B/R NBA Player Rankings: Top 15 Centers for 2019-20

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2019

B/R NBA Player Rankings: Top 15 Centers for 2019-20

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    Big men are back in style.

    Really, they never left. Nor has the NBA abandoned its small-ball revolution. The two are now one. Bigs can be awesome in today's game without always being positionless—though that absolutely helps.

    Let's keep the NBA 100 train rolling along and rank these beacons of size. But first, if you haven't checked out our other top-15 installments, you have some homework:

    Possession data from Cleaning the Glass will be used to determine which umbrella a player falls under, but it isn't an end-all. Positions can be changed from last season if a team's depth chart calls for it.

    Anthony Davis is determined not to spend a lion's share of his minutes at his best position. You can find him among the power forwards. Al Horford is no longer a center after partnering up with Joel Embiid.

    LaMarcus Aldridge might start games at the 4, but the bet here is he winds up logging most of his reps at the 5, just like he has in each of the past two seasons. Kristaps Porzingis defends centers, so we're calling him a center.

    The criteria stays the same from here. Centers are evaluated as if they're being acquired for the entire 2019-20 season. This includes the playoffs. Players won't be docked if they're on lottery teams; the degree to which they can impact winning at the highest level is all that matters.

    Preseason performances have not played a major role in these rankings. Injuries matter and will factor in on a case-by-case basis. Anyone who doesn't figure to play this season is entirely excluded. That means DeMarcus Cousins. Rookies are similarly left out. A handful are bound to crack the overall top 100 by season's end, but passing judgment on players without NBA reps under their belt is too inexact even for this process.

15-11: Ayton, Valanciunas, Capela, Lopez, Gasol

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    15. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

    Deandre Ayton looks the part on offense. So much of what he does comes within the flow of the offense, which is saying something when considering the roster he played on as a rookie.

    He is frisky when moving off the ball and makes quick decisions on the catch. The league has craftier post operators, but he doesn't need to overload his possessions with tricks and gimmicks. He works in a nice mix of hooks and fades.

    Phoenix needs to plumb Ayton's range a little bit more. Green-lighting him from distance is the easy call. If they're not going to do that—and they didn't during the preseason—then he should at least be empowered to face up from the top of the key or further and attack the basket.

    It is way too early to make a call about Ayton's defense. That's a good thing. He was a train wreck at the beginning of the year but statistically fared better protecting the rim after the All-Star break and showed the moxie to make some plays in space.

    Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jared Jackson Jr. commandeered most of last season's rookie spotlight. Ayton's introduction to the league, while perhaps not as impressive, was no less encouraging. He's the only newbie in league history to clear 16 points and 10 rebounds with a true shooting percentage above 60.

                

    14. Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies

    Jonas Valanciunas is best suited on a veteran team that won't potentially cap his usage in favor of quirkier small-ball lineups or younger frontcourt combinations. His standing in Memphis is obscured by the Grizzlies' rebuild. He will start upon return from his foot surgery, but to what extent will they feature him with Brandon Clarke and Jackson in the fold?

    Take Valanciunas' time with the Grizzlies last season as a harbinger of what's to come, and role reduction isn't an issue. He absolutely feasted during his 17 games in Memphis, averaging 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists while burying 56.3 percent of his two-pointers.

    A fuzzy chain of command should afford Valanciunas more freedom. Memphis doesn't have a born playmaker after escapist-dribble extraordinaire Ja Morant. Kyle Anderson is probably their second-best passer.

    Feeding Valanciunas helps the Grizzlies to work around that iffiness. The Toronto Raptors used him as more of a roll man in recent years, but he retains his bullishness and touch around the block. He averaged more than 1.11 points per post-up possession last season.

    Or, put another way, Valanciunas post-ups yielded about the same value as Brook Lopez spot-ups.

            

    13. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

    Clint Capela is taking a dive relative to last season's list. You'll be forgiven if that doesn't quite track. He's coming off a year in which he averaged career highs in minutes (33.7), points (16.6), rebounds (12.7) and even free-throw shooting (63.6 percent).

    There is unsung value in a player who understands his role, takes ownership of it and, just as importantly, doesn't try to play outside it. That's Capela. But a little more variance would be nice. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney wrote:

    "Yet the fact that Capela can be played off the floor—even if in rather extreme situations—does diminish his value relative to other wings and guards. Every big in today's game needs a way to leverage their size against smaller players. Capela is still finding his, particularly when the smaller opponents in question can deny him clean rolls to the rim."

