2:37 pm Jan. 4, 2013
Back in the summer, Shaquille O'Neal drew some ridicule for making the claim that Brook Lopez, and not Dwight Howard, was the best center in the N.B.A. (To be fair, part of this came from Shaq confusing Brook with his twin brother Robin.)
This ran counter to the general consensus of the time, every statistical measurement in both players' careers, and even the strategy of the Brooklyn Nets, who only signed Lopez to a long-term contract extension once dealing for Howard became impossible. Howard, meanwhile, went from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Lakers promptly became the favorites in many quarters to win the N.B.A. championship.
But more than a third of the way through the season, Brook Lopez looks like an elite center, as does Tyson Chandler, who the Knicks tried to deal this past spring (with Amar'e Stoudemire) for Howard, who so far this season hasn't been as good as either of them.
Whether you prefer Lopez or Chandler has a lot to do with what value you place on very different strengths.
In Lopez, the Nets have a high-usage center capable of scoring in many different ways. He's taking 18 shots per game, scoring them at a 52 percent clip, and has been doing so without much offensive support at power forward. His rebounding percentage, once a profound weakness, has recovered to 14.8 percent, which is acceptable for a center. He's blocking shots, nearly three per game, and he simply isn't turning the ball over, posting a miniscule 8.3 percent turnover rate.
Accordingly, his Player Efficiency Rating of 25.5 is not only best on the Nets by far, but also best among the league's centers, and fifth-best in the N.B.A. among all players, tied with Kobe Bryant, and trailing league royalty: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. The first four are talked about as M.V.P. candidates.
Tyson Chandler has built a similarly strong season via a very different path. Unlike Lopez, Chandler hardly ever shoots, averaging just under seven attempts per game. But he makes an astonishing number of these, with a field goal percentage of 68.6 percent. That not only leads the league, it tops his 67.9 percent from last season, which happened to be the third-best by anyone in N.B.A. history, trailing just a pair of Wilt Chamberlain's seasons.
Chandler is a better rebounder than Lopez, and his 18.4 percent is 12th in the league and third among centers. He doesn't block nearly as many shots, and turns the ball over at an average rate for a center, but his offensive efficiency and rebounding helped produce a P.E.R. so far this year of 21.8, up from 18.7 last year and easily a career high.
Neither Lopez's season, nor Chandler's, measure up to the 26 P.E.R. posted by Dwight Howard in 2010-11. But Howard dropped a bit, to 24.2 last year, then had back surgery end his season early. This season? He's down to 20.1, still very good, but well below his career norms. The Lakers have suffered, too: they're just 15-16 this season.
None of the above comparison takes defense into account. And a healthy Howard was miles beyond Lopez, and probably a bit better than Chandler, too, which is saying something. However, Howard's defense has slipped more noticeably than even his offense, with the still-recovering center simply not yet playing at previous strength. Whether he will again is an open question, one based on health.
That leaves Lopez, whose defense this season, blocked shots aside, still isn't good, and Chandler, whose defense is solid this year, though not quite at last season's level. An argument can be made for either one.
Yet both are ahead of Howard. And to think that people were laughing at Shaquille O'Neal.