NBA Player Rankings: B/Rs Top 15 Centers Entering 2018-19 Season
Evolving playing styles and roster constructions have left many of the NBA's centers raging against disesteemed roles and, in some instances, the prospect of extinction. But they are not going away quietly. The position still houses more than its fair share of elite talent, most of whom breathe life into the sport-old proverb: size matters.
And what better way to celebrate this crop of marquee big men than by assigning each one a specific place onto the center totem pole? Before we do, though, be sure to check out the previous installments of our NBA 100 series so you can muster the necessary all-consuming rage:
Determining who qualifies as a 5 is super-duper easy relative to the other four positions. Common-sense interpretations of every team's depth chart get the job done. Matters of equivocation have been settled using Cleaning The Glass' possession data.
This process gets dicey if you're expecting a part-time small-ball 5 to register as an every-play center. And hey! That can totally happen. Unimpeachable position #takez are impossible these days. But the biggest qualms have probably made an appearance under a different category, so get over it.
Remember: We're evaluating players as if we're trying to acquire them for the entire 2018-19 season. Predictive inklings related to regression, improvement, team fit and recovery from injury, among other things, are spritzed into these rankings.
Like always, anyone who's at risk of not playing before the calendar flips to 2019 is ineligible for consideration. It stinks, but we don't make the rules*, and DeMarcus Cousins' My Little Pony-themed sympathy card is in the mail.
*Actually, we do. But whatever.
15-11: Vucevic, Olynyk, Jordan, Valanciunas and Gasol
15. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks
Sliding Nikola Vucevic any lower is plainly wrong. He doesn't have much in his defensive tool belt save for some pesky hands, but he's been one of the NBA's productive big men for almost a half-decade. DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are the only other players since 2014-15 averaging at least 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per 36 minutes.
Vucevic would be a shoo-in to outperform his placement if the Magic weren't the Magic. Opportunity should become an issue in a frontcourt that must also account for Mo Bamba, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. Vucevic will be more impacted by the logjam than anyone.
Going on 28 in October, he's playing out a contract year outside of Orlando's long-term timeline. His stock could suffer from a deliberately diminishing role and, perhaps, an eventual relocation.
14. Kelly Olynyk, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
In an alternate universe where he's not jockeying for minutes with Bam Adebayo, James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk lands much higher. But he has never sniffed 25 minutes per game and isn't about to start now unless the Heat throw Whiteside into exile.
Think of Olynyk as a next-level Patrick Patterson from his days with the Toronto Raptors—a semi-switchy big who can shoot, pass and sometimes put the ball on the floor while coexisting with any frontcourt running mate placed beside him. If he ever holds up defensively against behemoth 5s without needing Johnson as a buffer, Miami will have a frightening cheat code on its hands.
13. DeAndre Jordan, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.0 points, 15.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.9 blocks
DeAndre Jordan is not the player the Mavericks thought they had signed in 2015. His influence at the defensive end has long been overstated, and he's only drifting further away from linchpin mode.
Last season wasn't just a case of his falling victim to an inferior Los Angeles Clippers squad. He's lost some of his oomph. Opponents shot 4.4 percentage points better around the rim with him on the court, according to Cleaning The Glass, while the Clippers' defensive rating improved by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when he took a seat.
Playing without Chris Paul hurt Jordan's finishing out of the pick-and-roll, and Dallas poses only so much of an upgrade. Head coach Rick Carlisle always find ways to create space, but rookie Luka Doncic and sophomore Dennis Smith Jr. will be Jordan's primary connections. As long as their development remains a priority, he's in line for another minor drop-off.
12. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.9 blocks
Jonas Valanciunas is tiptoeing around fossilization in Toronto. He's a coin toss to close games depending on the matchup, and the Raptors have done nothing to suppress their commitment to small-ball arrangements.
Dual-point guard lineups became commonplace last season and aren't going anywhere. OG Anunoby, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have to play some minutes together. Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka unlock five-out combinations.
But Valanciunas should be safe for now. He's the steadiest center Toronto has on the payroll. Neither Ibaka nor Siakam are automatic shooters, and lineups with them at the 5 will want for rebounding and, probably, rim protection.
Valanciunas at least cleans up the glass, and the space manufactured by the Raptors' excess of wings and playmaking guards will let him eat out of the pick-and-roll. He might actually outplay—not to mention outperform—his fellow bigs if he delves deeper into his three-point exploration.
11. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.4 blocks
Marc Gasol will have the chance to make this look silly. Or he could make this seem a little too aggressive. Aging bigs are always difficult to place.