    Matchup problems aren't as abundant this side of the Golden State Warriors' dissolution. They still exist. Beyond that, it is fair to wonder whether, given the confines in which he plays, Capela has maxed out his potential.

             

    12. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

    Slower-footed bigs should look to Brook Lopez for the blueprint to thrive in today's NBA. He has withstood the march toward positionless basketball by jacking threes, protecting the rim and perfecting his defensive stances when getting switched onto guards.

    Lopez canned a career-best 36.5 percent of his treys last year. And yet, it isn't just that he hit them. It is how often he was taking them, and where he was launching them from. He attempted 6.3 threes per game, a large portion of which came from 27 feet and beyond.

    That looong distance isn't just a luxury for the Bucks. It is a necessity. Lopez is removing both himself and, because he's an actual outside threat, the opposing big from the paint. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe don't have as much room to maneuver without him letting loose from way downtown.

    Nor does Milwaukee click as easily if Lopez isn't willing to work almost exclusively without the ball. Almost 80 percent of his buckets came off assists in 2018-19. That number was under 60 percent not terribly long ago, in 2015-16. Lopez has a featured option's background, so this evolution cannot be minimized. (He can still get a bucket on the block.)

    Pairing plug-and-play offense with stout rim protection completes his transition into the ideal non-star big. No other player has ever averaged more than two blocks and two made threes per game. Just the Milwaukee version of him.

              

    11. Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors

    Marc Gasol is a cornerstone in micro. This is not to say he's small. He's actually quite large. Rather, it's a nod to his value as a centerpiece in spurts.

    Entering his age-35 season, Gasol is not fit to be the most important player on a postseason squad. But he can carry lineups begging for a playmaker, and his defense hits nicely within collective efforts. (The Eastern Conference Semifinals, anyone?)

    Toronto won the minutes Gasol played without Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry last season. His passing and, when he's aggressive, shooting can float bench-heavy units going up against other second-stringers.

    The Raptors need this to hold over a larger sample this year. Lowry and Pascal Siakam will be on the bench together at some point, and the offense is stocked with fewer shooters. Gasol is Toronto's only hope of navigating those minutes—and one of the most important pieces when it comes to the larger task of softening the blow from Leonard's departure.

10. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Often lost amid Russell Westbrook's triple-doubles and the Oklahoma City Thunder's superstar headcount was that Steven Adams became one of the NBA's best players. His role is confining, perhaps even restrictive, but he owns it.

    Rim runs, put-backs and a rock-solid, if unspectacular, post game make up the bulk of his offense. He has a sneaky floater that he's busted out with increasing frequency as well. He's shooting 59 percent (69-of-117) on floating jumpers since 2015-16.

    Adams' screens are no less valuable without Westbrook. On the contrary, Chris Paul needs them more. Ever light on knockdown shooters, the Thunder in general need them just as much to dredge up daylight on the perimeter. Adams finished 16th in screen assists last year. It won't be a surprise if he jumps into the top 10 this season—you know, provided Oklahoma City doesn't plan on turning him into a fast-break-leading floor-spacer.

    Preserving Adams on defense has to be more of a priority. The Thunder's hyper-aggressive approach last year took a toll on everyone. Their defensive standing barely held after the All-Star break against a tougher schedule.

    Head coach Billy Donovan is aware, and Oklahoma City is now incorporating a variant scheme that includes more drops toward the rim, per The Oklahoman's Erik Horne.

    That should help Adam retain his value. He can still close up lanes from a distance, but hanging closer to the basket should, theoretically, spare him from a little wear and tear—not to mention put him in better position to grab all those extra boards that are now available following Westbrook's exit.

9. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

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    Nikola Vucevic deserves a special award for the job he did last season within the Orlando Magic offense. 

    Absent a starting-level playmaker (DJ Augustin came close) and high-end shot creators, he became their guiding force. You better believe it showed. Vucevic posted the highest usage rate of his career, and the Magic offense cratered by 9.1 points per 100 possessions when he sat.

    Shocker: This didn't work out in the playoffs. Marc Gasol stole Vucevic's lunch money and then forced him to take a line of credit so he could steal even more. It was predictable. Offenses hubbed by bigs not of the Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns variety aren't postseason-proof. Al Horford himself couldn't have carried the Magic any further.

    This does not take away from Vucevic's All-Star campaign. His well-roundedness can get them by during the regular season. He officially has battle-tested three-point range, can set himself up in the post and makes slick passes from standstill positions and on the go.

    Piece it all together, and Vucevic wound up clearing 24 points, four assists and one made three per 36 minutes. That's no joke. In fact, only one other big man has ever met those benchmarks before: 2016-17 DeMarcus Cousins.

