Ranking the NBA’s Top 10 Centers
The center position has had a long history of dominance in the NBA with legendary figures such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal all having an argument for being in the top ten players of all time. The league has seen a serious shift away from centers who focus on low-post scoring in the past few seasons because of the three-point revolution and small ball’s dominance.
The perfect example of this trend is obviously the Golden State Warriors who played Draymond Green and Kevin Durant at the slot around 25 minutes a game during the postseason last year. Javale McGee and ZaZa Pachulia only played about 23 minutes at the five for the Warriors last postseason. Essentially, the Warriors played without a traditional center over half the game during the playoffs, and it was dazzlingly successful (having four All-NBA caliber players to switch on defense might have something to do with it though).
With all that being said, let’s get to my rankings for 2017’s top ten NBA Centers, players who are attempting to bring back the Center position into the limelight with their size, shooting prowess, creativity, and defense (or lack thereof in some cases).
10 – Myles Turner
If you are interested in an in-depth look at Turner’s career thus far, it is highly recommended for you to check out Frank Nolan’s discussion of the history of the Pacers franchise in the modern era and Turner’s role moving forward. For our purposes, there is little questioning Turner’s prowess on the defensive end of the floor as he has quickly established himself as a very good shot blocker, averaging 2.1 swats per game last season.
Turner’s impact goes beyond blocked shots since he is very adept at using his lengthy, yet nimble and wiry frame to stay in front of smaller players on pick and rolls, allowing the Pacers to switch on defense more often than other teams. What holds Turner back from a position higher on this list is his offensive contributions. Last season, Turner only averaged 14.5 points per game with a usage percentage south of 20 percent.
Even worse, Turner has played some of his worst ball when games matter the most (in the playoffs), posting a horrific -5.0 offensive box plus/minus in his first postseason, and an even worse -7.0 against the Cavs last year. Shooting nearly 10 percent worse from the field during the playoffs than he averaged over the course of the season, Turner’s poor showing was one of the biggest factors in the Pacers being swept by the Cavs.
With Paul George gone, Myles Turner has indeed become Indiana’s most important and best player, but there is a reason most pundits expect the Pacers to miss the playoffs next year. To prove them wrong, Turner will have to demonstrate that he is more comfortable taking on a larger role in the offense and converting his opportunities more efficiently. Fortunately, Turner did improve dramatically from his rookie to sophomore season so if he can duplicate that trend the Pacers are in good shape.
9 – Brook Lopez
Brook Lopez is another five-man who can score in a plethora of ways and, unlike some offensively elite bigs, he doesn’t cost his team on the defensive end. While he isn’t the most mobile guy on the floor, he typically uses his 7-foot 275-pound frame to disturb shots at the rim. Lopez’s real value comes on the offensive end where he has a complete array of post moves and can score on either block and with either hand.
What makes Brook Lopez special is that, unlike some centers such as Rudy Gobert, he doesn’t need to get all the way to the basket to score. One of Lopez’s trademark moves is to back down a defender, baiting him to get lower to prevent him from bullying his way to the hoop. As Lopez feels the defender back down, he quickly turns around and easily floats a hook shot over the now-shorter defender who cannot contest quickly enough.
Earlier in his career, Lopez wasn’t as big a headache for defenders since they could pack the paint against him or frequently send double teams to slow him down. Admittedly, this is still an effective strategy against Lopez since he is a poor passer, averaging more turnovers than assists last season. However, Lopez, like Gasol, developed a 3-point shot last season. The Lakers are very excited about the floor spacing he will offer them for the upcoming season and are optimistic that he will improve on the 34.6 percent clip he converted at last year.
Brook Lopez is still very injury-prone and does not offer as much lateral quickness as you’d ideally like from a rim protector which helps explain why he isn’t higher on the list, but Lopez remains one of a dying breed in today’s NBA as an efficient big man that a team can run its offense through if devoid of shot-creators like the Nets were last season.
8 – Hassan Whiteside
Hassan Whiteside’s story is one of the league’s most incredible as he went from playing pickup ball at the local YMCA straight to becoming one of the NBA’s premier shot blockers and a worthy holder of the eighth spot on this list. While Whiteside has clearly used his early stage setbacks as fuel to fire up his game, some pundits have argued that the defensive menace has taken things too far by chasing sexy looking stats to the detriment of his team.
In the 2015-2016 season, Whiteside would often lose defensive discipline to chase elite shot blocking numbers which resulted in him leading the league in swats with 3.7 despite only playing 29.1 minutes per game. To be fair, Whiteside’s strategy helped put him on the map as a household name amongst league circles and certainly helped him earn a massive four-year, $98 million deal signed last offseason. Given the way things have played out for Whiteside, it is hard to blame him too much, but his selfish desire for stats did often hurt the Heat that year by leaving lanes open for other teams to utilize.
