped trying to force an unappealing expansion to his range. The mid-range jumpers came fewer and further between, and he instead focused on finishing plays around the basket. As a result, he finished in the 59th percentile as a post-up player and the 77th percentile rolling out of the PnR game. 

    These aren't elite marks by any stretch. But they still represent growth for a player who didn't blow out 25 candles until the middle of June. 

8. Nerlens Noel

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Team: Dallas Mavericks

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 4.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.7 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 16.2 PER, minus-0.83 RPM, 9.4 TPA

    "I most definitely don't regret anything. I'm not nervous because I know my abilities," Nerlens Noel told Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman in December, alluding to his decision to turn down a four-year, $70 million extension that led to him playing on a qualifying offer in 2017-18 while awaiting this summer's unrestricted free agency. "I know what I'm capable of. I know what I can get on the court any time, day or night, and do. It's simply getting the opportunity to show it."

    Since then, his progression hasn't exactly been smooth. Instead, it's been filled with surgery on his thumb, controversy over whose decision it was to go under the knife, a five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug policy and an inane story about hot dogs

    But Noel, who won't turn 25 until nearing the end of the 2018-19 campaign, can still play quality basketball when he's actually given the chance to, well, play. The Dallas Mavericks just didn't afford him such luxuries, keeping him glued to the bench for all but 15.7 minutes per game in his 30 appearances.

    Still, the big man averaged 10.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes while rarely taking bad shots, limiting his turnovers and continuing to excel on the defensive end. Throughout all of NBA history, only 47 players have suited up no fewer than 20 times and averaged a points-rebounds double-double with at least two swipes and 1.5 swats per 36 minutes. During 2017-18, only he, Kyle Anderson and Brice Johnson joined the club. 

    Noel's quick hands and feet still give him elite upside on the defensive end, and he's an infectious roll man who inspires his teammates to throw more lob passes while drawing attention toward the interior. That has to play well somewhere. 

7. Enes Kanter

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    Kent Smith/Getty Images

    Team: New York Knicks

    Age: 26

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 24.0 PER, minus-0.14 RPM, 92.26 TPA

    A player like Enes Kanter should always have a place on an NBA team. 

    He's by no means perfect. A sieve on the defensive end who doesn't have the foot speed required to play in today's switch-heavy schemes, he has a capped ceiling. You're rostering him because of his work on the boards and the scoring prowess, then trying to build a rotation around him that can mitigate his obvious weaknesses. 

    But that combination of rebounding and scoring is worth some concessions. 

    The New York Knicks weren't built for it, hence their net rating dipping by 3.6 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor in 2017-18. Their offense was (unsurprisingly) better with him playing, but they didn't have the perimeter defenders necessary to prevent dribble penetration that exposed him on the inside. If he opts out of his $18.6 million player option, he'll likely be sacrificing some money for a chance to find a better fit. 

    Still. A whopping 19.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 59.2 percent from the field? Not a single qualified player could match those first two numbers this season. Only Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain, Kevin Love, Moses Malone, George Mikan and Bob Pettit have throughout NBA history. 

    We're not conflating Kanter with a collection of Hall of Fame talents, but instead suggesting his biggest strengths really are that strong. 

6. Brook Lopez

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    John McCoy/Getty Images

    Team: Los Angeles Lakers

    Age: 30

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.3 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 16.4 PER, 0.29 RPM, 18.13 TPA

    As Brook Lopez moves into his 30s and attempts to stave off the advances of Father Time, he'll have to continue using the relatively new weapon in his offensive arsenal. His expanded shooting range gives him the ability to remain quite valuable even as he assumes smaller roles and no longer serves as the focal point of an offense, as he once did with the Brooklyn Nets. 

    Journey with me as we look at the entire list of 7-footers who have taken at least four triples per game and connected at no worse than a 35 percent clip during each of the last two seasons: 

    • Brook Lopez
    • Kristaps Porzingis

    That's it.

    Marc Gasol, Lauri Markkanen and Dirk Nowitzki have each done so once in the last two years, but that's not enough to qualify for our exclusive club. Lopez really is one of the few shooting bigs who takes triples in volume and connects frequently enough to serve as a legitimate gravitational body on the perimeter.

