NBA centers represent a disappearing position, stricken from the All-Star ballots just last season. I've received a few queries about using traditional positional designations as a basis for ranking players, and I understand the concerns. However, I'm not in the camp of those who believes that positions no longer exist.
Percent of WARP by height, 3-point era
Height 80s 90s 00s 10s
6-3 and under 20% 26% 25% 24%
6-4 to 6-6 20% 19% 18% 14%
6-7 to 6-9 33% 27% 31% 29%
6-10 and above 27% 27% 26% 32%
There's no denying that there has been an evolution of where NBA production and value comes from over the years. That has been perhaps the dominant theme of this rankings series. Consider this chart, which breaks down WARP by height during the 3-point era.
The average height in the NBA has barely changed over time, but the value derived from big men is higher than ever. What's disappearing is the prototypical 2-guard, who offers neither elite quickness nor elite length. Although the league is getting increasingly small, big men are as important as ever, whether you call them centers or not.
As the depth charts have filled, so have the forecasts generated by ATH coalesced. ATH, you may recall, is the projection module of NBAPET, my system of integrated spreadsheets for tracking, evaluating and forecasting all things NBA.
With the pieces falling into place, let's take an early stab at ranking players by position. Keep in mind that assigning a primary position to a player in today's NBA is often more art than science. Players are ranked according to ATH's forecasted WARP, or wins above replacement level, which accounts for a player's efficiency, volume of production and team context.
Here are the projected top 10 centers for the 2013-14 NBA season:
PG | SG | SF | PF | C
1. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 13.2
Howard is coming off his worst season since his rookie year, and ATH has him bouncing back to a level roughly equivalent to his third season. Because of his history of back trouble, you can't dismiss last year's dip in rebound rate as a fluke. However, his block rate was higher, so not all the athletic indicators were down. Howard's foul-drawing rate is always hard to read because of how often he is intentionally fouled, but it was strong last year as well. In his last fully healthy season, Howard put up 20.5 WARP, and that's the championship-caliber center the Rockets hoped they signed this summer.
2. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 10.1
Drummond was a monster in limited minutes last year and he was a monster during the Orlando Summer League. Obviously, the ATH system is highly enamored of his abilities. Much of his projected value stems from huge block and rebound rates. He's also a standout in foul-drawing and steals, which makes him 4-for-4 in the categories ATH looks at as athletic markers. Like many a raw, athletic big man before him, Drummond's weak spot is at the line, where he is forecast to hit just 37 percent of his free throws this season.
Drummond's playing time projection also is murky. I've got him as the starting center on Detroit's depth chart, with Greg Monroe moving over to the 4 and Josh Smith to the 3. If that alignment doesn't work out because of spacing problems, new coach Maurice Cheeks will have some hard decisions to make.
3. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.7
Cousins has become gradually more accurate from the field as his career progressed but his overall value, strong as it is, is held back by traits identified with lack of discipline: shot selection, turnovers and fouls. The important thing is that the trends in all these areas have generally been positive, with the exception of turnovers. Cousins needs to stop undermining his court time with foul trouble, but if new coach Mike Malone can use Cousins in a way that accentuates his strengths, the upside is immense.
4. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.3
After an injury-shortened 2011-12 season, Horford was mostly healthy last year and had a typical Horford season. During three of the past four years, he has posted winning percentages between .558 and .565, marking his career .603 season in 2010-11 as an outlier. Horford can approach that level of value simply by fixing a strangely broken free throw stroke after shooting 9 percent worse than any other season of his career. Perhaps the loss of confidence at the charity stripe explains why Horford became more jump-shot oriented than ever before.
5. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.1
Noah became a central figure in Chicago's offense last season in Derrick Rose's absence, with the offense often running through Noah's fine passing skills from the high post. That led to a spike in assist rate that won't be repeated with Rose back in action. At the same time, a return to typical levels of usage and a focus on offensive rebounding can up Noah's efficiency and help him avoid a slight, age-related decline. One thing seems certain, and coach Tom Thibodeau has said as much: Noah's minutes will be managed more carefully in the coming season.
6. Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 8.0
We're still trying to figure out what Monroe will be, and with Drummond ready to break out, this is the time to find out. Monroe's WARP totals in three seasons thus far have been 6.6, 12.3 and 8.4 respectively. Last season, Monroe's efficiency fell because of his lack of a consistent face-up shot and insistence on trying more of them. Over a third of Monroe's attempts as a pro have come outside the vicinity of the rim, and he's hit just 32 percent of those shots. He needs to become a midrange threat to fit with Drummond and take advantage of his solid passing skills. Monroe improving his stroke might be the most important piece of Detroit's puzzle.
7. Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 7.8
Sometimes I think we become so fixated on what Jefferson isn't good at -- defense -- that we lose sight of the fact that he's a very good interior scorer during a time in which that skill is in short supply. It feels like Jefferson has been around a long time, but in fact he's almost the same age as Noah. Sure, Jefferson needs to excise some of the bad jumpers out of his game but then again, he's always stuck on bad teams starving for the points. Unfortunately, that may not change right away in Charlotte.
8. JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 7.3
Statistically, McGee was underused by George Karl last season, but the fact of the matter is that Denver's starting five functioned better with Kosta Koufos in the middle. Well, Koufos is gone, as is Karl, and this is the season we'll find out if McGee can turn his fine part-time production into a full-time, star-making role on a good team.
9. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 7.2
Gasol really came into his own last season and his projected decline is one of the more perplexing results ATH spit out this summer. It's not a defensive regression -- his defensive rating is actually forecast to improve from 106.1 to 105.4. At 7-1, 265 pounds, Gasol is part of a distinct historical group, one that portends a regression in athletic factors at age 29. He's still a fine player, but the Grizzlies can't really withstand a four-win decline from him.
10. Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Projected 2013-14 WARP: 6.8
Bosh is a jump-shooting big man, soft on the boards and isn't an elite rim protector. He's also capable of doing much more than he's asked to do on the Heat; just how much is no longer clear after his three seasons as the third option in Miami. One of the most interesting stories in the Miami season will be whether Dwyane Wade is babied through the regular season, and if so, whether Bosh will be able to pick up the slack.
Next five: Anderson Varejao, Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez, DeAndre Jordan
The solid but unspectacular rankings of four of these five centers can be explained by age, injuries, a skill set too slanted toward one end of the floor, or all the above. But all of them can help teams win.
The one player I want to pinpoint here is Lopez, who I think subjectively should be in the top 10. Lopez went from two seasons of just under a .500 winning percentage (in 82 and five games, respectively) to .629 last year. The most impressive part of that gain was his improved rebounding and shot-blocking, and I'd be surprised to see him regress as ATH forecasts him to do. Like all the Nets, his usage rate is projected to fall because of the new lineup, but if Jason Kidd is smart, he'll keep the offense focused around Lopez and Deron Williams, while Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett fill roles. If that happens, Lopez is easily a top-five center.
Also notable: Roy Hibbert, Andrew Bynum
The players I get the most guff about are the ones freshest in our memories. Hibbert was so good against Miami in the Eastern Conference finals that we forget how rough most of his regular season was, when he hit just 44.9 percent on 2-point shots. Two of Hibbert's last three seasons have been similar, so ATH's pessimism is understandable. While his offensive performance is variable, Hibbert is clearly one of the most valuable defenders in the league and I still think we have a way to go to properly value that kind of player statistically.
As for Bynum, I think we all understand what's holding back his projection. Keep in mind Bynum's 2011-12 WARP, before last year's missed campaign: 12.1. A healthy Bynum is an All-Star player.