    Drastic changes do not await Vucevic this season—so long as the Magic remain playoff hopefuls. They will try to groom Markelle Fultz and incorporate Mo Bamba, but Vucevic is one of the roster's only offensive guarantees.

8. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

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    Myles Turner is working off the career year he almost desperately needed. 

    It was not entirely clear entering last season whether he held more value to the Indiana Pacers' long-term future than Domantas Sabonis. It might still be a debate for some people. Footing the bill for both Sabonis (extension-eligible) and Turner will be tough, and the Pacers have a floor-spacing 5 in Goga Bitadze.

    Supporting that position is harder now, assuming it even still exists.

    Sabonis is the craftier offensive player, but Turner has proved himself a viable defensive linchpin. He erased nearly every shot in sight last year, even when he was trailing plays. His 8.4 block rate was absurd. Only Mitchell Robinson posted a higher mark, and he didn't clear 1,400 minutes. Turner is just the seventh player in league history to post a block rate above eight in over 2,000 minutes.

    Swats alone, though, did not make his year. Turner extended his defensive range. He came out more often to guard pick-and-rolls and didn't have trouble doubling back to the hoop when pulled outside the paint. His defensive portability is among the two biggest keys to a successful frontcourt partnership with Sabonis.

    Thaddeus Young's departure will put Turner in more compromising positions. The former is one of the NBA's best help defenders, and the Pacers will want for a similar safety net unless TJ Warren's interest in getting stops is real and, most critically, applicable. But they wouldn't have assembled the roster as they did if not for Turner. They maintained a defensive rating last season in the 87th percentile when he played without Young and Victor Oladipo.

    Unlocking Turner's offense is the more pressing concern. His 38.8 percent clip from deep is great for someone who doesn't toil away on the block, but the Pacers need more. If it isn't going to be a post game, then it needs to be an operable face-up jumper or some form of off-the-bounce finishing.

7. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

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    Rebounds are essential to everything Andre Drummond is.

    They are, quite literally, how he pads his statistical resume. He has led the league in offensive rebounding rate four times, including last season; defensive rebounding rate twice; and overall rebounding rate three times. Dennis Rodman is the only player in league history that has more seasons with a total rebounding rate above 25.

    Boards are also a primary source of scoring for Drummond. Put-back opportunities accounted for 25.8 percent of his offensive possessions last year, the fourth-largest share of anyone who appeared in at least 50 games. 

    Defensive rebounds, meanwhile, are part of Drummond's cover from unfavorable critiques on that side of the court. His motor may wax and wane, but ending possessions has value.

    To be sure, rebounding is not Drummond's lone defensive bright spot. Not even close. He is pretty nimble for someone so broadly built and knows how to leverage his massive wingspan in space. Consistency wasn't nearly as much of a problem for him last year. So many of his miscues can be traced back to a less-than-stellar guard and wing rotation hanging him out to dry on screens.

    Can he be the foothold for an elite defense? Probably not. He isn't Rudy Gobert, and his limitations at both ends are something the Detroit Pistons must weigh into his next contract (player option for 2020-21). But the notion that Drummond isn't among the stars at his position blows his faults of proportion. He is one of the NBA's best centers.

6. Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

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    Ranking players who are on their way back from serious injury is always awkward. It is particularly uncomfortable when dealing with All-Stars. Giving benefit of the doubt to their immediate return risks looking foolish for not taking a grace period into account. Exuding doubt is seen as a rejection of their track record.

    Identifying the right spot for Kristaps Porzingis is no less of a chore.

    Defaulting to "He'll resume his trek into the top 20 to 25 players" is tempting. Torn ACLs are no joke, but they are more standard, and he does not play especially taxing offense.

    Someone standing 7'3" can get a shot off over anyone. As devastating as he can be when given a wide berth toward the rim, beating defenders off the dribble is not the crux of his game. 

    Almost 45 percent of his looks were off catch-and-shoot opportunities in 2017-18. Nearly 80 percent of his attempts came after one dribble or fewer.

    And that was all as the No. 1 option on a New York Knicks squad without much incentive to do anything other than feature him. Playing next to Luka Doncic should only tilt Porzingis further into that recovery-friendly shot distribution.

    Steering right into the business-as-usual forecast still undersells what the Dallas Mavericks and their unicorn are up against. Porzingis hasn't appeared in a regular-season game since Feb. 6, 2018—close to 21 months ago. Torn ACLs may not be the end of the world, but he was far from injury-free before now. And many of his issues, like the latest one, came on the left side of his body.

