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Ranking the 50 most valuable centers in the NBA from 2017-18

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Where does Nikola Jokic rank among the most valuable centers of last season?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves player rankings, so let’s rank centers, the position that was less important five years ago and is slowly becoming the second most valuable.

Click here for the top 50 most valuable point guards of 2017-18.

Click here for the top 50 most valuable shooting guards of 2017-18.

Click here for the top 50 most valuable small forwards of 2017-18.

Click here for the top 50 most valuable power forwards of 2017-18.

In order to remove bias from my own ranking, I have decided to put together a formula to generate a new ranking. The list below isn’t my personal opinion on who’s better than who. Rather, it shapes my opinion on who provided the most value last season. For example, I know that Andre Drummond is better than Nikola Vucevic and Montrezl Harrell, but for a variety of reasons, Drummond rank lower than the latter two.

First, let me explain my logic and reasoning in crafting this list:

Methodology and Criteria

Going into the exercise, I knew I wanted to rank the most valuable players from last season, rather than the best players. I decided to rank the following six components of a center’s game to varying degrees:

  • Scoring and facilitating, i.e. how effective the player was at generating points with the ball in hand.
  • Number Production, i.e. how many points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks the player accumulated.
  • Offensive Efficiency and Role, i.e. how frequently did a player score, and what level of volume did the player score with.
  • Defensive efficiency and role, i.e. how frequently was the player tasked with defending opposing shot takers, and how frequently did they force a player to miss.
  • Team Impact, i.e. how well did the team perform when the player was on and off the floor.
  • Advanced Metrics, i.e. how effective do the advanced metrics say the player is in the moment and over the course of the season.

In order to turn each of these categories into a single number, I acquired per 100 possession data, point creation data, efficiency and usage data, defensive numbers, net ratings, and advanced numbers for all centers to appear in 30 or more games. A giant thanks to Jacob Goldstein of The BBall Index, Adam Fromal of NBA Math, and Jeremias Engelmann of ESPN for their metric data.

The ranking is entirely statistical, but it doesn’t rely on just advanced metrics or basic points and assists numbers. It blends the above concepts into a composite ranking and adjusts for a player’s role and minutes played.

Let’s get into it.

Notable Omissions:

  • Because of the general downsizing in the NBA, there are more qualifying players at point guard and center than any other position and less omissions.
  • Some players that might be considered centers by some were power forwards in my ranking. Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Julius Randle, Derrick Favors, Frank Kaminsky, and others were classified as power forwards in the ranking last week, though they are more traditional.
  • Jahlil Okafor, Andrew Bogut, and Joakim Noah were the only big time centers to miss the 30-game cutoff to qualify for this list. Everyone else was reasonably healthy, which is fortunate.

Just Missed the Cut:

  • Two of the first three left off were Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes, Philadelphia 76ers backups to one of the top ranked players at the position.
  • Kevon Looney was the only Golden State Warriors center to NOT make the list, which shows just how unfair the Warriors are.
  • Ekpe Udoh and Ian Mahimni filled similar roles as low-minute rim-protecting backup bigs on playoff teams.
  • Bam Adebayo and Zach Collins are two rookies I’m still very excited about, but they came in at 57th and 79th respectively out of 81 graded centers. Adebayo has an interesting skill set and quality athleticism. Collins fits the niche of the new NBA as a pick and pop center with rim protection skills.

Average Backups (player - 2017-18 team)

50. Robin Lopez - Chicago Bulls

49. Aron Baynes - Boston Celtics

48. Lucas Noguiera - Toronto Raptors

47. Daniel Theis - Boston Celtics

46. Marreesse Speights - Orlando Magic

45. Salah Mejri - Dallas Mavericks

This group is a mix of decent reserves and the worst graded starting center in the NBA. Robin Lopez probably wasn’t actually the worst starter at the 5 in the NBA, but he was close, putting up career low averages in rebounds and blocks per 100 possessions. His defense and efficiency received low grades as well, which could be another explanation for why the Bulls drafted Wendell Carter Jr. seventh overall.

