Ranking the Greatest NBA Centers Since 2000

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 9, 2019

Ranking the Greatest NBA Centers Since 2000

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    Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal
    Yao Ming and Shaquille O'NealMARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    Both Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016, but that doesn't necessarily make them the greatest NBA centers since 2000.

    To rank the best big men of the past two decades, we considered individual production and accolades, contributions to team success and advanced metrics such as win shares (WS), value over replacement player (VORP) and player efficiency rating (PER).

    Only a player's production since the beginning of the 1999-00 season factored in here. Contributions before then will be mentioned in career highlights but not measured.

    Positions were determined by Basketball Reference. If a player played at least 65 percent of his career minutes at one position, that's the position for which he was eligible to be ranked. For players with close to a 50/50 split, Bleacher Report's David Kenyon and I made mutual judgment calls.

    Of note for this list: We decided Anthony Davis, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tim Duncan all count as power forwards while Chris Bosh and Jermaine O'Neal are considered centers.

Honorable Mentions

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    Jermaine O'Neal
    Jermaine O'NealAssociated Press

    Jermaine O'Neal

    O'Neal had a sensational six-year stretch from 2002-07 with the Indiana Pacers. He averaged 20.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, was an All-Star all six seasons and was named to a trio of All-NBA teams. However, that's only one-third of his career (the other two-thirds were not good), and he was technically the power forward for that team, starting alongside either Brad Miller, Jeff Foster or Scot Pollard throughout most of that run.

             

    DeAndre Jordan

    As far as two-point buckets, rebounds and defensive presence are concerned, DeAndre Jordan is clearly one of the better big men of the past two decades. He has averaged at least 10 points and 13 rebounds over each of the past six seasons. But as the only player in NBA history with at least 3,000 free-throw attempts and a career shooting percentage worse than 50 (46.6), he has been unplayable in the fourth quarter of close games.

             

    Andre Drummond

    See: Jordan, DeAndre. Though Drummond both scores and rebounds at a better rate than Jordan, he is an even worse free-throw shooter (44.8 percent). And while it certainly isn't Drummond's fault that the Pistons haven't won a playoff game in the past decade, that lack of postseason success doesn't help his case.

              

    Marc Gasol

    Gasol wasn't much of a passer or shooter when he debuted in 2008, but he has become an exceptional modern-era center. In each of the past three seasons, Gasol has averaged at least 4.0 assists and 1.3 three-pointers. However, there are others who do it better.

             

    Al Horford

    Similar to Gasol, Horford's ability to adapt has been incredible to watch. At age 21 during the 2007-08 season, he averaged 1.5 assists and didn't make a single three. At age 30, he averaged 5.0 assists and drained 86 triples. He's now a jack-of-all-trades and was the highest-paid center in the league this past season even though he has never received a single vote for MVP and was only named to one All-NBA team (2011 third-team).

             

    Joakim Noah

    Noah is presently the poster child of the disastrous contracts signed during the 2016 offseason, and his shooting stroke is so atrocious that it might as well be featured in a "How Not to Shoot" instructional video. But he had an impressive five-year run with the Chicago Bulls, culminating in 2014 Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as a fourth-place finish in that year's MVP vote.

              

    The Past-Their-Prime Guys

    David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning were outstanding, eventual-Hall of Fame centers in the 1990s who made it at least a couple of seasons into the 2000s. But with the exception of Mourningwhose career was derailed by kidney diseasethey were all well into their 30s and past their primes by the start of the new millennium.

11. Joel Embiid

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2017-Present): two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, two-time All-Defensive, 24.3 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 2.0 BPG, 24.5 PER, 0.166 WS/48

                        

    We cannot in good faith leave Joel Embiid off a list of the best modern-day centers. "The Process" was a second-team All-NBA selection each of the past two seasons thanks to an unrivaled combination of scoring, rebounding, passing and defense. Embiid is the only player in NBA history to average at least 20.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 threes in a season, and he has done so each of the past two years.

    But Embiid has also played only 158 games in his three-year careernever more than 64 in a single seasonmaking it beyond difficult to compare him against centers who were at least relatively healthy for more than a decade. Heck, even Yao Ming played in more than three times as many games as Embiid has so far, and he only had four seasons with at least 60 appearances.

