Hashtag Basketball 5x5: Best Centers in the NBA

Part five of our five-part series on ranking the five best players at every position in the NBA. Today we showcase the NBA's top-5 centers.

Here we are. It's part five of a five-part series, and the tension is high. With only centers remaining (see here for power forwards, small forwards, shooting guards, and point guards), there are still a few big names who haven't been discussed. Is it because they've changed positions, unbeknownst to us? Is it because they're battling injuries and can't be trusted until they return? Or is it because they're dead to us after posting something sexist on Instagram?

Whatever the case may be, you're about to find out who the top-5 centers are in the NBA, as of the weekend before the regular season starts. Which reminds us (us = Jeremy Stevens and Kevin Nye), the regular season is about to start. If you're looking for fantasy basketball advice, head over to Hashtag Basketball's fantasy section, which has a ton of tools and info for your disposal, including a list of 100+ ridiculous team names that are puns off current NBA players. If that isn't the type of content you're looking for, maybe just throw your laptop/phone/tablet (we're mobile-friendly!) in a river.

Now, let's get to it. Today we present the Hashtag Basketball 5x5: the best centers in the NBA. As we've done all week, we'll count down from #5 to #1, with notes on the rankings after we reveal the winner.

5) Karl-Anthony Towns

What an enigma. Towns has borderline unparalleled skill, but only reaches the fifth spot on this list. How? Why? He is not yet 23-years-old and has already scored well over 5,000 career points. He ranked in the 98th percentile in offensive scoring efficiency on Synergy last season. He's 7-feet tall and shot 42% on three-pointers. He will almost certainly be an MVP candidate in the next few years.

But here's the thing: KAT has a reputation as being a talented defender, but also a defender who doesn't actually try. His rep says he doesn't have much of a work ethic. And when Jimmy Butler shows up at practice after a trade demand and reportedly calls you out and dominates you, you can't be the top dog at your position. You just can't. You have to at least fight back.

This admittedly isn't entirely fair, as Towns is very possibly more talented than at least one of the guys in front of him, but trust and motivation are part of being a superstar in the NBA. There's a very serious risk that giving this 22-year-old a $190 million contract has stunted him. It would stunt any of us basketball writers, that's for sure. On talent alone, he should be #2 or #3 here, but this Jimmy Butler saga has really put a hurting on KAT.

Here's hoping that he comes out swinging this season (metaphorically, unless it's after Butler challenges him again...although I'm taking Jimmy 10 times out of 10 in that altercation) and makes us look like idiots.

4) Nikola Jokic

One of the things that makes Nikola Jokic so great is that we, the basketball nerd hive, agree that he's great. Jokic is less than a year older than Towns and graded out worse than Towns on both sides of the ball season, per Synergy, but Jokic has something that Towns absolutely does not: Flair. If you throw backward-overhead passes on more than one occasion and everyone agrees that it's just something you can do - and is NOT just a dumb stunt - your position ranking trends upward.

Not that Towns isn't one of these, but Jokic is something of an advanced-stats darling. The prophecy foretold...and Jokic chose the stat-heads, or maybe the other way around. It hardly matters.

What matters is that among high-usage players - those with 1000 possessions + assists last season - Jokic ranked 19th out of 124 players at 1.36 points per possession + assist. Among the 18 who bested him in this area are names like LeBron James, Chris Paul, James Harden, Ben Simmons, and Ish Smith (seriously). The only bigs better than Jokic were Al Horford and Draymond Green. The Nuggets are a fine team, and they'll probably make the playoffs this year on Jokic's shoulders, but imagine if he were passing the ball to the Celtics or Warriors like Horford and Green were. He would have been all-NBA with ease.

When he's not making incredible passes (to the tune of almost seven assists per 36 minutes), Jokic is also shooting just a hair under 40% on three-pointers and being the unquestioned focal point of his team's offense. That added pressure, plus the fact that he manages to do all of this while only dunking eight times last season, is enough to have him a spot above KAT in this ranking. But he's not touching these other three.

3) Rudy Gobert

Rudy Gobert is unquestionably one of the best defensive players and the biggest defensive presences in the NBA. Despite only playing in 56 games, he was last season's Defensive Player of the Year. For four straight seasons, the Utah Jazz have had a defensive rating of under 100 when Gobert is on the floor - for those unfamiliar, anything under about 105 is very good. Somehow, what's more impressive is that Rudy Gobert is becoming a decent offensive player as well. 

