NBA: Who Is the Greatest Center of All-Time?

Raymond SettlesContributor IAugust 24, 2010

Since it is obvious that readers of B/R love to debate, I have a debate to consider.

With many great centers of the NBA having retired, the paucity of adequate replacements dotting NBA rosters, the diminishing quality of teaching of the inside game to centers, and so many players 6-10 and up seeking to be a jump shooting PF rather than a center (thanks KG and Dirk), I thought this would be a good time to review and debate who the greatest to ever man the Center position is.

Do you solely go by statistics, in the process ignoring winning and playing up individual numbers? Or does one consider winning of greater importance, which could, in theory, overrate a good player on great teams? This is known as the Bill Walton on the Boston Celtics Factor.

The three men in the picture, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, and George Mikan, provide a good sample.

While all three have won multiple championships with the Minneapolis and Los Angeles versions of the Lakers, the eras that they played in, along with the type of dominance each displayed, has to be reviewed. All of the men were, in their respective eras (Mikan—1950's, Jabbar 1970's/80's, Shaq—1990's-00's), the dominant big man in the league.

Mikan was the first player, figuratively speaking, bigger than the game. He was the featured attraction of many of the NBA's doubleheaders in the big markets (which happened frequently to maximize attention on the relatively lower scaled young league). His Lakers won five NBA championships in the early days of the league.

Jabbar is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. He won five championships with the Lakers, and one with the Milwaukee Bucks (in his second year of his career). He is the premier big man of the 1970's and the 1980's, winning six MVP trophies, the first NBA player to play in 20 seasons (of which in 15 years he was either 1st or 2nd team All-NBA), the master of the only unstoppable shot (The Skyhook), a 19-time All-Star, and a member of the All-Defense team 11 times.

Then there is Mr. O'Neal. He who has referred to himself as the Most Dominant Ever is truly a non-participant in the discussion.

While he has won four NBA titles, hasn't it always seemed like he should have won more? In both 1995 and 2004 opportunities to win a title were squandered. O'Neal is a 15-time All-Star who has a 24 ppg career scoring mark and 11 rpg average; but it always seemed like he coasted along longer than he should.

Various seemingly minor injuries have continuously kept him from ever playing a full season, including a career-low 40 in 2006-07. Questions about his conditioning and ability to give more have dogged the Big Aristotle. He is definitely not the Greatest of All Time.

One Mr. William Felton Russell, he who has the Finals MVP trophy named after him, is another great contender to consider. He is an 11-time NBA champion and 5-time Regular season MVP. In 11 of his 13 seasons he was  a First or Second Team All-NBA player and the orchestrator of the famed Celtic fast break. His defensive rebounding and shot blocking ability often was the spark that allowed the Celtics to run.

His player-coach season with the Celtics in 1968-69 resulted in a most improbable championship run. Though only approximately 6-9, 220 lbs, Russell was perhaps the most tenacious shot blocker to have ever played in the NBA.

He was an advanced thinker that understood angles and nuances that maximized his incredible speed, balance, jumping ability, and sense of timing as a player. His resume is wrought with accolades from all corners of the NBA world.

Then, finally, we have my own personal selection, Mr. Wilton Norman Chamberlain. The Big Dipper was the NBA all-time leading scorer and is still the NBA all-time leading rebounder. Chamberlain was a 13-time All-Star in his 15 seasons, the only center to ever lead the league in assists, and retired with career averages of 30 ppg and 22.9 rpg! Chamberlain had the distinct misfortune of playing during the same era as the most dominant dynasty in NBA history, Bill Russell's Celtics.

That Chamberlain only won two NBA titles should not diminish his case. Again, his teams were constantly thwarted by the Celtics, who were the superior team during those battles. Chamberlain's Warrior teams were simply not as talented, featuring far fewer Hall of Famers than those Celtic teams.

It should be noted that the two teams of Chamberlain's that won the title are known for: 1) setting the (then) NBA record of 67 wins in a season (1967-68 Warriors) and 2) setting the current record of most consecutive wins in a season, 33 (1972-73 Lakers). Needless to say, Chamberlain was the key cog of those teams and the singular star of the NBA during that time.

I say Wilt Chamberlain was the Greatest Center of All Time. What say you?

This does in no way limit or downplay the contributions/careers of: Nate Thurmond, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Pat Ewing or Bob Lanier.