nba October 7, 2016 12:58pm EDT October 7, 2016 12:58pm EDT DeMarcus Cousins is the best center in the NBA, which says something.
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As many times as we may have declared the big man a thing of the past in the NBA, every summer you can look up and find some team or other handing an oversize contract to an oversize player for little reason other than size itself. Maybe that’s just old habits dying hard, something in the DNA of NBA execs that pushes them to luxuriate in the time-honored comfort and safety of height.
Or maybe big guys still matter, even in an age of small ball. NBA coaches are always seeking to create mismatches, and a capable big man is still the best way to wipe out a small lineup.
Center is a pretty deep position in the NBA, but it’s also the most flawed. DeMarcus Cousins, for example, has well-publicized problems. Too often, there are wonderful defensive centers who can’t function beyond 3 feet from the basket and clang their free throws. Or there are offensively skilled centers too slow-footed to guard the middle of the floor. Or they play such a specific role that they just don’t contribute enough elsewhere.
With that caveat, slide right through this list for our picks for the 15 best centers in the NBA.
Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers: He’s a big boost on both ends of the floor for Cleveland, but he’s best when his role is very specific and limited.
Greg Monroe, Bucks: Never found his footing in Milwaukee last year, and there’s little evidence he’ll change that.
Andrew Bogut, Mavericks: Could be more offensively involved in Dallas, but will have a defensive impact.
Clint Capela, Rockets: Capela is a tough defender who could surprise as a starter this season.
Joakim Noah, Knicks: Too many injuries over too long a time. Health is the key to a bounce-back.
Amir Johnson, Celtics: Solid, do-everything role player, but not a top-tier center.
Myles Turner, Pacers: Turner has a bright future, but had limited floor time and needs a lot more work.
Vucevic is not a defensive center, and never will be, not with his plodding lack of athleticism. Having said that, he has put together back-to-back seasons with good center numbers: 19.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 52.3 percent shooting two years ago, and 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 51.0 percent shooting last year. He also did well to get others involved last season, averaging a career-high 2.8 assists. Vucevic is an excellent midrange shooter (he made 48.2 percent of his field-goal attempts from 16 feet to the 3-point line last year), and that skill will serve him well as new Magic coach Frank Vogel juggles his lineups to fit in center Bismack Biyombo and forward Serge Ibaka.
Vucevic’s minutes and opportunities will be reduced, but his scoring ability on a team lacking offense will ensure he remains a feature of the rotation — at least, unless Orlando considers trading him.
For the last six years, Gortat has done pretty much the same thing. He’s played very good defense, he’s blocked a shot (and change) per game, he’s been an outstanding roll man in the pick-and-roll (1.21 points per possession last year, in the NBA’s 86th percentile), he’s been an above-average rebounder and he’s been remarkably healthy, only suffering one injury that kept him out more than seven games.
The Wizards have had so little to rely upon in recent years, but Gortat has been as steady as they come. He averaged 13.5 points and 9.9 rebounds last year, shooting 56.7 percent from the field, and if he gives Washington those same numbers again, there should be no complaints.
If you watched Jokic play for the silver-medal Serbs in this year’s Olympics, you saw a player who showed a different level of confidence than he’d shown as a rookie in Denver last year. He averaged 9.1 points and 6.0 rebounds in 22.5 minutes, shooting 50 percent from the field and putting 25 points on the U.S. in the first meeting of the teams. If he can carry that swagger into this season, Jokic should be lined up for big things. As a rookie last year, he averaged 10.0 points and 7.0 rebounds, shooting 51.2 percent from the field and adding 2.4 assists.
Expect his minutes to get a major lift — in 10 games in which he played more than 30 minutes last year (small sample-size alert!), Jokic averaged 16.5 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists. He was excellent out of the post, ranking in the 77th percentile on post-ups, scoring 0.94 points per possession, and his passing ability allows Denver to run some offense through him going forward. Jokic was an under the radar rookie last year, but he’ll get more notice this season.