    Unfortunately, he's being forced to rely more and more on that portion of his game; 41 percent of his field-goal attempts came from downtown in 2017-18, which is more than the summed percentages from each of his previous nine seasons (36.2 percent). That, in turn, leads to declining offensive-rebound rates that eliminate one of his prior strengths. 

    Lopez is a specialist now more than ever before. But at least he's a darn good one. 

5. Jusuf Nurkic

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 19.2 PER, 1.8 RPM, 8.4 TPA

    The Jusuf Nurkic roller-coaster ride is filled with dizzying highs and perilous lows. 

    He'll string together clunkers in which he racks up turnovers, forces ill-advised, heavily contested shots around the basket and seems to pout on the defensive end. Then one game later—often, it seems, in a nationally televised contest—he'll remind the world of his prodigious talent, dominating through sheer strength and showing off his touch until he's firmly removed from head coach Terry Stotts' dog house. 

    Maybe consistency would come with a more defined role. The Portland Trail Blazers had to depend a bit too much on his scoring talents when the backcourt studs were struggling, and their surge to defensive prominence didn't always allow him to make the most of his defending talents. 

    Imagine, for instance, if Nurkic's pick-and-roll game were featured more prevalently. Or if he learned to channel his physicality more as a bruiser than dancing around and attempting to show off developing finesse moves. Or if he stopped getting into foul trouble and were able to build more of an on-court rhythm. 

    Only seven players in the NBA recorded more screen assists during the 2017-18 campaign. Nurkic also capitalized on those bone-rattling picks by rolling with impressive timing, but his touch on the move lagged behind. He could only score enough as a roll man to finish in the 39th percentile, and that's an area that could soon see major improvement. 

    The tools are certainly present for this 23-year-old. Putting them all together is the next challenge. 

4. DeAndre Jordan

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    Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Age: 29

    Type of Free Agency: Player Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 15.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 20.2 PER, 0.57 RPM, 104.67 TPA

    DeAndre Jordan remains valuable for two skills above all others: He's a solid defensive anchor who can use his athleticism to shut down the interior of the half-court set, and he's a devastating roll man who plays so far above the rim that the opposition is often rendered helpless.  

    While facing 4.3 shots per game at the hoop, Jordan allowed foes to shoot 63.9 percent against him—a shift in the wrong direction after he held adversaries to 58.7 percent on 4.7 attempts per contest in 2016-17. Among the 43 players who squared off against at least four tries per appearance, only Nikola Jokic (67.9 percent), Kevin Love (66.0), Nikola Vucevic (65.9), Tobias Harris (65.5), Enes Kanter (64.6) and Karl-Anthony Towns (64.4) were more porous on this area of the floor. 

    But merely contesting shots is sometimes a skill in and of itself, and that's reflected in Jordan's enduringly positive score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus. Still, his mark of 1.32 sits at No. 40 among the 84 men classified as centers, and that stands in stark contrast to last year's positional placement at No. 7 with a score of 3.44. 

    He's clearly declining on the less-glamorous end—no surprise for a player nearing his 30s with a game predicated on athletic superiority. Fortunately, he's still thriving as a roll man. 

    His finish in the 84th percentile for points per rolling possession can't quite stack up to 2016-17's 99.1 percentile, but that's still an elite mark for a player who gets nearly a fifth of his offense in that play type. That skill alone keeps him near the top tier of the center hierarchy, even though whoever invests in him (assuming he first declines a $24.1 million player option) will need to exercise some caution. 

3. Clint Capela

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    TeamHouston Rockets

    Age: 24

    Type of Free Agency: Restricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 24.5 PER, 2.14 RPM124.08 TPA

    In many ways, Clint Capela has become the ideal version of DeAndre Jordan. Still only 24 years old, he's morphed into an uber efficient big who's content filling a smaller offensive role. He's the gold standard as a roll man these days, and he's also capable of anchoring the Houston Rockets' impressive defense. 

    Allow us to run through the same numbers we used for Jordan. 

