Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard

On the first full week of each month this season, I’m going to rank the top 10 NBA players at each position based on how I expect them to perform in the coming month. If a player is injured and is expected to miss most of the month, then they probably won’t make the list regardless of his value when healthy. I’ll rank the point guards on Monday, the shooting guards on Tuesday… you get the picture.  Your feedback is welcome, even if you want to tell me how incredibly, irredeemably clueless I am.

This was a tough list to compile because so many of the guys who probably should be ranked in the Top 10 are either hurt or recovering from injury and therefore difficult to assess. These wounded giants include Yao Ming, Greg Oden, Andrew Bynum and Andrew Bogut. When healthy, those four centers probably rank in the top six at their position. If they get back on the court and stay there — and if the Rockets ever let Yao play more than 24 minutes per game — they’ll be reclaiming their ranks later this season.

10. Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers — 2009-10 stats: 82 GP, 25.1 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 5.7 RPG, 0.4 SPG, 1.6 BPG, .495 FG%, .500 3P%, .754 FT%, 16.2 PER

Choosing between Hibbert and Emeka Okafor for this spot was like choosing between “meh” and “blah”. Don’t get me wrong, Hibbert’s a nice player and the Pacers are rightfully happy to have him. He’s developed a pretty good post-up game and he’s definitely a shot-changer at his size.  But he’s really just an average defender and rebounder because of his lack of athleticism.

9. Chris Kaman, Los Angeles Clippers — 2009-10 stats: 76 GP, 34.3 MPG, 18.5 PPG, 1.6 APG, 9.3 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 1.2 BPG, .490 FG%, .000 3P%, .749 FT%, 16.5 PER

Credit where it’s due — Chris Kaman has developed his game nicely over seven miserable seasons as a Clipper. He’s deceivingly agile and I’m always surprised by his sneaky-good jumpshot that he combines with a tricky post game. For whatever reason, his rebounding and shot-blocking have fallen way off from his breakout 2007-08 season when he averaged 12.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game. He also turns the ball over too often because he tries to make plays that he’s really not capable of completing.

8. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings — Rookie

Didn’t see this one coming, did you? As the only rookie in any of my power rankings, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that DeMarcus Cousins is my preseason pick for Rookie of the Year. From what I’ve seen in college and summer league, he reminds me of a bigger Chris Webber. He’s ridiculously skilled for his size and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him average 20 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks a game at some point in his career. This season, he’ll probably struggle with turnovers and fouls like most rookies. But I also expect him to dazzle us at times with his huge potential. At some point this season, Holly MacKenzie will email me excitedly to point out that he had a 28 and 20 game and I’ll smile and nod because I knew he had it in him.

7. Nenê, Denver Nuggets — 2009-10 stats: 82 GP, 33.6 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 2.5 APG, 7.6 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.0 BPG, .587 FG%, .000 3P%, .704 FT%, 18.9 PER

If I had to pick one word to describe Nene, it would be “inscrutable”. He looks like he should be plodding and unathletic, but he’s actually quite quick for his size. At the same time, that athleticism doesn’t translate into good rebounding or shot-blocking numbers, but he’s still a decent defender. His real value is on offense where he’s an extremely efficient scorer.

6. Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz — 2009-10 stats: 76 GP, 32.4 MPG, 17.1 PPG, 1.8 APG, 9.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 1.3 BPG, .498 FG%, .000 3P%, .680 FT%, 19.0 PER

You’d think a guy who averages 20/10 with a couple of blocks when he’s healthy would be higher in these rankings, but he’s been such an awful defender over the years that I can’t put him in the top five in good conscience. If he defends at the level he has throughout his career, Jazz coach Jerry Sloan will be pining for the return of Mehmet Okur from the injured list — and I assure you he never imagined that would happen.

Joakim Noah

5. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls — 2009-10 stats: 64 GP, 30.1 MPG, 10.7 PPG, 2.1 APG, 11.0 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 1.6 BPG, .504 FG%, .000 3P%, .744 FT%, 17.9 PER

I know most of you will think I’ve ranked Joakim Noah too high, but I don’t care. I love the guy. He does what I want my center to do. He defends well on his man and on the help side, he rebounds and blocks shots in bunches, he doesn’t demand the ball on offense but converts his scoring opportunities at an efficient rate when he gets them. So he has an ugly shot and will never average 20 points per game. So what? You can have your Jefferson and Nene-types — Noah’s my dude.

4. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies — 2009-10 stats: 69 GP, 35.8 MPG, 14.6 PPG, 2.4 APG, 9.3 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.6 BPG, .581 FG%, .000 3P%, .670 FT%, 19.3 PER

Still think the Grizzlies got absolutely ransacked in that trade with the Lakers? Marc will probably never be as successful as his older brother, but he’s pretty damn good and he might be an All-Star in the Western Conference as soon as this season. He’s got an excellent offensive skillset and uses his size well on the boards and on defense, but what’s really interesting about him is that he might end up sliding over to power forward if Hasheem Thabeet ever matures into Mutombo 2.0 as intended. This, of course, assumes that the Grizzlies will match any offers that come his way after this season when he’s a restricted free agent.

3. Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets — 2009-10 stats: 82 GP, 36.9 MPG, 18.8 PPG, 2.3 APG, 8.6 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 1.7 BPG, .499 FG%, .000 3P%, .817 FT%, 20.1 PER

It’s a little puzzling that the Nets were so bad last season when they appear to have one of the top centers in the game. To be honest, I didn’t watch many Nets games last season. (Why would I?)  But from what I have seen, he appears to have the most polished offensive game of any true center in this league. With his size, footwork and impressive combo platter of post moves, he is very difficult for most players to defend. He’s only so-so defensively and on the boards, which is why he probably wouldn’t rank in my top five if some of the other big-name big men were healthy.  But Lopez has yet to miss a game in his two NBA seasons, and he deserves credit for that alone.

2. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers — 2009-10 stats: 65 GP, 37.0 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 3.4 APG, 11.3 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 1.7 BPG, .536 FG%, .000 3P%, .790 FT%, 22.9 PER

I have Al Horford as a power forward and Pau Gasol as a center? What exactly am I smoking? Pau played the majority of his minutes at center last season and probably will do so again this season because Andrew Bynum just can’t stay healthy for extended periods of time. Wherever you play him, Gasol is a quiet superstar in this league. He’s entered his 30s, which means a slow decline and ongoing injury concerns could be on the radar. But I’ll pay him the highest of compliments by sharing this honest opinion — I think he should have won the 2010 NBA Finals MVP award instead of Kobe.

1. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic — 2009-10 stats: 82 GP, 34.7 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 1.8 APG, 13.2 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 2.8 BPG, .612 FG%, .000 3P%, .592 FT%, 24.0 PER

He’s the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He’s led the league in rebounds per game three seasons in a row, in blocks per game two seasons in a row and in field goal percentage last season. He’s only missed three games in six seasons. Need I go on? He may never become the offensive threat Shaq was in his prime, but Shaq never led the league in rebounds or blocks and was never named Defensive Player of the Year. However, both of them have the same fatal flaw — they can’t shoot free throws. Regardless, Dwight Howard is unlikely to give up his reign as the best center in the NBA anytime soon.