It has never been harder to be a big man in the NBA. The reigning Finals MVP needed a championship to duck years of defensive criticism. The regular-season MVP has been a laughingstock for months after shooting 5-of-18 in his team's season-ending second-round loss. The best defensive player in the world still gets dinged for his Jekyll and Hyde act offensively.
That is the standard today. Big men are invariably judged by their flaws. If you can't shoot, you're cramping your offense. Can't score in the post? You're a referendum on the decline of the traditional big. You can be the best rim-protector in the NBA, but if you can't jump out onto the perimeter and hang with much faster guards, you're treated like a dinosaur.
When the playoffs arrive, the first thing most coaches do is figure out how to make life miserable for your starting center. Many of them get played off of the floor entirely. Those that remain are the rare few that provide so much that not even their weaknesses can deny their strengths. Those are the big men you'll read about below. Here are the 20 best big men in the NBA, as determined in CBS Sports' recent overall.
If you watched Holmgren in Summer League, you understand the hype around him. He's already an elite shot-blocker who can stretch the floor as a legitimate 3-point shooter. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander being arguably the best driver in the league, Holmgren is going to feast on pick-and-pops and kick out jumpers. -- Botkin
Turner is known for his prolific shot-blocking but took a big step forward offensively last season. He tallied a career-high 18.0 points per game while shooting 54.8% from the field and 37.3% from deep. He's benefitted from the Pacers' lack of depth in the frontcourt, but Indiana hopes to get help from some new additions in 2023-24. -- Tyree
We know that Randle can score efficiently at high volume on a jumper-heavy shot diet. We don't know if he can do it in consecutive seasons or in the playoffs. The glass-half-full perspective is that the Knicks' addition of Jalen Brunson opened things up for Randle last season in a sustainable way, only for an ankle injury to limit his effectiveness in the postseason. The glass-half-empty perspective is that Randle's game -- the ball-stopping, the tough 2s, the hot-and-cold 3-point shooting -- doesn't hold up against playoff defenses designed to make him uncomfortable. He earned his two All-Star appearances, but it's not an accident that there are non-stars ranked higher on this list. -- Herbert
Ranking Wembanyama before his debut is an extraordinarily difficult task not because we haven't seen him play in the NBA yet, but because we've never seen anyone like him play in the NBA before. The basketball world has never seen a 7-foot-3 isolation scorer with 3-point range as both a shooter and a shot-blocker. The range of outcomes here is so wide that Wembanyama might be No. 1 on this list before long. His combination of physical tools and tangible skills is unparalleled in basketball history. The only question is how long it will take for him to figure out how to use them on the NBA stage. -- Quinn
Despite his numbers taking a step down pretty much across the board in his first season in Minnesota, Gobert continues to be a consistent defensive lynchpin in the middle. The unconventional pairing of Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns didn't yield the results the Wolves were hoping for when they traded a boatload of first-round picks for him last summer—they made the playoffs out of the play-in and lost in five games in the first round to Denver. But they were excellent defensively, thanks in large part to Gobert's ability to patrol the paint. He's a lock for a double-double every single night, and has the height and leaping ability to be an imposing lob threat. The reason he's on this list, however, is that Gobert's presence alone pretty much gives you an above-average defense – a unique ability among NBA players. -- Ward-Henninger
Given all the discussion about Gordon sacrificing when he was traded from Orlando to Denver, it might be surprising to learn that, on a per-possession basis, he scored more last season than ever before. He just did it on easier shots, as he didn't have many opportunities to cut into open space when he was with the Magic. It's true that the Nuggets took some responsibilities off of Gordon's plate, but they also put him in a system where his athleticism, passing and finishing ability would pop. Defensively, he was the champs' most important player, and the Finals served as a warning to those who underestimated him offensively. He bullied smaller players from the beginning of the series, and he dominated Game 4 by finding buckets at the rim and knocking down 3s with confidence. -- Herbert
