Slightly less complicated than ranking the best centers in the NBA is determining who should and who shouldn’t be called a center.
In this faster, more fluid and more versatile NBA, where more coaches are using three-guard lineups and embracing “small ball,” players once pegged as power forwards are not only playing center, but they’re also admitting it. Yao Ming is out, Chris Bosh is in, and suddenly the stigma of the center as a lumbering behemoth quarantined to the low post is gone. Today’s centers – well, some of today’s centers – can run, jump, execute a crossover, stick a 20-foot jumper, and defend more than one position. They aren’t just the tallest of the tall basketball players. They’re athletes.
As part of Dime’s 2012-13 season preview we’ve gone position by position, giving you the best players at each spot leading up to opening night. Check the links below for the point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. Today, I’ll break down the top 20 centers in the league…
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20. ANDERSON VAREJAO, Cleveland Cavaliers
His shot is ugly. His stride is ugly. His hair is ugly. His I-didn’t-do-it face is ugly. But when I’m looking for my center to rebound, play defense, set screens, understand how to move without the ball, give hellacious effort every night, dive on the floor in an instant but stand his ground when it matters, I don’t need my center to be pretty. I need my center to be a guy like Varejao.
19. ANDREW BOGUT, Golden State Warriors
I do need my center to be on the court, though. I used to argue that Andrew Bynum wasn’t even the best center named “Andrew” in the 2005 Draft class, giving the nod to the routinely underrated Bogut, whose biggest flaw at the time was that he played in Milwaukee instead of Los Angeles. Thanks to Bynum’s vast improvement and Bogut’s collapsible body parts, that’s no longer the case. Since the beginning of the ’08-09 season, Bogut has played in just 58 percent of his teams’ regular-season games, missing 130 out of 312 games with various injuries.
18. BROOK LOPEZ, Brooklyn Nets
I also need my center to rebound. Among men who stand seven feet or taller, Lopez is one of the most talented scorers on the planet (19.2 ppg last season), but his mediocre defense and subpar rebounding drop him out of the top 10 on this list. After averaging more than eight boards a night in his first two years as a pro, Lopez grabbed only 5.9 per game in Year 3. Then in the handful of games he played last season between a broken foot and twisted ankle, Lopez gathered a paltry 3.6 boards. In theory, any basketball team has five players on the court perfectly capable of scoring 20 points a night. But only two are really in a realistic position to pull down 10 rebounds a night: the power forward and the center. So to me it’s less important that Lopez be a scorer and more important that he work the glass.
17. NIKOLA PEKOVIC, Minnesota Timberwolves
Meet the reason why, 1) Kevin Love will not lead the NBA in rebounding the next five years in a row, 2) Kevin Love can afford to roam around offensively and use his deadly three-point stroke to his advantage, and 3) Ricky Rubio will lead the league in assists someday. Pekovic is more of a throwback center, a 6-11, 290-pound grizzly bear with a soft touch around the basket. He finished third in the league in field goal percentage last season (.564) and first in offensive rebound percentage.
16. ANTHONY DAVIS, New Orleans Hornets
Why not rank the rookie this high this soon? Over the summer Davis held his own at the Olympics, and through six preseason games he’s averaging 13.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. Call them exhibition games if you want, but Davis has shown he can get it done against real-life NBA and top-level international competition. I think it’s safe to say the kid is going to be good.