Once the premier position in the NBA, the center has fallen victim to the league’s shift toward small-ball and 3-point shooting in recent years. Rule changes in the mid-2000s also took much of the physicality out of the game, and that, coupled with the removal of illegal defense, has made it much more difficult for big men to dominate.
Today’s bigs are asked less to score in the post and more to rebound, protect the rim, not be a liability when switched onto a perimeter player and hit jumpers when called upon. There are still some traditional bigs in the league, but unless they’re in the top-tier of centers today, these players are often used situationally rather than as go-to guys.
The prominence of fouls calls also makes it hard for big men to play significant minutes. You’ll rarely see a center play over 30 minutes per game, especially when playing smaller, more fast-paced teams with guards and forward adept at drawing fouls.
Still, let’s look at the top-25 centers in the league today ranging from role players to superstars. If a seemingly obvious player is not on this list, that likely means basketball-reference lists him at a different position.
Tier 5: Role Player
Thomas Bryant, Wendell Carter Jr., Dwight Howard, Mitchell Robinson, Tristan Thompson, Ivica Zubac
Many worthy centers fit into this tier, but these seven are the best role-playing centers in the league today.
Zubac, Carter Jr. and Bryant are young and showed improvement this season, but as of right now, they have a lot to work on both defensively and diversifying their offensive skills. Robinson is even younger and already a great rebounder and defender, but he’s just a dunker on offense. Developing more skills should allow him to earn more than the 23.1 minutes per game he got on the lowly Knicks this year.
Howard and Thompson are the veterans on this list. Thompson is a walking double-double these days and still one of the league’s best offensive rebounders, but it’s unclear what the future holds for him as he enters free agency. Howard probably wouldn’t have made this list before the bubble, and his numbers don’t do him any favors, but it’s clear that he’s reinvented himself this season to be an extremely valuable role player on a championship-caliber team. His energy on defense and the boards is unmatched, yet he can’t play extensive minutes because he always gets into foul trouble.
Tier 4: Solid
Steven Adams, Jarrett Allen, Serge Ibaka, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, Hassan Whiteside
The “solid” tier represents players who’ve proven to be valuable starters for several years. They’ve all accumulated good statistics and are strong two-way players in addition to being capable of playing alongside great teammates.
Adams, Ibaka, Lopez, Turner and Allen have been significant contributors on playoffs teams. They either do the dirty work and/or stretch the floor, which helps them remain on the court even when playing small-ball teams. The issue is that most of them probably earn more money than they’re worth, which can make it hard for their teams to sign other role players who could elevate their teams to the next level.
Whiteside is the worst of this bunch. He’s tallied good numbers throughout his career, but they’re often hollow as he’s a poor pick-and-roll defender. Yes, he’s one of the league’s best shot-blockers by the raw numbers, but those numbers are mostly hollow since he often lets opponents blow by him if he isn’t able to block the shot. He did, however, improve in this regard while playing in Portland this season.
Tier 3: Good
Deandre Ayton, Clint Capela, Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jusuf Nurkic, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic
Tier 3 is home to centers who are mostly second or third options on their teams. Many can score, rebound and defend at a pretty high level, although consistency is an issue at times.
Ayton and Jackson Jr. are still really young and have plenty of time to develop into stars in the future, but for now they don’t bring that level of play on a nightly basis. Ayton is still learning how to play good NBA defense at the center spot, while Jackson Jr. needs to significantly improve his strength and overall rebound ability.
Capela, Nurkic, Drummond, Valanciunas and Vucevic have all played on solid teams in the past and been a big part of those squads, yet there appears to be something missing. Maybe their rosters have simply lacked sufficient talents, but all of them seem to be players who are good in their own right yet lack the well-rounded skills to compete at the highest levels. Perhaps some of them will land in spots where they’ll take a backseat to other, more talented perimeter players and play an important role as Marc Gasol did on the 2019 Raptors. A veteran big with that kind of skill set is what many contending teams are looking for.
Harrell, the newly-crowned Sixth Man of the Year, had a terrific season for the Clippers in 2019-2020. Although his play in the bubble was mostly sub-par, he’ll surely sign a big deal this offseason. His defense and rebounding, however, still need improvement, and it’s unclear if he’s truly a player a team can win in the playoffs with as a starter.
Tier 2: Star
Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Bam Adebayo
This is where the center position gets thin. Top-tier centers in today’s game are scarce, but Gobert and Towns are two of the best in the modern NBA.
Gobert is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a three-time All-NBA selection. His length and athleticism allow him to guard pick-and-rolls and rebound effectively, as well as score buckets off of putbacks and lobs. He struggles to score in the post and catch passes and finish at the rim as a roller, but he showed improvement in those areas in the bubble. If the Jazz can find a sufficient third star to pair with him and Donovan Mitchell, Gobert’s impact should be that much more valuable as he’ll be required to do less on offense and focus on his strengths.
Towns has yet to play on a great team, and his toughness has come into question repeatedly, yet he’s arguably the best 3-point shooting center in NBA history already. He hit 41.2% of his triples on 7.9 attempts per game this season, an elite mark that allowed him to score a career-high 26.5 points per game. Towns is also a great rebounder on both ends, although his defense still leaves a lot to be desired. The Timberwolves, now having D’Angelo Russell and the 2020 No.1 overall pick, have a bright future ahead of them, so hopefully Towns shows the full extent of his talents in the years to come.
Adebayo has proven to be a star in these bubble playoffs and has been arguably Miami’s second most important player behind Jimmy Butler. He averaged 21.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5.2 assists while playing superb defense in the series against Boston, showcasing his elite athleticism and continually-improving playmaking abilities. His shooting is still suspect at times, as his consistency, but Adebayo looks poised for a long and successful NBA career.
Tier 1: Superstar
Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic
Jokic and Embiid are head and shoulders above the rest of the centers in the NBA today. Both are capable of being the best player on the floor on a given night and have carried their teams to the playoffs multiple times.
Jokic proved in the 2020 playoffs to be the superior of the two players. He’s arguably the greatest passing center ever and continues to improve his scoring and rebounding abilities. Jokic abused the more talented Clippers and led the Nuggets to back-to-back 3-1 series comebacks, a feat never done in the league before. If he can become even an average defender and rim protector, Denver should be a perennial title contender.
Embiid is one of the best defenders and post-scorers in the league, but his focus, leadership and desire came into question this past season. He regressed in almost every way except his passing and shooting this year, and the 76ers fell short of expectations as a result. Playing alongside Al Horford hurt Embiid’s production and the team’s overall spacing, but the big fella also didn’t do himself any favors by often appearing moody and frustrated throughout the year. Hopefully, the new Philadelphia head coach Doc Rivers can help bring the best out of him and Ben Simmons to maximize the team’s plentiful potential.
Although these two are among the league’s best players, it’s odd that they’ve both struggled to stay in shape. Jokic and Embiid both came into the 2019-2020 season looking overweight and winded on the court, and it took until the end of the season for both of them to reach their peak form. A franchise’s best player should always be in the top physical condition and set an example for their teammates, but these two have yet to do so. If they can be more disciplined in their workouts and develop their leadership skills, these two giants should remain at the top of this list for a long time.