By picking up Antawn Jamison at the trade deadline, the Cavs now have one of the most productive frontcourt trios in the NBA, with Shaq at center, Jamison at power forward, and LeBron at small forward. In fact, those three combined for 72 of Cleveland’s 95 points (75 percent) against Orlando on Sunday.
In football, they say the guys on the front line are the ones that determine championships. Basketball is a little different — especially as the game becomes more perimeter and dribble-drive oriented — but it’s no coincidence that the League’s elite teams always have an elite group of forwards and centers.
In ranking the NBA’s 10 best frontcourts, I went with the trio I felt works best for each team, whether they’re technically the starters or not. For example, while Kevin Love often comes off the bench for Minnesota, he’s obviously part of their best front line unit next to Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes. Here are the Top 10 (plus five):
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10. ATLANTA — Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams
General consensus is that the wrong guy got the All-Star nod this year, but Horford’s numbers (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg) actually aren’t that far off from Smith’s (15.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg). Most coaches would try to make Smith a three and Horford a four, but the undersized look works for Mike Woodson because Smith and Horford are athletic and tough enough to make it work. Williams’ game is down from last season despite being in a contract year.
9. SAN ANTONIO — Antonio McDyess, Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson
On paper, they should be higher on the strength of Duncan alone, but Jefferson (12.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg) has been such a disappointment in his first season with the Spurs that he hurts the cause. McDyess isn’t the bull in a china shop that DeJuan Blair is, but he’s more consistent and produces when he’s on the court in crunch time.
8. DALLAS — Erick Dampier, Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion
Five or six years ago they’d be in the top three. In fact, have you noticed that the Mavs’ roster looks like a 2004 All-Star ballot? Dirk, Kidd, Marion, Terry, Dampier … even Tim Thomas was dropping 14-15 points a night back then.
7. ORLANDO — Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis, Matt Barnes
Rashard is a matchup problem for a lot of power forwards with his range, and Barnes is like a poor man’s Marion with his defense and hustle. Dwight is good enough to handle the rebounding and protecting the rim alone, but it’d be nice if he had some help.
6. MEMPHIS — Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay
Gasol and Z-Bo might have a combined vertical of eight inches, but they’re fundamentally sound and display a good mix of craftiness and toughness. Rudy has taken the go-to guy crown back from O.J. Mayo and is going to get paid for it this summer.
5. BOSTON — Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce
Top-three on this list if KG could magically swap knees with a 24-year-old. Pierce is still one of the best in the business offensively, and Perk is one of the best at his position defensively.
4. UTAH — Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap, Andrei Kirilenko
Mehmet Okur adds another element with his outside shooting, but I like the Boozer/Millsap duo better because of Millsap’s rebounding and athleticism. Kirilenko has been a beast lately; in February he’s been averaging 2.8 steals, 14.2 points, 1.8 blocks and shooting 60 percent from the floor.
3. CLEVELAND — Shaquille O’Neal, Antawn Jamison, LeBron James
Whether you believe the Cavs are just limiting Shaq until the playoffs or you believe he’s simply washed-up, bottom line is that Shaq isn’t the Cloverfield monster he used to be. That said, he still commands a double-team when he’s on the court and is a good enough passer to make teams pay for leaving the wrong guy open. Honestly, though? You could put Darko and Brian Cardinal on the front line next to LeBron and he’d make them Top-10.
2. DENVER — Nene, Kenyon Martin, Carmelo Anthony
Last season, the Nene-Martin-Birdman trio was just as instrumental in the Nuggets’ postseason success as Billups’ influence and Carmelo’s improvement. Birdman has been down this year, but K-Mart has stepped his game up enough to compensate. The early-season MVP hype around ‘Melo had all but vanished by All-Star break, but his 40-point effort against the Cavs last week reminded everybody that he’s still one of the five or six best players in the world today.
1. L.A. LAKERS — Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest
Every time you watch the Lakers on League Pass with the opponent’s announcer crew, you’re going to hear about how Team X is having problems with L.A.’s height and length. Giving L.A. the No. 1 spot here was easy — the toughest part was figuring out which trio represents their best front line. Gasol and Artest (the only true SF) have to be there, so it really comes down to whether you like Andrew Bynum or Odom better. The Bynum-Gasol-Artest unit gets the most court time together and is the best group defensively; but Odom’s versatility when he’s on the floor makes the Lakers’ frontcourt more dangerous offensively. In the end, what swung it for me was that when it really mattered, Odom and Gasol were the 4-5 tandem closing the deal and winning the championship in ’09, while Bynum was mostly quiet in the postseason.