    If preseason is any indication, it will take Porzingis some time to gather his bearings. His touch has been off outside the arc, although it's more important that he's uncorking threes without hesitation. How long will it take him to be more than a pick-and-pop option? Will his rim protection have the same oomph? How many games will he lose to scheduled rest?

    These questions may be temporary, but they're still cautionary. Expecting Porzingis to immediately recapture form is to expect too much.

5. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

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    LaMarcus Aldridge is entering his age-34 season. Now, it seems, would be a good time to forecast regression. Except the same held true last year, and even the season before that. 

    Said drop-off has yet to come. Aldridge slogged through the beginning of last year, but it didn't take long for him to regain control of the wheel. He turned in a 33-point, 14-rebound, 14-of-25 shooting performance against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 23 and continued to cook from there. His averages over that 63-game span: 22.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 60.5 true shooting.

    Fretting over his shot quality is worthy pushback. More than 61 percent of his total looks came as contested or very contested two-pointers. That reads like a precarious offensive diet—one overdue for a reality check.

    Only, well, taking and making tough shots is Aldridge's reality. He drained 53.9 percent of those tight two-pointers last season, which is, ahem, actually down from 56.3 percent in 2017-18.

    Running an offense through Aldridge has a ceiling, especially when DeMar DeRozan is his co-star, but it's more soft than hard. The San Antonio Spurs ranked fifth in points scored per 100 possessions last season—the bench played a big part in that—and neither they nor Aldridge were reduced to smithereens in their seven-game first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets.

    Dejounte Murray's return and Derrick White's rise might intrude upon Aldridge's value this year. Together with DeRozan, they represent a certain number of touches and, for now, lackluster spacing. The Spurs will complicate matters if they lean too heavily on a dual-big frontcourt featuring Jakob Poeltl at the 5.

    But even with those concerns, counting on substantially less from Aldridge feels wrong. He has made a living off buckets in cramped spaces. Write him off, or put him lower, at your own risk.

4. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Centers who don't shoot threes, create their own shots or flash unicorn switchability at the defensive end have finite utility. Or rather, they're supposed to.

    Rudy Gobert exists on an entirely different plane. He isn't a posterboard for big men with positionless skill sets, but he's by no means constrained to the mold of a Clint Capela archetype (particularly now that the former spends so much time hanging out in the dunker's spot).

    This departure isn't totally recognizable on offense, where Gobert squeezes neatly into the screen-setting, rim-running mold. But his value isn't as typical as many others who share this alcove.

    His screens and dives generate significant gravity when the Utah Jazz aren't running out multiple non-shooters. He averaged 6.7 screen assists per 36 minutes last year, the third-most among 276 players to log at least 1,000 minutes. That number could climb this season, if for no other reason than Utah's summer infusion of proven shot-makers Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley.

    Spoiler: Gobert has a starker impact at the other end. Consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards make this a dead giveaway. His presence on the backline instructs Utah's approach on the perimeter. He is a known fulcrum. And still, at least some of his influence is less obvious.

    Bigs of Gobert's ilk usually have matchup limitations. They are schemable. He's much harder to play off the floor. Even when he seems to be teetering on the verge of a liability, he's seldom pushed past that brink. Salvaging him becomes more about reasonable tweaks, not pivoting to different lineup combinations.

    Look no further than the Jazz's first-round loss to the Houston Rockets last season. Utah's drastic strategy against James Harden left Gobert a basketball-Twitter punchline. But he wasn't so easy of a target by series' end.

    Gobert's onset struggles were more about coming too far away from the basket to contest shots, something he's fully capable of doing, just not when going up against one of the three best offensive players alive. He eventually adjusted, and the Jazz were better for it.

    Certain teams, like the Rockets, will still pose more problems than most. The beauty of Gobert is, even then, he's not eminently solvable.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Karl-Anthony Towns is slated to have more influence over the Minnesota Timberwolves offense, which makes it difficult to refrain from slotting him any higher. He is made to be the center of their universe.

    Last year provided but a taste of what to expect. Towns essentially slogged through three seasons: Jimmy Butler's messy exit, the post-Butler exit and the post-Tom Thibodeau era. His best stuff, not surprisingly, came during the latter stretch. He averaged 26.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists with a 54.1/42.2/83.8 shooting slash after Thibs' exit.