    Thus, we're putting Embiid at No. 11, which is otherwise known as the Most Honorable Mention.

    If Embiid can stay healthy from here on out, he might be a Hall of Famer. But if more injuries await in the near future for a big man who has already endured a stress fracture in his back, a broken bone in his foot and a meniscus tear before celebrating his 23rd birthday, he might instead be remembered as one of the best flashes in the pan of all time.

    It's too early to say which is his destiny. But on behalf of everyone who enjoys elite basketball players who are almost even better at internet trolling, let's root for the former.

10. Nikola Jokic

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    Nikola Jokic
    Nikola JokicEric Gay/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2016-Present): one-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, 16.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 5.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, 34.5 3PT%, 24.8 PER, 0.214 WS/48

                    

    Speaking of players who haven't been in the NBA long enough to compare against the established greats, what are we to make of Nikola Jokic for this list?

    By all accounts, Jokic was the best center during the 2018-19 season. He received first-team All-NBA honors and finished fourth in the MVP vote behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George. And that doesn't even factor in the unreal numbers he put up in the playoffs, as he averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists while shooting 22-of-56 (39.3 percent) from three-point range. He had four triple-doubles in 14 postseason games.

    But it was also just one year and was (thus far) Big Honey's only All-Star or All-NBA season. Is that enough to stack up against guys who were perhaps 85 percent as impressive but for 800 percent longer?

    Generally speaking, players who finish in the top five of an MVP vote end up being many-time All-Stars and either borderline or sure-fire Hall of Fame inductees. But we've also seen Jermaine O'Neal (third in 2004 MVP race), Peja Stojakovic (fourth in 2004) and Joakim Noah (fourth in 2014) have fool's-gold types of years. Even Derrick Rose2009 Rookie of the Year, 2011 MVPdidn't make the cut in our point guard rankings, which is proof that a hot start doesn't guarantee anything.

    Jokic doesn't feel like an O'Neal, Stojakovic or Noah, though. He's a different kind of special. And unless he suffers the type of career-destroying knee injury Rose did, we shouldn't worry about that trajectory, either. Because of his incredible assist rate, Jokic is even more of a unicorn than Kristaps Porzingis ever was.

    If he's anywhere close to this good for another few years, he'll easily become one of the four best centers of the century. And if you want to argue he's already there, we'll allow it.

9. DeMarcus Cousins

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2011-Present): four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, 21.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.2 BPG, 22.4 PER, 0.117 WS/48

                  

    We'll give DeMarcus Cousins a mulligan for not looking so hot in the 2019 NBA Finalseven though it took nine years for him to finally make the postseason. He had only been back from a torn Achilles for a couple of months, plus he injured his quad in the first round and missed another six weeks. Suffice it to say, he wasn't at 100 percent, and he was unexpectedly pushed into a more pivotal role in the rotation because of Kevin Durant's injury.

    No biggie, Boogie.

    His estimated value added via win shares is a little more concerning.

    To date, 83 percent of Cousins' career has been spent with the Sacramento Kings, and it's understandably difficult to rack up win shares on a team that averaged roughly 27 victories per season during his time there. However, in four of his six full campaigns with the Kings, Boogie didn't even lead the team in win shares. In the two seasons he was the team leader, it was by a combined margin of 0.7 win shares.

    For the sake of comparison, Karl-Anthony Towns hasn't been playing on a juggernaut with the Minnesota Timberwolves, either. But he has led the team in win shares by a wide margin during each of his four seasons. In two of them, he had more than twice as many win shares as any teammate.

    That difference can probably be attributed to Cousins' gargantuan usage rating, for which it's kind of hard to penalize him. Both former Kentucky Wildcats have averaged better than 20 points and 10 rebounds, but Cousins has a career usage rate of 31.8 percent—compared to 26.0 for Towns. With that greater responsibility has come more turnovers and a worse shooting percentage, which negatively impacts his offensive efficiency numbers. 

