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Ranking the top starting centers in the NBA

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Nikola Jokic had a wonderful rookie season for the Denver Nuggets, but was it enough to earn him a top ranking at his position?

Olympics: Basketball-Men's Team-Preliminary Round USA vs SRB Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Nuggets fans have been looking forward to this ranking for quite some time, and who can blame them? Nikola Jokic came from the doldrums of the second round to put up one of the most impressive per-minute rookie campaigns of all time.

That being said, there are other centers in the NBA who proved to be capable on not just a per-minute basis, but on a heavy workload as well. As effective as Jokic was, he played the 21st most minutes at the center position, only 12 total minutes more than Enes Kanter who started one single game.

Now, minutes played doesn’t mean everything, or else Greg Monroe would be a top five center in the NBA, but if players post similar efficiency scores and one plays far more minutes than the other, the one with the heavier burden to bear will be ranked higher.

This is the debate with Nikola Jokic: has he earned a top ranking while averaging only 21.7 minutes per contest? Find out below in the last positional ranking of the series.

1. DeMarcus Cousins - Sacramento Kings

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .122 4.83 +2.6
Career .107 3.90 +1.9

I don’t care what the advanced statistics say on this one. DeMarcus Cousins is the best center in basketball. This was clearly seen in the Olympic team in August, as he was relegated to doing what he did best, being big in the paint.

On a team where he’s allowed to focus on that, he is a top five player in the NBA. As it is, he plays for the Sacramento Kings, and I desperately hope that changes for him. This is the prime of his NBA career, and it’s being wasted.

2. DeAndre Jordan - Los Angeles Clippers

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .213 4.42 +3.4
Career .165 4.15 +1.9

DeAndre Jordan is what Nuggets fans were hoping for JaVale McGee to become: a legitimate anchor on defense and above-the-rim threat on offense who gets easy points. Jordan and Chris Paul have formed an incredible connection in the pick and roll, leading to many Clippers fans believing a Blake Griffin trade may actually be the best thing for the team. Whether that is true or not, it says a lot about the skills of Jordan and how much he impacts the Clippers team.

3. Hassan Whiteside - Miami Heat

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .233 1.43 +2.5
Career .223 1.06 +1.1

The rise of Hassan Whiteside has been incredible, and while he’s a bit of a hot head, he’s done enough to deserve this ranking. The main reason he spent some time on the bench had more to do with Chris Bosh than Whiteside himself, but as the season progressed, Whiteside proved himself to be the rim protector to induce the most fear in opposing players. Similarly to DeAndre Jordan, he patrols the paint, but Whiteside’s instincts lead to a gaggle of blocks.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns - Minnesota Timberwolves

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .151 0.81 +2.8
Career .151 0.81 +2.8

And here’s where the first of four players to finish their rookie seasons slides into these rankings. Karl-Anthony Towns is everyone’s new favorite player, and deservedly so. Towns put up a rookie season for the ages, and his athletic gifts lead everyone to believe he will only get better. This is bad news for Nuggets fans, as Towns is just another blue chip prospect to be added to the Northwest division and make things more difficult for years to come.

5. Al Horford - Boston Celtics

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .172 2.97 +4.1
Career .159 2.20 +3.0

The new Boston Celtics center has some great advanced statistics, possibly the best combination of total minutes and advanced metrics at center. What holds him back in these rankings (and what will likely hold Nikola Jokic back for years) is his complementary nature. Horford fits many systems as player to take the open shot if it’s there but to pass it if it’s not, as he doesn’t create a ton of his own offense.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s awesome on both ends, but he’s struggled to lead his team at times on either end. It gives him slightly lower marks than other guys.

6. Marc Gasol - Memphis Grizzlies

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 0.98 1.11 +1.0
Career .155 2.77 +3.6

Another veteran center who usually places in the top five of this list, Marc Gasol gets the benefit of reputation for his ranking here. He was not as good as a fair amount of players below him, but the hope is that he fits in well with Chandler Parsons as a 3/4 hybrid while staying healthy.

When in his healthiest form, Gasol is a perennial defensive player of the year candidate. His offense stays away from the basket for the most part, but he does a solid job most of the time. He’s a huge candidate for regression at his age though, which should scare the hell out of Grizzlies fans.

7. Pau Gasol - San Antonio Spurs

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .149 3.72 +4.0
Career .168 2.35 +3.5

On to the other Spaniard, Pau Gasol hasn’t slowed down in the slightest, even at an older age. His advanced metrics are elite once again, but he takes a slight hit due to the lack of success for the Chicago Bulls as a whole. Now that he’s on the Spurs, he should continue to post great numbers for efficiency, and for the hottest of takes, I believe the Spurs are just as good as last year’s team with Duncan.