Two Celtics make the list, with Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes providing vastly different skill sets. Theis was improving before going down with an injury midseason, while Baynes improved and someone became a perimeter threat in the playoffs. Brad Stevens is a wizard. Lucas Noguiera and Salah Mejri round out this tier. Both provided solid value for what they were asked to do, which wasn’t much. Rim protection, rebound, score efficiently.

Above Average Backups

44. Marcin Gortat - Washington Wizards

43. Jarrett Allen - Brooklyn Nets

42. Willy Hernangomez - New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets

41. Greg Monroe - Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics

40. Alex Len - Phoenix Suns

39. Dewayne Dedmon - Atlanta Hawks

38. DeAndre Jordan - Los Angeles Clippers

37. Mason Plumlee - Denver Nuggets

36. Domantas Sabonis - Indiana Pacers

35. Zaza Pachulia - Golden State Warriors

This tier is made up of some older faces, some potential quality starters, and one big surprise. Marcin Gortat, Greg Monroe, and Zaza Pachulia are all in the twilights of their careers playing different roles. Gortat was made the scapegoat in Washington for the Wizards’ bad performance the past few seasons, and after being replaced by Dwight Howard, we will see just how different things are. He was basically average to subpar across the board, except in efficiency, where he was horrible. Monroe bounced around between a few teams before settling in Boston as a low-minute backup. The scoring and passing production is still there, but his defense has been awful for awhile, and his offense operates outside of the normal flow. Pachulia benefits from some excellent teammates. His most common lineup featured the Warriors’ four other stars. His passing, defense, and overall impact benefitted from that.

Mason Plumlee was in this group, which shouldn’t be a surprise. He wasn’t entirely optimized this past year, but as he becomes more comfortable in Denver’s system, playing with Isaiah Thomas off the bench should benefit him a ton. Interestingly, his defense rank was 8th out of 81 centers, so there are definitely worse options for Denver to back up Nikola Jokic.

Jarrett Allen, Willy Hernangomez, and Domantas Sabonis also fall into this tier. The Knicks, traded away Hernangomez, and he truly upped his game in Charlotte. He has an opportunity to ascend this list by becoming a valuable backup center. As for Allen and Sabonis, this expectations are higher. Allen’s defense and efficiency scores were solid, and as raw as he was coming out of college, he has room to grow. Sabonis played a high volume backup role to Myles Turner, and while he gets a bit more credit than he deserves, he’s still just 22 years old with a versatile skill set.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There are other players in this category, but the most important player is DeAndre Jordan, who was far worse than his reputation. The defense just wasn’t as valuable as it was previously. With Jordan on the court, LAC’s defense was just a 109.0 defensive rating, while it dropped to 105.6 with him off the court. Some of that has to do with his teammates, but some of it has to do with losing Chris Paul, one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, to make things easy for him. Many are high on Dallas because of Jordan’s acquisition, but there’s no way they make the playoffs, and a misevaluation of Jordan is one reason why.

Below Average Starters

34. Larry Nance Jr. - Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers

33. John Henson - Milwaukee Bucks

32. Nene - Houston Rockets

31. Dirk Nowitzki - Dallas Mavericks

30. Jakob Poeltl - Toronto Raptors

29. JaVale McGee - Golden State Warriors

28. Willie Cauley-Stein - Sacramento Kings

27. Jordan Bell - Golden State Warriors

26. Pau Gasol - San Antonio Spurs

25. Hassan Whiteside - Miami Heat

24. Boban Marjanovic - Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers

23. Enes Kanter - New York Knicks

22. Dwight Powell - Dallas Mavericks

21. Brook Lopez - Los Angeles Lakers

20. David West - Golden State Warriors

19. Myles Turner - Indiana Pacers

18. Kyle O’Quinn - New York Knicks

This is the largest tier in the center position, and it makes sense. Unless a team has a solid starter at the position, the majority of players are replaceable. Case in point, the Golden State Warriors, who have JaVale McGee, David West, AND Jordan Bell in this tier. Let’s take a look at each of the Golden State centers:

The Warriors aren’t known for their center talent, but the surrounding players elevate what they do have.