    That said, Cousins has evolved into a better, more well-rounded player over the past five years, and he might have landed in our top five were it not for the Achilles injury that truncated his past two seasons. He had almost no perimeter game early in his career, but he is now a legitimate three-point weapon (34.7 percent on 5.0 attempts per game since the start of 2016-17) and has become an excellent passing big (4.6 assists per game during the same span.)

    If he can regain his dominant form and play at a reasonably high level for the next seven or so seasons, he'll have a strong claim for No. 2 or No. 3 on this list.

8. Rudy Gobert

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    Rudy Gobert
    Rudy GobertRick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2014-Present): two-time All-NBA, three-time All-Defensive, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 2017 Block Champ, 11.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 21.5 PER, 0.218 WS/48

                     

    Rudy Gobert is inarguably the greatest of a dying breed: the big man with no shooting range.

    In six seasons in the NBA, the Stifle Tower is 0-of-3 from three-point range and is a career 63.1 percent free-throw shooter. He's the only player in the past eight years to accumulate at least 12 win shares in a single season without a made three, and he has done so with at least 14 win shares twice.

    He gets all those win shares because he is elite at just about everything other than jump shots.

    This past season, Gobert led the league in effective field-goal percentage by making 66.9 percent* of his two-point attempts. He and Andre Drummond were the only players to reach at least 1,000 rebounds in 2018-19. And Gobert is now the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

    Even though he has not yet been selected to an All-Star Game—let's do better next year, voters—Gobert is clearly one of the best centers in the game today. He isn't as singularly dominant as Dwight Howard or Shaquille O'Neal were at the same age, but good luck finding another center in the past two decades who was this good on both ends of the floor in his mid-20s.

    *Gobert makes two-thirds of his shots because he dunks nearly two-thirds of them. Per CBS Sports, he had the most dunks in 2018-19 with 306, which accounts for 64.3 percent of his 476 made buckets.

7. Karl-Anthony Towns

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2016-Present): 2016 Rookie of the Year, two-time All Star, one-time All-NBA, 22.3 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.5 BPG, 39.2 3PT%, 25.0 PER, 0.196 WS/48

                        

    That just-mentioned note about centers in their mid-20s? It doesn't yet apply to Karl-Anthony Towns, who has been sensational in his first four years in the Association.

    The 23-year-old hardly displayed any three-point range (2-of-8) in his lone collegiate season with the Kentucky Wildcats, but it was obvious from his then-81.3, now-83.6 percent free-throw stroke that he could be molded into the ideal modern-day center. And over the past two years, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft has made 262 three-pointers at a 40.9 percent clip.

    He is one of just 10 players who can make that claim, and Towns has at least 1,200 more rebounds and 100 more blocks than each of the other nine. He also racked up 3.4 assists per game this past season, so is there anything KAT can't do?

    If he had a few more years under his beltor if he was dominating for a relevant franchise that finishes above .500 more than once per decade—it would be more tempting to vault Towns into the top three. As is, four seasons isn't enough to put him in the same conversation with guys who were selected to at least four All-NBA teams.

    If we redo this ranking in six or seven years, though, he might be a candidate for the top spot.

6. Chris Bosh

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2004-16): 11-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, two-time NBA Champ, 19.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 33.5 3PT%, 20.6 PER, 0.159 WS/48

                    

    Chris Bosh was one of the more consistently solid big men of the past 20 years. Maybe he didn't have any A-plus seasons, but he was no worse than a B-plus in any year for more than a decade. And his ability and willingness to take on more of a tertiary role with the Miami Heat after five straight years as the undisputed leader of the Toronto Raptors was an impressive transition not many star-caliber players are capable of completing.

    Yet Bosh was the most impossible player to rank, in large part because he has the most preposterous ratio of All-Star appearances to All-NBA selections.

    Only 23 players in NBA history have been selected to more All-Star games than Bosh, and his 11 selections put him in a tie with Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Bob Pettit and Elgin Baylor. Bosh is the only center with at least 10 such selections since 2000, which initially made him look like a lock for a spot in our top three.

    However, a second-team All-NBA selection in 2006-07 represents the only time a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters thought he was one of the top big men in the game. With the exception of Karl-Anthony Townswho has only been in the league for four yearsevery other player in our top nine has made multiple All-NBA teams. And Bosh was chosen as a forward rather than a center, which further complicates matters.

