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Power ranking the 50 best centers in the NBA

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Where does Nuggets star Nikola Jokic rank among centers in today’s NBA?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Player rankings are some of the most divisive conversations in the NBA. Every fan wants their player to rank highly, and every fan will question why their player isn’t ranked as highly as they want. Positional rankings are also difficult due to the blending of roles and position-less basketball.

But I’m going to do it anyway.

These rankings will consist of the top 50 players at each of the five widely accepted positions in the NBA: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. There are different ways to classify it, but this is the best way to break down the talent into multiple categories.

Each list will be released on Wednesday of that week, starting with point guards and finishing with centers. A top 100 players in the NBA list could follow if the lists are well received.

Center Criteria:

First, players that qualify for this list had to play predominantly the center position, based on their categorization on Basketball Reference. They will also play predominantly center next season.

Here are the primary players eliminated based on this criteria, as they play power forward instead:

  • Anthony Davis
  • Dirk Nowitzki

This list is pretty small, as most tall players at this point have moved to center in today’s small-ball NBA.

Second, only players that played 1,000 minutes in the NBA this past season were considered, which eliminates three parties: injured players, foreign players, and rookies.

Here are some noteworthy players eliminated based on this criteria:

  • Joel Embiid
  • David West
  • Jakob Poeltl
  • Ivica Zubac
  • Jarrett Allen
  • Bam Adebayo
  • Justin Patton

Methodology:

The center position is following the power forward position in evolving drastically over the years. There is less emphasis on post play and dominance inside from these players and more emphasis on spacing, gravity, and versatility. There are very few players that stay.

With that in mind, I focused again on weighting efficiency, usage, and defense the heaviest of all categories, taking the true shooting percentage, usage rate, and ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus as benchmarks for each category. Please understand that defense is incredibly hard to quantify, and that DRPM is an imperfect system, but it’s one of the most objective ways to quantify impact in a statistical ranking. A variety of players are judged more harshly due to extenuating circumstances, like team performance and past years of data.

I also took assists, rebounds, blocks, and minutes into account, both in total and in how many games played/started. For centers, rebounds were weighted heavily, but blocks and assists were weighted similarly. This is due to the changing landscape in the NBA and that more centers are making an impact as a creator for others offensively. I have a single number generated for all centers that will rank the 50 best players to play the center position this past season. Remember, this is statistically generated, and it’s not etched in stone that this is where these players should rank, nor how I would rank this list due to subjective biases.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into it:


Honorable Mentions (didn’t quite make the cut on the top 50):

  • Willie Reed was a backup to Hassan Whiteside, meaning he didn’t play a ton of minutes for the Miami Heat. He was a solid advanced stats guy though, and it earned him a new job in Los Angeles with the Clippers.
  • Mike Muscala was a backup in Atlanta, and while he had his moments, he was one of the worst rebounders and defenders in the NBA last year.
  • Christiano Felicio was also a terrible defender in Chicago, and his block rate was second to last among qualifying centers. His saving grace was solid efficiency.
  • Aron Baynes was the backup in Detroit, and I don’t necessarily think he should be in this category. The Pistons played well with him in the lineup, but the numbers didn’t like him.
  • Justin Hamilton was a player on the Brooklyn Nets that most people haven’t heard of before just now.
  • Boris Diaw played pretty badly during his time in Utah. Having the second worst TS%, the worst rebounding rate, and the worst block rate will do that.
  • Finally, Meyers Leonard was the absolute worst center among qualifying players. Nice contract, Portland.

Tier 1: Contextual Megastars

None. This is the only group that doesn’t have a contextual megastar. That doesn’t mean the talent is worse, but it does mean that the top end talent doesn’t quite reach the level of players like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, etc. The hope for Nuggets fans is for a special Serbian to be in this tier next year.

Tier 2: The rest of the Elite

1. Rudy Gobert - Utah Jazz

2. Karl Anthony Towns - Minnesota Timberwolves

3. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets

4. DeMarcus Cousins - New Orleans Pelicans

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

This group has separated themselves from the pack in different ways. Rudy Gobert is the stereotypical tall rim protector who’s SO good at protecting the rim, he has evolved to combat the fast paced, spacing filled defenses of today. He maintained a top 6 ranking in every category, including TS%, except for usage rate and assist rate. This is where so many have discounted his abilities, but the fact of the matter is Gobert is still a good offensive player. He isn’t elite, but he takes elite shots and makes them at an extensive clip. Add that to being (in my opinion) the best defensive player in the NBA, and his ranking is justified.

