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.
One last disclaimer: we know that the traditional center position has evolved a lot in the last two decades. These days, a lot o seven-footers are playing a position they call “power forward” instead of the old-school low post centers. Some of these players definitely blur the lines between center and power forward, depending on their coach and their teammates. For the sake of discussion, we’ve decided to include players who pulled double duty. So without further ado, we count down the greatest centers in the history of the NBA:
25. Joel Embiid
Okay, so we’re probably jumping the gun a bit with this first selection. After all, Joel Embiid was drafted in 2014 but didn’t play a single game for the 76ers until 2016 after battling numerous injuries. Even them, he only appeared in 31 games during his rookie season. Philly basketball fans are still justifiably nervous that a slight breeze will roll in and somehow put Embiid back on the shelf.
In 2017-18, Embiid was finally healthy enough to play a whole season. The result? He averaged a double-double (22.9 points, 11.0 rebound), formed an intimidating duo with point guard Ben Simmons, and turned around the 76ers from a team that only won 10 and 28 games in 2015 and 2016, into a 52-win team that claimed the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2017-18, and even won a playoff series.
Embiid is young and scary talented. At 7’0″ and 250-pounds, he still has the quickness and agility of a much smaller player. Assuming he can stay healthy (which is admittedly a big “IF” right now), Embiid has the talent to be one of the all-time great big men in NBA history. #TrustTheProcess, indeed.
24. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis already has six full seasons in the NBA, and he’s still in his mid-20s. He already a five-time All-Star and has formed a habit of putting up ridiculous stat lines. In 2017-18 alone, he had 24 games scoring 30-to-39 points, another seven games scoring 40+ and one amazing game where he put up 53 points and 18 boards against the Suns. The man can straight ball.
Davis’ first trip to the playoffs in 2014-15 was a disappointment, getting swept by the eventual NBA champions Golden State Warriors in the first round. After some rebuilding, the New Orleans Pelicans returned to the postseason in 2017-18 and shocked fans by sweeping the No. 3 seed Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. In those four games, Davis put up 35 points and 14 rebounds in Game 1, followed by 22 and 12, 28 and 11, and a massive 47 and 10. We’d be shocked if Davis doesn’t find a way to finish his career with a championship ring or two. Plus, if he keeps averaging close to 30 points every season, he’ll be in line to win some scoring titles.
23. Alonzo Mourning
Zo was a classic old-school center from the 90s and early 00s, and will long be remembered for his play during the intense playoff matchups between his Miami Heat and Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks. While Mourning could definitely score, averaging around 20 points per game before a bout with kidney disease sidelined his career in 2002, he was a defensive monster. Along with battling under the glass for rebounds, he was always a threat to block shots. He led the league in blocks in 1998-99 and 1999-00.
Mourning was a seven-time All-Star and a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. The previously mentioned kidney illness did slow him down a bit, but he was also 32 at the time. When he returned to the court, his minutes and production went down as he transitioned into the sixth-man role. He still managed to win one NBA championship with LeBron, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh in Miami though. Over 16 seasons in the NBA, Mourning averaged 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game.
22. Dwight Howard
The knock on Dwight Howard is that he’s a bad teammate. And that may be true, since he’s basically been run out of every team he’s ever played for up until now. His personal life is a bit of a mess, which may be why he often seems distracted or zoned out on the court. But when he’s focused, opposing players need to watch out! The 6’11”, 265-pound monster is the closest thing, physically speaking, the NBA has seen to Shaq since he retired. Howard is capable of bullying defenders and putting up huge numbers — when he feels like it, that is.
Howard has led the league in rebounds six different times, in free throw attempts four different times, and in blocked shots twice. He’s been an All-Star eight times and named to the All-NBA First team fives times. He’s a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and even won the Dunk Content in 2008. He led the Magic to their first NBA Finals in 14 years in 2008-09, even putting heroic numbers like 21 rebounds and 9 blocked shots in Game 4. Unfortunately, the Magic still lost to the Lakers that year.
In 14 seasons (so far), Howard is averaging 17.4 points, 12.7 rebound, and 2.0 blocks per game. Those are legit numbers for a legit big man.
21. Pau Gasol
Pau Gasol has had an incredible career, no matter how you look at it. Ever since winning Rookie of the Year back in 2002, the Spanish big man was played in 17 straight seasons. In that time he’s been to six All-Star Games and won a pair of NBA championships (with the Lakers in 2009 and 2010). That not even including his international accomplishments with the Spanish National Team, which are also impressive.
