Center extremely deep this season

I was at the Staples Center Monday night. After reading so much about it on the Web, I thought it was important for me to witness one of the Wizards' inevitable, soul-draining collapses in person. (My suggestion for the "Call a Play for Flip" contest? That play the Clippers ran approximately 55 times in a row in the second half looked pretty good. Maybe if they practiced running it, they could defend it.)

Once the rot began to set in, I attempted to distract myself by focusing on something positive (and Earl Boykins wasn't cutting it). I soon settled on watching Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman and Brendan Haywood on the floor at the same time. There was a point in time -- say, last season -- when three fantasy-worthy performances in the same game at center would have been an international incident.

This year has been different. When it comes to production at the center position, we are right on top of an ever-expanding bubble.

If you're into positional scarcity, you'll often find yourself sifting through an evening's box scores, with an almost unconscious tabulation feature, the need to gauge risers and fallers at the 5. The difficulty in putting together a strong one-two punch at center has, historically, been one of the great dilemmas (dare I say calumnies) in all of fantasy basketball. This season, it's gotten almost too easy. No, I'd say it has gotten too easy.

There are three general trends at play here: the arrival of several young centers who have learned to cut down on their fouls (i.e., Greg Oden before he got hurt), the renaissance of some older centers enjoying strong starts (Tim Duncan), and there being a few players too many with center eligibility (Chris Bosh, David Lee).

Currently, there are six centers in the top 21 on the Player Rater, and a total of 14 in the top 50. And it's not just how many centers are playing well, but how they're doing it, with a nice amount of statistical diversification. You want a traditional center who blocks a ton of shots and gathers rebounds by the bushel? Or one who can hit some 3s? Or a little of both? So far, the 2009-10 crop of centers has all of that and more.

The boffo production at the 5 is forcing me to take an industry-wide look at this changing of the guard.

Tier 1

Brook Lopez, Nets (19.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg, .851 free throw percentage)
Chris Bosh, Raptors (24.0 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 1.1 bpg, .769 free throw percentage)

Lopez was the hot oxymoron "sleeper" in this year's drafts; some wise guy always was hell-bent on grabbing him in the third round. Overhyped second-year big men have a habit of going bust, but Lopez is the rare find who has exceeded the hype. He's simply been statistically flawless to date, a shining example of how bad teams can beget fantasy gold.

When you factor in points and rebounds, Lopez is basically a wash with Bosh, who has overcome a rocky start to put together a classic contract-year stat line. But what gives Lopez the slightest of edges is his dominance in two categories: blocks and free throws. He's reached that Josh Smith level where the mere drafting of a single player will land you in the top three in blocks in your league.

And while Bosh is a solid free throw shooter for a big man, Lopez's current clip is absolutely lights-out for an NBA center. And as teams begin to collapse on Lopez more and more, his 6.2 free throw attempts per game are only going to climb.

Tier 2

Tim Duncan, Spurs (19.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 bpg, .558 field goal percentage)
Pau Gasol, Lakers (17.0 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.3 bpg, .566 field goal percentage, .909 free throw percentage)
Troy Murphy, Pacers (12.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.5 3-pointers, .871 free throw percentage)
David Lee, Knicks (18.1 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 1.2 spg, .573 field goal percentage)

It's always heartening to see a player expand his fantasy repertoire at a later stage in his career, and while it's early in the season, Tim Duncan has done just that from the free throw line. By improving his free throw percentage by almost 10 percent (69 percent to 77 percent), he's turned a liability into at least something you don't have to worry about on a daily basis.

Here's also where you start to find some of the statistical diversification I was referring to. Both Gasol and Duncan are among the NBA leaders in assists per game from the center position. Their averages may not seem like a big deal, but you need to curve them versus the average output per game for a center (1.6), and you'll see you're gaining about two dimes a night with either player.

Murphy is only rounding into form from some early-season injury problems. He should be something close to a fantasy monster in Jim O'Brien's offense after Danny Granger's injury, as always providing his mix of boards and 3-pointers. Murphy's field goal shooting (48 percent) may seem low for a center, but once you add Murphy's 3-point production, his true shooting percentage hovers right above 62 percent, evidence that he's actually sorely underrated from the floor. I can still remember Murphy's Golden State days, when free throw and field goal percentages dragged down his fantasy value. Lee scrapes the bottom of this tier thanks to his high field goal percentage and steal rate (fourth in the NBA among centers).