Synergy's points per possession stats are not the gold standard, but they help give us an idea about what a player can and cannot do well. For example, Rudy Gobert ranked in the 93rd percentile of all players last season when it came to offensive PPP. That's excellent and suggests that he's really coming into his own on that side of the ball. However, it fails to take into consideration that the overwhelming majority of his scoring opportunities are on dives to the basket or put-backs. Of the 625 half-court possessions which ended in his hands, only 50-75 were plays where he had to make something happen on his own. The point is that he's incredibly limited offensively. Even when he's making smart moves off the ball, he has a frustrating habit of letting passes slip through his hands. However, he's over 7-feet tall with arms roughly the length of an airplane, and the continuity of his tenure in Utah is breeding some high-level team chemistry. Simply put, coach Quin Snyder knows how to use Rudy Gobert, and Rudy Gobert knows how to stick to what he's good at.

The game warps around Gobert when he's on the court, and you can't say that about many other centers. In the same way that a lights-out shooter influences the defense simply by existing, Gobert forces the opposing offense to play around him at all times. On countless occasions you'll see a player force an awkward floater because they thought there was a lane to the basket, just to change plans when they see Gobert within a country mile of their body. Those don't show up on a stat sheet, but they're another credit to how good Rudy Gobert is.

2) Joel Embiid

The hardest decision in this top-5 was actually not KAT vs. Jokic, it was Embiid vs. Gobert. Here's why:

Joel Embiid, by various estimates, has played fewer than 200 organized basketball games in his life. Despite that, he made an all-NBA team, all-star game, and all-defensive team last season. He's shaken dudes and shot jumpers over them. He's dunked on guys. He's finger-wagged after blocking shots. He's hit fadeaways. He's made an occasional three-pointer. He's become the league's leading Twitter/Instagram troll. And through it all, he's been the face of the new Sixers.

While Embiid is a bit of a potential-play in the #2 spot here - again, fewer than 200 basketball games - there's no denying that all the tools are already there. He needs to turn the ball over less and he needs to focus on doing what he does best instead of jacking up three-pointers at a 31% clip, but 27 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocks per 36 minutes last season? Come on. And he has so room to improve.

Gobert has the advantage of utilization, and he's had a very clear role on his team where Embiid has occasionally had to (try to) do it all himself. Now that Ben Simmons is consistently around to take care of the ball, Embiid can hang out down low, beat 95% of the league in post-ups, or pass out of double-teams to any number of solid players around him. The 76ers are scary this season, and a full-power Joel Embiid is a DPoY and dark-horse MVP candidate. If he and Gobert switched places, the Jazz might be a game or two better while the Sixers would probably struggle enough on offense to give Embiid the edge in this ranking.

1) Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis mostly played power forward last season, and we had a serious debate about whether he would rank above Kevin Durant in that category. However, founder and Editor Emeritus, Joeseph Mamone, informed us that all of his projections and research have Davis playing center this season. A sigh of relief followed because it allowed us to place Davis #1 at his respective position, as he's too good to rank #2.

Anyway, 99% of the people reading this know that Anthony Davis is a superstar. There was a stretch last season where he was the best player in the league. Period. Here's a quick rundown of some relevant Anthony Davis information from last season.

  • Led the league in blocked shots/blocks per game
  • Averaged 28 points and 11 rebounds per game
  • Dealt with a disjointed offense featuring a 2nd big man/superstar, then dealt with a disjointed offense after a major injury to that same superstar
  • Dunked the ball 211 times
  • Averaged 33 points, 12 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks per game in a first-round sweep of the Portland Trailblazers
  • Averaged 28 points and 15 rebounds in a five-game series loss to the Warriors, despite being the singular focus of the Warriors' defense
  • Made 40% of his corner threes and 34% of three-pointers overall
  • Finished his 6th season in the NBA shortly after turning 25-years-old

There's a lot more to say about Anthony Davis, but let's think about that last piece. He's only 25-years-old. 25. Twenty-five. Remember how much better guys like Stephen Curry and James Harden got in their late-20s? Davis still has 2-3 years before he gets there. Granted, his health will be a question mark forever, but this guy is as much a freak as anyone in the league. He's the best center in the business.

Until he gets traded to Golden State next summer and plays power forward between Durant and Cousins.

Notes about the list

DeMarcus Cousins would make this list a lot more difficult to rank if he weren't coming back from a torn Achilles tendon. Kristaps Porzingis is officially a power forward but falls into the same category either way. Andre Drummond, Myles Turner, and DeAndre Jordan are all nice, flawed players, but Turner could crack this list in the next several years if someone regresses or two of them move to power forward.

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