Behind him are a trio of new-age centers with varying offensive skill sets. Karl-Anthony Towns has become one of the NBA’s best young players, second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo, through elite efficiency and an insane workload. The kid played over 3,000 minutes, and he maintained the third highest usage among centers over that time which is absurd. He will continue to grow his game and be a Tier 1 player if Tom Thibodeau doesn’t kill him first.

Nikola Jokic is the modicum of efficiency in today’s NBA, though he didn’t have the highest efficiency at center (he ranked merely 7th). Where he impressed was in his workload. His usage rate wasn’t the highest, but his assist rate certainly was. His rebounding rate also ranked 12th, which is an underrated aspect of Jokic’s game. Defense is where Jokic is usually knocked, but he posted the 16th best DRPM among centers. He likely isn’t the 16th best center defender, but he definitely isn’t 57th either. Towns is.

Finally, DeMarcus Cousins had the ball in his hands a ton, and he posted the highest usage rate and second highest assist rate because of it. He has grown as a playmaker for others, and while his efficiency isn’t great, it certainly isn’t bad. Marc Gasol, Al Horford, and Andre Drummond were noteworthy players who were worse in that department. Finally, his block rate was above average at 3.4%, which was comparable to Dwight Howard and Mason Plumlee. He isn’t a great rim protector, but he’s good enough for sure.

Tier 3: Above average starters

5. Hassan Whiteside - Miami Heat

6. Dwight Howard - Charlotte Hornets

7. DeAndre Jordan - Los Angeles Clippers

8. Clint Capela - Houston Rockets

9. Marc Gasol - Memphis Grizzlies

10. Myles Turner - Indiana Pacers

11. Brook Lopez - Los Angeles Lakers

In this tier, there are some surprises at the top. Hassan Whiteside’s production as a rebounder and blocking shots was in the Rudy Gobert category. His efficiency was merely average, and his DRPM wasn’t where one would think it should be (just 12th among Cs). His assist rate was second worst as well, but that matters more in real life rankings than it does in most numerical calculations for centers in which assists are just a small piece.

The real weird one was Dwight Howard, who hasn’t stuck on a team for more than a year the last two seasons. The fact of the matter is that Howard shouldn’t rank this high, but he doesn’t have any major weaknesses in these calculations. He doesn’t space the floor or shoot well outside of three feet, but TS% doesn’t care. His rebounding is still top notch, and he’s top 20 in most other categories. His one weakness is assist rate, but it’s merely below average, not atrocious like Whiteside’s.

DeAndre Jordan is basically Rudy Gobert lite. He makes an impact, but not quite as much. His usage rate is also even smaller, while most of his comparable numbers are slightly lower than Gobert’s. If I were to reorder the tiers subjectively, him and Marc Gasol would be included in Tier 2.

Speaking of Gasol, his reputation is one that would usually put him in the tier above, but this past season spoke differently. DRPM graded him more harshly than deserved, but his rebounding rate was a putrid 10.5%. He’s struggled throughout his career to rebound, but it’s gone relatively unnoticed because he’s had elite rebounders around him. The worse factor though is his efficiency. A 55.4 TS% isn’t bad for a power forward, but it is for a center. His workload saves him a bit, but it wasn’t enough to keep him above what most deem to be lesser players.

If Jordan is Rudy Gobert lite, Clint Capela is just a notch below that. He actually has a relatively high usage rate as well, and as he plays more minutes, he will continue to rise up these rankings. Playing with Chris Paul and James Harden shouldn’t hurt either.

Myles Turner showed a lot of promise the last two seasons, but he’s going to be asked to take his game to another level now that Paul George is gone. It’s likely that the Pacers ask him to expand his game even more, and he should be more than up to the task in my opinion. I see him as a potential 20/10/2.5 guy in points, rebounds, and blocks, especially if he continues to expand his range.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, Brook Lopez was more than a throw in for the Los Angeles Lakers in the D’Angelo Russell trade. Lopez put up a quality season in Brooklyn last year, and he’s going to elevate the offense in L.A. to new levels. A lineup of Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Lopez isn’t going to be a playoff team, but it will be dangerous due to Lopez’s spacing and offensive game.

Tier 4: Average starters

12. Pau Gasol - San Antonio Spurs

13. Andre Drummond - Detroit Pistons

14. Nikola Vucevic - Orlando Magic

15. Jonas Valanciunas - Toronto Raptors

16. Jusuf Nurkic - Portland Trail Blazers

17. Enes Kanter - Oklahoma City Thunder

18. Greg Monroe - Milwaukee Bucks

19. Al Horford - Boston Celtics

20. Marcin Gortat - Washington Wizards

From an outside view, this tier looks mostly right. Guys that definitely deserve to be here in my opinion are Pau Gasol, Nikola Vucevic, Jonas Valanciunas, Jusuf Nurkic, and Marcin Gortat, each for different reasons.