Lopez is coming off his best statistical season since he was still in Brooklyn back in 2017 -- 15.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game -- and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He played so well that it seemed a team may overpay to pry him away from the Bucks; in the end he returned to Milwaukee on a two-year deal. While it's clear that the 35-year-old still has plenty in the tank, the big question is how he'll fare under new head coach Adrian Griffin. The Bucks' defense under Mike Budenholzer was built around Lopez, with everything funneled toward him at the rim. How much of that will Griffin change? And how will Lopez adapt? -- Maloney
You may have missed it, but Porzingis had a career year in Washington. He put up a career-high 23.2 points, while shooting just shy of 50% from the field and 38.5% from deep. Porzingis also played in 65 games, the most since his second year in the league, a significant thing to note given his injury history has always dampened his on-court brilliance. But now, for the fourth time in his career, Porzingis will be starting this season with a new team, and this time it'll come with undoubtedly the highest expectations he's ever faced. The Celtics are hoping that the 7-foot-3 Latvian can help get them back to the Finals, and in a new role surrounded by All-Star talent in Tatum and Brown, Porzingis will once again have to figure out what his role is. -- Wimbish
Markkanen finally broke through in his sixth season in the NBA and first within Utah, earning his first All-Star selection and winning Most Improved Player. It wasn't that Markkanen was exactly disappointing in his first five seasons after being drafted No. 7 overall in 2017, but it always felt like there was a ton of untapped potential just waiting to be exposed. Markkanen flourished last season in a system that played to his strengths as a floor-spacing big. With the Jazz in rebuild mode, it was a low-pressure environment that allowed Markkanen to expand his game and show off aspects that he didn't get to use as much in his previous stops with Chicago and Cleveland. He's not just a spot-up shooting big man. He can put the ball on the deck and drive to the rim, he also moves incredibly well without the ball. It's not every day you see a 7-footer flying around an off-ball screen and finishing with finesse at the rim, but Markkanen proved he's capable of that and more last season. -- Wimbish
Besides instant champions like Tim Duncan and Bill Russell, you'd be hard-pressed to find a big man who entered the NBA as polished defensively as Evan Mobley did in 2021. The do-it-all forward snuck the Cavaliers into the top five defensively as a rookie and then carried them to the No. 1 ranking in his second season. No other 21st-century big man has matched that feat so quickly, and no other 21-year-old big man has ever been named first-team All-Defense, either. Mobley still has room to improve, as his first-round bullying at the hands of the Knicks proved. But big men simply aren't this good at this young of an age. He is already perfectly capable of switching onto any perimeter player and even guarding elite wings for full games. Once he beefs up a bit, he'll have a chance to become one of the best defenders of his generation. -- Quinn
Two seasons ago, Towns proclaimed himself the best shooting big man to ever play the game. The numbers certainly back up his statement, and winning the 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend in 2022 certainly adds to his argument. But injuries and consistency have been a sticking point with Towns throughout his career, and last season was no different. Limited to just 29 games, Towns had his worst scoring season since he was a rookie (20.8 points per game), and while he managed to return for Minnesota's first-round playoff series against the Nuggets, it was clear he was still working his way into a rhythm. Still only 27 years old, Towns is among the best offensive bigs in the game, who has shown improvement on the defensive side of the ball. With his strong play for the Dominican Republic during the FIBA World Cup, we could be in store for a big bounce-back year for Towns. -- Wimbish
The Kings finished with the highest offensive rating in NBA history last season, and Sabonis was the hub that made it all work. His ability to dissect defenses with dribble hand-offs, back-door bounce passes, elbow jumpers and brutish post-ups turned Sacramento into must-watch programming. The 6-foot-11 center also led the league in rebounding, while joining Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Nikola Jokic as the only players in league history to average at least 19 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists per game in a single season. -- Ward-Henninger
Siakam was once again asked to carry a tremendous load for the Raptors, and put up career-high numbers in scoring (24.2 points per game) and assists (5.8), while leading the league in minutes (37.4) for the second consecutive season. He earned himself a second All-Star appearance and dragged the Raptors to a .500 record and a spot in the Play-In Tournament, but could do no more. As he enters a contract year, there will be plenty of speculation about his future and no shortage of teams testing the waters on a possible trade. He apparently doesn't mind all the hard work in Toronto, however, as reports indicate he prefers to stay with the Raptors. -- Maloney