Gasol should be fine on offense. Memphis needs to pare down his post-ups, but he can work over defenses as a standstill passer and shooter. His question marks lie at the other end. Many of Gasol's contemporaries are too explosive and rangy for him to get by on high IQ and positioning alone. The Grizzlies haven't been demonstratively better with him on defense since 2015-16, and it will only get harder for him to make plays from outside the foul line.
Partnering with Kyle Anderson, a healthy Mike Conley and Jaren Jackson Jr. could keep Gasol afloat. But bigs who don't play like wings on offense are most valuable as defensive fulcrums. Gasol isn't that anymore.
10. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Blame injuries and Victor Oladipo if you must.
The former prevented Myles Turner from suiting up in more than 65 games for the Indiana Pacers during the 2017-18 campaign. The lack of continuity made it increasingly difficult for him to build upon his sophomore efforts. The latter's breakout pushed the big man out of the spotlight, to the point that he's no longer widely recognized as one of those young up-and-comers sure to serve as the future of his position.
But even with slight regression taking hold of Turner throughout portions of his third-year efforts, he kept displaying the two-way abilities that make him such a tantalizing prospect. How many big men are comfortable swatting shots on the interior, running the floor and spotting up for a triple that swishes through nylon?
The answer is simple: not many.
In fact, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid and Turner were the lone qualified men to average at least 0.9 triples and 1.8 blocks (arbitrary cut-offs, sure) in 2017-18. Expand the temporal restrictions to include all of NBA history, and just Eddie Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Andrei Kirilenko, Raef LaFrentz, Kristaps Porzingis (twice) and Rasheed Wallace join the exclusive club.
Turner is already a unique figure with a mouthwatering skill set. He's also far from realizing the full extent of his well-rounded potential, so don't forget about his ability to team up with Oladipo and push the Pacers even higher up the Eastern Conference standings.
9. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks
Steven Adams is so much more than an entertaining interview, even if his per-game numbers for the Oklahoma City Thunder may not hint at extreme levels of positive value. His willingness to accept a smaller role that focuses on dirty work and often unseen contributions is an integral piece in and of itself. Without his screen-setting excellence, put-back attempts and boxouts (but ceding rebounds to Russell Westbrook), the Thunder wouldn't be nearly as successful on either end of the floor.
The 25-year-old has shown flashes of offensive ability, to be clear. Oklahoma City just doesn't have to lean upon him while Westbrook maintains astronomical usage rates and Paul George struts his stuff. But take a gander at the only nine players to suit up in at least 50 games and score more than one point per post-up play while going back to the basket at least once per contest:
- Taj Gibson: 1.8 possessions, 1.12 PPP
- Jonas Valanciunas: 2.0 possessions, 1.09 PPP
- Steven Adams: 1.4 possessions, 1.08 PPP
- Trey Lyles: 1.2 possessions, 1.05 PPP
- LeBron James: 2.4 possessions, 1.04 PPP
- Mike Scott: 1.0 possessions, 1.03 PPP
- Karl-Anthony Towns: 4.1 possessions, 1.02 PPP
- Wesley Matthews: 1.1 possessions, 1.01 PPP
- Montrezl Harrell: 1.9 possessions, 1.01 PPP
We know about Adams' prowess on the glass. We're fully aware of his defensive abilities—skills that allow him to anchor the OKC schemes by shutting down the interior and switching onto some smaller assignments. We're not forgetting about his picking acumen, which let him sit behind only Rudy Gobert in screen assists per game.
But Adams is more than those primary skills, no matter how much his skill set is curtailed by the Thunder's roster construction.
8. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.9 blocks
Sure, Clint Capela can be played off the floor by spread offenses that feature shooting from every spot in the lineup, which is particularly problematic against Golden State.
Throughout the 2017-18 season, the Houston Rockets were 1.5 points per 100 possessions better with this center on the floor; their net rating rose all the way to a sky-high 9.2 and proved just how deadly they could be with Capela helping lead the charge.
But that narrative didn't hold against the Dubs.
During the regular season, the net rating fell by a team-worst 50.3 points per 100 possessions with the Swiss 5 and Golden State sharing the hardwood. In the playoffs, it only dropped by a more reasonable 2.2, but that's still a negative trend, one that shouldn't catch anyone by surprise.
