The NBA was once dominated by the center position. Even though the league is now controlled by ball handling guards and the three-point line, the center position is still key within the NBA. Controlling the glass and being the anchor to a defense. This was not an easy list to make, there are a number of good centers in this league. Due to the fact that this list will comprise of the best players for the upcoming season some names may be excluded. It is tough to put a player like Marc Gasol on here when he is coming back from such a devastating injury. So, here are the top five centers going into the 2016-2017 season.
Top Five Centers in the NBA for 2016-17
Offensively, DeMarcus Cousins is head and shoulders better than every other center in the NBA. At 6’11 and 270 lbs he is one of the biggest and strongest men in the entire league. His rare combination of size and skill make him an unstoppable force. It is hard to argue that Cousins is not the best center in the NBA when he averaged 27 points per game and 12 rebounds on an abysmal Sacramento Kings team. Cousins is very capable on the block, bullying smaller defenders to push his way to the rim where he has one of the best touches in the NBA. His immense strength led to 63 and-1 opportunities. Within 3-feet Cousins shoots about 60%, this despite most of his attempts are below the rim finger rolls.
Cousins took another step forward in improving his 3-point percentage to 33%. Cousins became a legitimate threat from beyond the arc, particularly in catch and shoot situations from the elbow where he shot 36%. This has allowed him to utilize pump fakes and attack defenders who are now forced to close-out and respect his shooting. His guard-like ball handling and passing cause havoc on defences after he blows by his original defender. Despite his sub-par efficiency which can be attributed to him being on a horrendous team, Cousins is easily the best center in the NBA.
History will remember the 2015-16 season as Andre Drummond’s first All-Star appearance. The 6’11″, 280 lbs Detroit Pistons center is easily the best center under 25 years old in the NBA. One could easily make the argument that Drummond is already the best interior defender in the league. The 22 year old is a rock in the paint, using his quick jumping ability to disrupt anyone trying to score in the paint. In an age where centers are valued for their defence and rebounding above all else, it is easy to see why Drummond is probably going to be the third best center in the league next season. DeAndre Jordan was the center selected onto the All-NBA First Defensive team, but it could be argued that Drummond deserved that honour.
Drummond’s usage percentages on defense are staggering; averaging 55% of his team’s total blocks and contesting 29%, about 13 a game. Jordan averages about the same amount of his teams blocking percentage, but his shot contesting pales in comparison at only 6 a game. While blocked shots are a key part of rim protection, it is much more important to look at shots contested. Drummond quite simply forces opponents to miss shots much more frequently than DeAndre Jordan.
Rebounding wise, Drummond is also at the top of the NBA among centers. Drummond was the NBA’s leading rebounder, gobbling up nearly 15 rebounds per game. What is most impressive about this stat is his ability to rebound in traffic. Of the top five rebounders per game last year only Hassan Whiteside’s contested rebounding percentage matched the Pistons center. However Drummond averaged 3 more rebounds per game, making his percentage that much more impressive. Not only were his contested rebounding percentages the best of any of the top five rebounders in the NBA, but so were his offensive rebounding numbers. Drummond averaged more offensive rebounds than Jordan, Whiteside, Howard and Cousins, all considered top tier rebounders. Simply put, Drummond is the best rebounding and interior defensive center in the NBA. If only he could improve his free throw shooting he could challenge Cousins for top spot on this list.
3) Al Horford
Perhaps the most underrated player in the NBA, Al Horford will be a player to watch as he joins a now impressive Boston Celtics team. Easily the most well-rounded player on this list, Horford is an elite offensive and defensive center. His efficiency is off the charts. Averaging 15 points per game on 51% shooting. This despite his usage rate is only at 20%; paltry compared to the 38% usage rate of DeMarcus Cousins. Although his efficiency is impressive, what should stand out most is how underrated Horford is as a defender and rim protector.
DeAndre Jordan is considered by most as the standard for defensive centers in the modern NBA; it would surprise most to know that Horford is just as good as at protecting the rim. Deandre Jordan possess’ a 13.2% block attempt percentage per game, this means that Jordan contests 13.2% of shots while on the floor. Al Horford’s BLKA% is at 13.0%. This clearly shows that Horford can be an elite interior defender, contesting the same amount of shots as DeAndre Jordan.