Head coach Erik Spolestra, one of the smartest minds in the game admitted that Whiteside’s constrained numbers from last season actually demonstrated that he was playing more responsibly on defense. For instance, while Whiteside’s blocks dipped from the insane 3.7 total to 2.1 per game last season, he led the league in rebounds with 14.1 up from 11.8 in 2015-16. With Hassan Whiteside’s role in the offense increasing each year, he has a chance to cement himself as one of the most dominant two-way bigs in the near future.
7 – Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid is underrated simply because he can’t stay healthy. Sixers fans have reason to hope for the playoffs soon if Embiid can put his injury woes behind him for good. Embiid’s stats last season were even more impressive than his social media presence as the 7-footer averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, on top of 2.5 blocks per game in only 25.4 minutes. The last stat is the most impressive because many players could average 35 minutes a game and not dream of putting up those statistics.
Embiid also had a 24.2 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) last season, tied for 16th in the league with Damian Lillard — except Lillard played 36 minutes per game last season and PER heavily favors players with more minutes. The only center with a PER higher than Embiid was Karl-Anthony Towns, and the latter played twelve more minutes per game. If Embiid could lose his minutes restriction and remain healthy (big ifs thus far), he could easily prove himself to be worthy of a Top 5 ranking.
Joel Embiid only played 31 games last season, but in those nights, the Sixers were 13-18. The Sixers finished the season 28-54, winning only 15 more games while losing 36. Their roster last year was devoid of efficient basketball talent outside of Embiid and Richaun Holmes, the only two Sixers players in the top 100 in PER (Holmes was 60th with an 18.61 PER).
The fact that Embiid managed to go 13-18 with that roster is impressive in itself. His player profile is what makes scouts and general managers drool and dream of high draft picks. Embiid is a legit seven-footer who finished second in the league in blocks despite playing eight fewer minutes per game than Gobert. Embiid has graceful footwork and his moves and fakes are extremely reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon. Unlike Olajuwon, Embiid can even shoot three-pointers. He attempted 3.2 shots per game from beyond the arc and connected on 36.7 percent of them. Towns, Cousins, Gasol, and Embiid are all centers on this list revolutionizing their position with decent three-point range and rim protection abilities.
Other stats showing just how valuable Embiid was to the Sixers include his plus/minus numbers. With Embiid on the court, the Sixers had a net rating of +3.2. But with him off the court, the Sixers’ net rating plummeted to -11.8 — a difference of 15 points per 100 possessions from one player alone. When Embiid touched the court, the Sixers played like a 50-win team, but with him on the bench, they played like a 14-win team.
6 – Marc Gasol
For the past nine seasons, Marc Gasol has been the player that Joakim Noah has dreamed he would become but never fully actualized. Gasol offers all of the fantastic and unique attributes that Noah possessed such as elite passing ability for a big and a very high motor and knack for hustle plays.
Gasol’s 4.6 assists and 0.91 steals per game rated third and sixth, respectively, amongst centers. Even better for Memphis, unlike Noah, Gasol has never had trouble with his free throw percentage (or form) hitting 77 percent for his career with a career-high of 83.7 percent last season.
Even better, like many players above him on this list Gasol is now a respectable perimeter threat having finally developed a three-point shot last season. Despite never attempting over 0.2 threes per game before last year, Gasol found immediate success from downtown hitting 38.8 percent on 3.6 attempts per game. This is insanely impressive for a guy who was already an elite two-time All-Star without the three-point shot in his arsenal.
Having already made over $100 million in his career, it would have been easy for Gasol to remain content with his game and phone it in for the rest of the year on a good but not great Grizzlies team that has never been (and likely never will in the age of the Warriors) a true, legitimate championship contender. However, that is not the type of player or person Gasol is. He gives 110 percent every night unlike many star players who take regular season games off by not giving full effort.
With Marc Gasol, if he’s out you know he’s very likely injured. Gasol’s attitude has permeated throughout the Grizzly locker room and franchise making them one of the league’s biggest overachievers of the modern era. Despite the stacked nature of the Western Conference over this period of time, the Grizzlies have never faltered; like clockwork they have been there each year, making the playoffs the past seven seasons, all with Gasol as a central figure.
No matter how talented they are, none of the West’s top seeds ever want to see these guys in the playoffs since you know the series is going at least six if not seven games. In fact, with the exception of a rare sweep by the Spurs two years ago, the Grizzlies have at least forced a first round game six every year. When you compare that to the utter dominance LeBron James has displayed on the Eastern side of the bracket, this feat is worthy of recognition.
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