Ranking the 50 best centers in NBA history is no easy task. Players that span across multiple generations have varying factors that make it difficult to rate.
Centers in the NBA are towering brutes with mighty expectations placed on their broad shoulders. They're expected to impose their will on defense and bully anyone who dares take it to the hole.
However, not all centers are created equal. A saying that is particularly true today.
In the end, all the great NBA centers were measured mainly by their ability to lead their team to the promised land.
James Edwards was a journeyman throughout his lengthy career. He played from 1977 to 1996 and he played for eight different teams.
He was a consistent low-post scorer but a poor rebounder and shot-blocker.
Edwards played a key role for the Detroit Pistons championship squads in 1989 and 1990. He finished his career with another NBA Championship with the Chicago Bulls.
Johnny Kerr was drafted sixth overall in the 1954 NBA draft.
He made three All-Star games and won an NBA Championship in 1955 while with the Syracuse Nationals.
Kerr had a solid career, averaging a double-double throughout most of his tenure.
Manute Bol is tied for tallest player to play in the NBA, measuring at 7’7”.
Bol was a shot-blocking specialist. He really couldn’t do much else and his shot-blocking ability was mainly attributed to his size.
He is the only player in NBA history to have more blocked shots than points scored.
Standing at 7’6”, Shawn Bradley was one of the tallest players to play in the NBA.
That distinction was a gift and a curse. Players practically made it a career goal to dunk on him at least once, and most players lived up to that on multiple occasions.
Bradley was limited offensively, but he was a good shot-blocker. However, he was unable to go up against some of the more physical centers in the NBA due to his thin frame.
Gheorghe Muresan is tied for the tallest player to ever play in the NBA.
Muresan stands at 7’7” and despite his size, he was never a great rebounder or shot-blocker.
He played four seasons with the Washington Bullets and two with the New Jersey Nets.
However, he'll probably best be known for his role in the Billy Crystal movie, My Giant.
Joe Barry Carroll is widely considered to be one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history, and he earned the nickname “Joe Barely Cares”.
However, even with that distinction, Carroll had a solid career while with the Golden State Warriors. He averaged over 20 points per game for five consecutive seasons and nearly two blocks per game.
Alvan Adams played 13 seasons in the NBA, all with the Phoenix Suns.
He was named NBA Rookie of the Year and selected to the All-Star game that year.
Adams didn’t get many accolades and awards for his work, but he was as consistent as they come. He retired with career averages of 14.1 points and 7.0 rebounds.
Born Wayne Rollins, he is perhaps better known for his playing name, Tree Rollins. He would later earn the nickname "The Intimidator".
He had a lengthy career in the NBA that spanned 18 seasons. 11 of those seasons were with the Atlanta Hawks where he had his best years.
Rollins was known primarily for his defense. He was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team during the 1982-83 season and the All-Defensive First Team the year after that
He led the league in blocks during the 1982-83 NBA season and finished in the top three six times. He is currently No. 7 on the list of career blocked shots.
Standing at 7’4”, Rik Smits is one of the tallest players to ever play in the NBA.
He was a poor rebounder, especially for a player of his size, and he faced a lot of foot problems throughout his career, but he played tough and never backed down from a challenge.
The Dunkin’ Dutchman was never a superstar, but he was a solid and consistent player, even making the All-Star game in 1998.
Rony Seikaly was taken ninth overall by the then expansion Miami Heat franchise in the 1988 NBA draft.
He was a solid rebounder, staying near the top of the league in rebounding for several seasons.
Seikaly will perhaps be best known for his spin moves in the low post, earning him the name “The Spin Doctor”.
Well, that and his ex-wife, Elsa Benitez.
Mychal Thompson was the first foreign born player selected first overall in the NBA draft. The Portland Trail Blazers selected him in 1978 and he played with the team for seven seasons.
After a short stint in San Antonio, he made his way to the Los Angeles Lakers where he won two championships with the team.
Thompson played a vital role guarding and limiting Kevin McHale during their Finals run.
Vlade Divac played with the Show Time Lakers in their twilight years. He is one of the first impact European players to migrate overseas to the NBA.
Divac was a fan favorite in L.A. and while with the Sacramento Kings. He played 16 seasons in the NBA before retiring, and he was selected to an All-Star game in 2001.
More than anything else, Divac will perhaps be best known for being the original flop king of the NBA. Something he freely admitted to doing.
Lakers fans owe Divac a lot not only for his years of service, but for being the trade chip that landed the team the draft rights that eventually got them Kobe Bryant.
Ralph Sampson was the first overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft. He was selected to the Houston Rockets where he played with the team from 1983 to 1988.
Sampson won Rookie of the Year, was selected to four All-Star games and one All-NBA team.
He formed a formidable duo with Hakeem Olajuwon before being traded to the Golden State Warriors. From there on out, injuries derailed the rest of his career.