    Additionally, 2006-07 was the only year Bosh finished in the top 10 of an MVP vote (seventh).

    He won two titles and played in two other NBA Finals in his first four seasons with Miami. But with all due respect, there's no question LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the bigger stars of that triumvirate. Perhaps the Heat wouldn't have been as successful if they had signed, say, Brook Lopez or Al Jefferson instead of Bosh. But Bosh's VORP for those four years was just 6.3, compared to 33.5 for James and 14.5 for Wade.

    By no means are we trying to suggest those rings don't count. We're just not sure the rings make up for the lack of All-NBA selections or the fact he never led the league in anything.

5. Ben Wallace

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    DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    Career Marks (1997-2012): four-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, six-time All-Defensive, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, 2004 NBA Champ, two-time Rebounding Champ, 2002 Block Champ, 5.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 15.5 PER, 0.14 WS/48

                    

    During his initial six-year stint with the Detroit Pistons, Ben Wallace was Dennis Rodman 2.0.

    He couldn't shoot. So for the most part, he didn't, averaging just five field-goal attempts per game throughout his career. But goodness gracious could Wallace rebound and play defense.

    From 2000-01 through 2005-06, Wallace put up 12.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. He was named Defensive Player of the Year in four of those six years, and it's frankly ridiculous he didn't win it a fifth time in 2003-04*. Even so, Wallace, Dikembe Mutombo (four) and Dwight Howard (three) are the only players to be named DPOY more than twice.

    Though Wallace was never a serious threat to win MVP, he did finish in the top 10 in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Among centers, only Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard have had more top-10 finishes since 2000.

    Because he rarely scored, the overall efficiency metrics never much cared for Wallace. His career PER and WS/48 marks are a joke compared to the other 10 centers represented on this list. Even in his best season with the Pistons (2001-02), he only had an 18.6 PER and 0.19 WS/48. But we couldn't rationalize leaving one of the best defenders of all time out of our top five.

    *Despite a career-best 9.1 defensive win shares, as well as a third consecutive season averaging at least 3.0 blocks per game, Wallace finished second behind Metta World Peace, who only had 5.2 defensive win shares. As is often the case with these awards, it seems like the voters just wanted to change things up after giving it to Wallace each of the previous two seasons.

4. Yao Ming

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2003-2011): eight-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, 19.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 23.0 PER, 0.200 WS/48, 2016 Hall of Fame Inductee

                    

    NBA lore is littered with dominant giants whose bodies simply broke down too soon. George Mikan and Bill Walton each made the Hall of Fame despite playing in fewer than 500 career games, and Yao Ming joined that fraternity a few years ago.

    At 7'6" and over 300 pounds, he even made guys like Dwight Howard look small.

    Before a series of toe, foot, ankle, knee and back injuries ended his career, Yao was unguardable. If opposing centers tried to front him, the Houston Rockets guards could just lob the ball up to him for an easy dunk. Alternatively, when opponents let him get the entry pass on the low blocks, he had both the strength to get to the rim and the finesse to score on baby hooks and fade-away jumpers. And it's not like teams could foul him and hope for the best, considering Yao was a career 83.3 percent shooter from the free-throw line.

    The man was a cheat code. The only way to slow him down was to speed up the game and try to wear him out. Had his career lasted a good bit longer than seven seasons and five games into an eighth, he might be our No. 1 center.

    And while this didn't factor into the rankings, Yao was one of the biggest global phenomena in NBA history. In both 2005 and 2006, he led all players in All-Star votes, thanks in large part to his popularity in China and greater Asia. As the New Yorker's Hua Hsu deftly worded it, "Yao Ming was the center of the world."

3. Pau Gasol

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2002-Present): 2002 Rookie of the Year, six-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA, two-time NBA Champ, 17.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.6 BPG, 21.4 PER, 0.169 WS/48

                 

    Aside from Ben Wallace and Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol has the lowest career PER among the players in our top 11. He was "only" an All-Star in 33 percent of his seasons, and his four All-NBA team selections were two second-team and two third-team honors. He never received a single vote for MVP.

