Top 10 NBA Centers of All Time
Where have all the centers gone? As I look over the NBA landscape, I see hoards of talented point guards, small forwards and athletic power forwards. The days of dominant big men are gone.
The NBA is much more athletically focused now, with traditional back-to-the-basket centers that pound it out a thing of the past. The only two truly special centers today are Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, and Howard is successful more because of his strength and athleticism than a post-up game.
With the center position slowly dying out, I decided to honor the great ones of the past by creating this top 10 centers of all time list. I utilized several factors in making this list, with dominance during peak years, consistency and postseason performance being the most important.
(Note: This is probably the most stacked position in the NBA’s history. You could put the top four in any order, and I would be fine with it.)
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First of all, here are the best of the rest who didn't quite make the cut:
Bill Walton: Great when healthy, just couldn't stay on the court.
Wes Unseld: A poor man's Bill Russell.
Robert Parish: Career benefited from playing with Larry Bird.
Dikembe Mutombo: Not enough offense to go with the stellar defense.
Dwight Howard: On his way, but hasn't played enough yet.
10: Willis Reed
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Willis Reed is most known for his heroic performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, but he actually had a more distinguished career than most realize.
Reed only played 10 seasons, but he was an All-Star for the first seven and won the Rookie of the Year award in 1965. In his sixth year, he took home the league’s MVP award.
Reed was also the Finals MVP in ’70 and ’73, the only two years the New York Knicks took home the title.
9: Patrick Ewing
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Although he doesn’t have the championships or MVPs that Willis Reed does, Patrick Ewing didn’t benefit from playing with the greats like Reed. The best teammate he ever had was Mark Jackson for five seasons (88-92), whose all-time stats make him look better than he actually was.
Still, Ewing managed to take the Knicks to the Finals the first year Jordan retired, and took the Rockets to seven games, losing by only six in the deciding contest.
Ewing won the Rookie of the Year award in a 1985 draft class that included Chris Mullin, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars.
8: David Robinson
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Joining Ewing as the other center of the 1992 Dream Team, David Robinson is yet another Rookie of the Year winner on this list. He joined the league late because of his service in the Navy, but he didn’t waste any time making his mark, appearing in the All-Star Game for 10 of his first 12 seasons, including his first seven years.
Robinson won the league MVP award in 1995, but his 1994 campaign marked two all-time great achievements.
On February 17, Robinson recorded a quadruple-double against the Pistons with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 blocks and two steals.
Then, in the final game of the regular season, he scored 71 points to clinch the scoring title.
7: George Mikan
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George Mikan was the first NBA superstar. From 1949 through 1954, Mikan had one of the most dominant six-year stretches of any player.
He was on the All-NBA First Team all six years, powered the Lakers to five championships and would have won multiple MVPs and Finals MVPs had those awards been given out in those years.
Mikan is most known for the rule changes he caused. He was so dominant on both ends, the NBA widened its lanes from six feet wide to 12 and introduced the shot clock, and the NCAA outlawed defensive goaltending.
6: Moses Malone
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It seems unjust to put Moses Malone as the sixth-best anything, but the NBA has seen so many legendary centers, someone has to be sixth.
Malone was one of the original pioneers in going straight from high school to the pros, and it paid off. He made 13 All-Star games, won three league MVPs, led the league in rebounds per game six times and is fifth all-time in career rebounds. He did most of his work in the 1980s, the NBA’s strongest decade.
On top of his relentless rebounding, Malone averaged over 22 points in a season nine times and peaked at 31.1 during his 1982 MVP season.
5: Shaquille O'Neal
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In his heyday, the Diesel was the most physically dominant center since Wilt Chamberlain. He had almost no actual skill, but it didn’t matter. He was so much bigger and stronger than everyone else, all he had to be good at was layups.
Of course, this backfired on him in his free-throw shooting. The Hack-a-Shaq routine was almost enough to single-handedly derail any chance of success.
He also benefited from playing in an era that didn’t feature many great centers.
Nevertheless, he was the best player on three straight championship teams and the second-best on another.
Most impressively, Shaq was named to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players team after only four years in the league.
4: Hakeem Olajuwon
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Hakeem The Dream might be the best all-around defensive player ever. He has by far the most blocks of all time (3830 to Dikembe Mutombo’s 3289) and is eighth on the all-time steals list. The next closest center on that list is Clifford Robinson, at No. 45.
Olajuwon’s post game is one of the best the league has seen. His Dream Shake was almost impossible to stop. He has worked with several current NBA superstars to teach them his skills in the post, such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard.
The Dream gets bonus points for winning the NBA Finals the two years Michael Jordan either wasn’t in the league or wasn’t at full force. And the first year, he did it as the only superstar to win a title with only role players and no real No. 2 option in the modern NBA era (about mid-70s to now).
3: Wilt Chamberlain
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Wilt Chamberlain was the Shaq of the 1960s, but better. He was so much bigger, stronger and more powerful than everyone else, it didn’t matter that he couldn’t shoot.
In his very first season in 1960, Chamberlain scored 37.6 points and grabbed 27 rebounds per game en route to becoming the first rookie to be named league MVP. This feat was later matched by only Wes Unseld in 1969.
Of course, Chamberlain also has the record for most points in a game with 100, and averaged an astonishing 50.4 points per game in that 1962 season, two records that seem impossible to break.
Late in his career, when he wasn’t scoring as much, he remained just as efficient, shooting 64.9 and an NBA-record 72.7 percent his last two seasons, respectively. He also averaged at least 7.8 assists per game twice in his career.
Chamberlain retired as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and remains the top rebounding machine ever.
Had blocks been a recorded stat during that time, Chamberlain would have been putting up triple-doubles all over the place.
2: Bill Russell
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Russell was the ultimate winner. He never scored above 19 points per game in any season, but he won 11 total championships as a player, an NBA record.
He was also the player-coach for the Celtics the last three years of his career, and they won two championships during that span.
Russell benefited from playing with other all-time greats like Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and Bill Sharman, among others, but he was still the best player and leader during that 11-championships-in-13-years run.
He was the winner of five MVP awards and would have the record for Finals MVPs if the award had been handed out during that stretch.
Russell ranks behind only Wilt in career rebounds.
1: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was never as dominant in his peak years as other great centers like Wilt or Shaq, but he wins the nod at No. 1 because of his incredible consistency.
From his rookie year of 1970 all the way through 1987, Kareem scored somewhere between 20.1 to 28.4 points per game. Even in his last two seasons after hitting the age of 40, he still scored 18.2 and 15.9 points, respectively.
He is the all-time leader in points with 38,387, MVPs with six and All-Star selections with 19. The only time he wasn’t an All-Star was in 1978, when he missed 20 games in the beginning of the season due to a broken hand.
All of Kareem’s success came from his trademark shot: the sky-hook. As far as specific moves go, the sky-hook was the most unstoppable shot in NBA history.