Arnie Risen played 10 seasons in the NBA from 1948 to 1958.
Risen won two championships and was selected to four All-Star games.
It took some time, but he was finally enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998.
Sam Lacey played 13 seasons in the NBA, playing for four different teams from 1970 to 1983.
Lacey was a double-double machine for most of his career, and he holds career averages of 10.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks.
He is one of only five players to record six consecutive seasons with 100-plus blocks and 100-plus steals. That streak could have been as long as nine had the league counted steals and blocks in his first three seasons.
Bill Cartwright started and played most of his career with the New York Knicks, but he is best known for occupying the paint for the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls.
He won three titles playing in Chicago and while he never had astounding numbers with the Bulls, he was a solid player in Chicago that complemented Horace Grant.
Yao Ming entered the NBA with a lot of hype after being selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the Houston Rockets, and he has lived up to those expectations.
Ming has been selected to five All-NBA Teams and seven All-Star games.
He quickly became one of the top centers in the league.
However, injuries have derailed his career over the last several years and his career is in jeopardy at this point.
Dan Issel had his most successful years in the ABA where he dominated the competition.
However, he would go on to play with the Denver Nuggets where he continued his Hall of Fame career.
Issel could shoot the mid-range jumper and he had a strong low post game.
Brad Daugherty was taken first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1986 draft. The seven footer out of North Carolina would go on to play all eight years of his career in Cleveland.
Back problems forced him to cut his career short and he retired as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder for the franchise. Those marks have since been broken by LeBron James and Zyrdrunas Ilgauskus.
Daugherty made five All-Star teams and the All-NBA Third team once. His career averages sit at 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds.
Neil Johnston played his entire career with the Philadelphia 76ers. There, he made five All-NBA teams and six All-Star games.
Johnston also led the league in scoring for three consecutive seasons and had one of the highest field goal percentages in the league for the majority of his tenure.
Jack Sikma played 14 seasons in the NBA and was the model of consistency for most of that span.
Sikma’s play earned him seven All-Star berths and a championship with the Seattle Supersonics in his second season.
Perhaps the most shocking accomplishment of his career was that he led the league in free throw shooting one season, averaging 92.2 percent from the line.
Ben Wallace has had a memorable career, most of which was with the Detroit Pistons.
Wallace took home four Defensive Player of the Year awards, was selected to six All-Defensive First Teams, five All-NBA Teams and four All-Star games.
However, his most memorable accomplishment will be curbing Shaquille O’Neal in the 2004 NBA Finals to help the Pistons upset the Lakers.
Bill Laimbeer started his NBA career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he’ll best be known as a member of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons squad.
Laimbeer has a reputation as a dirty player, but he did all the little things that no one else wanted to do and he played a vital role for the Pistons.
For most of the 80’s, Laimbeer was the most dominant defensive rebounder. He won two rebounding titles and was selected to four All-Star teams.
He won two NBA championships in back-to-back seasons with the Detroit Pistons.
Standing at 6’10”, Clyde Lovelette was one of the most versatile big men to play the game.
He was able to play either of the forward positions along with center duties, mainly because of his ability to setup and shoot the ball.
Lovelette won a championship with the Minneapolis Lakers and two with the Boston Celtics.
He’s enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Mark Eaton was a staple for the Utah Jazz. He spent all 11 seasons of his career in Salt Lake City.
There, he won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, was selected to five NBA All-Defensive teams and made the All-Star game once.
Eaton was a shot-blocking monster, leading the league in that category on four different occasions. In his third season, he posted an absurd 5.6 blocks per game average.
His No. 53 jersey is retired by Utah Jazz.
Dwight Howard may be young and only seven years into his NBA career, but he has quickly become the best center in the NBA.
Howard is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year and he has numerous rebounding titles to his name.
He seems to be finally putting together a full offensive package this year after learning from Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer. When he reaches his full potential, he has the gifts to become a true dominant force on the offensive end.
Howard is only 25 and he has a lot of time left in his career. He will undoubtedly move much higher up this list by the time his career comes to a close.
Dikembe Mutumbo will forever be known for being a great humanitarian and for his finger wag.
Mutumbo is second on the list of career blocked shots and he has wagged the finger of rejection over 3,000 times.
He won four Defensive Player of the Year awards, was named to six NBA All-Defensive Teams and three All-NBA teams with eight trips to the All-Star game.
Jerry Lucas spent time playing both power forward and center. He jumped around from the Cincinnati Royals to the San Francisco Warriors and finally ended his career with the New York Knicks.
During his 11 years in the NBA, he made three All-NBA First Teams and seven All-Star teams.
While with the Knicks, he helped lead them to a title in 1973.
Alonzo Mourning entered the league an imposing figure on both sides of the court.
He will best be known for his defense. After all, he did win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards and often found himself on the All-NBA Defensive team.
