Drafting a top-5 center? Riskier than ever before

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The top picks in next week's NBA draft are going to look very different from the league's just-concluded playoffs, and not just because -- as usual -- most of the teams with the best picks are those that missed out on the postseason.

Starting with Arizona's Deandre Ayton, expected to be taken No. 1 overall by the Phoenix Suns, many of this year's top prospects are centers. The latest mock draft by Insider's Jonathan Givony has either pure centers (Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr.) or forward/centers (Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr.) going within five of the first six picks.

The scouting process took place against the backdrop of an NBA postseason during which traditional centers had relatively little impact. As the league trends toward more 3-pointers and switching defenses, are teams drafting for an era that no longer exists?

Small-ball succeeds deep in playoffs

Here's a remarkable statistic about the influence of centers in this year's playoffs. In this year's conference finals, both of which went seven games, the four teams got a combined three minutes by players listed as 7-foot or taller -- all by JaVale McGee of the Golden State Warriors. Neither the Boston Celtics nor the Cleveland Cavaliers had a 7-footer on the roster, while the Houston Rockets' only 7-footer, rookie Zhou Qi, was inactive.

It's dangerous to read too much into two series, and the state of post play in the NBA wouldn't be dramatically different had the favored Philadelphia 76ers and their 7-footer Joel Embiid beaten Boston in the second round. Still, the 2018 postseason was the continuation of a multiyear trend.

Over the past three years, 7-footers have played a dramatically lower share of minutes in the playoffs than during the regular season. That wasn't the case in the 1990s and early 2000s, when low-post centers ruled the league. Back then, 7-footers took on a higher proportion of minutes in the postseason.

After a long period when there was no consistent difference between the regular season and playoffs, that flipped starting in 2016 -- the year after the Warriors won the championship by moving the 6-foot-7 Draymond Green to center against Cleveland in the NBA Finals.

Now, centers don't necessarily have to be 7-foot or taller, an arbitrary cutoff. Rockets center Clint Capela, 6-foot-10, has shown a non-shooter can make an important impact as a dive man and rim protector. But even Capela was on the bench down the stretch as Houston beat Golden State in Games 4 and 5, replaced by 6-foot-6 PJ Tucker, the Rockets' version of Green.

For the most part, the centers who had the biggest impact in the late rounds of the 2018 playoffs were smaller, more versatile players, such as Al Horford of the Celtics and the Cavaliers' frontcourt of Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson -- all of them drafted as power forwards, a position Horford and Love continue to play at times.

Meanwhile, Golden State played a variety of centers en route to its third title in four years. McGee, the 7-foot lob threat, started in the first round and the last three games of the Warriors' sweep of Cleveland in the Finals. In between, Golden State started the more mobile Kevon Looney, another converted power forward, with 6-foot-9 Jordan Bell and David West also playing regularly in the middle.

So if the Suns draft Ayton No. 1, they'll be trying a different roster-building strategy than the one employed by the league's best teams.

Center production available cheaply

Back in the early 2000s, the fear was that the center position was going extinct for lack of talent. The problem now is the opposite of that. With higher 3-point attempt rates providing so much spacing around spread pick-and-roll offenses, the productivity of centers has never been better -- making useful centers easy to find.

During the 2017-18 season, players who saw a majority of their action at center (based on lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats and my own assessment of player positions) collectively posted a .587 true shooting percentage -- 25 points better than the next-best position (power forwards at .562; league average was .557). Centers managed that despite finishing 19.5 percent of their teams' plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover, barely below the league average of 20 percent.

As a result, weighted by minutes played the average center had a player winning percentage of .560, the per-minute version of my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric akin to player efficiency rating. League average is .500 by this measure, and no other position topped that mark (power forwards were next at .498). Something similar is true with ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM), where the weighted average for centers was a plus-1.3 rating (power forwards were next best at plus-0.3).

Naturally, that means centers dominated the WARP leaderboard. Of the 66 players to post at least five WARP this season, an incredible 26 played primarily as centers -- nearly 40 percent, or about twice the expected number if all positions were distributed equally.

The issue here is that as centers have become more productive, that has affected both the stars and the journeymen. In practice, I've defined replacement level for WARP as the performance of players signed as free agents for the minimum before the season, a group that now includes players signed to two-way contracts. Again, centers stand out among their replacement-level peers for their effective play.

Led by McGee and West, centers signed for the minimum combined for 15.3 WARP this season, as compared to minus-6.6 WARP for replacement players at other positions. While some year-to-year fluctuation in the replacement pool is natural -- for example, the other positions rating collectively below replacement in 2017-18 was unusual -- there's a long-term trend of replacement centers outperforming their peers. Here's how the positions rate over the past five seasons:

Besides suggesting that I may be setting replacement level a touch low -- though it was better calibrated the previous five seasons -- these results suggest strongly that applying the same replacement level across the board is not working, particularly at center. The logic underlying WARP is that players add value to their teams by performing better than replacement level. Giving centers credit for playing better than an average replacement level across all positions overstates their value when there are capable centers available for the minimum.

So I've adjusted my draft projections accordingly (in this case using the average performance of rookies from college by position rather than replacement level), which has caused big men to fall on my updated big board for the 2018 draft. The top six of my projections now includes just two post players: Ayton and Jackson.

How centers are like running backs

Before this year's NFL draft, a key topic of discussion was whether running backs are worth taking with high picks. Much like centers, productive running backs can be found for cheap as running has taken on relatively less importance relative to passing in an evolution similar to the NBA moving away from 2-point attempts toward 3s.

My colleague Bill Barnwell used that track record to argue against the New York Giants taking Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick. Giants GM Dave Gettleman disagreed, making Barkley the pick and calling the idea that running backs have lost value "a crock." Two more running backs were taken late in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots.

It would be a stretch to say centers in the NBA are equivalent in value to running backs in the NFL. The very best centers continue to command max money, whereas part of the reason running backs are considered a poor value in the draft is that few free agents are paid as much as or more than the rookie contracts top picks like Barkley receive.

Still, the top teams in this year's draft could be investing precious picks into centers not dramatically better than those available at relatively low prices in free agency, and players who may have a tough time making an impact deep in the playoffs if their teams become contenders. That should give teams looking at centers some reason to re-evaluate before the draft.