    In other words, it's hard to argue Gasol was ever the creme de la creme, and it might seem a little silly to have him slotted this high. If we were to play the theoretical time-machine game and put Gasol in his prime up against the current versions of Nikola Jokic or Karl-Anthony Towns, Gasol might lose that battle.

    But a 21.4 PER over the course of 18 seasons (with 136 career postseason games) is kind of absurd.

    Per Basketball Reference, Gasol is one of only 11 players in NBA history with at least 1,200 games played and a PER greater than 21, and the other names on that listKareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Moses Malone and Hakeem Olajuwonare 10 of the greatest to ever play the game. (LeBron is two games away from joining that club, and Jordan only played 1,072 games.)

    And despite the above players-in-their-prime note, let's not pretend Gasol's peak was a small one. From 2005-06 through 2011-12, he averaged 19.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 blocks and racked up 75.3 win shares. During that stretch, he and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and won two titles.

    If some of the guys lower on the list are able to play 15 or more seasons, they might be good enough to leave Gasol's career numbers in the dust. For now, though, his longevity gives him a leg up in this debate.

2. Dwight Howard

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Career Marks (2005-Present): eight-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA, five-time All-Defensive, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time Rebounding Champ, two-time Block Champ, 17.4 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 21.6 PER, 0.172 WS/48

                     

    Dwight Howard's legacy is...confounding.

    By the end of his eight-year start with the Orlando Magic, Howard was indisputably the best center in the world. In each of his final five seasons there, he finished within the top seven of the MVP vote and was selected first-team All-NBA. He averaged at least 18 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in each of those five yearsmarks that have only been hit by two other players in the past two decades (Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-00 and Kevin Garnett in 2003-04).

    Statistically speaking, Superman is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Robert Parish, O'Neal and Garnett, Howard is one of just seven players with at least 15,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and 2,000 blocks.

    But people are inevitably going to argue we've ranked him too high because Howard has never won a title and has spent the past seven years honing his craft as one of the league's most unlikable players. The Ringer's Rodger Sherman spent part of last summer digging into why no one can stand Howard, concluding with a description of him as "the NBA's hangnail."

    Had he been less corny, a better teammate and more dedicated to improving and adapting his game, he could have become one of the 10 greatest players of all time. That's how physically superior Howard was to everyone in his early 20s, and that's a big part of why everyone soured on him. We feel like we were robbed of witnessing pantheon-level greatness due to apathy and immaturity.

    And yet, there's still no question Howard was one of the best centers in recent history.

1. Shaquille O'Neal

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    MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    Career Marks (1993-2011): 2000 MVP, 1993 Rookie of the Year, 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA, four-time NBA Champ, three-time All-Defensive, two-time Scoring Champ, 23.7 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 BPG, 26.4 PER, 0.208 WS/48, 2016 Hall of Fame Inductee

                     

    Shaquille O'Neal scored nearly half of his career points prior to 2000, but he is still the best center since then.

    And that's nothing short of ridiculous if you stop and think about it.

    Though we have his full career accolades listed above, we were forced to disregard everything O'Neal accomplished before the age of 27 for the purposes of this exercise. Had we done the same with Dwight Howard, he'd be a borderline top-10 candidate. Yao Ming would've had just two seasons to consider. And the young guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert would have been completely eliminated.

    But from his age-27 season onward, O'Neal averaged 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 blocks and won four titles. Despite the diminishing returns over the final few years, he still had a 25.8 PER and 0.204 WS/48 from 1999-00 through his retirement at the age of 39. Nine of his All-Star appearances and eight of his All-NBA honors came during this latter portion of his career.

    At the turn of the century, there wasn't a better player in the NBA, regardless of positionas evidenced by his MVP award in 2000. O'Neal also finished in the top six of the MVP vote during each of the next five seasons, including one of the most controversial elections of all time when he finished second to Steve Nash in 2005.

    O'Neal was named first-team All-NBA in seven straight seasons beginning in 1999-00. Howard is the only other center since 2000 with more than five first-, second- or third-team All-NBA selections.

    Even without factoring in his first seven seasons, O'Neal was the obvious choice for the top center since 2000. And it's going to be at least another six or seven years before anyone can legitimately challenge him for that title.

                   

    Kerry Miller is a multisport writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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