A lot of big men went at the top of the NBA draft this year. But should your team have used its pick on a more valuable position?
Some of the highest picks in this year’s draft included DeAndre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, and Wendell Carter Jr. — all centers. If you include Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr., half of the top 10 selections in the draft could end up playing a majority of their minutes at center in the NBA.
But in a league where switch-everything defense is in vogue, post-up touches are nowhere to be found, and big men are routinely played off the floor in the playoffs, one has to wonder: are these centers worth the high draft picks that were used on them given the evolution of the center position in the modern NBA?
From an individual performance standpoint, the answer is yes. Using Basketball Reference’s position listings, eight centers rank in the top 20 in player efficiency and seven rank in the top 20 in true shooting — the most of any position in both categories. If these centers pan out, they could become some of the most efficient players in the league.
In addition to individual efficiency, eight big men are in the top 20 in regular season win shares, meaning that they made massive contributions to winning basketball. As a result, big men like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embiid are often discussed as some of the very best players in the NBA, and these prospects could be too if they reach their potential.
Jesse D. Garrabrant- Getty Images
However, as talented as these players may be, there are still questions about their “value” compared to more perimeter-oriented players.
Once again, there are a plethora of big men that are near the top of the league in comparative advanced metrics. Using ESPN’s real plus-minus or RPM, centers make up five of the top 20 slots and 13 of the top 50. Overall, centers had an average RPM of 1.3 while the rest of the league’s average was 0.3. They rank similarly well in Basketball Reference’s on/off metric, box plus-minus.
But these value metrics on their own are not a complete analysis. The NBA is a salary cap league, so their raw value is not the only operative question. What’s important is how valuable centers are compared to what they are paid?
As Kevin Pelton of ESPN points out in one of his recent articles, there is a glut of capable NBA centers which make the value of a great center considerably less.
According to Pelton, players that saw a majority of minutes at center last season had a TS% of 58.7%, 2.5% better than any other position in the league. Because centers are more efficient than any other position, they finished with an average wins above replacement player per game of .560 compared to the league average of .500. In simple terms, the average center was just more valuable to winning than an average player at any other position.
To illustrate this point even further, Pelton analyzed “replacement-level” players or players on minimum contracts. Centers on minimum deals provided by far the most value in terms of wins above replacement of any position in the league.
This is very damning to those fighting for the value of centers in the modern NBA because it suggests that many of the centers on the open market can replace a lot of what star centers contribute to winning basketball at a much lower cost.
And there is another issue — centers have not succeeded in the playoffs in recent years.
Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns, the three All-NBA centers this season, were all on teams that failed to reach the conference finals. In the Western Conference Final between Houston and Golden State, the two best teams in the league, centers were frequently forced off of the court at key points in the game. This included Clint Capela, who many see as the modern prototype of what a non-shooting center can be in the NBA.
As Pelton discusses in his article, this is nothing new. There is a growing trend in the NBA that when push comes to shove in the playoffs, teams would rather play smaller, more versatile lineups than keep a center on the floor.
So perhaps centers are not nearly as valuable as other positions in the NBA. However, that does not mean that these teams necessarily made the wrong picks by drafting one. The other players toward the top of most draft boards all had big question marks. It might not have been worth it for a team to drastically overdraft a player just because he plays a more valuable position.
Furthermore, the idea that teams should only draft players that can compete at a championship level of basketball is not realistic. Making the playoffs can have a real tangible impact on franchises from a financial and popularity standpoint, and many of these players could go a long way to making that happen. Sure, centers may not be the most valuable at the highest level of basketball, but how many teams in the lottery have a real chance of getting there soon anyway?
And who knows. Davis, Embiid, and Towns are all 25 or younger. Maybe they, along with this new draft class, are leading a new crop of big men that will punish these switching systems and reverse the course of the NBA back in the direction of the tall guys. After all, teams in the draft are not drafting for the current NBA. They are drafting for the future of the NBA.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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