There are two ways to look at Valanciunas. He is a victim of expectations, because so many expected him to be better than 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds by now. Or he is a victim of his own so-so work ethic, as the coach of the Lithuanian national team suggested at the Olympics this summer when he said that Valanciunas should, “dedicate himself to basketball more.” Either way, Year 5 is an important one for the Raptors big man. Bismack Biyombo is gone, and Valanciunas will have to be more assertive on the offensive end, which is not always easy with the high-scoring backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry controlling the ball. When they find Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll, though, he is one of the most efficient in the league at finishing.
The big complaint, though, is Valanciunas’ showing on the defensive end. There is a perception in some corners that Valanciunas is a defensive nightmare, and that’s not quite true. He is a problem when he is not engaged, but when he is giving full effort, he is an average defender. That effort is inconsistent, though.
As things shake out in Oklahoma City after the departure of Kevin Durant and (with less fanfare) Serge Ibaka, Adams figures to be a beneficiary. His numbers from last year don’t jump out (8.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 61.3 percent shooting), but he has earned a bigger role in the offense, and that’s sure to come this year. Adams was an excellent option out of the pick-and-roll last season, and generally sets solid, hard screens that free up shooters.
Adams brings an intensity level, too, that boosts his teammates and frustrates opponents. If you want a glimpse of the jump that Adams could take this year, consider last year’s postseason, when coach Billy Donovan needed to count on Adams’ defense, and played him for 30.7 minutes per game. Adams responded with 10.1 points and 9.5 rebounds, without sacrificing efficiency (61.3 percent shooting).
When he’s healthy, you know what you’re going to get from Lopez, and the Nets saw all that last year: 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 51.1 percent shooting, so-so defense. He is an effective scorer who has a varied and polished post-up game, and shot 50.6 percent on shot attempts coming out of post-ups, according to Synergy. That was the best in the league among starting centers. He also averaged 2.0 assists, second-most of his career, and that’s a part of his game he could build on.
The problem with Lopez is his lack of athleticism keeps him from getting to the kind of rebounds a starting 7-footer should get, and frequently leaves him a half-step behind a play on the defensive end. Because of his scoring ability, Lopez is a solid contributor and a reliable option in the middle. But he’d be better off as a second option on a good team, and the Nets do not qualify there.
Gasol is 36, but as long as he keeps putting forth the kind of numbers he has produced in recent years — 16.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists last season — he should be afforded a decent spot on this list. His age dictates that he strictly play center these days, and he now operates out of the high post. In all, 32.6 percent of his shots came from 16 feet out to the 3-point line last year, easily the most he has relied on that range in his history (for his career, Gasol took 15.8 percent of his shots from that distance).
Gasol is a great midrange shooter, but his reliance on those shots caused his field-goal percentage to dip to 46.9 overall last season, second-lowest of his career. Given his age, that trend is not going to change. The Spurs are hoping that Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge can work together, which might get tricky since they both like to operate from the same real estate. But Gasol is an extraordinary passer as a big man, and on a ball-moving team like the Spurs, with so many players who can shoot, Gasol could prove to be an ideal cog.
According to NBA.com stats, opponents shot just 41.0 percent against Gobert last year when he was protecting the rim, best in the league. That’s not a tremendous surprise, considering that when he was drafted in 2013, Gobert set a combine record for wingspan, at 7-8.5. He put those long arms to good use last year, recording 2.2 blocks and 11.0 rebounds in 31.7 minutes, and providing an interior deterrent for would-be rim attackers. Gobert and forward Derrick Favors have allowed the Jazz to remake themselves as the rare defensive juggernaut in a scoring-minded NBA.
