Ranking NBA's Top 15 Centers This Season

Andy Bailey and Dan FavaleFeatured Columnist IJuly 10, 2020

Ranking NBA's Top 15 Centers This Season

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    A few years ago, the center position seemed to be on the NBA's endangered list. The game trended toward the three-point line, and advanced numbers revealed how inefficient the post-up possession is.

    Both the present and future are represented well on this list. Anyone who hasn't logged at least 500 minutes this season is not eligible for inclusion. Sample size isn't everything, but we're evaluating players based on 2019-20 alone, prior to the Disney World bubble. Playing time has to matter. And to that end, extremely limited availability will work against those like Marc Gasol, who earns a spot in the overarching top-100 conversation but has not added top-15 value at center this season.

    But before we delve into the league's best bigs, be sure to check out the other installments of our NBA 100 series if you haven't already:

    Possession data from Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference will be used to help determine which players qualify as centers. Certain instances, however, will demand judgment calls. These verdicts will be rendered after considering defensive matchup data, lineup deployment and consensus perception.

    Some may still be underestimating the resilience of the league's biggest players. Instead of being pushed out by deep shooting and positionless lineups, centers have adapted.

    Karl-Anthony Towns has taken 7.9 threes per game this season. Nikola Jokic has functionally been the Denver Nuggets' point guard for years. Several of the game's best centers now possess the skills that threatened their existence.

    A handful of defensive specialists have maintained roles on various teams, but the future of the position appears to be players with the size of those legends who dominated earlier eras and the skills of guards.

                 


    *Editor’s Note: It's NBA Top 100 Week here at Bleacher Report. Check back each day as Andy Bailey and Dan Favale rank the top 15 performers at each position from the 2019-20 season, culminating in their top 100 player rankings on Saturday, July 11.

15-11: Wood, Valanciunas, Favors, Harrell, Lopez

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    15. Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons

    The temptation to vault Christian Wood higher is real real. He epitomizes the in vogue center, someone who is a presence on the glass, swats the occasional shot, strokes triples and even puts the ball on the floor. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Serge Ibaka and Kristaps Porzingis are the only other players clearing 20 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one three-point make per 36 minutes.

    Sample size takes something away from Wood's year in review, but not much. It isn't his fault that Pistons head coach Dwane Casey stuck with Thon Maker for so long, or that he didn't enter the starting lineup until after the Andre Drummond trade. That Wood's per-game numbers since getting more burn have closely reflected his per-minute output is a big deal.

    Detroit will need to worry about its defense if he's the man in the middle, though. Wood, an Early Bird free agent after this year, can cover a lot of ground, but he's easily led astray off the ball, and opponents are unafraid to attack the basket when he's jumping center.

    Offensive variety is still enough to get him by even if he doesn't shore up his defense. He is at home squaring up for set triples, running into quick catch-and-launch looks, slipping to the baskets off screens, beating closeouts off the dribble and driving baseline. He has even flashed more advanced playmaking chops, increasing the frequency with which he finds shooters while on the move.

            

    14. Jonas Valanciunas, Memphis Grizzlies

    Jonas Valanciunas is navigating center's new world order just fine. The three-point shot he's tested over the past few seasons is a big part of it. He's hitting 36.7 percent of his triples on a career-high 1.7 attempts per 36 minutes, allowing Memphis to leverage him as both a roller and popper.

    Barreling his way toward the hoop remains one of Valanciunas' greatest strengths. His screens stop players dead in their tracks, and he's averaging a whopping 1.24 points per possession as the roll man (74th percentile).

    Defenders are still liable to look like puny humans when he goes to work down low. He is both hefty and handy: light on his feet, heavy with his shoulders. He's one of 10 players shooting better than 50 percent on at least three post-ups per game.

    Merging the traditional with the neoteric wouldn't mean much if Valanciunas couldn't hang on defense. He can. He's not matchup-proof, but his rotations around the basket are on point enough that he's a net-plus back-line stopper when playing beside rangier 4s. Memphis has maintained an above-average defense in the time he's spent next to Brandon Clarke or Jaren Jackson Jr.—nothing if not a ringing endorsement of Valanciunas' capacity to survive the ongoing frontcourt revolution.

            

    13. Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans

    Derrick Favors is easy to miss among bigs with more bedecked offensive tricks. His three-point volume and efficiency never took off, and mid-range jumpers have been almost entirely weeded out of his arsenal over the past two seasons. Playing him can come at an opportunity cost if the offense doesn't have the spacing to milk his rolls to the basket or the flexibility to let him hunt second-chance points.