    As a roll man, Capela scores a whopping 1.34 points per possession to sit in the 92nd percentile. But that's a misleadingly pessimistic number because rolls comprise 32.1 percent of his offensive possessions; only five men throughout the league used more total possessions in this play type, and none of them could come close to matching his efficiency.

    In fact, the next player to sit in at least the 80th percentile is Jerami Grant, who used only 165 rolling possessions throughout the season. If you're curious, that's 121 fewer than Capela. 

    That skill alone should make Capela a coveted big in the current climate, but his growing defensive game only makes him more appealing. Not only did he sit just outside the top 10 centers in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus, but he also faced more shots per game at the hoop than any other NBA player. 

    Capela still needs to acquire more discipline against interior players while building up his conditioning, and expanding his offensive arsenal wouldn't hurt. But he's an ideal roll-and-D big—an archetype that should be referred to much more frequently.

2. DeMarcus Cousins

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Age: 27

    Type of Free Agency: Unrestricted

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 22.6 PER, 3.66 RPM, 200.03 TPA

    Here's what The Ringer's Paolo Uggetti wrote about DeMarcus Cousins' upcoming free agency back in late May: 

    "If Cousins is holding out for a full max contract, he may be in for a rude awakening. Zach Lowe has reported that New Orleans is internally considering a 'two- or three-year deal at less than the max,' and on Monday’s Bill Simmons Podcast, Lowe said he doesn't think there's much of a market for Cousins outside of New Orleans, Dallas, and maybe the Lakers, unless sign-and-trades come into play. 'People react like, "No, DeMarcus Cousins is a star, every team will pay him the max." OK, who? He's a big man coming off an Achilles tear, and half the teams [that have cap room] don't want to spend their cap room because they’re bad,' Lowe said."

    Months later, these remain legitimate concerns. 

    Cousins has continued showcasing steps of his rehabilitation, but a massive delineation exists between work in a gym and full-speed play in the NBA. Achilles injuries are notoriously tricky, and they've ruined the careers of stars in the past. A full recovery to his pre-injury levels may not be possible for this 27-year-old big man. 

    He presumably hopes it will be. The basketball-watching world should, as well. Cousins at full strength still looks, at times, like the game's best center with his terrifying blend of physicality and finesse. He's also an improved defender with legitimate three-point range and the distributing skills of a backcourt player. 

    But the health worries are real, and they keep him from rising to the top of these positional rankings. 

1. Nikola Jokic

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Team: Denver Nuggets

    Age: 23

    Type of Free Agency: Team Option

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks

    2017-18 Advanced Metrics: 24.4 PER, 5.97 RPM, 349.79 TPA

    Maybe DeMarcus Cousins would be able to dethrone Nikola Jokic as the leader of the free-agent centers if he'd never suffered an Achilles injury. But given how the Denver Nuggets big man closed his season, it might've still been tough for Boogie to maintain a stranglehold on the top spot over the man four years his junior.

    Age does matter in these rankings, after all. 

    Jokic's defense still needs work, though it's not as bad as many seem to believe. He's not a game-changing presence on the stopping end because of his struggles affecting ball-handlers on the perimeter and trouble defending the rim, but he does a lot of good between those two extremes. Watch him carefully, and you start to see the savvy rotations, disruptive hands and ability to keep players from catching the ball too close to the rim—all reflected in his positive score in ESPN.com's defensive real plus/minus

    His status as an offensive savant is far harder to deny, given his wizardrous passing and scoring touch from so many areas of the floor.

    During his last 18 games of the season, he averaged 24.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks while shooting 53.8 percent from the field, 47.6 percent from downtown (on 4.6 attempts per game) and 88.5 percent from the stripe. Throughout February, he posted 21.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks per contest, doing so while slashing 55.6/56.3/86.7. 

    Jokic, whose free agency is merely a formality because the Nuggets will either pick up his team option or decline it to immediately re-sign him on a max deal, is now an established standout. He's dominated for long enough that his pursuit of a top-10 overall ranking should be met not with skepticism, but admiration.

    He's a legitimate superstar, though admittedly more in terms of production than national and international recognition.  

              

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.