The NBA is a league that lives, eats and breathes the pick and roll; and Horford is the perfect pick and roll big man. Horford sets tremendous screens, obliterating opposing guards, giving his ball handler plenty of space to operate. He is then an excellent roll man, intelligent enough to time his rolls to perfection. Once the pass is delivered, there are few better than Horford at finishing around the rim, shooting an astounding 75% from within 3-feet. Horford is just as deadly when popping just within the 3-point line as he is as a roll man. Horford shoots 50% on jumpers from 16-feet out to 22-feet. Simply put he is an elite offensive weapon. Imagine the havoc Boston will create with Isaiah Thomas as the primary ball handler in pick and roll situations with Horford.
4) DeAndre Jordan
DeAndre Jordan is one of the more polarizing players in the NBA. There will certainly be the extreme fans that will claim Jordan should be number one on this list; sourcing his All-NBA First Team selection. Yet, after examining his numbers, his stats simply do not put him at the level of the three players above him.
The first issue with Jordan is his offensive game, it is hard to call a player the best center in the league when he only averaged 12 points per game. This would have to mean that his defensive and rebounding statistics would have to be the highest in the NBA to even contend for that first spot. As we have already established, Andre Drummond’s rebounding and defensive stats are far superior to those of DeAndre Jordan. This is not to say that DeAndre Jordan is not an outstanding player and most likely an all-star. It just means that sometimes media members, especially social media, hype players that make highlight reel plays.
Still, being the fourth best player at your position is not something to laugh about. He is still an elite basketball player. Any player that averages 13.7 rebounds per game is a man on the glass. Ask any coach, a defensive possession is not done until the team has secured the defensive rebound. This is something that nobody in the NBA does at a higher rate than DeAndre Jordan at over 10 a game.
Jordan is also an elite shot blocker, using his incredible length and otherworldly leaping ability to smother attacking players. The fact that he has 60% of his teams blocks (2.3 per game) is insane, especially considering his %BLKA is only at 13%. This shows his efficiency when he does contest shots. While the actual blocking of a shot is sometimes overrated; it does cause a psychological effect on the opposing team. Players will often rush shots they otherwise would not when Jordan is on the floor, showing his effect even when he does not contest.
The fifth spot is always going to be the most difficult and generally very controversial whenever making a list like this. There are a lot of deserving players like Nikola Vucevic and Marc Gasol. Yet if we’re looking at a player who could and should be pushing for an All-Star spot next season its Jonas Valanciunas.
Valanciunas averaged 13 points and 9.1 rebounds on 57% shooting in the 2015-2016 season. Valanciunas is a new age offensive big man in a traditional big man’s body. A breezy 7-feet-tall and 250 pounds with a 7’6 wingspan, Jonas is one of the biggest players in the NBA. He uses his brute strength to devastating effect in the post, bullying defenders to get to the rim where he displays an impressively soft touch.
Valanciunas has also become incredibly adept in the screen and roll. Using his massive frame, Valanciunas frequently rubs out defenders allowing guards like Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph to penetrate into the center of the defence. As a scorer in the pick and roll he is incredibly effective diving to the rim. Valanciunas times his rolls to perfection and finishing through or contact. Recently he has shown an impressive midrange shot, shooting 60% on his catch and shoot attempts.
The young Lithuanian demonstrated just how dominant he can be in the playoffs last season. Although this was a small sample size, his skillset and energy screams All-Star. Against the Miami Heat in the second round, Valanciunas absolutely dominated the so-called “elite center” Hassan Whiteside. In the three games before his injury Valanciunas averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds. Yes the sample size was small, but that’s the sort of talent Valanciunas possesses. Given the loss of backup center Bismack Biyombo, Valanciunas will most likely have a dramatic uptick in playing minutes. With unproven Lucas Nogueira and rookie Jakob Poeltl, there is not a ton of depth at the center position. If he can stay healthy, something he has not yet done in his career, he will be a potential All-Star.
Honourable mentions: Marc Gasol, Karl Anthony-Towns, Dwight Howard, Nikola Vucevic
Main Photo: NEW YORK, NY – DECEMBER 21: Andre Drummond of Detroit Pistons looks on during NBA basketball game between Brooklyn Nets and Detroit Pistons at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City, on December 21, 2014.
(Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)