Of course, we shouldn't judge Capela based on his play against a singular organization. He's still a net positive for Houston, given his defensive abilities in the painted area, his tremendous nose for boards and his elite skills as a roll man. Even though the Rockets are deadly in isolation play, they consistently veer toward pick-and-roll stylings because this 24-year-old sets such brutal screens and has both the timing and soft hands necessary to convert when receiving feeds around the hoop.
Maybe he's still a limited presence. Perhaps he's a byproduct of James Harden and Chris Paul's excellence.
He's still quite good at filling his role.
7. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.0 points, 16.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks
A plea to the Detroit Pistons: let Andre Drummond run the show as a point center more frequently.
This big man remains one of the best rebounders seen in the modern NBA, capable of preventing second-chance opportunities on one end and corralling plenty of offensive boards on the other. He's an improving defender who's able to make up for his lack of rim-protection skills with mobility, quick hands in the passing lanes and that nearly unsurpassed ability to end possessions after a missed shot (an often overlooked portion of the defensive game).
And though his post-up game needs significant work after sitting in the 41st percentile for points per possession in 2017-18, his understanding of his own skill set assists his overall offensive performance; rarely will he overextend himself.
All of that is obvious if you watch even the tiniest bit of—Jalen Rose voice—Detroit basketball. But less clear is how effective Drummond can be with the ball in his hands, operating with autonomy from the top of the key.
He received such opportunities far less frequently with Blake Griffin aboard. But during the opening salvo, he showed what he could do. From the start of the NBA calendar through the end of January, he averaged 3.9 assists, highlighted by six games in which he recorded at least seven dimes.
Let's see more of that. Drummond can handle the rock in transition. He can squeeze the ball into tight spaces and find open cutters. Most importantly, he averaged an additional 0.3 assists in Detroit victories despite spending slightly less time on the floor.
6. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks
Al Horford's per-game numbers won't boggle your mind or convince you he has the impact of a bona fide superstar. To prove that, let's take a quick peek at where he ranks in each of the major categories among all players qualified for the 2017-18 minutes leaderboard:
"How can this center possibly be an All-Star when he doesn't even rank within the top 20 of any major category? He's obviously overrated. Right?"
Well, now let's glance at the complete list of players who matched his entire line by contributing in the same across-the-board fashion:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Blake Griffin
- LeBron James
- Nikola Jokic
- Ben Simmons
- Russell Westbrook
We're not even looking at his monumental defensive impact, which left him trailing only Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Paul George in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Nor are we worried about his unselfish play and willingness to assume lesser offensive roles as younger contributors emerge for the Boston Celtics.
Even on that per-game basis, Horford stands out and joins a group of obvious studs. His appeal may be a bit less clear on the surface level, but it's there when you look for it.
No digging is required.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.4 blocks
Imagine if Karl-Anthony Towns fixed all his flaws in an expeditious fashion.
We're not just referring to his disappearance during the Minnesota Timberwolves' foray into the playoff field. He's a shoddy defender who cedes easy opportunities to adversaries even after making concerted efforts to improve under the supervision of head coach Tom Thibodeau. He has trouble passing willingly and often throws the ball off target, though that may be a byproduct of not getting quite enough touches in the Minnesota schemes. His "nonchalant attitude" has reportedly rubbed Jimmy Butler the wrong way.
And yet, he still makes a ginormous impact—the product of generational tools on the scoring end.
Towns didn't just average 21.3 points during his third season; he did so while shooting 54.5 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from downtown and 85.8 percent from the charity stripe. That's a slash line only he and 2007-08 Yao Ming have ever recorded, though his predecessor did so while going a whopping 1-of-1 from beyond the rainbow for the Houston Rockets.
This up-and-comer is simply an offensive machine—and a remarkably fine-tuned one at that. He's capable of tormenting foes with his back to the basket, pulling up for jumpers created off the bounce and spotting up along the arc. He can passively wait for his moments to come or work to create them, and he's successful traveling down either avenue.
In other words, Towns would remain one of the league's best centers even if he were forced to endure total stagnation on both ends of the floor. His offensive repertoire is already that potent. And considering his age, stagnation probably won't be his career trajectory.
4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks
If you're still holding out against Nikola Jokic's stardom, stop.
Please. Stop. We're begging you.
Embrace the awesomeness that is his Hermione Granger-inspired bag of passing tricks and recognize what an immense impact he has on the Denver Nuggets offense. Recognize that his defense, while not as great as the last line on the interior or at the point of attack, isn't as detrimental as the widespread narrative may indicate. He's great at positioning and ending possessions after one shot. Realize that his status doesn't just depend on advanced metrics, but also that vaunted eye test he passes with such flying colors on the rare days Denver graces a national television channel.
