Position Rankings: Centers

» August 20, 2009 11:04 AM | By Erick Blasco

Erick Blasco is a 21-year-old college student attending Brooklyn College on a full scholarship. He is majoring in Television/Radio and minoring in English with the hopes of someday becoming a professional basketball analyst.

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As players who are generally in premium scoring position offensively, and are a team’s final fortresses defensively, NBA centers have colossal impacts on their team’s successes, or lack thereof.

This list does not take into account a player’s future prospects or past salad days. The criteria is simple: Which NBA center would be best suited to winning a championship with a random collection of starting-level talent. For example, if Pau Gasol, Al Thornton, Joe Johnson, and Beno Udrih are your teammates, who would you want as your center.

Due to the way some lineups are presently constructed, a handful of teams have two potential centers in their starting lineup. For this reason, Troy Murphy, Antonio McDyess, Pau Gasol, and Anderson Varejao are listed as power forwards as they will likely play power forward in their team‘s starting lineup. Other teams lack a true center. This is why, David Lee, Andrea Bargnani, Al Horford, and Al Jefferson are listed as centers.

No rookies made the list as neither you nor I have seen them play in meaningful games against meaningful competition to know where they should be ranked.

Yao Ming will be treated as if he’d play sometime this season.

With that said, the list.

1) Dwight Howard—Orlando Magic

Howard’s still a work in progress—His post moves are still too crude and lack appropriate finesse or counters, he’s still only average in his defensive awareness, he still has a bad habit of bringing the ball down into stripping position when he attacks the basket, and he has trouble defending players who can face and go.

He’s still the league’s premier big man though.

Howard’s been the best rebounder in the game since he first suited up in 2004. He’s also evolved into a game-changing shot blocker on the defensive end.

Offensively, his screens eliminate defenders, and he’s the most effective dive-cutter in the game because of his sheer athleticism, strength, and quick hops. If his offensive repertoire is limited to simple sweeping hooks with either hand, against the majority of too-slow, too-small, or too-dumb defenders, it’s still enough to produce points, fouls, or both. And he’s durable to boot.

Plus, while his performance against the Lakers revealed early symptoms of choke-itis, throughout the playoffs Howard showed the ability to be able to hit his free throws with some degree of consistency. With how defenses are forced to foul him, imagine the production he could put up if he managed to convert just 70 percent of his freebies!

Because of Howard’s improving ability to create his own shot and understand opposing defenses, he’s wrestled the title of best NBA center away from Yao Ming. Now, the onus is on him to continue to improve his repertoire, his awareness, and his mechanics to become an all-time force, because his talent, on its own, is first ballot Hall-Of-Fame material.

2) Tim Duncan—San Antonio Spurs

All pretense aside, Duncan is a center. He played center last year with power forward Matt Bonner, and he’ll play center this year with power forward Antonio McDyess.

It’s true, age has started to catch up to Duncan. Nagging injuries sap away at him, one sore muscle at a time. He’s lost a touch of his explosion around the basket, and a smidgeon of lateral quickness on defense.

That doesn’t mean Duncan isn’t the best post scorer and passer in the game. No other player has the array of hooks, spins, counters, turnarounds, drives, and jumpers that Duncan possesses. He’s also one of the smartest players in the game, if not the smartest, understanding every offensive and defensive scenario and what needs to be done in any given situation.

However, Duncan’s days of single-handedly willing the Spurs offense to success against elite opponents are few and far between. He’s also become simply above-average at defending his man one-on-one, and he isn’t the shot blocker he used to be. Those are the reasons I list him below Dwight Howard on my center list. But he’s still a comfortable second.

3) Yao Ming—Houston Rockets

After Duncan, Ming is the most accomplished offensive center around. Because of his height—a towering 7’6—Yao’s turnaround jumpers from the left box are automatic. Yao also has great touch around the hoop, is a great rebounder when he doesn’t have to track the ball, is a very smart help defender, and is excellent at defending the post.

However, Yao is one of the least athletic players in the league, which hinders him against smart, athletic defenses. He also has trouble reading double teams, defending screens, defending players who can turn and face, and not turning the ball over.