    New Orleans has done a nice job of establishing his fit, even when he plays with Zion Williamson at the 4. The team's guards ceaselessly push the ball in transition, and putting pressure on the rim is of the utmost importance. And it works.

    The Pelicans are fortunate it does. They can't afford not to play Favors. The same was true for the Utah Jazz. It would remain true if he were part of another team. His defensive presence is tone-setting. He is a back-line quarterback, and what he lacks in the fast-twitch department, he makes up for with court awareness.

    Targeting Favors on switches is seldom an effective ploy. He stays in front of ball-handlers, won't bite on head-fakes and has the lateral gait to remain attached at the hip when they do put their heads down.

    It is no accident New Orleans went from 26th in defensive efficiency through its first 25 games while Favors was dealing with injuries to eighth since. Other players face tougher assignments—mainly on the wings—but he is the backbone that keeps the half-court integrity intact.

                  

    12. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers

    Relentless is the word that best encapsulates Montrezl Harrell's court presence. He is neither an exceptional rebounder nor rim protector, but his game knows only one gear: light speed.

    Harrell will out-talent few of his opponents. He'll outwork almost all of them. His pick-and-roll synergy with Lou Williams is well-documented, but his finishing has more layers than that two-man connection. He will bruise his way to buckets in the post on one possession and then finagle his way to the basket, off the dribble, on the next.

    Someone who checks in at 6'7" shouldn't be so apt at getting through and over bigger opponents. Harrell merges force with finesse in a way defenses can't quite contain. And the surety with which he carries himself—he isn't shy about finishing plays while logging time beside superstars and primary ball-handlers galore—has secured his transition from a per-minute superhero to a higher-volume, per-game weapon.

    To wit: Antetokounmpo and Jokic are the only other players averaging more than 18 points while shooting better than 59 percent on twos. Harrell's scoring opportunities are more elementary than theirs in the macro but no less overwhelming.

                       

    11. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

    Brook Lopez is so much more than his missed wide-open threes. And make no mistake: He's missing a bunch of wide-open threes. Among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 triples with a defender six or more feet away, his 29.2 percent clip ranks...124th.

    Volume and reputation help Lopez's floor-spacing value. He has made threes at a higher rate in the past and takes enough of them that defenses are drawn outside the paint. He mitigates his shaky shooting even further by peppering in some nifty drives. He has the handle to get around opposing bigs without an up-fake, and the in-between touch to put down looks on the move.

    Post-ups also remain a reliable part of his bag. He's averaging 1.08 points per possession in these situations (87th percentile). Functionally, then, he's still a threat from all over the floor.

    Lopez's defensive utility takes care of the rest. If he's not matchup-proof, he's pretty damn close. Where many of the switchiest bigs depend on side-to-side burst, he uses wide, low-to-the-ground stances.

    Smaller, quicker ball-handlers are hard-pressed to get around his length, and he is a case-specific virtuoso. The amount of space he leaves between face-up scorers varies by a player's strength—his speed, his outside touch, his willingness to pull up off the dribble, etc.

    When being challenged by Lopez at the rim, opponents are shooting 46.9 percent—a top-three mark among 67 players who defend at least four such looks per game. Rival offenses are getting to the basket less and taking more of their shots from mid-range with him on the floor, a direct result of his capability in space.

    Demanding he receive Defensive Player of the Year consideration goes a touch too far, but over the past two seasons, Lopez has indeed entrenched himself as one of the league's most impactful defenders.

10. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Steven Adams doesn't get the usage of old-school bigs, but everything else about him screams throwback.

    He's resisted the three-point revolution. He's a banger on the boards. And he doesn't need credit for team success, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder's net rating is 2.7 points better when he's on the floor.

    His 10.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 steals per game might sound modest, but that has at least a little to do with his playing time. Per 75 possessions, he has produced 14.8 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.2 steals. His 3.2 box plus/minus ranks 25th in the NBA, regardless of position.

    This is where advanced numbers come in handy. Adams, despite his lack of a jump shot and highlight-reel handles, has an impact on games as wide as his shoulders. He does a bit of everything. And his basketball IQ makes him an ideal gap-filler.

    "I [don't] think people know how smart he is," former teammate Enes Kanter said of Adams, per Forbes' Nick Crain. "I think he is one of the most influential, educated and smart people. He is probably the smartest basketball player I have ever played with or against."

    Adams always appears to be in the right place on the defensive end. He's a good roller in half-court sets, with a points-per-possession average that ranks in the 79th percentile on those plays, even without the top-of-the-backboard athleticism of players like Jarrett Allen or a prime DeAndre Jordan.