It's that last part that's so key.
Jokic's game lends itself nicely to numerical knock-out blows. He does everything well and everything efficiently, and his combination of scoring, rebounding and passing pushes him into nearly uncharted territory for a player his size (6'10", 250 pounds). But we don't even need to focus on those, due to the litany of highlight-reel assists he compiles with his ESP-driven feeds to Gary Harris and the Nuggets' other wings.
Sure, he lumbers down the court. He jumps like prime Zach Randolph and rarely dunks. He still puts on an absolute show that should win over even those hesitant to accept the consensus conclusions screamed out by the numbers.
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.3 blocks
Some centers are defensive stalwarts who block shots with aplomb and shut down their claimed territory. Others are forces of nature, so dominant that their mere presence forces significant alterations to opposing schemes.
Rudy Gobert, without even the tiniest sliver of doubt, falls into the second category.
The Utah Jazz were a solid defensive squad last year in just about every situation, allowing only 105 points per 100 possessions when the French center was on the pine. But when he was on the court, the defensive rating plummeted to 97.7. No one could figure out how to score against him with any semblance of consistency because he shut down the interior so capably, gobbled up rebounds and deterred drivers from even entering his domain.
But contrary to popular belief, Gobert isn't merely a one-way player.
Though he doesn't score many points, he's extraordinarily efficient with the touches he does receive and understands how to maximize his massive frame. Not only did he lead the league in screen assists per game during the 2017-18 campaign, but the gap between him (6.2) and No. 2 Steven Adams (4.9) was as large as the chasm separating Adams from No. 17 Ed Davis (3.6). As if that weren't already enough, he threw foes further off balance by thriving as a roll man; he scored 1.28 points per possession in that situation—enough to sit in the 87th percentile.
Don't expect to see Gobert launching threes anytime soon. He won't take over as a go-to scorer, either. That just doesn't preclude him from boasting immense two-way value.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
Joel Embiid is already a 7-footer with three-point range who can create for both himself and others. He's an exceptional defender who can capably switch onto smaller foes and protect the rim against bigger ones. His game is remarkably complete for such a young center who's missed so much on-court action due to injuries.
And yet, he can get that much better.
First and foremost comes staying healthy. Availability is a skill, and it has to remain at least somewhat concerning that he improved dramatically by suiting up in 63 games during the 2017-18 campaign. If he can keep playing 30 minutes per contest and limit his absences to around 10, he'll be all the more valuable for the Philadelphia 76ers.
But that's certainly not the only area that needs work. Nor is it the area in which he has the most control.
Embiid is already adept at taking three-pointers, but actually making them is a different story. He connected at just a 30.8 percent clip during his sophomore-ish season, and he was only able to muster 0.86 points per spot-up possession (30th percentile). Though he's confident enough firing away that he absorbs defensive attention, the Philadelphia offense would benefit substantially from more swishes and fewer clanks.
Additionally, he's showing signs of growth as a distributor but has to do a better job depressing his turnovers. He's far too lackadaisical with his off-target kick-out passes and remains susceptible to double-teams converging from the weak side and swiping away at the rock.
We're picking at nits here. But that's only because Embiid has risen into the realm of superstars and can still climb so much higher.
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.6 blocks
What can't Anthony Davis do?
If he has a distinct weakness in his game, he masked it admirably after DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season and forced him to assume even more responsibilities on both ends of the floor. After that Jan. 26 pyrrhic victory over the Houston Rockets, the unibrowed big man averaged a mind-melting 30.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 3.2 blocks while slashing 51.4/33.7/83.5. As if that wasn't enough, he followed up the regular-season success by posting 30.1 points, 13.4 boards, 1.7 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.3 blocks per playoff game and slashed 52.0/27.3/82.8.
So to answer that rhetorical question, it sure doesn't seem like there's anything he can't do.
Need a frontcourt defender who can perform reliably in any half-court situation? Davis is your guy. Coveting a big man who can score from the inside or the outside, dominate in a ball-commandeering setting or wait patiently to crash the offensive glass and punish unaware players attempting to lazily box out? See the previous response. We could keep throwing out roles, and Davis would be capable of filling just about every one.
For quite a few seasons now, the 25-year-old has shown flashes of unabashed dominance that hint at an imminent rise to the top of the NBA's individual hierarchy. He's now the best center in the league. If you think he's going to spend more time at the 4 even with Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle in tow, he'd also be the Association's best power forward.
Come to think of it, we're no longer too far removed from him functioning as the best overall.