Ranking top players by position: Centers

Fran Blinebury

The season openers are just around the corner, so this is the time to rank the top players at each position going into the 2016-17 schedule, based on numbers, past performance and just personal preference.

Previous position rankings: Point guards | Shooting guards | Small forwards | Power forwards

Despite the fact that folks keep saying that traditional centers are going the way of the dinosaur, there are still plenty of big men who can affect the outcome of a game in a huge way:

1. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: What if Boogie ever gets some stability injected into his career? This will be his seventh season in the NBA with his sixth different head coach and still in search of his first winning record. The numbers alone — 26.9 points and 11.5 rebounds per game — put him at the head of the class. That doesn’t even take into account his athleticism and splendid skills that make him almost unguardable in the low post and anyplace else on the court. The rumors have never stopped swirling about trades that could take him out of Sacramento. But now with a brand new arena and one more new coach in Dave Joerger, this is the time for the woeful Kings franchise to make a solid commitment to their talented center and stick with one plan that can move everybody forward. Cousins is just too good to keep wasting like this.

2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Go ahead, make the claim that this is too high a ranking for a second-year player that will still be only 20 years old on opening night. Then come back and see us after a full season under Tom Thibodeau hones the edges on an already sharp game. The unanimous 2016 Rookie of the Year averaged 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 blocks per game and shot 54.2 percent from the field. Toss in a PER of 22.5 that put him in a rookie class with Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan and that’s some kind of launch pad to a pro career. He excelled in the pick-and-roll and knocked down 51 percent of his shots between 16 and 24 feet. There is work to be done at the defensive, but that’s where the driving tutelage of Thibodeau will show up most.

3. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers: As Clint Eastwood once famously said in the role of “Dirty Harry,” a man’s got to know his limitations. And probably nobody in the league does a better job staying within his personal boundaries than the All-NBA first teamer Jordan. He rarely strays more than five feet from the basket to take a shot, mostly running the floor and hustling to be on the receiving end of feeds from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. That’s why he’s connected at a better than 70 percent clip from the field each of the past two seasons. Ranked No. 2 in both rebounding and blocked shots in 2015-16 and knows just what coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers expect and need him to do. If he could only make those free throws.

4. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Three years ago he was voted Defensive Player of the Year and just two years ago he was a member of the All-NBA First Team. Now at 31, Gasol has to prove that he can come back from surgery to repair a broken right foot that forced him out of 30 games last season. The combination of age plus the foot surgery has cost him a step in guarding his man, but Gasol is still a clever, rugged defender that helps anchor the Grizzlies in the paint. He can be an offensive maestro working from the elbow, finding the cutters going to the hoop, the spot-up shooters behind the 3-point line or wheeling to nail the face-up, mid-range jumper. If he can come back healthy for the full season, the Grizzlies are back scrapping at the upper half of the Western Conference.

5. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons: The double-double machine (a league-leading 66) averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game last season and was the ox pulling the Pistons to their first playoff appearance in six years. The league leader in rebounding (14.8 rag) and put-back buckets still is limited in his offensive game and struggles mightily (35 percent) from the free throw line. However he joined Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players in league history to have three 20-20 performances in the first six games of a season and only appears to be getting stronger and more comfortable in the skin of his game. Coach Stan Van Gundy will push him to be better at the pick-and-roll on offense and protecting the rim on defense. But at just 23, the monster is just starting to roar.

6. Al Horford, Boston Celtics: The Celtics, like everybody else, were drooling over the possibility of adding Kevin Durant to their roster over the summer. But when the smoke cleared, this guy was standing in their midst, maybe the best fit of free agent to team that came out of the talent scramble. He might not be the superstar level talent that can take Boston all the way to the top, but makes them a smarter, more efficient offensive team that gets the most out of its talent under coach Brad Stevens. He’s a go-to guy on the pick-and-pop and can roll to the basket, too. It’s not hard to imagine how unstoppable Horford would be if he had ever taken his game out a few steps more to the 3-point line. He’s not a stopper all by himself in the middle, but knows how to anchor the middle in a team defensive scheme and his overall intelligence on the court makes everybody better.

7. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat: Who would have thought that in a matter of a few years Whiteside could go from scuffling in the D-League in playing in Lebanon to being the focal point of the Miami offense in the first year post-Dwyane Wade/Chris Bosh? He’s not the best at protecting the rim or finishing up on the pick-and-roll, but does enough of both to be hellacious threat at both ends of the floor. Last season he averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks a game. The real eye-openers were his three triple-doubles that came with 10 blocks. His PER (25.7) was the best among starting centers and eighth-best in the entire league in 2015-16. All of that paid off with a four-year, $98-million contract over the summer. Now as the anchor of the rebuilding project in Miami, Whiteside will have to really take off.

8. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder: You might not have expected it after the big Kiwi averaged just 8.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots during regular season. But it was the payoff in the playoffs at the end of his third NBA season that allowed the Thunder to move ahead with their retooling efforts following the departure of Durant. Adams’ strong showing against the Spurs and Warriors in the postseason gave general manager Sam Presti the confidence to trade Serge Ibaka. He’s big, strong, tough, can take a cheap shot from Draymond Green and will now get significantly increased playing time as OKC moves into the new era.

9. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: He doesn’t particularly like the nickname Stifle Tower, but it certainly does fit the 7-foot-1 Frenchman with the 7-foot-8 wingspan who defends the rim better than any other big man in the the league. Opponents made only 41 percent of the shots at the rim when he was on the floor. He’s quite mobile, will run the floor and has good hands to take drop passes or lobs on the break and then flush them down. He averaged just short of a double-double at 9.1 points and 11 rebounds last season and, at 24, the big man’s game still has plenty room to grow.

10. Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks: Could it possibly have been just over three years since the basketball world was waiting breathlessly for the latest decision from the free agent prize. Now he’s left a third straight franchise (Orlando, L.A., Houston) behind with a bad taste in its mouth and is back in his home town trying to pick up the pieces of what’s left of his reputation. Howard is still a solid rim protector and can finish on the pick-and-roll. Not as explosive anymore, but at 30 still has the skills to rank in the upper echelon of bigs. But the problem is all about his ego and attitude, which seems to ebb and flow like the tides. At this point, Howard is his own biggest obstacle.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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