Throughout the season, we've been ranking the league's "big men," with the quotes required because we stretched our definition to include small forwards who often play out of position in small lineups. The small-ball revolution hasn't been quite as overwhelming as we might have thought in the wake of the Miami Heat's championship run, which featured LeBron James logging most of his minutes as a 4. Other than James and New York's use of Carmelo Anthony, teams have continued to rely heavily on traditional lineups, and even James and Anthony have seen fewer minutes out of position lately.
That's not to say that the evolution of the big man has ebbed. The starting lineups for this weekend's All-Star Game were selected from ballots that for the first time did not include players specifically designated as centers. The league was merely trying to keep up with the times, but nothing has really happened to the center position. The position hasn't disappeared, it's just that there are fewer players who fit our platonic ideal of "center" these days.
The skill set for centers has tilted away from traditional low-block, back-to-the-basket big men. They still exist, but there just aren't very many of them. Dwight Howard is one, kind of, even though he's much better diving toward the basket than he is with his back to it. Andrew Bynum was/is the best post-up center in the NBA, but he has missed the entire season with knee trouble. Al Jefferson (who ranks fourth among bigs on this week's barometer) is an excellent low-block scorer, but he doesn't much resemble a center on the defensive end.
The past couple of seasons, the question of "Who is the best center in the NBA?" was easy to answer. It was Howard overall, with Bynum taking the honors in the West. Not only were they the most productive and efficient centers, but they fit the die cast for the position. Even when Howard and Bynum switched coasts in the offseason, they were expected to continue their domination of the position in 2012-13.
With Bynum out and Howard battling an awkward, injury-dulled transition to the Lakers, the bragging rights are up for grabs. Those guys might still be the "best" centers in the league in a big-picture sense, but when you factor in playing time and productivity strictly for this season, neither ranks as the most valuable at the position in 2012-13. So who does?
The answer would be San Antonio's Tim Duncan, but his coach, the always-entertaining Gregg Popovich, has long refused to call Duncan a center. And it's true that often he's not. For one, he's played 30 percent of his minutes alongside Tiago Splitter this season, and Splitter is the center in those lineups. Duncan has also shared the court with Matt Bonner for about 100 minutes, and while Bonner is the rarest of birds -- a stretch 5 -- he's still a 5. Anyway, let's acknowledge that Duncan is the best center in the league this season if you consider him a center.
How about the guys who are unquestionably and unconditionally considered centers? Here's a look at the top five true centers as calculated by WARP, which underscores just how much value today's pivots are contributing in ways that have nothing to do with low-post scoring.