That’s a good thing for Gobert, because scoring is certainly not his thing. He was actually pretty good serving as the roll man in the pick-and-roll for Utah and figures to get better with experience and with better point guard play from the Jazz. But the bulk of his scoring (26.3 percent) came off of put-backs, and even in that situation, he needs improvement. According to Synergy, Gobert produced 1.04 points per possession on putback tries, in the 47th percentile of the league, and turned the ball over 7.8 percent of the time, among the league worst for centers. Gobert’s sheer defensive talent makes him worthy of this spot, but he has many rough edges to smooth.
Where Howard is ranked on a list like this depends on whether you think last year was the natural regression of Howard’s game as he ages or a case of bad chemistry on a team that unraveled. The vote here is that, though Howard has declined individually, last season’s struggles can be pinned on the overall dysfunction of the Rockets in the locker room. Howard had the fewest shot attempts per game (8.5) since his rookie year, but made 62.0 percent from the field and finished with 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. He will bounce back in Atlanta, where he will be given a bigger opportunity to have an offensive impact and where he will be the anchor of what should be a very good defensive unit.
Offensively, he is strictly an in-the-paint big man who gave up on mid-range shooting five years ago. He works well in the pick-and-roll but did not get many opportunities in Houston last year, and the bulk of his possessions came out of post-ups. Those did not always go well. Howard turned the ball over on 16.5 percent of his post-ups, and 19.9 percent of them wound up at the free-throw line, where Howard shot just 48.9 percent last year. He made 47.5 percent of the field goals he attempted off of post-ups, fifth among starting centers, so if he can cut back on the mistakes, he could be a decent post option yet again.
Gasol left a game in early February with a broken bone in his foot, and the hand-wringing began in earnest. Big men don’t usually handle stress fractures in their feet all that well, and players like Yao Ming, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brook Lopez have had their careers dinged by the problem. So now, at age 31, Gasol will have to adjust the rest of his NBA days to dealing with some level of fear and pain involving his foot. He had been averaging 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists before the injury, which are fine numbers, but even then, he was not quite up to his typical production or efficiency.
Gasol took the fewest shots of his career at the rim (16.4 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.com) and the most shots of his career from 16 feet and beyond (26.3 percent). He is a very good mid-range shooter, but those are low-percentage shots, and Gasol’s overall shooting percentage of 46.4 percent was easily the lowest of his career. Gasol also had the worst rebounding percentage (11.5) of his career, and appeared to be a step slower on the defensive end. In other words, Gasol was showing the effects of wear and tear even before he hurt his foot. It will be quite a comeback if he can return to his usual self.
Whiteside validated his breakout half-season with a full season of top-tier defense last year, leading the league in blocked shots (3.7 per game) and defensive rating (94.5), while taking in 11.8 rebounds per game. Yet the Heat never seemed to figure out Whiteside last year, eventually moving him to the bench, where he actually performed better. Teammates complained about Whiteside’s me-first approach privately, but in the end, the Heat made a bet on Whiteside gaining in maturity, as the team gave him a $100 million contract in the offseason. He won’t be coming off the bench anymore.
Miami is going to try to hammer foes with Whiteside pick-and-rolls, which were wildly successful last season. Whiteside scored 1.34 points per possession as the roll man in the play, second in the league (among players with 100 possessions) only to DeAndre Jordan. Even with a spotty and sometimes uncertain role, Whiteside averaged 14.2 points per game. With Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh gone, he will become a bigger part of the offense, for better or worse.
Drummond’s fourth season produced the step forward in production the Pistons hoped to see, especially after letting Greg Monroe walk in free agency and putting Drummond firmly into the middle of Stan Van Gundy’s offense. Drummond averaged 16.2 points and a league-high 14.8 rebounds, shooting 52.1 percent from the field, and shot 61.1 percent on shots at the rim. The downside is that Drummond is all sledgehammer. He brings little finesse to the position, and fewer than five percent of his shots come from beyond 10 feet. He made just 35.5 percent of his free throws, which was the worst on record for a player who attempted at least 500 in a season. Even with rule changes around intentional fouls, hacking Drummond and sending him to the line will be good strategy for opposing coaches.