Gasol and Gortat are aging veterans, but Gasol was average to above average in every category. His worst category was his TS%, but he helps facilitate great offense overall. His defense isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible either. Gortat remains a strong rebounder, and his TS% of 59.3 is above average. He struggles creating for himself and others, but he has John Wall for that.

Vucevic and Valanciunas each have their own flaws. Vucevic’s flaw was supposedly defense in past years, but instead, his offensive efficiency was what killed him. He had a bizarrely inefficient year, but he made up for it with excellent scores in usage rate, assist rate, and rebounding rate. Valanciunas was efficient, but his defense was pretty bad. His assist rate was atrocious too, and while that’s understandable given who he played with (DeMar DeRozan), it doesn’t make up for it fully.

Nurkic could make an argument for the tier above and below this one based on his first and second halves. He played really well in Portland, though his efficiency was still atrocious. He showed off some passing skills and some of his old flashes of elite defensive play. Still, this is the right spot for him at this point.

The arguable ones are Andre Drummond and Al Horford for one tier higher and Greg Monroe and Enes Kanter for one tier lower. Drummond was a monster as a rebounder, but his efficiency was poor, like, bottom 7 among centers poor. If he wants to prove he’s an above average starter, either his efficiency or his assist rate will have to improve as either of the two will help improve the Detroit Pistons offense. Horford was kid of a surprise, but looking over his numbers, it shouldn’t be. His assist rate was elite, but Horford struggled to stay efficient in Boston. He’s also an awful rebounder, and his physical shortcomings made things difficult defensively too. Still, his reputation is one of an above average center. He may start playing like one with Gordon Hayward taking some of the pressure off.

Finally, Greg Monroe and Enes Kanter are the first bench centers to show up. Both Monroe and Kanter were strong offensive forces for their respective teams, shouldering heavy loads off the bench when their respective stars went to the bench. Monroe was less effective on offense than Kanter, but he was slightly more impactful defensively.

Tier 5: Below average starters to quality bench guys

21. Nerlens Noel - Dallas Mavericks

22. Cody Zeller - Charlotte Hornets

23. Steven Adams - Oklahoma City Thunder

24. Tyson Chandler - Phoenix Suns

25. Mason Plumlee - Denver Nuggets

26. Richaun Holmes - Philadelphia 76ers

27. Nene - Houston Rockets

28. Gorgui Dieng - Minnesota Timberwolves

29. Kelly Olynyk - Miami Heat

30. Tristan Thompson - Cleveland Cavaliers

31. Willy Hernangomez - New York Knicks

32. Dewayne Dedmon - Atlanta Hawks

This is the largest group of players, so let’s start with the ones I don’t think deserve to be in Tier 5: Nerlens Noel, Steven Adams, and Richaun Holmes. If I manually change Noel’s minutes to 2,000 instead of the 1,047 he played, he jumps to 16th on this list and into the tier above. His skill set and defensive qualities are tailor made for Tier 4, and he may jump into Tier 3 after a full season in Dallas. Adams has a reputation for being an above average center, but his jump in usage resulted in a drop off in efficiency. He was below average in usage rate, assist rate, rebound rate, and block rate, so while I still think he’s good, he needs a bounce back year. Holmes played a small sample of minutes and produced well during that time. He may deserve to be in the tier below, but in terms of backup big men, he was definitely a quality option last season.

Cody Zeller also has a case for Tier 4; when he left the floor, the Hornets became a terrible team. My gut says this has more to do with Charlotte’s big man depth and relying on Frank Kaminsky to take his place. Even Roy Hibbert started a stretch of games, which would drastically alter anyone’s Net Rating. Zeller is good, but he still has some work to do on both sides.

Now for the bundle of semi-regrettable contracts. Tyson Chandler was a spot starter in Phoenix, and while he was awful in some areas, he was serviceable as an elite rebounder and hyper efficient finisher. Gorgui Dieng played a massive role in Minnesota, but he really struggled to fit in offensively, which isn’t shocking given the personnel. Kelly Olynyk just signed a large deal to play in Miami on a team that has Hassan Whiteside. They must want to play him at power forward more, which is fine, but their defense certainly won’t get better that way. Tristan Thompson, like Kenneth Faried, has his value depressed in these rankings by playing a niche role. Still, he’s a slightly above average finisher next to LeBron James, an average rebounder, and a below average rim protector. That’s without saying the bad things about him.