The majority of the reason is Gasol. He and LaMarcus Aldridge form an interesting duo down low, and while one will likely have to sit versus the Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs are still geared to win close to 60 games this year. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.

8. Rudy Gobert - Utah Jazz

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .160 2.34 +3.7
Career .171 0.68 +3.9

One of the centers I always forget about is Rudy Gobert, but it’s blatantly clear how much of an impact he’s made in his last two seasons for the Utah Jazz. His defensive metrics are absolutely insane, and while the Nuggets didn’t necessarily trade him away, I’m sure they would like that trade with Utah back during the 2013 draft so they could select Gobert at 27th overall. What. A. Steal.

9. Andre Drummond - Detroit Pistons

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .133 2.97 -0.5
Career .156 1.41 +0.6

Some may have expected to see Andre Drummond close to the top of these rankings, but the fact is, he’s a bigger, more glorified Kenneth Faried who struggles even more with offensive skills. He’s a monster on the glass in the form of Superman-level Dwight Howard, but beyond that, what does he really do?

He’s not efficient for a big man, he doesn’t space the floor, he struggles to guard in space, and his 37% free throw percentage is closer to my age (19) than it is the average mark for a center. That’s incredi-bad.

10. Brook Lopez - Brooklyn Nets

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .121 2.65 +1.3
Career .135 1.42 +0.8

The saving grace for the Brooklyn Nets in these positional power rankings is Brook Lopez. After ranking every position for the Nets at 25th or lower, Lopez comes in at 10th due to two factors: it’s forgotten how good he is, and he’s doing what he’s doing with little to no help.

Brook is the only center other than DeMarcus Cousins to average 20 points per contest, and he does so while shooting above 50 percent from the field. With as little spacing as there was on the floor, that’s an incredible feat. It’s unlikely that he will be traded, but if he is, a spacing centric offense like Portland or Houston would be the best thing for him.

(Now that I think about it: a deal centered around C.J. McCollum and Brook Lopez would be interesting for both teams. Don’t @ me.)

11. Marcin Gortat - Washington Wizards

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .156 1.82 +1.2
Career .151 2.8 +0.9

More affectionately referred to as ‘The Polish Hammer,’ Marcin Gortat has quietly put together a nice career. He basically averaged a double-double last season, and his true shooting percentage was elite. His defense is okay, but the entire Wizards team struggled without Paul Pierce (who woulda thunk it?).

I think the best is yet to come for Gortat this coming season, as the only thing holding back the Wizards right now seems to be chemistry issues and a questionable bench. That being said, with more spacing on the floor in the form of Markieff Morris and a better coach in Scott Brooks, the John Wall/Bradley Beal-Gortat pick and roll combination should afford Gortat his best season as a professional.

12. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .185 6.03 +4.8
Career .185 6.03 +4.8

The second of four former rookies is Denver’s very own Nikola Jokic. Don’t scoff at this ranking too much Nuggets fans. I decided to give the benefit of the doubt to a few veterans in this ranking, but that will not happen next year if Jokic puts up over 2,000 minutes and continues to be as impressive as he was.

The best part about Jokic is his versatility. The jack-of-all-trades mantra is used very frequently to describe players, but with Jokic, it’s a legitimate title. He’s never going to be the best post scorer, or rim protector, or shooter, but he’s skilled in each category regardless. His passing earns top marks as well.

The hope for next season in Denver is for Jokic to assume more responsibility for the offensive flow. When he touches the ball, good things usually happen for the Nuggets, and depending on how successful he is with extended touches, I see him leaping up this list. Among the players I see him leaping by next year: Gortat, Lopez, and both Gasol brothers. That would place him 8th at least.

Hopefully nobody forgets he’s 21 either.

13. Steven Adams - Oklahoma City Thunder

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .155 2.35 +2.1
Career .130 -0.83 +1.0

This is probably higher than most would assume Steven Adams to fall, but it was evident that the better half of the ‘Stache Bros was the third best player on an Oklahoma City Thunder team featuring Serge Ibaka. The question now: is he able to step up his game in his fourth season after Kevin Durant’s exit?

Most signs point to yes. He’s still young and has room to grow on both sides of the floor, but he’s demonstrated skills that should translate to a larger impact in a larger role.

14. Jonas Valanciunas - Toronto Raptors

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .211 0.15 +1.1
Career .166 -1.08 -0.4

A forgotten man at center, I went back and forth in the Stiffs comment section about why Jonas Valanciunas was really good. There were statistics out there about how Valaciunas’ on-off splits for defense were really bad, but after Bismack Biyombo’s performance in the playoffs, it’s safe to assume that Bismack had something to do with it.