Van Gundy would like to see Drummond handle double-teams better, and the Pistons now have better shooters around him, which could help his anemic assist numbers (0.8 per game last year, which was, ahem, a career high). Drummond took major steps forward defensively last year, too, cutting back on his mistakes and playing better position defense. Look for him to keep getting better in that respect.
As a rookie, Towns averaged 0.92 points per possession operating out of the post. That was 10th in the NBA among players with 200 post-up possessions, putting Towns (in terms of efficiency) ahead of post-up veterans like Marc Gasol, Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe and Pau Gasol. That will be the foundation of Towns’ game, but what’s most exciting about him is the variety of ways he will contribute beyond the post. He was not very effective in the pick-and-roll, but that is a matter of experience. He posted terrific numbers as a midrange shooter, making 50.6 percent from 16 feet out to the 3-point line, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and his ability from that distance bodes well for his 3-point shot. He attempted 1.2 3-pointers per game last year, and made 34.1 percent.
It’s easy to imagine him building on that this season, attempting more from the arc and raising his percentage over the league average. That makes him all the more dangerous as a potential driver to the basket, because he is adept at using a ball fake and getting to the rim, where he finishes at a 70.1 percent rate. Oh, and Towns has sterling footwork that allows him to defend multiple positions and patrol the paint. You can see where this is heading. In his last 40 games last season, Towns averaged 21.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists, with 55.8 percent shooting. It won’t be long before he moves to the top of this list.
It helps to play with Chris Paul, but what Jordan was able to do as a pick-and-roll center last year was pretty incredible. Jordan got the ball as the roll man in the play 181 times, according to Synergy, and the Clippers got 1.4 points per possession with Jordan in those situations, the best in the league among players with at least 100 possessions. For further consideration: When Jordan got the ball as the roll man, the Clippers had a 74.6 percent chance of getting some kind of points out of the play, either on a shot from the field or at the free-throw line. That’s a big chunk of Jordan’s offensive contribution.
He was better last year at dishing out of the post, averaging 1.2 assists, twice his career average. He is very limited in offensive range, taking 83.5 percent of his shots from within two feet of the basket, and taking just 0.6 percent of his shots from beyond 10 feet. That’s why, for the fourth straight year, Jordan led the league in field-goal percentage—and also explains why his free-throw shooting remains a weak spot, as he made just 43.0 percent from the line. Jordan’s real impact, of course, is on the defensive end, where he remains a fearsome patroller of the paint. He blocked 2.3 shots per game, and his presence tends to intimidate opponents. He ranked third in the league in defensive win shares last year, with 5.5.
It’s tough to slot Cousins into the top spot here, because as gaudy as his numbers are—there’s a lot of gaud in 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks—he still has made zero playoff appearances in six NBA seasons. Some of that can be pinned on decisions made by the organization and its coaches, which is on its seventh coach in Cousins’ seven-year tenure and has used its last two lottery picks to draft centers, for some reason. But it is a two-way street. Cousins has not exactly made things easy since his arrival in Sacramento, and he led the league again in technical fouls with 17.
He hasn’t been durable, either, missing 17 games last year (three because of one-game suspensions) and 23 games the previous season. But he is outstanding when working in the post, creating 0.96 points per possession, No. 1 in the league among starting centers. And he is capable of a heavy workload, taking on a league-high usage rate of 35.4 percent. Because he is so nimble for his size, opposing defenders are usually either too slow to keep up with him or too small to contain him, and Cousins managed to go to the free-throw line 10.2 times per game, second in the league behind James Harden. Obviously, Cousins is the most productive center in the game and is worthy of the top spot on this list. He’s capable of producing even more, though.
Next Up: Top 15 power forwards for 2016-17: Plenty of force even as Duncan, Garnett exit