    He isn't likely to threaten for an All-Star selection, but Adams may be this position's quintessential glue guy.

9. Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors

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    The evolution of Serge Ibaka probably tracks pretty close to that of the center position, generally. Over his first three seasons, he attempted just six threes. Over his first six seasons, he averaged 0.7 three-point attempts and a league-leading 2.6 blocks.

    In 2019-20, Ibaka is averaging a career-high 16.0 points and hitting 39.8 percent of 3.3 three-point attempts per game. For the first time in his career, he has produced less than a block per game.

    Ibaka is a completely different player than he was at the outset of his career. And his ability to space the floor from the 5 opens up the paint for slashing from players like Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam.

    When all three are on the floor, the Raptors outscore opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions and post a defensive rating that ranks in the 92nd percentile.

    Ibaka is a more offensively oriented player than he was early in his career, but that doesn't mean he can't still defend. In those aforementioned lineups, he and Siakam are both able to cover the inside or switch onto smaller players on the perimeter. Their combined length helps to make up for the lack of size from a backcourt that includes the 6'0" Lowry and 6'1" Fred VanVleet.

8. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

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    After two decades of dominance, it's been a rough couple of years for the San Antonio Spurs. But as long as LaMarcus Aldridge is on the floor, they still score.

    Since the start of the 2018-19 campaign, San Antonio has put up 116.3 points and outscored opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions when Aldridge plays without DeMar DeRozan (the Spurs score 112.3 points per 100 possessions and are a minus-1.2 when both share the floor).

    When Aldridge is the focal point, the offense generally hums. And that especially became true after he fully embraced the three for the first time in his career.

    From Dec. 23 to the start of the hiatus, Aldridge averaged 4.2 three-point attempts per game and shot 41.6 percent from deep. Over the same stretch, the Spurs scored 115.4 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the floor and 111.3 with him off.

    Becoming a full-blown stretch 5 could add years to Aldridge's career. In the right situation, this newfound willingness to spread the floor could make things easier for the rest of a lineup.

    Defensively, Aldridge is posting a career-high 1.6 blocks per game, but the Spurs are terrible on that end when he plays, regardless of whether he's with DeRozan.

    On the season, San Antonio's 113.4 points allowed per 100 possessions rank 24th in the NBA. And that mark gets worse by 2.4 points when Aldridge plays.

    Still, if he were surrounded by better perimeter defenders, there's a world in which Aldridge is a very impactful modern 5.

7. Deandre Ayton

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    Being the No. 1 pick in a 2018 draft class that included Luka Doncic and Trae Young is a tough hand to be dealt. The chances that Deandre Ayton ever tops the hype surrounding either, especially Doncic, are slim. But if you just judge Ayton on his merits, he's off to a heck of a start.

    After a 25-game suspension, he averaged 19.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 33.2 minutes per game before the hiatus. On the season, the Suns are plus-0.7 points per 100 possessions with Ayton on the floor and minus-2.9 with him off.

    His 57.1 true shooting percentage eclipsed the league average, but not by much. That's likely the next frontier for Ayton. More trips to the line would help. A player with his size (6'11", 250 lbs) and athleticism shouldn't be averse to contact.

    He could use some work on defense, as well, but the Suns' defensive rating is better when he plays. And the nearly two blocks per game is nothing to sneeze at. Ayton is already a sturdier anchor than many projected he'd be by his second year, but he doesn't strike fear into opposing slashers.

    Of course, for a sophomore, this is almost nitpicky. What Ayton's done with the start of his career is unusual. Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Shaquille O'Neal and Towns are the only players in league history to match or exceed his career averages for points (17.1) and rebounds (10.8) through an age-21 season.

6. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player who matches or exceeds Nikola Vucevic's averages for points (20.3), rebounds (11.6) and assists (3.8) over the last two seasons.

    Yes, that Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP with a good shot to join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in league history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

    Of course, Antetokounmpo blows away the thresholds set by Vucevic, but the production is plenty impressive nonetheless.

    Like others on this list, Vucevic has improved his standing in the league by embracing the three-point shot and facilitating from the post. For the first six years of his career, he averaged 2.0 assists and 0.3 three-point attempts per game. Over the last three, those numbers are up to 3.7 and 3.6.

    And his more evolved game has made him, by far, the most important player on the Orlando Magic.

    Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Orlando is plus-1.3 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor and minus-5.3 with him off. The offensive rating takes a 6.2-point tumble when he sits.

    When he's on the floor, Vooch commands defensive attention whether in the post or surveying the floor from up top. This, of course, makes things easier for teammates who've struggled to carry offensive responsibility throughout their careers.

