Centers are less prominent than they’ve ever been in the NBA. Why? Plausible reasons abound. Teams run more now, which means that, to be an effective big on most teams, you need to be able to move, not just get in the way. Since the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the paint has gotten bigger and the shot clock has made it more costly to spend time working the ball into the post. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook is apparently too difficult to emulate, or (more likely) just not cool enough. And some people, including former centers themselves, think that the earlier age of entry into the NBA has meant less time for bigs to learn the skills of their position, which has perhaps contributed to a tendency to give up prematurely on big men at the top level.
The rarity of the quality “true center” has made men who might be projected to that position some of the most coveted assets in the league. That’s why Dwight Howard gets away with his antics, even though he’s no Shaq (career .208 win shares per 48 minutes) or David Robinson (.250), to cite two numbers higher than his .187 — he’s the best we have right now. It’s looking increasingly likely that Howard’s headed to Brooklyn, and if he does, it’ll be for a package built around the Nets’ center, Brook Lopez, that includes miscellaneous players and almost a handful of first-round picks.
In seven seasons with the Magic, Dwight has averaged 18.4 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks, alongside a 22.5 PER and 21.0 rebound percentage. Comparatively, in four seasons, Lopez has averaged 17.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks, with a 19.2 PER and 12.9 rebound percentage. The only area in which Lopez outdoes Howard is at the free-throw line. The Magic haven’t gotten a center of equal footing for him; what’s clear after looking further is that they didn’t even come close. Below, I compiled the stats for the 20 top centers in the league in a few categories: points per game, rebounds per game, blocks per game, total rebound percentage, blocks percentage, true shooting percentage, Player Efficiency Rating, and defensive rating. I only included players who spend the majority of their time at the 5 (so no Kevin Love and Kevin Garnett), and I left off a few guys with potential, including Anthony Davis (no pro stats) and Nikola Pekovic.
For Okafor, Bogut, Nene, Horford, Lopez, and Bargnani, I used 2010-11 stats, because their seasons last year were basically nonexistent. This also shows another reality about centers that contributes to their weakness as assets — they’re not really built in a natural human way, and keeping them healthy is murder.
Anyway, if you were to assign a point scale for each category — 1-20 based on where each center ranks — the order would look something like this.
1. Dwight Howard: 26
2. Andrew Bynum: 34
3. Andrew Bogut: 66
4. JaVale McGee: 66
5. Joakim Noah: 71
6. Tim Duncan: 74
7. Marcin Gortat: 80
8. Al Jefferson: 83
9. Greg Monroe: 85
10. DeMarcus Cousins: 86
11. Tyson Chandler: 86
12. DeAndre Jordan: 87
13. Roy Hibbert: 88
14. Emeka Okafor: 89
15. Marc Gasol: 92
16. Samuel Dalembert: 93
17. Al Horford: 103
18. Nene: 109
19. Brook Lopez: 113
20. Andrea Bargnani: 136
The centers were rated on a mix of efficiency and aggregate categories, which explains why, say, Tim Duncan rated so high, even though he isn’t putting up huge totals anymore; he’s still remarkably efficient. And I placed a stronger emphasis on defense than offense with the choice of categories. (Also, I left out certain skills, like passing, that distinguish other centers. This is meant to be a rough guide, not an authoritative list.)
But there are two major takeaways from the rankings. One is that Brook Lopez is a terrible replacement for Dwight Howard; he, Horford, Nene, and Bargnani rank so low on this list partly because of the fact that they are far better offensive players than defensive players, and come from offensively focused systems. Statistically, Lopez barely even looks like a center. Like Bargnani, he’s just a tall guy who wouldn’t fit at any other position; if you stacked his game up against the classic space-eaters of past days, or against Howard and Bynum, for that matter, you’d see very few similarities.
And this leads to the second takeaway: Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum are in a class of their own. They’re complete centers, able to score, rebound, and block shots both efficiently and in high numbers. Beyond them, the rest of the league’s upper echelon of centers tend to shine in one way or another, but not in all aspects of the game. The difference between Bynum and the next closest player, Bogut — who, when he’s healthy, is a hell of a player; it’s just that he’s rarely healthy — is 32 points; 32 points away from Bogut in the other direction lands you between #16 Samuel Dalembert and #17 Al Horford.
Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom that you can’t win a championship without a dominant center has started to see cracks. Three of the four Finals teams this year lacked centers, including eventual champions Miami, West finalists Oklahoma City — their platoon of Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, with Serge Ibaka occasionally sliding into the 5 spot, is about as far away from “dominant” as you can get — and the Boston Celtics, who let Kevin Garnett, a face-up player, work at center for much of the playoffs.
In other words, what Orlando might’ve been better off doing would have been trading for the best player they could get, regardless of his position, and throwing any random guy into the middle. Because you might be able to win without a traditional center in the middle, but you can’t win with Brook Lopez as your best player.