Where have all the centers gone?
Over the years we’ve witnessed a massive shift towards small ball – a style that while enjoyable, is rendering big men almost obsolete. Hopefully guys like Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis can usher in a new era, but for the time being, we’ll all have to get used to guys like Draymond Green and Tristan Thompson playing the five. I guess size really doesn’t matter.
All jokes aside, what constitutes a truly great center? Should championships matter? Is it the amount of All-Star and All-NBA selections they have? At the end of the day, a truly great center changes the way the position and game are played. I’m talkin’ about sky hooks and 100 point games. Guys that were so unstoppable they needed to be double or even triple teamed.
So without further ado, we count down the greatest centers in the history of the NBA:
10. Patrick Ewing
While there were many players that could have filled this spot, I couldn’t ignore Patrick Ewing’s greatness, especially in the era he played in. No, he didn’t win a championship, but neither did Charles Barkley or Karl Malone and they’re members of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. At the time, the Bulls were everyone’s kryptonite — neither coaches nor players had an answer for Michael. As great as Ewing and his Knicks were, the Bulls were just better.
Ewing finished his career averaging 21 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 1.9 assists per game, on 50.4% shooting from the field. He was selected to seven All-NBA and three All-Defensive teams during his 17-year career. Rings aside, Ewing was an absolute beast on both ends of the court, using his toughness and skill to outsmart and bully his opponents. It’s a shame that Ewing was never able to bring a championship to New York, but his legacy will always be remembered.
9. George Mikan
Other than Bill Russell, no player had a better winning percentage than George Mikan. Over a span of seven seasons, Mikan won an impressive five championships, all with the Minneapolis Lakers. He was selected to four All-Star games, six All-BAA/NBA teams and is a member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players – an achievement that’s absolutely amazing considering George only played 439 career games. As a matter of fact, the league had to widen the lane because of his superiority – players and coaches had no answer. Mikan truly was the NBA’s first great center.
Mikan may not be as celebrated as the legends still to come, but he sure as hell should be. What some fans may not know is that Mikan was one of the players responsible for modernizing basketball. He played the center position like no other had before. During his day, Mikan averaged 23.1 points and 13.4 rebounds per game. These are numbers that before George, were considered impossible. It’s no wonder why Mikan was given the nickname “Mr. Basketball”.
8. David Robinson
David Robinson a.k.a. “The Admiral”, was drafted 1st overall by San Antonio in 1987, although didn’t begin his career until 1989-90, after his naval service. Robinson played his entire career for the Spurs, winning two championships (1998-99, 2002-03) and was named to eight All-Defensive teams over a span of 14 seasons. That said, Robinson wasn’t just a defensive specialist. He could knock down jump shots, put the ball on the floor, and was a force in the post. Over a span of 987 games, Robinson averaged 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and three blocks per game. As a matter of fact, his 2,954 career blocks are the 6th most in NBA history.
In 1998, Robinson and the Spurs hit the lottery, drafting Tim Duncan first overall. Together, the two went on to form one of the most dominant frontcourt duos in NBA history – commonly referred to as The Twin Towers. I bring this up only to further Robinson’s greatness. Knowing that Duncan was the future, Robinson could have asked for a trade or made things difficult, but instead, he embraced “The Big Fundamental”; a decision that elevated the Spurs to new heights and tipped the scales of power in the West for years to come.
7. Bob McAdoo
Bob McAdoo’s name rarely comes up when discussing the greatest centers in league history, but it should. McAdoo was drafted second overall in 1972-73 season by the Buffalo Braves and never looked back. That season he was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, averaging 18 points, 9.1 rebounds and shooting an impressive 45% from the field. He played on seven different teams during his 17-year career, winning two championships with the Showtime Lakers in 1981-82 and 1984-85. McAdoo also won two EuroLeague Championships in 1987-88 and 1988-89 and three as assistant coach of the Miami Heat in 2006, 2012 and 2013.
McAdoo finished his career averaging 22.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, while shooting an impressive 50.3% from the field. He was named an All-Star five times and won three NBA scoring titles – an accolade accomplished by only seven players in league history. McAdoo was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, permanently cementing him as one of the league’s greatest players.
6. Moses Malone
The great Moses Malone entered the league at the age of 19, drafted in the 3rd round of the 1974-75 ABA draft. He played for a total of ten teams over his impressive 21 year career, playing in both the ABA and NBA. During his heyday, Malone was considered one of the greatest defensive centers of his era, despite only being named to the All-Defensive team twice.
