The NBA big man isn't disappearing. It's just evolving.
For offenses these days, having fewer than four shooters on the floor is less than ideal. In the last few seasons, traditional centers -- players like DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol and Brook Lopez -- are stepping out beyond the arc and shoot 3-pointers.
Teams have learned that post-ups are inefficient, but there's still value in other traditional big man skills. The most valuable shots on the floor remain layups and dunks, so there is a place in the game for players like Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela. Neither of those players can shoot, but they can finish at the rim on one end of the floor and protect the rim on the other.
With that in mind, here's a look at the top three big men in each division. And with five of the top seven picks of this year's Draft being power forwards and center, we must make note of the next generation.
Note: For this list, we're looking at guys that all play at least some of their minutes at center and don't play any minutes at small forward. Apologies to players like Aaron Gordon, who is best fit at the four, who played most of his minutes there last season and who would have been in the top three in his division.
Home to the Eastern Conference's three best teams, the Atlantic boasts many versatile players and three of the East’s best bigs.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
He's huge, he's skilled, and he's been playing basketball for less than 10 years. A healthy Embiid will be a perennial Kia MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
2. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Horford's numbers don't stand out, but he is the fulcrum on both ends of the floor for the best team in the East. He also outplayed Embiid in a playoff series just five months ago.
3. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Porzingis is on the shelf, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February. When he returns, the 23-year-old needs to improve his playmaking and shot selection, but he's incredibly valuable (and unique) in that he both can shoot from deep and protect the rim.
Jarrett Allen, Brooklyn Nets: The 20-year-old needs to get stronger and learn how to anchor a defense, but his skills around the basket developed quickly in his rookie season.
This may be the deepest division regarding useful bigs, with Indiana's Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis both 22 years old and both having the potential to climb into the top three in the next year.
1. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
He can shoot, pass and clean the glass. And after four years of playing alongside LeBron James as a shooter, Love will again have the offense run through him.
2. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons
Griffin is super-skilled and has taken his game beyond the arc over the last two seasons, but his ideal frontline complement is a player more like Porzingis (hard to find) and less like Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan.
3. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Drummond took steps forward regarding his passing and free throw shooting last season. He's still not the defender that he has the potential to be and the fit with Griffin remains a big question.
Lauri Markkanen & Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls: With skills inside and out, the Bulls' last two Lottery picks could complement each other on the team's frontline of the future.
This is clearly the weakest division regarding true big men, though there are some promising bigs on the horizon.
1. Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets: He has missed 69 games over the last two seasons, but he was valuable as a starter (and a high-volume, energetic screen-setter) two seasons ago and will return to that role with the departure of …
2. Dwight Howard, Washington Wizards: Still an effective defender regarding both deterring and defending shots near the basket. It's a question if he can be just do the dirty work on offense with consistency and without complaint.
3. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: He is skilled and has improved as a defender, but he still doesn't get to the line enough. He may need to take a step backward in the final season of his contract to allow the young frontline of Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and rookie Mo Bamba to develop.
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat & John Collins, Atlanta Hawks: Both 21, they showed potential as rookies. Collins has more bounce, while Adebayo may be the more complete player.
This division clearly has the league's best collection of starting centers, with Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic joining the three below.
1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: The next two guys are much more skilled offensively, but the impact that Gobert makes on defense is tremendous, and he's no liability on offense either.
2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Towns is one of the league's best finishers in the paint, one of its best mid-range shooters, and one of its best 3-point shooters (not just among bigs). The lack of consistent energy and effort on defense remains an issue.
3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: You could arguably put these three in any order. Jokic is the ridiculously skilled fulcrum of a top-six offense and maybe the best passing big man we've ever seen. He (and his team) could benefit from him being a little more aggressive … and a lot better on the defensive end of the floor.
Zach Collins, Portland Trail Blazers: The Northwest is a little light on talented, young bigs, but Collins shouldn't be forgotten. The No. 10 pick in the 2017 Draft (who's just 20 years old) is about to step into a bigger role on a team built to win now.
The Pacific is the home of the champs and the most versatile big man in the league, but also home to two teams trying to climb out of the Western Conference basement on the shoulders of the top two picks in the 2018 Draft.
1. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors: He’d be No. 1 on this list even if his new teammate was healthy. When locked in, he's the league's best and most versatile defender. He can't shoot, but he's one of the best passing bigs in the game.
2. DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors: It remains to be seen what Cousins will have lost with the Achilles tear he suffered in January. But he has taken steps forward as both a shooter and a playmaker, and his new team should make him a better defender.
3. Marcin Gortat, LA Clippers: Gortat isn't the finisher that DeAndre Jordan is (not by a mile, really), but his skills as a screen-setter will help the league's deepest group of guards.
DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns & Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings: The top two picks of the 2018 Draft, two of the more skilled big men we've seen enter the league in the last 10 years, will be going head-to-head in the Pacific Division for years to come.
This division’s top three bigs are a contrast in styles, but all three have made big impacts on playoff teams.
1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: This guy is so good, the league's GMs voted him as the league's best power forward and the best center. Davis took things to another level after Cousins' injury last season and will need to maintain that level to get the Pelicans back to the playoffs.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs: The NBA’s post-up and mid-range king, Aldridge has adjusted his shot selection a bit and is coming off the most efficient scoring season (true shooting percentage of 57.0 percent) of his career.
3. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets: He certainly benefits from playing alongside James Harden and Chris Paul, but they also benefit from his skills as a roll man and his ability to switch onto guards defensively.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies: Jackson may look like more of a "true big" on defense, where he has shown the ability to protect the rim, than on offense, where he has shown the ability to step outside and make 3-pointers.
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