At 7’0″ tall, Gasol was one of the first in a growing trend of Europeon players coming to the NBA and showcasing unique skill sets. Despite his size, Gasol could shoot well, make great passes, play solid defense, and still do the traditional center tasks like blocking shots and posting up opposing players. He has managed 550 double-doubles so far in his career, putting him tenth on the all-time list of double-doubles that include points and rebounds (he’s further down when you count assists).
To put his entire career into perspective, Gasol is just the fourth player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,500 assists, and 1,500 blocks. He was truly one of the most well-rounded centers in NBA history.
20. Dikembe Mutombo
The legendary center from the Democratic Republic of Congo is known for two things — great defense and that iconic finger wag after swatting one of his 3,289 career blocked shots away. That’s the second-most blocked shots of all-time, which helps explain why Dikembe Mutombo was the Defensive Player of the Year four times in the NBA, and an eight-time All-Star.
Mutombo never won an NBA championship, but still put up solid numbers for most of career as a starter. He averaged a double-double for the first 11 seasons as a pro, but started to tail off as he reached his late 30s. He hung around the league as a bench player until he was 42, playing limited minutes for the Houston Rockets. Although we did’t consider off-court humanitarian work when ranking these centers, Mutombo’s charity work in Africa, where’s raised millions of dollars to improve conditions in his native Congo, proves that he’s an all-time great human being along with being an all-time great center.
19. Neil Johnston
We’re going back in time for this entry, as Neil Johnston played for the Philadelphia Warriors (before they moved to Golden State) from 1951-1959. His career only lasted eight seasons, so he doesn’t have the same cumulative totals as some of the other great centers on this list. But Johnston made the absolute most of his brief time in the NBA, making six All-Star teams, winning three scoring titles, and winning an NBA championship in 1956.
Johnston was only 6’8″, which would be small for a center these days. However, he perfected a short hook shot that resembled the iconic “Sky Hook” that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would later use. He averaged more than a double-double for his entire career (19.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game), but was forced to retire after tearing up his knee in 1959. He went into coaching and was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame.
18. Arvydas Sabonis
Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian Legend, is one of the greatest European players of all-time and probably helped pave the way for guys like Dirk Nowitzki to find success in the NBA. The 7’3″, 290-pound Sabonis could use his size to play in the post, but was also known as the one of the best passing centers the game had ever seen. He was unusually good court vision for a center.
Bill Walton, a man fairly experienced playing center in the NBA, once called Sabonis a “7’3″ Larry Bird” due to his excellent passing and shooting range, which made him a threat in more places than just the paint. Sabonis could probably have been higher on this list, but he didn’t arrive in the NBA until he was 31-years-old, choosing to spend much of his career playing in Europe. He actually has two Spanish League MVP awards and another two Spanish League Finals MVP awards and was the six-time Euro Player of the Year.
17. Robert Parish
You have to be pretty damn good to play 21 seasons in the NBA, and Robert Parish was just that. Drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 1976, Parish wouldn’t truly blossom until he was traded to the Celtics in 1980. It was in Boston that Parish became part of a dynasty team, winning three NBA titles in the 90s (and technically another one with the Bulls in 1997). He was a nine-time All-Star as a member of the Celtics, and regular put up double-doubles in points and rebounds.
Parish did all the things you normally expect of a 7’0″ center, but also ran the floor extremely well for a big man. He was regularly finishing fast breaks. He also shot the ball much better than most centers of his era, especially from the foul line. He was named as one of the 50 Greatest Players of All-Time in the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, and his iconic number (#00) has been retired by the Boston Celtics. He currently sits 27th on the list of most all-time points (23,334), eighth in rebounds (14,715), and 16th in minutes (45,704).
16. Bill Laimbeer
To many fans and players, Bill Laimbeer was one of the dirtiest players in NBA history. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to gain a competitive advantage — hard fouls, trash talk, flailing elbows. Opposing players hated him, but his teammates loved him. Dennis Rodman once said “Laimbeer was more than a thug, but that’s what he’ll be remembered for.” Another former teammate, Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas, once said this about Laimbeer: “He makes you mad… because he’s good.”