    Saddling Towns with more playmaking responsibility makes too much sense. Head coach Ryan Saunders has made it clear his big man won't be running point—though, Minnesota should totally lean into KAT-led fast breaks—but giving him additional touches at the top of the key or deeper in the post is a natural progression. Towns has flashed the chops to find shooters off the dribble; he can certainly handle a more deliberate approach.

    Nix the playmaking, and he is still the NBA's most complete big on offense. His game is both force and finesse. He will back down opponents, chase put-backs and break rims, and he also hits stop-and-pop jumpers, faces up, turns on the spin cycle and relies on touch. And he does it all so damn efficiently.

    Win-loss sticklers will point out the Timberwolves have not been particularly good with Towns, and that he only made the playoffs when Butler was around. That's not on him. Minnesota won the minutes Towns played last season without Butler, Derrick Rose and Andrew Wiggins while posting a 117 offensive rating. That is bonkers given the personnel around him, even over a 582-possession sample.

    Towns is very much who the Timberwolves are paying him to be: a player capable of being the No. 1 on a contender. Minnesota isn't that, but if he defends like he did during the (brief) time Robert Covington was healthy, Towns will join the top-10 ranks and, most likely, never look back.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Defending Joel Embiid is an act of futility. He has his limitations—tunnel vision, situational sloppiness, outside shooting—but they don't always matter. He keeps coming, all 240 to 260 pounds of him, and overwhelms with both power and craft.

    The greatest compliment that can be paid to Embiid's bruising balletics: The Philadelphia 76ers haven't yet figured out how to play without him.

    Jimmy Butler's arrival helped mask their dependence, but not when it mattered most. Philly posted a net rating of minus-18.9 in the 195 possessions both he and Ben Simmons logged without Embiid in the playoffs. As ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote:

    "A stat that blows me away four-plus months later: The Sixers outscored Toronto by 90 points in 237 minutes with Embiid on the floor during the conference semifinals...and lost the remaining 99 non-Embiid minutes by 109 points. I mean...what? Yeah, that's a small sample size. Whatever. A high-end playoff team losing one subset of minutes against one opponent by a Washington Generals margin is crazy—and indicative of an issue that has dogged Philly for years now."

    Al Horford will help the Sixers better survive stretches without Embiid, but the point stands. It hits even harder when looking at their chain of command in crunch time. Butler's departure leaves Philly with a face-up-scoring void. Will Tobias Harris begin to replace it? Or maybe Josh Richardson?

    Embiid sounds prepared to take more off-the-dribble jumpers. That's scary, in part for the wrong reasons. Those looks haven't made up a huge chunk of his offensive diet, and he shot 27.7 percent from three last season when firing off the dribble (13-of-47).

    Devil's advocate: Embiid isn't chasing an unattainable leap. He is already comfortable moving with the ball, cut down his turnovers in the post and boasts the foot speed to be matchup-proof at the defensive end. He has the physical tools to sprinkle in more off-the-bounce jumpers.

    If he starts hitting those, or even just shooting league average from deep, the NBA at large won't have an answer.

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Nikola Jokic's standing has entered a sort of sanctuary. Player rankings never include unanimity, but up until last season, deeming him a star meant submitting yourself to a war of reaction.

    Not anymore.

    Arguments will still be had, but the conversation has changed. Calling him one of the league's most valuable players is no longer a controversy. Jokic vs. Joel Embiid vs. Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Anthony Davis is a more standard debate.

    That says the world about the season Jokic turned in last year: 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game on 58.9 true shooting. This output doesn't seem real, and it almost isn't. Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson are the only other players to post similar lines. 

    Last season also marked a defensive turn for Jokic. His unflattering reputation has always been a little overblown—crashing the glass has value—but 2018-19 was a banner year for his consistency. Length and IQ allow him to bust up plays off the ball, and last season specifically he showed quicker reaction time and better positioning on more aggressive stances.

    Of course, no part of Jokic's game will ever catch up to his passing. His vision is inconceivable. Playmaking pushed him into the national spotlight, and somehow, years later, what he's doing still doesn't feel normal.

    Jokic's bag of tricks is bottomless: He throws ridiculous outlets. Leads fast breaks. Tosses kick-outs while falling away from the basket. Flings no-lookers to the corners while on the move. Feigns hand-offs before finding cutters. Turns the NBA's most pronounced pump-fake into someone else's wide-open jumper. At least once a game, he drops a pass you have to watch on replay to believe.

    Sticking Jokic ahead of Embiid is not a no-brainer. These two will jockey for best-center honors in real time. Davis will as well, if he sees enough reps at the 5. Towns is coming too. But the decision to roll with Jokic is not a reach.

             

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersRealGM and Spotrac.

    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.