Even if Jonas is considered a negative defensively, he’s every bit of a positive offensively. His job is to score baskets in and around the paint, and his shot chart does not disappoint. With his efficiency, it would be interesting to see what he would do on a team as more than a third

15. Mason Plumlee - Portland Trailblazers

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .140 2.43 +2.8
Career .146 -0.41 +2.0

"Mason Plumlee? I thought Miles was the better Plumlee twin?! Is there a third one?"

Yeah, that’s what I thought when I saw him starting for the Portland Trailblazers last year, but he didn’t disappoint. If anything, he thrived as an anchor on the elbow for the Blazers to operate. He sets good screens, finishes well rolling to the rim, facilitates for his teammates, and quarterbacks the defense on the other end.

It’s going to be hard for Mason to elevate in these rankings due to the presence of Festus Ezeli, Ed Davis, and Meyers Leonard, but make no mistake, he’s earned it so far.

16. Dwight Howard - Atlanta Hawks

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .138 -0.04 +0.6
Career .175 2.05 +2.7

Ouch. A rough ranking for Dwight Howard after the last season for the Houston Rockets. He enters a better team situation on the Atlanta Hawks this year, but he has a ton to prove after an unhealthy season two years ago and limited impact this year.

Did he have a high field goal percentage? Sure, but it wasn’t enough to help him impact the games too heavily last year. His game is predicated on athleticism, and he lost a lot over the last couple of years. Hopefully, Howard can bounce back and form a fierce tandem with Paul Millsap next season on both ends, but if his body betrays him, Howard will continue to fall.

17. Nikola Vucevic - Orlando Magic

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .122 0.76 +1.8
Career .119 -0.12 +0.6

Nikola Vucevic is truly affected by his bad defense. His offensive capabilities are interesting, but they haven’t been really game changing. Think of him as a Brook Lopez type, but definitely worse. The Orlando Magic backed up my thoughts on this by spending assets to acquire Ibaka AND sign Biyombo, two guys who should spend some time at center.

Vucevic was always thought to be the headlining piece of the Dwight Howard trade back in 2011, but all signs point toward the Magic going in a different direction under Frank Vogel.

18. Greg Monroe - Milwaukee Bucks

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .155 0.71 +1.5
Career .135 1.73 +2.0

Greg Monroe puts up great metrics, but boy did he kill the Milwaukee Bucks last season. He put up the 24th highest Defensive RPM among these starting centers, and while he put up the sixth highest Offensive RPM, the way he acquired his points directly conflicted with players already in place.

The Bucks responded to this by sliding him to the bench, and things went well after that. What happens this season though? Are the Bucks really going to start Thon Maker? John Henson is much more likely than Maker, but I see Monroe being inserted back into the lineup unless he is traded. This is just one reason why I don’t see Milwaukee winning many more games than they did last year.

19. Tristan Thompson - Cleveland Cavaliers

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .185 1.37 +1.5
Career .120 0.06 -1.0

It benefits to play with LeBron James right? Tristan Thompson is a pseudo Kenneth Faried, and because he plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers AND plays center, he’s pretty good at it. The fact is though, he has deficiencies, most notably as a rim protector.

I’m not going to go much into Thompson. If you wanna know more, read my profile on Faried. It’s pretty close.

20. Clint Capela - Houston Rockets

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .144 2.06 +0.5
Career .137 0.29 0.0

Clint Capela is actually listed as a power forward on ESPN due to the presence of Dwight Howard, but he will now take the reins as the defensive anchor for the Houston Rockets. He has the skill set for it, that’s for sure, but his instincts are a touch slow, and he played less minutes than Nikola Jokic last year.

Capela will now be asked to man the defense of a team featuring a regressed Patrick Beverley, an aging Trevor Ariza, and two of the worst defenders in the NBA in James Harden and Ryan Anderson. Good luck Clint.

21. Robin Lopez - Chicago Bulls

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .126 0.02 +1.4
Career .135 0.99 +0.7

Robin Lopez is just meh. He was supposed to really have a positive impact on the New York Knicks last season, especially next to Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Color me unimpressed. His reputation for impact is higher than his ranking here, but unlike Brook Lopez, Robin didn’t seem to have as much positive impact.

Now he’s playing in Chicago with the Bulls. They should be able to get to the playoffs on the strength of their guard/wing trio, but I hesitate to think if it’s because of Robin.

22. Andrew Bogut - Dallas Mavericks

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .180 3.21 +4.5
Career .125 2.81 +2.4

I mean, he played with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green last year. He was pretty good on both ends, but without the ability to rely on those players, how much will his play struggle? Playing next to Dirk Nowitzki will help in some areas, but they both lack mobility to keep up with power forwards quicker than dirt.