Now for the backups: Mason Plumlee, Nene, Willy Hernangomez, and Dewayne Dedmon. This feels like the perfect place for Plumlee, and Nuggets fans should rejoice at a likely team-friendly contract given the price tag on most of the guys around him. His playmaking and block rate make up for subpar efficiency and defense. Most teams simply want those traits out of a backup center, but Plumlee is unique in his talents. Nene was an excellent contributor off the bench for the Rockets and won them some playoff games this year. He’s the perfect backup for Clint Capela, who he will continue to cede minutes to as he ages like fine wine.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Willy Hernangomez, brother of Juancho Hernangomez here in Denver, was one of the two bright spots in New York, the other being Kristaps Porzingis. Willy was a really solid offensive player and rebounder, especially as a rookie. Hopefully, he starts games next year and continues to grow next to Porzingis, as he’s a solid complement for Porzingis’ strengths (at least on offense). Finally, Dewayne Dedmon was a great defensive backup for the Spurs who maximized his efficiency in a low usage role. Next.

Tier 6: Average bench guys

33. Alex Len - Free agent

34. Marreese Speights - Orlando Magic

35. Montrezl Harrell - Los Angeles Clippers

36. Willie Cauley-Stein - Sacramento Kings

37. Zaza Pachulia - Golden State Warriors

38. Kyle O’Quinn - New York Knicks

39. Lucas Nogueira - Toronto Raptors

40. Jahlil Okafor - Philadelphia 76ers

41. Robin Lopez - Chicago Bulls

42. Kosta Koufus - Sacramento Kings

43. Frank Kaminsky - Charlotte Hornets

This tier looks very normal. Only a few of guys were more than just rotation players here: Zaza Pachulia, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Robin Lopez. Pachulia played next to four All-Stars, and he had a very minor role because of it. Cauley-Stein started on the bench and moved into the starting lineup at midseason after Cousins was traded. He still has some things to work on, but he could rise a tier or two eventually. Lopez was surprisingly bad for Chicago all year, as his only above-average marks were block rate and minutes.

Alex Len probably shouldn’t be here, but the numbers like him. His rebounding rate and block rate were 19th and 6th respectively. Marreese Speights was a volume scorer and not much else off the bench in L.A. for the Clippers. Now, he will likely do the same in Orlando. Montrezl Harrell replaces him in L.A. after the Chris Paul trade. Kyle O’Quinn is an interesting piece with the 10th best assist rate, 14th best rebound rate, and second best block rate. He simply didn’t play enough to move higher. Lucas Nogueira had the best block rate to go with the second best TS%, but his role was so small he moved down.

Jahlil Okafor wasn’t last! It helps when you have the eighth highest usage. Kosta Koufus is perfect for this category. Frank Kaminsky was bottom 6 in four categories, but he was saved by having a large offensive role and minute load. This year, he won’t be so lucky since Dwight Howard is now on the roster.

Tier 7: Below average bench guys and benchwarmers

44. John Henson - Milwaukee Bucks

45. Bismack Biyombo - Orlando Magic

46. Joakim Noah - New York Knicks

47. Jason Smith - Washington Wizards

48. Dwight Powell - Dallas Mavericks

49. Tarik Black - Houston Rockets

50. Timofey Mozgov - Brooklyn Nets

The final tier of the top 50 guys features various disappointments. Bucks fans have wanted John Henson to claim the starting center spot for awhile. He’s about to be passed up by 42-year-old Thon Maker (just kidding...about the age anyway). Bismack Biyombo signed a ridiculous contract to be a backup center in Orlando, and he hurt them more than helped them.

Joakim Noah deserves his own paragraph, but he also deserves to be put on display for how awful he is. I can’t believe he managed to climb this high.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Smith is what he is, and he wasn’t supposed to play this year. Ian Mahimni was. Smith has a sweet jump shot though, so there’s that. Dwight Powell also signed a contract last offseason and it looks much worse now. He didn’t live up to expectations, and he’s already 26. Tarik Black is average to way-below average at everything except DRPM, and that’s arguable. He signed with Houston to be center depth.

Finally, it’s fitting (and a bit sad) that Timofey Mozgov was 50th...but he earned it. He has exactly zero strengths and a bunch of weaknesses. Sorry Timo.


That wraps things up this week. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter whether you want a top 100 players list or not, and if so, should it be entirely statistical or with some added context?

Thanks! Hope these were enjoyable!

Poll

Will Nikola Jokic rank as the top center in the NBA after the 2017-18 season?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Yes
    (250 votes)
  • 37%
    No
    (151 votes)
401 votes total Vote Now