Each of the above four brought different skill sets to the Warriors’ rotation. West was the defensive anchor that understood how to play in the second unit. The top rank on defense is no joke. He had top five ranks in his ability to cause missed shots, steals, AND blocks. He was the only player to achieve that defensively in the NBA. Jordan Bell has next as a future Warriors’ starter. He may replace Draymond Green after Green’s contract is up in two seasons.

There are some other bench centers in this group that outperformed their roles. Larry Nance Jr. was traded midseason from the Lakers to the Cavs, but in both places, he was extremely valuable. He should start this season next to Kevin Love (more on him later). Nene was the primary center backup to Clint Capela, and he was part of the Houston bench unit with Chris Paul running it that crushed souls. That boosted his ranking, as he was average to subpar in most areas. Jakob Poeltl was similar in Toronto, but he’s good in other areas. He had the 6th best defensive score. Dwight Powell, Boban Marjanovic, and Kyle O’Quinn made up the other bench players to hit this tier. Powell was one of the best pick and roll bigs in the NBA. Marjanovic played low minutes but was highest productive during that time, and O’Quinn had FIVE top 15 scores among centers, which is absurd. The Pacers got an absolute steal with him.

As far as actual starters go, John Henson and Willie-Cauley Stein played similar roles and were similarly effective. They each graded positively on defense, negatively in efficiency, and had varying success in other categories. Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Brook Lopez each played similar roles as aging centers being eventually phased out by their squads. Hassan Whiteside and Enes Kanter were similarly valuable to their teams with entirely different expectations. Whiteside, based on his contract and desire to be a star, was underwhelming. The points and the production were there, but the team impact wasn’t. He also assisted at a hilariously low clip. Kanter was similarly a negative impact player, but in a less harmful way. He was productive offensively and actually conducive to a healthy offense. If he wasn’t so bad defensively, he would have an opportunity to be a quality starter.

Lastly, Myles Turner had a bit of a stagnant season, but he’s still extremely young, and the things he did well (scoring and defense) will translate as he gets older and more comfortable. He has a chance to be the most improved player in the NBA next year.

Solid Starters

17. Marc Gasol - Memphis Grizzlies

16. Kevin Love - Cleveland Cavaliers

15. Andre Drummond - Detroit Pistons

14. Dwight Howard - Charlotte Hornets

13. Jonas Valanciunas - Toronto Raptors

12. Montrezl Harrell - Los Angeles Clippers

11. Nikola Vucevic - Orlando Magic

10. Kelly Olynyk - Miami Heat

9. Al Horford - Boston Celtics

8. Jusuf Nurkic - Portland Trail Blazers

7. Steven Adams - Oklahoma City Thunder

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

This section finally gets into the mainstays at starter while showcasing two of the most valuable reserves: Montrezl Harrell and Kelly Olynyk. For Harrell, the three primary traits that helped him ascend these rankings were top five finishes in points and efficiency. He finished in the 95th percentile as a roll man, the 84th percentile on post ups, and the 65th percentile on cuts. He was utilized a ton off the bench in Los Angeles, and now that Jordan is gone, if they don’t start him, they are insane. Olynyk was even better in Miami, providing the Heat with a versatile scoring and spacing option. His defense was bad at 61st out of 81 centers, but he made up for it with no other finish below 29 out of 81 and a 7th overall finish in the advanced metrics. Therefore, it should surprise no one that he played more than Hassan Whiteside in the playoffs.

