This week, Basketball Insiders has been ranking the top 10 players at each position. To wrap up the series, we turn our attention to the league’s best centers. Although the modern NBA puts a heavier focus on perimeter talent, the league still features a number of talented big men who make their presence felt on both ends of the court.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our lists of the top 10 point guards, top 10 shooting guards, top 10 small forwards and top 10 power forwards. Without further ado, here are our top 10 centers entering the 2016-17 NBA season.
1. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
DeMarcus Cousins, who enters his seventh season with the Sacramento Kings, will be playing for his sixth different head coach. Despite playing in an unstable situation, Cousins has solidified himself as the best overall center in the NBA. Last season, Cousins averaged 26.9 points and 11.5 rebounds while finishing with the sixth-most double-doubles (47) among all players. Cousins is a tough guard for anybody because of his unbelievable strength, soft touch around the rim, solid shooting and ability to take the ball off the dribble. With his impressive ball-handling skills and underrated vision, Cousins occasionally acts as a playmaker for his team, which is why he averaged more than three assists per game last season.
Cousins is no slouch on defense either. Though he may not produce at the same level of big men like DeAndre Jordan or Hassan Whiteside, Cousins is surprisingly mobile for his size, can situationally challenge players on the perimeter and alters a ton of shots in the paint. Cousins is well-rounded and capable of single-handedly taking over a game. Also, he’s only 26 years old, meaning he likely still has room to improve.
2. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
When DeAndre Jordan first entered the league as the No. 35 pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, even his most diehard supporters likely would have hesitated to argue that Jordan would one day be a top center in the NBA. However, Jordan has steadily improved his game each season of his career and he put together his best overall campaign last season. When Blake Griffin went down with a hand and quad injury, Jordan stepped up in a big way. Jordan, who arguably should have been an All-Star last year, averaged 12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. He is simply a beast on the boards and he has led the league in rebounds per game for two of the past three years. Jordan also led the league in field goal percentage last season, shooting a very impressive 70.3 percent – which was just shy of the NBA record held by Wilt Chamberlain (72.7 percent). Jordan still isn’t a guy you can throw the ball to and ask him to get a bucket on his own, but he is still a big help on offense for the Clippers. He runs the court exceptionally well (often leading to alley-oop opportunities), creates a ton of gravity rolling to the basket off a pick-and-roll and has nearly perfected the art of handing the ball off to a curling J.J. Redick and screening his defender, opening him up consistently for a three-pointer.
Where Jordan is most effective on the court though is on the defensive end. Jordan’s 2.3 blocks per game ranked second in the league last season and he was selected to his second consecutive NBA All-Defensive First Team. With his 7’6 wingspan, mobility and leaping ability, Jordan is able to disrupt shots all over the court. Over the years, he has learned to not bite at every shot fake and is now able to anchor his team’s defense from the painted area. He’s coming off of a nice run with Team USA, which could help his confidence and development even further, so expect Jordan to continue producing at a high level in 2016-17.
3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Some people may think that this ranking is too high since Towns has only played a single year in the league, and perhaps those people have a point, but first give me a second to explain why Karl-Anthony Towns sits at number three on this list. Towns had a monster rookie season, showing off a complete game, sweeping the Rookie of the Month awards in the Western Conference and unanimously winning the Rookie of the Year award (which is just the fifth time that’s happened). Towns made an immediate impact with the Timberwolves, as he averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 54.2 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from three-point range. Just to add some perspective, Anthony Davis’ rookie season averages were 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, one assist and 1.8 blocks, while shooting 51.6 percent from the field. Towns posted a PER of 22.5, which was the fifth-highest PER by a rookie since the merger behind only Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan.
These are incredible numbers for a rookie center who had only one year of college experience. But beyond individual statistics, Towns was instrumental in helping the Timberwolves increase their total wins by 13 games last year. Beyond his incredibly well-rounded offensive game, Towns is also a very good defensive anchor. He can switch out to smaller players on the perimeter, make timely rotations, has good awareness as a weak side defender and is an effective rim protector. With Tom Thibodeau taking over as the team’s head coach, Towns will surely improve on this end of the court, which is a scary prospect for the rest of the league. In today’s NBA, Towns is the prototypical center and there’s no question that the 20-year-old is way ahead of the curve when it comes to his development.
4. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
If not for a season-ending injury, Marc Gasol might have found himself in the top three of this list. Prior to the injury, Gasol was averaging a solid line of 16.6 points, seven rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Gasol is the anchor of the Grizzlies and that became even more evident once he got injured, as the team started to fall in the standings. Offensively, Gasol is able to stretch the court with his shooting, post up on the block and turn and shoot over his shoulders. Also, he is one of the best passing big men in the league. This makes him one of the toughest defensive covers in the league.
Defensively, Gasol is one of the most intelligent big men in the NBA. Over the years, Gasol has managed to form a surprisingly effective defensive frontcourt with Zach Randolph and has established himself as one of the best overall rim protectors in the league. Having that sort of big man is what allows the Grizzlies to play such an aggressive brand of defense, which has been their signature for several years now.
5. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
This offseason, Al Horford decided to leave the Atlanta Hawks to sign with the Boston Celtics. Horford is a do-it-all type of center with no real weaknesses in his game. In his last season with the Hawks, he averaged 15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Horford is a four-time All-Star and now has the challenge of taking the Celtics to the next step in their development.
Horford should fit in quite nicely with the Celtics considering his skill set, intelligence and selflessness. Horford isn’t the best rim protector in the league, but he knows how to work within a team defense and always seems to be in the right position to contest a shot at the rim. On offense, his ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line will open up space for guys like Isaiah Thomas to drive and create for others. Signing Horford was a huge move for the Celtics and may have positioned them to be the biggest challengers to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
6. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Andre Drummond had a monster 2015-16 season and will look to do more of the same this year. Drummond made history early last season as he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to record three 20-point, 20-rebound games in the first six games of the season. The big man’s dominant season earned him a five-year, $130 million deal from the Pistons this summer.
Drummond averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game last season and led the league in double-doubles (66). Drummond helped carry the Pistons to their first playoff appearance in six years. Throughout the year, he put together several stand out games such as his 29-point, 27-rebound performance against the Portland Trail Blazers and his 33-point, 21-rebound outing against the Chicago Bulls. Drummond still needs to improve his offensive game and, most importantly, his poor free throw shooting (as he shot an NBA-worst 35.5 percent from from the line last season). Nevertheless, coming off his first All-Star selection and being just 23 years old, the future sure looks bright for the Pistons big man.
7. Hassan Whiteside, Miami HEAT
Hassan Whiteside has been one of the best stories in the NBA over the last few years. Whiteside fell out of the NBA early in his career, spent some time overseas and in the D-League and then came back to the NBA in a big way in 2014. Whiteside’s impressive play last season earned him a four-year, $98 million dollar max-contract from the Miami HEAT in July.
Last season, Whiteside averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Whiteside’s breakout season included three monster triple-doubles in which he logged 10 blocks. Whiteside also became the fastest HEAT player to reach 300 blocks last season, as he was able to do it in just 94 games. Whiteside finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting (behind only Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green) and he was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team. It’s also worth noting that Whiteside had the eighth-best PER in the NBA last year (25.7), and ranked first among starting centers. This season, with Dwyane Wade gone and Chris Bosh no longer playing for Miami, Whiteside will be the team’s focal point and will likely be asked to take on a larger role offensively (while continuing to anchor the HEAT’s defense). From playing in Lebanon to becoming a max-contract player, Whiteside’s story is incredible, but it’s far from over.
8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Gobert, the No. 27 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, has become a very effective center much quicker than anyone expected. The 24-year-old has emerged as one of the NBA’s best defensive centers, blocking 2.2 shots per game and altering many others. Opponents shot just 41 percent at the rim when challenged by Gobert, which was the best rim protection percentage in the NBA last season. At 7’1 with a 7’8 wingspan, Gobert is match-up nightmare for opposing big men. Last season, Gobert was on the verge of averaging a double-double – putting up 9.1 points, 11 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2.2 blocks per game, while shooting 55.9 percent from the field. Although there is still a lot of room for Gobert to improve – particularly on the offensive end of the court – his defensive accomplishments still make him a top-10 center in today’s NBA. As he continues to develop, he could continue to climb these rankings.
9. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks
It wasn’t long ago that Dwight Howard was the clear-cut No. 1 center in the NBA. He filled the stat sheet, led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, won three-straight Defensive Player of the Year awards and made five-straight All-NBA First Teams. Well, quite a bit has changed since then. Howard has seen a steady decline in production in recent years, but he’s hoping a change of scenery will allow him to return to form. In July, the big man decided to leave the Houston Rockets to sign a three-year, $70.5 million deal. Although Howard’s numbers aren’t what they used to be, he is still a top center in the league. Last year, he averaged 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 62 percent from the field. He had 38 double-doubles, which ranked 10th in the NBA. Always known for his defense, Howard also averaged 1.6 blocks and one steal for Houston last year. It’ll be very interesting to see how the Hawks and head coach Mike Budenholzer use Howard in Atlanta. If he can stay healthy, we could see some vintage Howard performances. A number of Hawks players have already said that they expect Howard to be the leader of this team, so don’t be surprised if this is a big bounce-back year for the 30-year-old.
10. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Steven Adams rounds out the top-10 list after a productive year that culminated in a strong postseason. Adams’ regular-season averages – eight points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game – may not jump off the page. But keep in mind that he was playing just 25.2 minutes a night and doing a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. With that said, if you look at the last two months of the season and the playoffs, Adams’ averages were up to 9.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. And in 18 playoff games, Adams averaged 10.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and .8 blocks, while shooting 61.3 percent from the field. With a 12-point, 17-rebound performance in a win against San Antonio during the second round of the playoffs, and a 16-point, 12-rebound outing in a win against Golden State during the Western Conference Finals, Adams showed he’s not afraid of the big stage. He was a big part of Oklahoma City’s success and made huge strides in his third season. Adams just turned 23 years old in late July, so his best basketball is almost certainly ahead of him. And with Serge Ibaka now in Orlando and Kevin Durant leaving for Golden State, expect Adams to become a bigger part of OKC’s attack.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.