While he likely won’t have a ton of responsibility offensively, we will see if Bogut can take more responsibility defensively on a worse team. Color me less than enthused.

23. Cody Zeller - Charlotte Hornets

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .169 1.95 +1.0
Career .131 1.35 +0.1

Cody Zeller didn’t play enough minutes to warrant a higher ranking, and a lot of his success can be credited to Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, and Marvin Williams in my opinion. He does some things well, and he’s surprisingly athletic. He played a similar amount to Nikola Jokic, but unlike Jokic, Zeller didn’t have the same efficiencies even though he was in a better environment.

24. Zaza Pachulia - Golden State Warriors

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .145 1.55 +1.4
Career .106 2.20 -0.6

Zaza Pachulia is about to get the Andrew Bogut treatment, except instead of having Harrison Barnes, he will have Kevin Durant. Have fun Zaza.

25. Myles Turner - Indiana Pacers

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .109 -3.36 -2.3
Career .109 -3.36 -2.3

Myles Turner is the third of four players to be placed on this list after the end of their respective rookie seasons, and he demonstrated a lot of tools that will one day make him a great player.

Excellent shot blocking and movement in the paint are his building blocks, but a potentially potent jumper and mobility on both ends will be the difference in how high he shoots up this list. Right now he’s low because his efficiency was bad, but similarly to Devin Booker on the shooting guard list, he will continue to rise. The question is how high?

26. Joakim Noah - New York Knicks

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .079 0.56 +1.9
Career .163 2.07 +4.3

It’s hard to know where to rank Joakim Noah after he only played 29 games of sub par basketball. Sure his advanced metrics aren’t that bad, but he shot 38 percent from the field as a center. That’s inexcusable.

He now joins the New York Knicks in what might be the perfect situation for him to remain healthy for at least the majority of the season: a small forward who can play the 4 (Melo), a power forward who can play the 5 (Zinger), and a competent backup (Kyle O’Quinn). The Knicks are looking to make the post season this season, but they won’t if Derrick Rose and Noah fall victim to injuries again.

27. Tyson Chandler - Phoenix Suns

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .112 -0.51 -0.5
Career .158 2.58 +1.7

This is more predictive than anything. I don’t see Tyson Chandler taking age very well, and last season showed the beginnings of his body betraying him. He had to cover a ton of ground for a bad Phoenix Suns team, and he just couldn’t do it. I don’t see him bouncing back given that he will likely man the frontcourt with Jared Dudley, who needs a lot of coverage himself.

Alex Len may be the starter here, but given that the Suns may have youth in the starting lineup with Devin Booker and T.J. Warren (I had P.J. Tucker) on the wing, going with a veteran center makes logical sense to me.

28. Timofey Mozgov - Los Angeles Lakers

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .133 -1.2
Career .116 -0.40 -1.1

Timofey Mozgov is interesting. He struggled last year to be the presence in the paint that Cleveland needed him to be, but the year before he was pretty good, especially in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers rewarded him with a nice contract that many people hated, but given where I have Julius Randle in my rankings, giving Timo a chance to regain form isn’t that bad of a decision.

I’m rooting for Mozzy for sure. I hope he proves everybody wrong and regains form as a productive center on both ends…just enough to force the Lakers to forfeit their 2017 draft pick to the Sixers.

29. Jahlil Okafor - Philadelphia 76ers

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .037 -5.28 -4.1
Career .037 -5.28 -4.1

The final former rookie is Jahlil Okafor, and taking one look at his numbers, it’s easy to rank him last. I won’t do that though, as he was put in the unenviable position of first and only scorer as a rookie. This can’t be held against him.

What can be held against him though is the lack of defensive instincts he showed throughout the year and the way he scored: through isolation and the post almost exclusively. An obscene 51 percent of his possessions came in those two categories, always a recipe for failure. It will be up to the presence of Ben Simmons and more veterans to correct these mistakes for Okafor.

30. Omer Asik - New Orleans Pelicans

Time Period WS/48 Real +/- Box +/-
2015-16 .070 -1.79 -4.2
Career .112 -0.05 -1.3

I’m projecting the worst starting center in the NBA to be Omer Asik. I believe he will be the starter at center and not Terrence Jones or Alexis Ajinca. Neither of those guys are much better if at all, and that’s sad. Asik killed the Pelicans last year, and I believe he suited up for the most games.

If I were New Orleans, I would trade him to the Kings for Rudy Gay, because surely the Kings could use another foreign center.


Well, that wraps up my individual position rankings. Next week, I will have something special written up about the teams as a whole based on their starting lineups. Stay posted here for my final power ranking, as well as the #NuggetsRank series!