Many have lost faith in Dwight Howard, but he deserves to be in this spot. His only below average score came in the passing department, and due to a heavy minutes load and some above average impact across the board, solid starter feels right. If the Wizards don’t win 50 games this year, then the problem clearly runs deeper than talent at the 5. Two other centers in Jonas Valanciunas and Nikola Vucevic simply don’t get enough credit for being solid contributors. Neither blew the doors off of anybody, but Valanciunas had top ten finishes in points and efficiency, while Vucevic was solid and productive across the board. The ceiling for a team may not be championship caliber with them as full-time starters, but they provides advantages early in games that other centers can’t.

Our old friend Jusuf Nurkic comes in at 8, and I was very surprised by this. His point production, defense, and consistency across the board helped him out. It shows that his ceiling still remains high, despite his shortcomings around the rim. If he could ever put that together, he might jump up a tier.

Kevin Love and Andre Drummond come in next to each other at 16 and 15 for entirely different reasons. Love was a productive point scorer when asked to be, but his defense ranked 76th out of 81. Jokic gets a bad rep for defensive contribution, but Love was just as bad or worse in every meaningful part of the defensive formula. Drummond had a top 3 minute count on the season, and he was the second most productive center due to the best rebounding mark in the NBA and some versatility in other facets. Still, his team impact is lower than it should be. I’d love to see him without Reggie Jackson long term.

Finally, Marc Gasol and Steven Adams bookmark this list, but Gasol comes in at 17 and Adams comes in at 7 for obvious reasons. Gasol’s defense and efficiency have fallen off- the efficiency dramatically. He’s not the 17th best center, but he’s no longer the All-Star talent with a claim for best center in the NBA he was just a couple of seasons ago. Steven Adams is just coming into his prime though, and it’s going to be a fun one. As a heavy minute guy, he brought high defensive impact and solid efficiency to the table, capitalizing on his chances when they came. He wasn’t quite dynamic enough as a scorer and passer to move up a tier, but if he can improve that, I don’t see why he can’t have an All-Star level of impact going forward.

All-Star Caliber

6. Rudy Gobert - Utah Jazz

5. Clint Capela - Houston Rockets

4. DeMarcus Cousins - New Orleans Pelicans

Some will be surprised with Gobert’s placement below Clint Capela and DeMarcus Cousins, but I understand it. While Capela has become a productive scorer playing with Chris Paul and James Harden constantly, Gobert hasn’t had the same level of scoring production. Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles, and Donovan Mitchell are good facilitators to varying degrees, but they can’t set up Gobert like two future Hall-of-Famers in Paul and Harden set up Capela. That helped Capela’s scoring and overall production outstrip Gobert. They had similar levels of impact defensively, and while Gobert’s was more valuable to his team, it wasn’t enough to beat out Capela while playing less overall minutes.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The most interesting placement is Cousins, who people forget is still very valuable in the volume he can provide his team. It’s not the most important volume, but consistently producing the third most amount of points and assists per 100 possessions is important, as were the sixth most steals and 18th most rebounds. Where people get hung up on Cousins is his subpar level of team impact compared to his talent level, but it shouldn’t cause anyone to knock him outside of this tier. DeMar DeRozan is similar to him, and while their respective teams perform better with them off the floor, teammates have an easy job while they’re on because they’re asked to produce less. Donovan Mitchell is so valuable to the Jazz because he can take the tough shots when nobody else can, not because of the tough shots themselves. It’s similar with Cousins, who can do things no one else can, and should be treated as such.

All-NBA Candidates

3. Karl-Anthony Towns - Minnesota Timberwolves

2. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets

1. Joel Embiid - Philadelphia 76ers

So many of the best centers in the NBA are also young, including four of the top 5. Here are how the youngest centers in the NBA stacked against each other in each of my graded categories:

The best young center talents are already the best in the NBA at the position.