    On the other end of the floor, Vucevic isn't likely to threaten for Defensive Player of the Year anytime soon, but he's done a solid job of piling up counting stats as a member of the Magic. There are only seven players who match or exceed his totals for blocks and steals since he went to Orlando in 2012. And he's had an above-average defensive-rating swing in three of his last four seasons.   

5. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

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    He's No. 5 here, but Bam Adebayo may embody the future of the center position more than anyone on this list. He has the size (6'9", 255 pounds) to play the 5, but he can be trusted to switch onto any position, handle the ball, facilitate, finish inside and even do a little damage in the floater zone.

    On the season, he's averaging a well-rounded 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The only thing left is three-point range. And that may be on the way. According to ESPN's Zach Lowe, he went 31-of-50 on corner threes in a predraft workout for the Miami Heat.

    In an increasingly positionless NBA, guys who can do everything will reign.

    Michael Pina wrote for SB Nation:

    "When [the Heat] look at Adebayo they don't see a position, and even before they took him 14th overall in the 2017 draft they didn't see a prospect who should be boxed into a role. Adebayo is an original, one-of-one — a jittery ball of unselfish, peerlessly athletic energy whose lone hobby is discovering new ways to dismantle traditional norms on a basketball court."

    On the season, 16 players have taken at least 10 shots when defended by Adebayo. They vary from point guards like Markelle Fultz, Russell Westbrook and Spencer Dinwiddie, to wings like Bradley Beal, to bigs like Joel Embiid and Nikola Vucevic. Only two of those 16 shot at least 50 percent against Bam. And Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, was 8-of-23 (34.8 percent).

    The tenacity and versatility of Adebayo makes him an ideal defensive anchor for the Heat, alongside Jimmy Butler. But his potential on the offensive end may be every bit as tantalizing.

    Adebayo isn't just making run-of-the-mill kick-outs from the post for his assists. He's passing on the move, out of rolls, from the top of the key or the elbow. He's comfortable passing with either hand. And his vision may be better than any big man's, save Jokic's.

    The next evolution for this position is "point center." Jokic has been doing that for a while with the Nuggets. Adebayo brings significantly more athleticism to the equation.

4. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Before the hiatus, Rudy Gobert led the NBA in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus for the fourth consecutive season.

    He dominated the field in FiveThirtyEight's new catch-all, defensive RAPTOR rating, which incorporates box score numbers, on-off data and tracking data.

    His value there is so immense that he ranks fifth in the NBA in RAPTOR wins above replacement, behind only James Harden, LeBron James, Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, despite posting a negative offensive RAPTOR rating.

    He doesn't seem to have the narrative on his side for a third straight DPOY, but he clearly has an argument.

    Tune into any Utah Jazz game, and you'll almost certainly see multiple possessions on which a perimeter player dusts his matchup on the outside, gets to the paint and then does an abrupt U-turn upon seeing Gobert. It's a phenomenon that traditional box scores struggle to capture.

    The way to neutralize that, of course, is by deploying a modern 5 who pulls Gobert from the rim. He does a decent job while playing one-on-one out there, but simply having him out of the paint can break down a Jazz defense that featured only Royce O'Neale and Joe Ingles as clear plus defenders outside.

    That's probably the biggest knock against Gobert. As the Houston Rockets have shown, there are ways to game-plan around his dominance. His career postseason net-rating swing is minus-10.1.

    Generally speaking, though, he remains one of the most impactful players in the league. His plus-11.0 net-rating swing this regular season ranked in the 95th percentile. He's a devastating, dedicated rim runner, even when high-usage players like Donovan Mitchell don't throw the eventual lob. Just having Gobert attack the rim out of the pick-and-roll bends defenses toward the paint.

    He's also a staple on the screen-assists leaderboard, generating a league-leading 16.1 points per game off those plays.

    Put it all together, and it isn't difficult to see why Gobert is still one of the game's best centers, despite not having the guard skills most others have had to develop for survival.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The list of players who had a better offensive box plus/minus than Towns' 4.8 through five seasons is short (and impressive): Michael Jordan (7.9), LeBron James (6.2), Vince Carter (5.4), Chris Paul (5.3), Nikola Jokic (5.2), David Robinson (5.2), Charles Barkley (5.1) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.0).

    He isn't quite the passer LeBron, CP3 or Jokic were right off the bat, though his career-high 4.4 assists per game this season shows progress, but Towns' hyper-efficient scoring arsenal makes him perhaps the game's premier big-man weapon.

    Stephen Curry is the only player in league history who matches or exceeds Towns' career marks for points per 75 possessions (24.4) and true shooting percentage (62.2). To get that level of scoring prowess out of a 5 is likely unimaginable for other organizations.

