By: Tommy Beer
There was a time, not too long ago, when the NBA paint was a far scarier place. There was a time when All-NBA First and Second teams were populated by names like Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, and O'Neal. Nowadays, with Shaq on his last legs, guys like The Dream and Diesel are dinosaurs. Nonetheless, there are some talented young bigs out there that are trying to revolutionize the game in their own unique way.
One of the tricky aspects of putting a list like this together is debating which players qualify as "centers" and which players are classified as "power forwards." So, for purposes of classification, let's go with the NBA league headquarters' decision. When they create All-Star ballots and mail-out All-NBA Team voting slips, they list certain players at certain positions. Technically, they attempt to list each player at the position they regularly play. For instance, although Timmy Duncan is a back-to-the-basket seven-footer, he is officially listed as a forward; whereas Amare Stoudemire has been listed as a center. So, instead of wasting time debating taxonomy, let's go with the NBA's official categorization and move on from there…
Also, for ranking purposes, I am determining this list by asking myself the following question, "If I were an NBA GM and I could choose any center in the NBA to build my team around this season, whom would I choose and in what order?"
With that preamble out of the way, let the debate begin:
1. Dwight Howard – Orlando Magic: Simply stated, D Howard is the most dominant, impressive, physically-freakish center to come into the league since Shaq. The numbers Howard posted last season, at the tender age of 22, are simply astonishing. He averaged 20.7 points per game (while shooting 60% from the floor), a league-leading 14.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. He recorded an NBA-high 69 double-doubles, including eight 20-20 games. As a point of comparison, Shaq never averaged 14 boards a contest in a given season. In fact, since 1980, there have been only three other players in the NBA to have averaged over 14 rebounds and 20 PPG in the same season: Charles Barkley, Moses Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Howard isn't nicknamed Superman just because he put on a costume in the Dunk Contest last year; he just happens to be that good. Actually, the scary part is that Howard may just be Superboy at this stage of his development. What kind of numbers will be put up when he develops a full complement of dependable low-post moves? Or if he ever starts making free-throws? He has improved exponentially every year he has been in the league; what level will he ascend to in 2008-2009? One last note on Howard, he has never missed a game in his four-year NBA career (continuing on the superhero theme – should we also call him Ironman?). When choosing between players to build your franchise around, durability is obviously a major concern. Thus, the combination of sheer athletic ability, proven production, talent, and toughness makes Dwight Howard the clear choice.
2. Amare Stoudemire – Phoenix Suns: Amare is the highest scoring center in the league and is coming off an extraordinary season, arguably the best all-around campaign of his career - proving that STAT is all the way back. He finished fifth in the league in scoring (25.2 PPG), and of the top 18 scorers in the league, he was the only player to shoot above 50% from the floor. (He ended the season shooting an astonishing 59%) Yes, playing with Steve Nash in Phoenix's up-tempo offensive system likely inflates his impressive statistics, but if you stuck Amare at center (he will play a lot of PF with Shaq in town now) in any NBA city, he would be a beast.
3. Yao Ming – Houston Rockets: When he is healthy and playing at his best, Yao is as good as any big man in the League. The problem for Yao has been staying on the floor. He once again missed a healthy chunk of the 2007-2008 season, marking the third consecutive campaign in which Yao has missed at least 25 games. He is now averaging just 53 games played per season since 2005. Again, when feels good and is on his game, he is incredibly efficient (over 50% from the floor and 85%) and undeniably effective (a consistent 20/10 guy). But Yao's propensity for injuries is one of the main reasons why he finds himself at #3 on this list.
Next Tier –
4. Pau Gasol – Los Angeles Lakers: After the top three centers listed above, there is a steep drop-off. The steady Gasol checks in at number four. Pau will likely play more power forward with Bynum in the Lakers lineup, but he did a solid job manning the middle for LA last season. With career averages of 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, and over 3 assists, Gasol doesn't typically dominate, but he is multitalented and remarkably consistent.
5. Marcus Camby – Los Angeles Clippers: Camby won't score much, but he definitely patrols the paint, cleans the backboards, and protects the basket. Camby, fresh off winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2006-2007, produced a statically startling '07-'08 campaign. He averaged over 13 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 1.1 steals, and even dished out a 3.3 assists per game for good measure.
6. Al Jefferson – Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesotans are still getting over the loss of Kevin Garnett, but having Al Jefferson locked-up long term has to soften the blow a great deal. T-Wolves fans were excited about Jefferson heading into last season, but even the most ardent optimist had to have been pleasantly surprised with just how well Big Al played. In fact, he was the only player in the entire league last season to average over 21 points and 11 rebounds per game. Moreover, he was also one of only three players in the Association to average over 21 PPG and shot at least 50% from the floor (Carlos Boozer and Amare were the other two.) Already one of the best bigs in the business, Jefferson, at just 23 years of age, has the potential to be a special, special player. If we recreate this list next summer, Big Al will likely rank much higher.
Emeka Okafor - Charlotte Bobcats: Taken just after Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft, Okafor has been solid, if unspectacular, through his first four years in the league. Emeka has dealt with the injury bug and has seen his scoring hover below 14 PPG since scoring over 15 points his rookie season. But last year, Okafor played in all 82 games and this summer was rewarded with an enormous contract extension. The potential to be a dominant center is there, we shall see if Emeka takes that next step.
Chris Kaman – LA Clippers: With Elton Brand sidelined last season, Kaman put the Clips on his back and came out of the blocks on fire. His pre-All-Star break numbers were just ridiculous - 16.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 3 blocks. However, Kaman succumbed to injury and only played in 11 games over the second half of the season. With Marcus Camby by his side in '08-'09, Kaman will look to prove his production last season wasn't a fluke.
Tyson Chandler – New Orleans Hornets: After the Chicago Bulls basically gave up on him and essentially sold him to the Hornets, Chandler has experienced a career resurgence running alongside Chris Paul in New Orleans. Last season, Tyson was one of just four players in the NBA to average over 11 points and 11 boards. He also shot 62.3% from the floor, second only to Andris Biedrins.
Andrew Bynum – LA Lakers: Giving Bynum an honorable mention nod is a speculative selection, as we don't know if a healthy AB shows up this season. However, over the first few months of the '07-'08 season, Bynum's emergence, and at times dominance, was startling. He averaged nearly 15 points and 11 rebounds (while shooting 65.6% from the floor and blocking 2.3 shots per contest) in the 25 games he started prior to injuring his left knee in January. Any time a 20-year-old center can post those kinds of numbers, the league will take notice. Lakers fans are hoping Bynum is the real deal and from the looks of it, he has spent his time off in the weight room…Rasheed Wallace – Detroit Pistons: One of the most underrated players in the NBA, Wallace's versatility from the center position is remarkable. Yes, 'Sheed racks up plenty of technicals, but he also stuffs the stat sheet. Last season Wallace was one of just four players in the NBA to average at least 1 steal, 1 block, and 1 three-pointer made per game – the other four were LeBron James, Danny Granger, Shane Battier, and Rudy Gay.