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.
NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles
Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.
Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.
That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.
Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.
All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.
Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.
The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.
“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”
The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.
Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.
Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.
Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.
After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.
By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.
Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.
“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”
Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.
For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.
While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.
“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”
Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.
From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.
With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.
Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench
David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.
The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.
He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.
“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”
Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.
The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.
Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.
“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”
For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.
In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.
“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”
In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.
“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”
At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).
It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.