Yao’s biggest problem though, is his injury struggles. Before last season, he had missed at least 25 games a year three continuous seasons. While he was relatively injury free last year, he was forced to miss the final four games of the Western Conference semifinals, and he’s likely to miss the entire 2009-10 season due to a broken bone in his left foot.

The injuries are a shame, because Yao’s one of the most skilled players in the game.

4) Shaquille O’Neal—Cleveland Cavaliers

While Shaq isn’t anywhere close to the player he used to be, he still commands double teams, still punishes opponents in the low block, and is still one of the best passing big men in the game. Aside from Duncan and Ming, Shaq has the most complete post game of any center.

Of course, Shaq can’t defend players who can turn and face, can’t defend screens, can’t defend explosive post scorers, is too slow to provide adequate help defense, isn’t a great rebounder, and can’t play anywhere outwards of six feet from the hoop. But post players who can draw doubles and make good decisions when doubled are extremely rare and valuable, which is why, at the ripe old age of 37 and a sliver of his former self, Shaq remains extremely valuable.

5) Al Jefferson—Minnesota Timberwolves

Jefferson is a professional scorer. He’s a dreadnaught in the low box, has an improving jumper, can blow by slower defenders, and will rebound capably. Unfortunately, that’s about all he can do. Sure, defensively he’ll block an occasional shot, but he’s a slow and unaware defender who can’t pass, can’t understand double teams, and can’t do anything when the ball isn’t in his hands.

While he’s touted as one of the game’s finest young players, AJ still has work to do to become more than just a numbers-compiler on bad teams.

6) Kendrick Perkins—Boston Celtics

While he still fouls a bit too much, Perkins has already proven himself to be a championship-caliber defender. Few centers in the league have Perkins’ combination of strength, smarts, athleticism, and malevolence, which allows him to get under the skin of most opponents.

Offensively, Perkins has a developing right hook, finishes forcefully around the hoop, and creates earthquakes when his screens make contact. While Perkins’ high ranking is a product of the dearth of well-rounded centers in the league more than a testament to his own talents, every team would love to have the defensive backbone Perkins provides.

7) Amar’e Stoudemire—Phoenix Suns

Wondrously talented but insecure, Stoudemire is less than the sum of his talents. What can he do? Pretty much anything he wants, which is why he’s become a scoring machine (Who doesn’t want the glory of being a great scorer?).

In the post, off the dribble, on dive cuts or weak-side duck-ins, on mid-range jumpers, even curling around screens, no place inside the three-point line is spared Stoudemire’s fantastic ability to create points.

Of course, Stoudemire may be the worst defensive big man in the game. Missing rotations, playing without focus, getting routinely undressed by his own defender, Stoudemire is an opposing big man’s birthday present. His unwillingness to play defense (along with Steve Nash and Grant Hill) was the main reason Terry Porter was fired, and the Suns’ season was such an abomination. It’s also why Phoenix’ seasons always end in disappointments.

Plus, when a team makes a concerted effort to playing Stoudemire aggressively on defense, Amar’e often shuts himself down instead of rising to the occasion.

Amare’s on-court play and attitude show a need to feel loved and an unwillingness to take the responsibility needed to become a championship-caliber player.

There are more tell-tale signs. After suffering a preseason partially torn iris requiring goggles to protect his eye, he decided to irresponsibly discard his protective goggles after seven games because they didn’t feel “comfortable.”

He lashed out at Terry Porter last season for not receiving enough touches, despite leading the Suns in shot attempts.

He’s never been shy about proclaiming how talented he is.

He also had this to say about the difference between Terry Porter and Alvin Gentry, “You want a coach that you can really hug and hold and high five and really have fun with. That makes it fun play. You can high five and hug your teammates. You don’t want to have fear of your coach. You want to be respectable with him but you also want to be a friend with him.”

He added, “I think guys bought into the system somewhat as much as possible. We didn’t quite make the playoffs but we stuck together, we stayed a team, and that’s what’s most important.”

Stoudemire doesn’t want responsibility, and doesn‘t want to compete. He wants to be hugged.