Embiid, Jokic, and Towns are the consensus top three in terms of value added, and for good reason. While Embiid missed a significant chunk of time, he was one of the top defensive players in the NBA, as represented by his defense score and impact score. Most would consider his defense to be in the top 3 among centers, but the way my defense score was calculated factored in the value of getting steals and contesting a lot of shots; however, there’s a value in preventing shots that wasn’t captured, something Embiid and his physical stature do quite well.

Jokic, Towns, and Cousins had a claim for the best offensive center in the NBA, and depending on someone’s preference, an argument could be made for each of them. Jokic and Towns provide the best combination of usage and efficiency, while Cousins is productive tank on that end. In the end, what separated the three of them was impact. Jokic and Towns were both top 10 in impact, while Cousins was middle of the pack.

Jokic and Towns were so similar last season, and while Jokic comes in at 2 here, a reasonable argument can be made that his defense score misrepresents him. He contests a lot of shots for two reasons: the first is that he’s a smart player and it helps him get in the picture, and the second is that opposing players aren’t scared of him at all. The rim protection is bad, and that’s important...

But it also shows where he exceeds as a defender. Rebounding isn’t calculated into my defense score, but cleaning up possessions and not allowing offensive rebounds is important. Generating steals out of the pick and roll is important as well. Jokic’s defensive play types are percentile ranks are as follows:

How Nikola Jokic performed in every important defensive play type.
NBA.com/stats

Sometimes, goading players into taking less valuable shots is Jokic’s best skill. Allowing a 33% 3-point shooting center to take mildly contested perimeter jumpers is Jokic’s bread and butter as a defender.

There’s the foundation of a player who can be an adequate defender. He will have some weaknesses. Mobility of the perimeter and true rim protection are the easiest skills to identify to most fans on defense, and Jokic has neither of those. That being said, I expect Jokic to continue improving his body, make moderate improvements in each of those categories, and that when it’s all said and done, he will be a decent NBA defender.

Either way, the difference between Jokic and Towns was minute, but the difference between Embiid to Jokic and Towns to Cousins was larger. Embiid’s ability to affect the game on both ends and force defenses to respect him on that end is important. He’s not an efficient player, but he still causes chaos. Combine that with the defensive skills, and it’s easy to see why he sits on top, even with the injury cutting his time on the floor.


Here’s how I see the top 10 rankings playing out next season:

  1. Joel Embiid
  2. Nikola Jokic
  3. Karl-Anthony Towns
  4. Rudy Gobert
  5. Clint Capela
  6. Steven Adams
  7. Al Horford
  8. Jusuf Nurkic
  9. Kevin Love
  10. Marc Gasol

Assuming health for everyone except Cousins (which I believe to be fair), I see no reason for the trio of Embiid, Jokic, or Towns to be touched. Gobert will slot in right behind them with a full season of health, but without the ability to create anything on offense for himself, it’s hard to rate him more valuable. Clint Capela and Steven Adams are in the same boat.

Al Horford, Kevin Love, and Marc Gasol all jump in this prediction, and that’s because I think they will be optimized even more. Horford may be on a 60-win team and average a higher number of assists and rebounds. Kevin Love will go back to being a top scoring option, and his passing will likely improve as a result of having the ball in his hands more. Marc Gasol’s numbers dropped with Mike Conley off the floor, but with him back on, I think he sees a mini resurgence.

Finally, Jusuf Nurkic. Good despite his flaws. It never would’ve worked in Denver, but he could’ve been traded for a larger package if he didn’t tank his value.

One must remember that these rankings are about total value, not total skill or highest potential. If there are any questions on the formulation, please comment below or start the conversation on Twitter (@NBABlackburn).

Next week, I will be combining these five lists into a top 100 list, but it will have a twist. More on that later.

Poll

Can Nikola Jokic become a top 10 player in the NBA while being a subpar defender at center?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Yes
    (143 votes)
  • 18%
    Only if he improves even more offensively
    (39 votes)
  • 14%
    No
    (31 votes)
213 votes total Vote Now