Laimbeer was actually great. During his prime years with the Detroit Pistons, he made four All-Star teams, averaged a double-double, led the league in rebounding in 1986, and won back-to-back NBA championships in 1989 and 1990, holding back a young Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls for a few extra years before His Airness took over the league in the 90s. He was just the 19th player to reach 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, and is one of the only players in league history (along with his Piston teammates) to record playoff wins against all of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and MJ.
15. Bob Lanier
Anyone who averages more than 20 points and 10 rebounds a game for 14 seasons in the NBA deserves a spot on this list. Bob Lanier, who played for the Pistons and then the Bucks in the 70s and into the 80s, was a dominant 6’10” center of his time. He was an eight-time All-Star and even won the All-Star MVP award in 1974 with a game-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds and couple of blocks and assists.
Lanier’s NBA success was no surprise. He was a three-time All-American in college, playing for St. Bonaventure. He was selected with the first overall pick in the 1970 NBA Draft. He tried his hand at coaching after he retired in 1984, but it never really stuck. Lanier was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
14. Artis Gilmore
Artis Gilmore is a bit of a technicality on this list, since he spent the first five seasons of his professional career playing for Kentucky Colonels in the ABA. After the ABA-NBA merger, the Colonels folded and Gilmore was picked by the Chicago Bulls with the first overall pick of the ABA Dispersal Draft. While he was never quite as dominant in the NBA, he was still a terrific center and worthy of his spot on our list.
Gilmore was a five-time ABA All-Star, the ABA MVP in 1972, and won an ABA championship in 1975. He continued to be impressive in the NBA, making six All-Star teams. One of the keys to his success was his excellent shooting percentage. Gilmore was 7’2″ and almost impossible to guard around the basket, resulting in FG% numbers of up to 67 percent some years. He has six straight seasons where his shooting percentage was above 60 percent. Sure, they were mostly short shots, layups, and put backs — but they all count the same.
13. Nate Thurmond
We couldn’t leave out the first player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double, which Nate Thurmond in 1974 when he recorded 22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, and 12 blocked shots against the Atlanta Hawks. While that was a special night, it’s not the highlight of Thurmond’s Hall of Fame career. In 14 seasons, most with the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors, Thurmond averaged a perfect 15 points and 15 rebounds — he actually averaged 20 and 20 in two separate seasons, proving he was a rebound machine. He was a seven-time All-Star and made the All-Defensive First Team twice.
Thurmond was also named one of the NBA’s 50 Best Players during the league’s 50th anniversary season. Unfortunately, he could never manage to win an NBA championship. He lost to Wilt Chamberain and the 76ers in 1967 Finals and then had to contend with the dynasty Boston Celtics during his final few years playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thurmond still holds the record for most rebounds in a single quarter, with 18. He’s also one of only five players to average at least 15 rebounds over an entire career — pretty rare company!
12. Willis Reed
Willis Reed only played 11 seasons in the NBA, all with the New York Knicks, but they were 11 impressive years. He was a seven-time All-Star, the Rookie of the Year (1965), the regular season MVP (1970), and won two NBA titles (1970 and 1973) while being named Finals MVP both times. At 6’9″ and 240 pounds, Reed was actually smaller than some of the other centers in the league, but he made up for it by playing with grit, hustle, and an extra physical presence.
In his prime, Reed was a 20 point and 12+ rebound per game kind of player. Even with his numbers dwindling in the last few years of his career, he still boasts career averages of 18.7 points and 12.9 boards. He retired in 1974 after battling numerous injuries. His No. 19 was retired by the Knicks, and he was another player named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. He moved into coaching and general management after his playing days finished, and helped build the New Jersey Nets into a team that made back-to-back Finals in 2002 and 2003.
11. Bill Walton
Bill Walton could have ended up even higher on this list, but missed three whole seasons (plus a handful of other games) due to multiple foot injuries. When he was healthy, the 6’10” center for the Trail Blazers, Clippers, and finally the Celtics, was force to be reckoned with. He was a two-time All-Star and won the MVP award in 1978. He led Portland to an NBA title in 1977 and was named Finals MVP while averaging 18.5 points and 19.0 rebounds against the 76ers.
Walton would win another NBA title in 1986 as a member of the Celtics, but he was only averaging 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds at that point in his career. Even with the reduced numbers, he was a valuable bench player for Boston that year and even won the Sixth Man of the Year award. He’s the only player in NBA history to win each of the Sixth Man, regular season MVP, and Finals MVP awards. He moved into broadcasting after retiring in 1987 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.
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.