8. Andrew Bynum—Los Angeles Lakers

Bynum is and up-and-coming star, but injuries and attitude problems have curtailed his development. While he struggled during the playoffs last season, it was clear that his knees had no explosion in them. Should those knees heal properly, Bynum is one of the most fluid big men in the game, though serious knee injuries in back-to-back seasons does raise some concern.

His attitude is a different story. He frequently criticizes Phil Jackson for not giving him enough touches, even though the Lakers are in the business of winning championships with bushels of talent at other positions.

Bynum is frequently confused defensively, and his offensive game hasn’t taken off yet. Still, the sky is the limit for Bynum, and one hopes with experience will come the wisdom for Bynum to get the most out of his phenomenal talents.

9) Nene—Denver Nuggets

For the first time in an eternity, Nene was healthy for an entire season last year and he showed the league why he was such an exciting prospect when first drafted. His spin moves are tight and explosive, often leaving defenders coughing in his dust. It’s not a stretch to say that he could be a big-time post presence with more practice and touches.

He’s a decent defender and rebounder, but loses focus, and has a nasty habit of not running back in transition or hustling if a play doesn’t involve him. The talent is there though, and if he improves upon his 2008-09 campaign, he can begin to blossom into the star he might become.

10) Tyson Chandler—Charlotte Bobcats

A defensive game changer, Chandler may be the most athletic center in the NBA. This gives him a unique ability to contest shots at the basket, while also defending screens and jump shots along the perimeter.

Not only is Chandler technically sound, but he plays with exuberance, giving his teams an emotional spark when he’s on the court.

His offensive skills are limited to dunks, put backs, and tip ins, but because of his athleticism, Chandler’s one of the league’s premier centers at filling lanes, dive cutting, and outsprinting opposing bigs to the basket and dunking in lobs.

None of the defensive-minded centers below him on the list bring the athleticism, versatility, and intensity Chandler plays with, and the offensive or balanced centers below him are all limited in major areas.

11) Emeka Okafor—New Orleans Hornets

Offensively, Okafor’s post moves are crude and mechanical, and haven’t improved much beyond his rookie season. Defensively, Okafor gets overpowered by brawnier opponents, has trouble defending the perimeter, and makes help defense mistakes.

Coaches and scouts have remarked that Okafor doesn’t work on his game as hard as he should, a reason why his development has been marginal. Larry Brown stated, “I always tease that he has an ‘A’ in stretching, Pilates and yoga. I’d like him to have an ‘A’ in basketball.”

It’s the reason why, although Okafor is a respectable post presence, and an above average defender, he hasn’t blossomed into the star people thought he’d become when he entered the league.

12) Brook Lopez—New Jersey Nets

Lopez is a young star with a bright future. At 7-feet, 260 lbs, Lopez has the size to be a sturdy center, but he also has a very soft touch around the basket. The soft touch makes him a quality free throw shooter for a center, and allows him to hit mid-range jumpers. Though not very agile, he moves well without the ball, sets good screens, and is a terrific rebounder.

Most of his problems come defensively, but as a second-year player, that’s to be expected, and he improved as his rookie year moved along. With New Jersey fielding a bottom-feeder this upcoming season, Lopez should get even more minutes and opportunities to learn and improve his stellar play.

13) Chris Kaman—Los Angeles Clippers

Kaman plays mechanically which is why he gets swallowed up by the league’s elite defenders. Other than that, he does a number of things fairly well. He’s able to hit swinging hooks with regularity, he’s a capable shot blocker, he can rebound, and he’s active. He’s just not talented enough to be a primary post option.

14) Rasheed Wallace—Boston Celtics

Wallace is one of the game’s better frontcourt defenders, and he’s not far removed from being an elite defensive player. His strength and long arms make him a very effective post defender, while his lateral quickness and awareness made him an outstanding help defender.

Age has sapped that athleticism, limiting his status as one of the game’s best helpers, but he’s certainly good enough to be an asset.

Once upon a time (2004), Wallace used to be a terrorizing post threat, with power, force, and an unblockable, reverse-pivot fadeaway from the left block. But aside from that half-season with Larry Brown, Wallace has been more concerned with lounging around the three-point line hoisting up jumpers when his team needed him to dominate in the paint.

