Hakeem Olajuwon: Not the Greatest Center of All Time?

Richard TanzilContributor IJanuary 15, 2010

I've seen a number of fans make the claim that Olajuwon is the best center of all time. They're wrong.

It could be said that the best "teammate" Olajuwon had was Clyde Drexler, although he did play with Sampson during the best part of Sampson's career.

I would not consider the '90s to be the best era for big men. You basically had four or five HOF quality centers in the league in Shaq, Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, and possibly Zo. Maybe Mutombo if you want to go that far. But that was IT.

In the '70s, we had Jabbar, Walton when he was healthy, Cowens, Reed, Hayes, Unseld, Thurmond, Jerry Lucas, Wilt, Walt Bellamy, Bob Lanier, Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo, plus Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, and Mel Daniels from the ABA. Not all of those guys played throughout the 70s, but they were all there during that generation.

All of the NBA guys I named are Hall of Famers, Issel is a HOF as well, but Gilmore certainly should be in there too, and even Daniels has a decent argument, although I don’t see him ever making it, unfortunately.

Olajuwon did destroy Ewing in the '94 finals, no question about that. And while Olajuwon's footwork was great (developed while playing soccer as a child), the "Dream Shake" is the second most overplayed and overrated move in NBA history. (The most overrated was Jordan switching hands on an uncontested layup in the '91 finals.)

You've already made the point yourself that blocked shots were not an official NBA stat during the careers of Russell and Chamberlain; otherwise, they'd be Nos. 1 and 2 (or 2 and 1) in that category. While blocks were not an official stat, newspaper accounts of games involving Wilt and Russell would often mention how many shots they blocked; it was not unusual for them to block six to eight shots in a typical game. I'm not saying that's what they averaged; I'm just mentioning that it was common for them to have numbers like that. Both players and referees confirmed those numbers in subsequent interviews over the years.

Heck, Wilt blocked 17 shots in his very first NBA game. (Oh and by the way, he also chipped in with 43 points and 28 rebounds that night.)

Blocks (and steals) were not officially kept by the NBA until the 1973-74 season (the season after Wilt retired), and the NBA does not recognize any blocked shots by Wilt or Russell (even though they're on film).

Olajuwon would be no better than fourth on the all-time blocked shot list had the stat been kept by the NBA from day one. He might even be No. 5; I think Nate Thurmond probably would have blocked more shots in his prime than Olajuwon.

Both Russell and Wilt would also be high up on the steals list (for a center) had that been an official stat as well during their careers.

If Pete Newell said that Olajuwon had the best footwork he'd ever seen in a big man, I'll take him at his word. Newell's been a coach/scout/consultant for a long time, and he has indeed seen them all.

However, having the best footwork doesn't automatically make you the best player. Charles Barkley, for example, had terrible footwork, but he was still a heck of a player. I wouldn't be able to name too many forwards in NBA history who were better than he was.

Olajuwon had some weaknesses in his game that were not always easy for a casual fan to spot. His passing skills were never that great, and his in-depth knowledge of the game was lacking in some areas. (He did not really play basketball at all until his late teens.)

His remarkable athleticism made up for his relative lack of overall knowledge. He didn’t always have a knowledge or feel for where every one of the other nine guys were on the court.

When Olajuwon came into the league, for example, some teams used to try to play him physically by getting a strong player to lean on him. But that actually made Olajuwon’s job easier, because he could feel his man leaning on him and spin off of him. (There’s that great footwork again.)

However, Pat Riley discovered that if you play off of him in the post, then Olajuwon would have to physically turn in order to locate the defender (because he couldn’t use the spin move). That gave a team time to double team him and take the ball out of his hands (and as a bonus, his poor passing skills could sometimes be exploited).

That’s just one example, but it’s something that not many people know. All they ever talk about is the one move he made against David Robinson, and from that alone, they proclaim him the best center ever.

Olajuwon did win two rings but probably would have won only one ring at most had Jordan not retired. Still, you play who you play, and it’s not his fault Jordan retired early.

But Olajuwon did play great in both of those finals and outplayed both Ewing and (a young, raw) Shaq. Still, although you say that Olajuwon didn’t have any great teammates, neither did Ewing, so it was one one-man team against another in ’94. He deserved both rings that he won. And I’m glad he won them. I always liked him and enjoyed watching him play.

In the 70s and 80s, you needed several HOF or HOF quality players in order to win a championship. The fact that Olajuwon was able to win two titles in the 1990s with those teammates says more about the overall weakness of the NBA and the fact that the talent was spread so thinly than it does about him being the greatest center of all time.

By the way, when Kareem was 39 years old (1986) and Olajuwon was about 23, Kareem was named first team all-NBA over Olajuwon. Kareem destroyed both Olajuwon and Sampson during those days.

Don’t get me wrong, Olajuwon was great even at that age, but the fact that Kareem was first team all-NBA at age 39 tells us all we need to know about who was better. You don’t want to know what Kareem would have done to Olajuwon in his prime!

But Wilt, Russell, and Kareem are (in some order) still the three best centers ever to play the game. Olajuwon is one of maybe three guys who have a legitimate claim to be No. 4 (along with Moses Malone and Shaq). Walton was actually a better player than Olajuwon as well, but we can’t rate him over Hakeem because Walton’s career was injury prone.

The 1990s saw a decline in the overall quality of centers. And again, don’t get me wrong, it’s not the fault of Hakeem, Ewing, Robinson, or Shaq as to when they were born. They came to the NBA when they did. But the 1990s NBA was becoming loaded down with too many guys who came right out of high school and weren’t ready for the NBA (other than their potential).

Anyway, it’s no crime to be the fourth best center in NBA history. Olajuwon was an awesome player to watch.