However, he was no pushover on offense, recording six seasons averaging over 20 points per game and with a career average of 17.1 points.
It took him many years, but he finally won a championship while with the Miami Heat in 2006.
Walt Bellamy—selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1961 NBA draft—entered the NBA a dominant force. He averaged 31.6 points and 19.0 rebounds in his first season, winning him Rookie of the Year honors.
Bellamy continued his dominance over the course of his 14-year career.
He was a four time NBA All-Star from 1962-1965 and he won a Gold in the 1960 Olympic Games.
He finished his career with averages of 20.1 points and 13.7 rebounds.
Standing at 6'9", Dave Cowens was an undersized center, but he played with unwavering intensity at all times.
He was selected to three NBA All-Defensive teams and was chosen as an NBA All-Star seven times.
Cowens was named NBA MVP in 1973, and he won two championships with the Boston Celtics.
Artis Gilmore played five seasons in the ABA before joining the NBA during the merger. He was the first selection in the NBA dispersal draft.
He didn't have the same success in the NBA that he had in the ABA, but he still managed to be selected as an NBA All-Star six times.
Gilmore is the NBA career leader in field goal percentage.
Despite his accomplishments, Gilmore has yet to be accepted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Selected No. 1 overall by the Detroit Pistons in 1970, Bob Lanier went on to enjoy a Hall-of-Fame worthy career.
In 14 seasons, Lanier finished his career with averages of 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds.
His left hand hook coupled with his strong perimeter shooting made him a force to be reckoned with. His ability to score from all over the court made him a dangerous player to guard.
His number is retired by the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Nate Thurmond started his career playing alongside Wilt Chamberlain. After Chamberlain was traded to the 76ers, Nate the Great took over as the team's low post threat and defensive anchor.
He was selected to five NBA All-Defensive teams and was named an NBA All-Star seven times.
Thurmond was the first player to ever record a quadruple double and one of only four players to ever do it. He did this in his debut as a member of the Chicago Bulls scoring 22 points, grabbing 14 rebounds, dishing out 13 assists and swatting away 12 shots.
Dolph Schayes only stood at 6’8”, but he was considered tall for his time.
He saw some time at both the power forward and center position, but regardless of his position, he was a dominant player.
Schayes averaged a double-double while with the Syracuse Nationals for 11 straight seasons.
He made the All-NBA Team 12 times and the NBA All-Star game 12 times.
Elvin Hayes entered the NBA pro-ready. He led the league in scoring in his rookie season and continued to be a force on the offensive end throughout his career.
After being traded to the Washington Bullets, he was paired with Wes Unseld to make one of the most formidable front-courts in the NBA.
Hayes has made six All-NBA Teams, two All-Defensive Teams and he was named to the All-Star team 12 times.
Hayes won a championship with Unseld while on the Seattle Supersonics in 1978.
Standing at 6'7", Wes Unseld was severely undersized for a center, but he made up for that through sheer will and raw strength. He was able to power his way through bigger players to tear away rebounds, a specialty of his.
He is only the second player in NBA history to be named Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP in the same season.
Unseld led the Washington Bullets to the NBA Finals four times, but didn't win it until 1978, where he was named Finals MVP.
Bob McAdoo was selected No. 2 overall in the 1972 draft by the Buffalo Braves where he went on to win Rookie of the Year.
He won his first of three consecutive scoring titles in his sophomore campaign and was selected as NBA MVP the following year.
McAdoo jumped around to four different teams after leaving the Braves before finally settling down with the Los Angeles Lakers. While in L.A., he won two NBA championships.
It really is too bad that Bill Walton's career was marred by injuries. If he managed to stay healthy, who knows what he could have accomplished.
Walton could have very well placed in the top five, but that is just conjecture.
He led a less talented Portland team to a title over the Philadelphia 76ers in 1977. A decade later, he would win another one with Larry Bird and the Celtics.
Walton was one of the best passing big men and he truly elevated the play of everyone around him.
Perhaps better known as the Chief, Robert Parish had a long and illustrious 19-year career.
He was selected to two All-NBA Teams and he made nine All-Star Games.
However, he'll best be known for winning three championships with the Boston Celtics and one with the Chicago Bulls.
Teamed with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, this "Big Three" is considered to be the greatest front-court in the history of the NBA.
Willis Reed entered the NBA a dominant force on both sides of the court.
He made up for his short stature by playing a physical and aggressive game. Reed was the team's leader on defense, and he helped the team to be one of the best defensive clubs for a large part of his tenure.
Reed won two championships with the Knicks and he was named Finals MVP in each of them.
His inspiring entrance into Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals—after a torn muscle kept him out of Game 6—is considered to be the greatest moment in Madison Square Garden history and is widely considered to be the spark that pushed the team to victory.