In truth, the bigger the game, the smaller the odds of success, the worse Wallace would play. Which is why he’s at his best as a supporting cast member, rather than a main cog.

15) Joel Pryzbilla—Portland Trail Blazers

The vowelless one, Pryzbilla has evolved into one of the game’s premier defensive centers. Very strong and sturdy, it’s hard for opposing players to uproot Pryzbilla from his defensive stance. Pryzbilla is also a very smart help defender, and can alter shots from the weak side using timing more than explosive leaping.

Pryzbilla is held back by the fact that he has no offensive skills whatsoever. But he’s so fantastic defensively, he fits into any winning roster.

16) Andrew Bogut—Milwaukee Bucks

Bogut has turned himself into a solid NBA center. He’s a respectable offensive threat, a sturdy rebounder, a willing passer, and a space-eating defender. But he’s not a talented enough scorer to consistently command double teams, and his lack of athleticism makes him a poor defender. He’s an average player, which is why he’s positioned in the middle of the top 30.

17) Mehmet Okur—Utah Jazz

A basketball anomaly, Okur is big and strong, but makes his living shooting jumpers from the perimeter. Okur’s also a strong rebounder, and has a deceptively effective pull up jumper when defenses close out too hard.

However, Okur’s complete lack of mobility and aggression render him helpless on defense, and he’s a below average post player on offense. One-dimensional scorers who don’t command double teams don’t make it far on the list of best centers.

18) Zydrunas Ilgauskas—Cleveland Cavaliers

Because of his massive bulk, Ilgauskas is still an effective space-eater in the paint. However, the combination of crippling foot injuries and old age have turned Ilgauskas into a defensive sloth. While he’s still an adequate defender against plodders, he’s helpless against any opponent with any degree of quickness.

Ilgauskas is a good rebounder with a soft touch from the perimeter, but he lacks the explosion and the force needed to score from the pivot. At this point in his career, he’s more of a very good backup than a starter, which is how the Cavaliers will employ him.

19) David Lee—New York Knicks

Lee is a bouncy rebounder who can make wide open jump shots, occasionally drive for layups, finish with either hand, and who will always play hard.

However, while he’s one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s also one of the worst defenders, a fact not helped by his lack of size. Of course, on most teams, Lee would be a power forward and not a center, but due to Mike D’Antoni’s preferred small lineup, Lee is forced to man the middle. This creates mismatches for him on the offensive end masking his unrefined offensive skills, but leaves him permanently overmatched on defense.

In a perfect world, Lee would be an exceptional sixth man on a great team. In the real world, he’s the 19th best center in the NBA.

20) Marcus Camby—Los Angeles Clippers

Built like Gumby, Camby has always been an overrated defender, one reason why the teams he plays for usually struggle defensively. Sure, Camby is terrific at selling out for shot blocks, but he does so at the expense of positional defense, meaning drives and dishes in his vicinity are near-automatic layups.

Camby’s frequently overpowered when defending the post, and while he’s a rangy rebounder, strong rebounders can shove him out of prime rebounding real estate.

Offensively, Camby’s a negative player—not only does he struggle with his jump shot, but he won’t stop taking several boneheaded attempts per game.

Camby’s talented, but there are far better options for a winning team.

21) Al Horford—Atlanta Hakws

Horford’s a nice young player being forced to play center even though he’s a natural power forward. He has good agility, a soft touch, the ability to hit mid-range jumpers, and he’s very active around the basket. He’s a touch too finesse, though he doesn’t have the height to really overpower opposing centers. Plus, his lack of height hurts him defensively where he’s often overwhelmed by bigger, stronger players. Unlike most centers in the league right now, Horford should continue to improve over time.

22) Marcin Gortat—Orlando Magic

One of the best backups in the league, Gortat is a very effective screen/roll player because of his ability to move without the ball and finish with soft hooks at the basket. He’s very athletic, runs the floor well, and is a capable dunker and shot blocker. He’s an earnest rebounder, and a good, if not great defender. Though his flaws would probably more pronounced with more playing time, he’s solid across the board.

