The NBA free agency frenzy has ended. With the regular season two months away, this is a great time to determine where players rank among their respective positions.
Center is an intriguing position to rank in today’s NBA. Despite the league featuring plenty of small-ball lineups, centers remain the backbone of most teams’ defenses.
The five centers in this list all finished inside the top-eight for player efficiency rating (PER) in 2018-19, demonstrating the position’s unmistakable importance.
As we analyze the five best centers in the league, it’s important to note that Los Angeles Lakers big man Anthony Davis is not eligible for this list, as he is expected to start at power forward in 2019-20.
Honorable Mention: Clint Capela
Before ranking the top-five centers, let’s mention a guy who just missed the cut and deserves praise for another stellar season: Clint Capela. The Houston Rockets center averaged career-highs in points (16.6) and rebounds in (12.7) in 2018-19. Additionally, he registered a career-best streak of 12 games with at least 10 rebounds.
A solid rim protector who defends the pick-and-role well, Capela played an essential role in the Rockets’ 53-win campaign—in which they posted the best record in the NBA from Feb. 1 until the end of the regular season. The Rockets went 17-3 in games that Capela scored 20 or more points. Capela helped Houston win 24 of its final 32 regular-season games.
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic earned his first All-Star nod last season. He is a skilled post player who stretches the floor with his outside shooting. Vucevic had a phenomenal regular season—registering career-highs with 20.8 points, 12 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.1 blocks per contest.
Vucevic led the NBA in pick-and-roll scoring (among the players who roll). The 28-year-old recorded the seventh-best PER in the NBA. He appeared in a career-high 80 games and led the Magic to its first playoff appearance since 2012.
After a dominant regular season, Vucevic flatlined in the playoffs. In Orlando’s first-round defeat to the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, he amassed just 11.2 points per contest and shot 36.2 percent from the field across five games.
Karl-Anthony Towns has been a model of durability since being selected No. 1 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Minnesota Timberwolves center didn’t miss a single game in his first three seasons and was sidelined for just five games last year.
A two-time All-Star, Towns averaged 24.4 points and a career-best 12.4 rebounds per game. He had the fourth-best PER in the league and posted the third-most post points per contest.
Towns is a dynamic big man who has developed an impressive shot from the outside, connecting on 40% of his three-pointers. He would rank higher in this list if not for his defensive deficiencies, which have plagued him since entering the pros.
3. Rudy Gobert
The reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert might be the most important player on the Utah Jazz. The team’s defensive anchor, Gobert blocked 187 shots last season—second in the league behind Indiana’s Myles Turner (199). Gobert’s ability to protect the rim helped the Jazz finish fourth in defense in 2018-19.
Gobert registered career-bests in points (15.9) and rebounds (12.9). He ranked No. 8 in PER, led the league in field goal percentage (66.9) and set an NBA record for most dunks in a season with 306.
The 27-year-old was named to the All-NBA Third Team. Gobert also earned All-Defensive First Team honors for the third consecutive season.
2. Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid put forth the best season of his career in 2018-19. The Philadelphia 76ers center made the All-Star team for the second year in a row, recording career-bests in points (27.5), rebounds (13.6), assists (3.7), field-goal percentage (48.6) and free-throw percentage (80.4).
Embiid ranked fourth in the league in scoring, second in rebounding and second in free throw attempts. He produced the second-most post points per game (8.5) in the NBA. Embiid guided the 76ers to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and earned All-NBA Second Team honors.
Often criticized for his inability to stay healthy, Embiid appeared in 64 games last season, the most of his three-year career.
Dominant on both ends of the floor, Embiid has all the makings of a Hall-of-Fame level player. His previous knee ailments are a major concern. But if he can manage to stay on the court consistently—a big if given his extensive injury history—he has the talent to be an all-time great center.
1. Nikola Jokic
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had quite the year. He made his first All-Star team, spearheaded the upstart Nuggets to the No. 2 seed in the loaded Western Conference and finished fourth in MVP voting.
Jokic compiled 12 triple-doubles, the second-most in the NBA, trailing only Russell Westbrook (34). Jokic, 24, has already amassed 28 triple-doubles across four NBA seasons.
Jokic’s per-game averages of 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 1.4 steals were all the best marks of his career. His tremendous regular season earned him All-NBA First Team honors.
While Jokic was dominant in the regular season, he managed to elevate his play come the postseason. In Game 1 of the Nuggets’ first-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, Jokic grabbed 14 rebounds, dished 14 assists and added 10 points in his first-ever postseason game.
Nikola Jokic is just the fourth player in NBA history to record a triple-double in his first career playoff game. The others are Johnny McCarthy (Mar. 16, 1960), Magic Johnson (Apr, 8, 1980) and LeBron James (Apr. 22, 2006).
— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) April 14, 2019
The Nuggets lost Game 1, but went on to win the series in seven games on the back of Jokic, who logged a triple-double (21 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) in a thrilling Game 7 victory.
Jokic emerged as the best big man in basketball in the postseason, averaging 24.8 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.9 assists. He recorded two triple-doubles in the second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, giving him four total in 14 games played in the 2019 NBA playoffs. He totaled 33 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists in a four-overtime loss to the Trail Blazers in Game 3, playing 65 minutes—the most minutes in a playoff game during the shot clock era.
Jokic’s 2019 postseason stacks up with some of the greatest individual statistical playoff runs in league history. In fact, Jokic is one of four players in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists when playing at least 10 playoff contests in a single postseason. The other players to achieve that feat?—LeBron James (2015), Wilt Chamberlain (1967) and Oscar Robertson (1963).