Malone played a total of 1,455 games during his career, averaging 20.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. His most successful season came in 1981-82, when he averaged 31.1 points and 14.7 rebounds per game. After that season, he left the Rockets and signed a six-year deal worth $13.2 million with the 76ers – a decision that would prove to be the right one. Malone won a championship in his first season in Philadelphia and was named the Finals MVP. He finished his career as a three-time regular season MVP and a 12-time NBA All-Star. Despite winning only one championship, Malone was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. Malone may have passed away in 2015, but his legacy will live on forever.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
In 1984, the Houston Rockets used their first overall pick on 7-foot Cougars center, Hakeem Olajuwon. Later nicknamed ‘The Dream’, because of his effortless ability to dunk the ball, Olajuwon’s dominance started early. In his first season, Hakeem averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 blocks per game and was named to the All-Rookie team — a sign of things to come. During his 18 season career, Olajuwon was named to 12 All-Star teams, nine All-Defensive teams and 12 All-NBA teams. He led the Rockets to their first championship in 1993-94 and again in 1994-95, winning back-to-back Final MVP trophies as well. Olajuwon retired in 2002 and was later inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008 and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2016.
Most believe the 2003 NBA draft to be greatest in NBA history – I couldn’t disagree more. The 1984 draft was lightyears better. Don’t get me wrong, LeBron, Wade, Bosh and Anthony are great and all, but I’d take Olajuwon, Barkley, Stockton and Jordan any day of the week.
4. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain began his HOF career when he was drafted 3rd overall by the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. For most, Chamberlain will always be the guy that dropped 100 points in one game, which is outstanding, but he was also so much more. Over a span of 15 seasons and 1,045 games, Wilt the Stilt posted career numbers of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He won seven NBA scoring titles, four regular season MVPs and was selected to 13 All-Star teams. More importantly, he won two NBA championships, one with Philadelphia (1966-67) and the other with Los Angeles (1971-72). He likely would’ve won more, but the 60s were Bill Russell’s era. Everyone else was just playing in it.
Despite his postseason troubles, it was his regular season numbers that were so outstanding. In 1961-62 “The Big Dipper” averaged a mind blowing 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. Crazy, right? It gets better. Despite those jaw-dropping numbers, Wilt finished second in MVP votes that season, losing out to none other than… you guessed it, Bill Russell! That said, Wilt did finish his career with 23,924 career blocks which was 2,304 more than Russell – so take that, Billy!
3. Shaquille O’Neal
In my opinion, Shaquille O’Neal was the most physically dominant player to ever play the game. He was big, fast and practically unstoppable – a force like the NBA had never seen before. He was drafted 1st overall by the Orlando Magic in 1992-93 and was quick to make a name for himself. During his first season, Shaq averaged an outstanding 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.5 blocks per game and took home the ROY honors. From that point on, Shaq went on to win three Finals MVPs, three All-Star MVPs, two NBA scoring titles and four NBA championships — three of which came back-to-back-to-back, a feat that even LeBron James couldn’t achieve with “The Heatles.”
During his 20 year career, he was selected to 15 All-Star teams, 14 All-NBA teams and three All-Defensive teams. When you consider Shaq’s size and the way he played the game, the fact that he remained as dominant as he did, for as long as he did, is absolutely remarkable. There aren’t many players that can say they have a career average of 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In fact, he ranks 8th on the NBA’s all-time scoring and blocks lists. He’s a member of both the college and NBA Hall of Fame, and also won an Olympic gold medal in 1996. Sure, his FT percentage was terrible, but his FG percentage (58.2) was amazing – the fourth highest field goal percentage in NBA history.
2. Bill Russell
The NBA’s first true superstar. The first black man to coach and win a championship doing so. To those that say Bill Russell played in an era that wasn’t as competitive, I say hogwash! The man won 11 championships in 13 seasons. I’ll say that again… 11 chips in 13 seasons. If you can think of a player, in any sport, that was more dominant, let me know. He finished his career averaging 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, while shooting 44% from the field. I know times have changed, but 22.5 rebounds a game is just insane! But, we’re talking about a guy that was a 12-time NBA All-Star, five-time NBA MVP and was selected to 11 All-NBA teams over a span of 13 seasons.
While it has no bearing on his NBA career, I would like to note that Russell also won two NCAA championships. Honestly, all this man did was win. I know MJ is the GOAT, and he likely always will be, but nobody will leave the kind of mark Russell did. There’s a reason the NBA renamed the Finals MVP award the “Bill Russell Trophy” – he was the best!
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Other than Bill Russell, no player is more decorated than six-time champion, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. During his 20 year career, Kareem suited up for only two teams, the Milwaukee Bucks from 1969-1975 and the Los Angeles Lakers from 1975-1989. He retired a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a six-time NBA MVP and a 19-time NBA All-Star — a record that even the great Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant couldn’t surpass. Kareem was also selected to 15 All-NBA teams (tied for 1st) and 11 All-Defensive teams (4th all-time).
Kareem played a total of 1,560 games during his HOF career, averaging a outstanding 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.6 blocks per game, while connecting on a remarkable 55.9% from the field. As as result of that greatness, Kareem retired the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, recording 38,387 points – 1,449 more than second place Karl Malone. He had a ton of post-moves, most notably, the unstoppable Sky Hook 0 — a move so dominant, it rendered his shot practically unblockable. Kareem is not only the greatest center of all-time, he’s arguably the greatest player ever – Jordan included.