Tier of Disappointment

Dwight Howard, Magic (18.2 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 1.0 spg, .633 field goal percentage, .584 free throw percentage)
Al Jefferson, Timberwolves (16.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 1.1 spg, .470 field goal percentage, .682 free throw percentage)
Amar'e Stoudemire, Suns (19.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg, .559 field goal percentage, .741 free throw percentage)
Greg Oden, Trail Blazers

After some early-season struggles, both Jefferson (21.6 ppg and 12.0 rpg in his past five games) and Stoudemire (21.4 and 9.0) have evidenced signs of life in December. What's distressing about Jefferson, Stoudemire and Oden are their injury situations. Compared with the snakebitten Oden, Jefferson and Stoudemire might not have as obvious a problem, but looking at the arcs of their careers, what's really hampered both elite centers is their propensity for injury. You have to wonder if these concerns are to blame for the alarming drop in blocks per game. Stoudemire's drop -- from 2.1 per game in 2007-08 to 1.0 this season -- is one of the more conspicuous statistical craterings in all of fantasy basketball.

Now, the most conspicuous negative stat in all of fantasy basketball used to be Shaquille O'Neal's free throw shooting. That has been supplanted during the past couple of seasons by Dwight Howard's free throw shooting. And Howard's only getting worse; his .589 free throw rate for the season is more than 10 points lower than his career average (.600). What could once be viewed as an early-career anomaly has blossomed into a pre-eminent fantasy issue, making owners wonder whether Howard's incredible production in blocks and rebounds (and improving scoring) makes him worth the hit. It says here that as long as he's shooting less than 60 percent from the stripe, Howard is just too much of a risk.

Tier 3

Andrew Bynum, Lakers (17.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg, .572 field goal percentage)
Nene, Nuggets (13.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 1.5 spg, .581 field goal percentage)
Marc Gasol, Grizzlies (14.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.0 spg, .611 field goal percentage)
Chris Kaman, Clippers (19.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg)
Marcus Camby, Clippers (8.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 bpg, 1.4 spg)
Al Horford, Hawks (13.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg, .578 field goal percentage)
Andrea Bargnani, Raptors (16.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.5 3-pointers, 1.2 bpg, .850 free throw percentage)
Andrew Bogut, Bucks (15.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.8 bpg, .530 field goal percentage, .565 free throw percentage)

This is the tier with the most upward mobility, where you'll find several promising young centers with a good deal of upside (Bynum, Horford, Bogut, Bargnani), along with a couple of solid vets with injury histories (Kaman, Nene, Camby). One of the key reasons keeping these players down is (Bargnani excepted) their poor free throw shooting. It pains me to see so many productive players leaving 2-3 points a night out on the floor due to their mediocre performance at the stripe.

Bynum could, given time, burst into one of the upper parts of the second tier, but to me he's not even the most intriguing name on this list. Bargnani has been showing signs of putting it all together (such as actually playing some semblance of defense), and could find himself in line for 20 ppg next season if/when Bosh bolts for parts south. Bogut is another frustrating yet captivating fave of mine, mostly due to his potential for vintage Brad Miller levels of production in assists.

Tier 4

Mehmet Okur, Jazz (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 3-pointers, .449 field goal percentage, .814 free throw percentage)
Joakim Noah, Bulls (10.2 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 1.9 bpg, .671 free throw percentage)
Emeka Okafor, Bobcats (10.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.0 bpg, .568 free throw percentage)
Channing Frye, Suns (11.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.5 3-pointers)

Here are some solid second centers with some first-center potential. Basically, these are players who either started very hot (Frye) or very cold (Okafor), and have yet to give us a full idea as to what they're going to do this season. I believe Okafor's going to trend upward, given the lack of court time he's received with Chris Paul up to this point. Okur's still playing himself into form, and Noah seems to have finally carved himself a steady diet of minutes in the Bulls' rotation.

The X factor here, of course, is Frye. It's unbelievable to me that I'm describing a center's potential from the 3-point line as "explosive," but that's what we're looking at here with fantasy's most conspicuous ex-Blazer. If I were a Portlandian, I'd be crying in my fondue and calling for an investigative panel at the statewide level, at the very least.

Tier 5

Luis Scola, Rockets (14.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 0.3 bpg)
Brendan Haywood, Wizards (10.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, .636 free throw percentage)
Samuel Dalembert, 76ers (6.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg)
Kendrick Perkins, Celtics (12.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg, .649 field goal percentage, .614 free throw percentage)

In seasons past, stat lines like these would land a player firmly in the upper fourth tier. Now, these guys are bargain-basement centers.

Tier 6

Brad Miller, Bulls (stats not necessary)

My favorite fantasy center of the past five years, Miller had fallen out of fantasy consideration, but is clawing his way back to at least the third tier. Never, ever, count out Brad Miller.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.