23) Andris Biedrins—Golden State Warriors

Biedrins’ best quality is his attitude. On a team with no regard for defense, weak-side offense, or heart, Biedrins always gives his all and has become a successful player because of it.

He has virtually no offensive skills besides converting layups, he’s frequently in foul trouble, he can’t defend screens, and he’s at his opponents’ mercy when they back him down in the post, but he can block shots, hunt down rebounds, and alter games with his hustle. Too bad his energy hasn’t been contagious for the rest of his teammates.

24) Andrea Bargnani—Toronto Raptors

An awful defender with a slow reaction time, anticipatory skills, and awareness, Bargnani has to compensate offensively, something he’s just now beginning to do. Even so, he’s all finesse, relying on perimeter jump shots for his offense since he has no way to produce near the basket.

He’s an awful rebounder, he can’t pass, he’s turnover prone, and he’s done little to dispel the notion that he’s an NBA bust.

25) Jermaine O’Neal—Miami Heat

Brittle and unreliable, O’Neal was a non-factor for much of last season. Sure, there would be the occasional game where O’Neal would dominate from the box, swat shots, and grab double-digit rebounds, but those high points would be followed up with strings of wimpy performances.

O’Neal’s turnover prone, can’t pass, is an underwhelming rebounder, and can’t defend. Plus, he’s a walking M.A.S.H. unit. Even when he’s going well, he prefers to shoot jump shots from the high post rather than command doubles down low. Sure, he’ll have the occasional spectacular performance, but O’Neal isn’t a player you trust in a seven game series.

26) Greg Oden—Portland Trail Blazers

Oden has a lot of work to do if he wants to thrive in the NBA. His offensive moves are crude and rugged, he’s much too upright in his defensive stance, he moves clumsily, he’s injury prone, and he’s confused by the speed of the NBA.

Granted, last season was his not only his first season in the NBA, but it was his first year back after missing 2007-08 with microfracture surgery, so struggles were expected after a year off of basketball. Plus, he already has an NBA-ready body.

It’s a question mark though as to whether his rookie campaign is just a case of working out the kinks, or whether he really is too mechanical and not fluid enough to be more than a bit player.

27) Chris Andersen—Denver Nuggets

An athletic freak with a non-stop motor, Andersen is always running, jumping, dunking, hustling, and swatting shots. Sure, he can’t defend a mop straight up, and no, he can’t hurt you if he’s more than four feet from the basket, but he was an invaluable player off the Nuggets’ bench, and plays with the kind of energy that can turn near losses into wins.

28) Erick Dampier—Dallas Mavericks

Dampier’s middle name is “foul trouble,” and he’s not an accomplished scorer, passer, or defender. What Dampier will do, is play tough defense, provide hard fouls, grab a share of rebounds—especially on the offensive end—block a few shots, and occasionally drop in a hook. While Dampier is limited, there are far worse options out there.

29) Brendan Haywood—Washington Wizards

Haywood is Washington’s only tough guy. He’ll take up space defensively, block a shot or two, and can occasionally drop in a few hooks around the basket. Nothing special, he’s a borderline starting-quality big man.

30) Joakim Noah—Chicago Bulls

Noah’s a smart, energetic player who knows his limitations and always plays hard. He’s a good defensive player, whether on the ball, or helping from the weak side. On offense, he’s little more than a dunker, but he screens and cuts diligently. A worthy final inclusion to the top 30.

2 Responses to “Position Rankings: Centers”

  1. Dave Says:

    You’re rankings are a joke. Bargnani is easily in the top ten, and only getting better. He’s an average defender, who is working on his help defence, and has a deadly outside game. He’s starting developing an inside game to compliment that and regularly posts 20 and 7. You’ll be eating these words in another season or so.

    Stick to your English Class

  2. Erick Says:

    Yeah, because Bargnani’s brittle offensive skills really translate into the kind of success that will translate into capturing a title. And his defense is horrendous. Not bad, horrendous. Bargnani’s apologists claimed I’d be eating my words last year too.

    Anyway, I’ll keep sticking to English. You should come join me so you learn how to spell defense.