    And despite missing much of the season with injuries, Towns has shown he's still developing.

    He's posting career highs in points (26.5), assists (4.4), made threes (3.3) and effective field-goal percentage (60.0). No one has ever had a season that matches Towns' 2019-20 combination of efficiency, volume and rebounding.

    Progress on the defensive end seems to have stalled for Towns, though. Minnesota allows a whopping 6.2 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Opponents' effective field-goal percentage is 3.4 points higher when he plays.

    His defensive rebounding and shot blocking (1.2 per game) provide value on that end, but he still loses focus far too often and is regularly caught out of position.

    But there's no question his offensive contributions outweigh the defensive shortcomings. For the fifth time in five seasons, the Timberwolves' net rating was better with Towns on the floor.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    When he's engaged, Embiid shows flashes of Rudy Gobert-level defense and Karl-Anthony Towns-level offense. Though probably a little shy of both comparisons, when combined, Embiid looks like he might be the best center in the game.

    He's shown an ability to step out and hit threes or dominate a post-up like Towns. And his rim protection and recovery speed is elite in certain defensive possessions. But he struggles to consistently provide that level of play on both ends.

    Even with ebbs and flows of effort, though, his 23.4 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 blocks in 30.2 minutes per game impress.

    And for the fourth straight season, the Philadelphia 76ers' net rating is better with Embiid on the floor. His defensive-rating swing ranks in the 94th percentile, which is somehow a career low.

    One thing he never struggles with is an ability to get to the line. Among players with at least 5,000 career minutes, Embiid's 10.1 free-throw attempts per 75 possessions trails only Shaq's 10.4.

    That's why his true shooting percentage is always above average, despite a 51.4 effective field-goal percentage that falls shy of the 52.2 average during his career.

    When Embiid gets the ball, his mind often seems already made up to attack. And officials often can't help but blow the whistle.

    Getting all those scoring possessions at the line has a compound effect. Embiid's free-throw percentage yields around 1.6 points per two-shot trip to the line. And each whistle gets the opposition closer to the penalty and foul trouble.

    Embiid can be a great defender, floor spacer and post player, but his most consistent, valuable contribution might be that foul-drawing ability.

    Among players with at least 50 post-ups, Embiid leads the NBA with 1.12 points per post-up possession. But that's buoyed by the fact that he draws shooting fouls on nearly a quarter of those possessions. His effective field-goal percentage out of the post ranks 16th, right behind teammate Ben Simmons.   

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    What you're about to read might sound like hyperbole, but I assure you: Nikola Jokic is on track to be one of the best centers in NBA history.

    Among players with at least 5,000 career minutes, Jokic ranks sixth all-time in box plus/minus, trailing only Michael Jordan Jordan, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Magic Johnson and David Robinson.

    Before the league was suspended, he was averaging 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.7 blocks in just 32.3 minutes per game.

    This is his fourth season (he's only played five) with at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists per 75 possessions. No one else has more than three such seasons, and Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Kevin Garnett are the only players in league history to have at least one.

    Oscar Robertson and Magic, both of whom averaged more minutes and played in eras with a faster pace, are the only players in league history with more triple-doubles than Jokic before turning 26.

    The Serbian center fills up stat sheets like few players ever have, and they're not just empty numbers. This season, his plus-9.2 net-rating swing ranks in the 93rd percentile (he's never been below the 89th percentile).

    Before he was selected first-team All-NBA for 2018-19, there was a robust debate over who the game's best center was. With each passing year, Jokic makes it harder to argue against him.

    Even at seven feet tall, he is functionally Denver's point guard. His vision from anywhere on the floor is unparalleled. He can lead a break or pick apart defenses in the half court. And his passing repertoire is outrageous.

    He has absurd touch as a scorer, particularly on flip shots and his patented Sombor Shuffle. His footwork in the post hearkens back to the days when big men ruled the league.

    Defensively, Jokic gets a bad rap because of the lowlights he finds himself in when switched on to much smaller players on the perimeter. No, he's not the most fleet of foot. But generally speaking, he's in the right spots defensively, knows how to take up space without fouling and actually has a very good steal rate, thanks to deceptively quick hands.

    Denver has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor in each of his five seasons. During his career, his 1.9 defensive box plus/minus is tied for ninth in the NBA.

    He is, at the very least, an above-average defender. And when you combine that with all-time great offense, you get one of the best players in the world.

               

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

    Andy Bailey and Dan Favale cover the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow them on Twitter, @AndrewDBailey and @danfavale, and listen to their podcast, Hardwood Knocks.