Though his 2022-23 season didn't start off on the brightest of notes, Green turned in another stellar year of defensive wizardry and playmaking acumen. It's hard to quantify what he brings to the Warriors, but Steve Kerr has said many times that he's absolutely vital to their success. That bears out in the numbers, as the Warriors' net rating improved by a team-best 12.2 points per 100 possessions last season with Green on the floor. His leadership, intensity, communication and skill make him one of the most uniquely valuable players in the league. -- Ward-Henninger
One of the NBA's premier young stars, Jackson broke out on both ends of the floor last season. He led the league with three blocks per game and took home Defensive Player of the Year honors, all while averaging career highs in points (18.6), rebounds (6.8) and field goal percentage (50.6%). His 28.4 minutes per game were a talking point, and he still gets into too much foul trouble, but his impact is undeniable -- the Grizzlies' net rating improved over 10 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The absolute prototype of a modern NBA defensive big, Jackson protects the rim, is capable of switching onto guards, and poses a menacing threat when closing out on 3-point shooters. -- Ward-Henninger
On Dec. 7, the Pelicans defeated the Pistons to become the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They followed that up with two quick wins over the Phoenix Suns. During this time, Williamson was getting serious MVP buzz. From that point on, he would play only eight more games the rest of the season. That's the dilemma that comes with ranking him. The NBA's best interior scorer would compete for those accolades every year if he could ever stay on the floor long enough to do so. This is the floor for a player with his gifts. The upside of having potentially the best player in the NBA is worth the reality that he may never stay healthy enough to see a postseason game. -- Quinn
Jerry West recently called Adebayo one of the most underrated players in the NBA, and he might be right. Like the Heat as a whole, it's easy, for whatever reason, to overlook Adebayo as a star, but that's what he is when you add up all his contributions. He's among the best big-man passers in the league not named Nikola Jokic. He has elevated his scoring every season. And he resides in the top tier of the league's elite defenders. -- Botkin
The 2022-23 season was a fairly clean distillation of the Anthony Davis experience. He's going to miss 25 games or so over the course of a season, and he's only going to reach his incredible offensive potential in around half of the games he does play. But his defense? It's the best in the NBA and it's not all that close. Davis averaged over four blocks per game in a first-round demolition of Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. before forcing the defending champion Warriors to completely reconfigure their offense on the fly to try to force him out of the paint in the second round. It didn't work. Nothing except employing Nikola Jokic ever does. So long as the Lakers have Davis on the floor, they will have one of the NBA's best defenses. -- Quinn
Long considered one of the NBA's most dominant two-way players, Embiid got over the hump in 2022-23 by winning his first-ever MVP award after finishing right behind Nikola Jokic in back-to-back seasons. Embiid has caught flak for his durability since entering the league, but he's now eclipsed 65 games played in two straight seasons. Few players have the skill set to be one of the league's best pure scorers and rim protectors simultaneously like Embiid. Luka Doncic is the only player ranked above him who hasn't been the best player on a championship team. Embiid could climb higher on this list if the 76ers make a deeper playoff run where he dominates as the clear-cut leader. -- Tyree
If you run into any time-travelers from the 1980s, you can tell them that the NBA's best player is a cross between Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who makes one-legged, wrong-footed fadeaways. With his supporting cast finally healthy, Jokic followed up back-to-back MVP seasons with another historic one, in which he scored a bit less, assisted a bit more and led the Nuggets to their first championship. No superstar has ever scored as efficiently as Jokic did in 2022-23, but opposing teams were terrified of double-teaming him because he's the best passer in the game. He's also one of the best defensive rebounders in the game, and, while he's not the most intimidating rim protector, he held up in multiple coverages throughout the title run. Mere months ago, putting Jokic's name atop a list like this would have been divisive. Now he is undeniable. -- Herbert