Patrick Ewing was the first overall selection for the New York Knicks in the first year that the NBA draft lottery was instated.
Ewing is from a bygone era in New York Sports. He played the type of gritty hard-nosed basketball that's largely missing in the NBA these days.
He was often described as a warrior and he left everything on the court on any given night.
Ewing entered the league with a polished offensive game, and he is the best jump shooting center to ever play in the league.
He may have failed to bring a championship to New York, but it's hard to blame him for not doing so. After all, he had to battle the likes of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon in the playoffs.
David Robinson could do it all. He had a diverse game and was one of the greatest to ever play.
The Admiral is one of the rare players to have recorded a quadruple-double.
Robinson was named NBA MVP in 1995 and NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1992.
He made 12 All-NBA Teams, eight NBA All-Defensive Teams and was selected as an All-Star 10 times.
To top off his illustrious career, he has two NBA Championship rings to his name.
Moses Malone is the first modern player to jump straight to the pros from high school. He began his career in the ABA before moving onto the NBA.
Malone has three NBA MVP awards, eight All-NBA Team selections and an NBA Championship ring to his name.
He owes his accomplishments to his aggressive and tenacious approach to the game, where he essentially dominated the paint throughout his career.
At first glance, George Mikan looks nothing like a basketball player aside from his towering frame. However, he was basketball's first true star.
He dominated wherever he went—playing in the NBL, BAA and NBA—and won seven championships along the way. He also led the league in scoring from 1947 to 1952.
The league had to make changes just to stop him, such as widening the lane. While players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are tied to the hook shot, it was Mikan that first invented it.
To fans, he was "The Dream".
To opposing front-courts, he was "the Nightmare".
Hakeem Olajuwon may be the most versatile center to ever play in the NBA. He was essentially a guard playing in a center's body. He had the agility of a player a foot shorter than him and the shot-blocking prowess of someone a foot taller.
Olajuwon had a dizzying array of post moves that left defenders perplexed as to how to guard him. His offensive skill set is unmatched at the center position.
Wilt Chamberlain was a freak. He has numerous NBA records that will never be broken, let alone even approached by a player in the modern era. His 100 points scored in a single game is approachable, but will probably never be broken. You can forget about the 50.4 points per game average he had during the 1961-62 NBA season.
However, even with all his gaudy numbers, he was not the best to play at the center position.
Chamberlain played in a different era with a much faster pace, less restrictive rules and overall weaker competition. He is the prime example of a player having inflated statistics.
Throw him into the 90's—the era I believe was populated by the strongest crop of centers at one time—and there's a good chance he wouldn't even be leading the league in scoring.
Even so, one can't ignore all the feats and accolades he garnered. After all, the Big Dipper does have two NBA titles, four MVP awards and seven All-NBA First Team selections to his name.
Shaquille O'Neal is arguably the biggest physical freak the NBA has ever seen and he entered the NBA an imposing figure. A distinction he still holds.
He calls himself MDE—Most Dominant Ever—and I tend to agree with him.
O’Neal has made a career out of steamrolling defenders in the low post and posterizing essentially anyone who stood in his way. He was an underrated shot-blocker and a solid defender.
Let’s take a look at his resume: Four time NBA Champion, NBA MVP, 15 time All-Star, two-time scoring champion, 14 All-NBA Team selections and three All-Defensive Teams.
I could go on and on about O’Neal, but that’s for another article.
I put him over Wilt because I believe Wilt's numbers are greatly inflated. If Shaq played in the same era, he would have led the league in scoring every season.
I’ll finish with this: if I had to start a franchise with any player in NBA history, Shaq would crack my top five.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s list of accomplishments over his lengthy career is absurd.
He was named NBA MVP six times, he has six NBA Championships, 10 All-NBA First Team selections and five All-NBA Second Team selections. He’s made a combined 11 NBA All-Defensive Teams and 19 All-Star games.
His career 38,387 points is an NBA record and if the league counted blocked shots from the start of his career, he would lead in that category too.
Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook is one of the most devastating signature moves in NBA history, and he was an unstoppable force on the offensive end.
Bill Russell's resume speaks for itself, but one aspect sticks out more so than anything else: 11 time NBA Champion. Keep in mind that he only played 13 seasons in the NBA.
That type of success rate over that period of time is unheard of in all of sports. The same goes for the greatest dynasty in sports: the Boston Celtics team of the 1960's. The Russell led Celtics were practically unstoppable, winning a record eight straight NBA titles from 1959 to 1966.
Russell accomplished his many feats through his defensive laurels. He is widely considered to be the greatest defensive force the NBA has ever seen, and you can look no further than the rings on his fingers as proof of this. He managed all of this while standing at 6'9".
It really is too bad that blocked shots were not counted as a statistic during his time. Russell was well-known for his ability to turn away shots, and he would have probably challenged Hakeem Olajuwon for top honors.