B/R NBA Legends 100: Ranking the Greatest Centers of All Time

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 31, 2015

B/R NBA Legends 100: Ranking the Greatest Centers of All Time

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    Over the course of NBA history, plenty of centers have been at, well, the center of championship-winning runs.

    They've held down the paint while swatting away ill-advised field-goal attempts. They've dazzled with their footwork. They've overpowered opponents en route to a thunderous slam. They've often been at the heart of both offenses and defenses, making them vitally important in the construction of so many standout teams.

    Though the current landscape of big men is a bit dried up, especially when compared to the center-heavy nature of the 1990s, there are still a few high-quality 5s who thrive on both ends of the court. But how do they stack up against the best of the best throughout NBA history? 

    Were their moves as effective as Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake? What about David Robinson's two-way play, chiseled frame and jaw-dropping combination of athleticism and finesse? Has anyone followed in the footsteps of Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain? 

    This is about more than the scattered few who currently suit up in the Association, though. We're interested in how the legends of the center position compare to one another, from George Mikan's dominance for the Minneapolis Lakers in the 1950s all the way through those standing out in the present day. 

    We're not just concerned with the best peaks. It's not about the longest careers. Instead, we're interested in the strength of an entire career, evaluated largely by using numbers. But the prominence of metrics and advanced statistics doesn't mean context can be thrown out the window, either. 

    Everything matters. 

    Note: All stats come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current through March 21, unless otherwise indicated. That's also the source of positional decisions throughout this series of articles. Whichever position a player is listed at for the majority of the seasons in his career is where he'll be placed in the series. 

Important: Glossary of New Metrics That Factor into Evaluation

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    Though this article will rely heavily on established advanced metrics like win shares, player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage and more, I've also developed a new set of performance metrics that can be used to compare players across eras. 

    As you'll soon see, these metrics will be displayed for every featured player, and they'll be discussed quite often throughout the descriptions of the players in question. Therefore, it's best to familiarize yourself with them now. 

    Understanding the exact calculations is unnecessary for these purposes, but do take the time to understand the principles and purposes, as that will allow you to fully grasp the justifications for the order of this countdown. 

    With traditional metrics, we can gauge how well a player performed during the regular season throughout his career. But with these new ones, we have insight into his playoff performances, as well as how valuable he was to his team and throughout the league in general. 

    Playoff Performance (PP)

    Derived by multiplying game score by the number of playoff appearances, this simply shows the strength of a player's statistical production during the postseason. It rewards both quality of play and longevity, as the top scores are only achieved by maintaining excellent performances over the course of multiple deep playoff runs. 

    Advancement Share (AS)

    This shows how deep a player advanced into the playoffs. Different rounds are weighted differently—250 possible points for a title, 100 for an unsuccessful appearance in the NBA finals and 50 for a conference finals exit—but not every player earns all the possible points. 

    To recognize that some players are bigger contributors than others, the advancement scores are weighted by how much time a player spends on the court. Someone who wins a title but plays only 20 minutes per game will receive a lower percentage of the possible points than a teammate who played 35 minutes per contest. 

    As a result, this shows both playoff success and relative importance during the run of the player in question. 

    Career Contributions (CC)

    Win shares are supposed to be an approximation of how many wins a player provided to his team during a given season, so dividing win shares by team wins should give an estimate of the percentage of value that player was responsible for. Multiplying that by how successful a team was that year (based on TeamRtng+, a combination of DRtng+ and ORtng+) accounts for both a player's value and the strength of the team he was contributing to. 

    Career Contributions sums a player's scores for every season of his career, showing how much value he provided during his NBA life. 

    Career Contributions per Season (CC/Season)

    This shows the number of Career Contributions that a player earned during an average season. It's no more complicated than that. 

    Literal MVPs (LMVPs)

    MVP literally stands for "Most Valuable Player," though the award is usually given to the best player on one of the best teams, depending on the narrative, the glamorous play of the candidate and other factors. A Literal MVP, or LMVP, is given instead to the player with the top Career Contributions value during the season in question. 

    An LMVP can go to a player on the best team in the league, but it can also be handed to a player who was essentially a one-man wrecking crew on one of the bottom feeders. The strength of the team doesn't matter, save for the Career Contributions calculation. 

    Literal MVP Shares (LMVP Shares)

    Rather than only rewarding the LMVP, we're giving credit to every player who was the top contributor for his team during a given season. Team-leading win-share producers were sorted by Career Contributions, then they were handed LMVP shares according to their finish on that leaderboard. 

    The LMVP himself gets a full LMVP share. Second place receives 0.5 LMVP shares. Third place gets 0.33 LMVP shares, and so on and so forth. 

    Ultimate Season

    This appears in the information of each slide, and it's a method of representing a player's peak. Rather than arbitrarily selecting his best season, we're meshing together the best performances of his career for each per-game stat. 

    That means his points per game could come from his rookie year, while his rebounds per game could be drawn from a season five years down the road. The only qualifier is that he must have played in at least 30 games during the season in question, thereby avoiding small-sample-size effects. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Brad Daugherty

    It's a shame that Brad Daugherty's career ended so abruptly, as the five-time All-Star was forced to call it quits following the 1993-94 season. He was still playing at a remarkably high level for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but his 28-year-old back was just giving him too much trouble.

    From a per-season standpoint, Daugherty belongs in the top 25. However, it's too tough to overlook the fact that he played only 548 games throughout his entire career, a mark that already leaves him behind dominant centers like Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, whose careers are very much still in progress.  

    Dan Issel

    If work in the ABA factored into the equation, Dan Issel would make the featured section of this countdown with room to spare. While playing for the Kentucky Colonels and pre-merger Denver Nuggets, the big man was a consistent All-Star and even led his team to a championship in 1975. 

    Alas, when Issel entered the NBA in 1976, he was already a 28-year-old whose best years were behind him. In fact, it was only during that initial season that he earned an All-Star nod in the senior circuit, though his numbers would remain impressive throughout his career. 

    Clyde Lovellette

    Placing the stars of the 1950s is always a tough endeavor, and Clyde Lovellette doesn't make that process any easier. Though his numbers look fantastic, they came while playing against largely overmatched competition, and they don't resonate quite as much as those produced by some other players from this era.

    Plus, Lovellette's three rings came while playing for a stacked Minneapolis Lakers squad early in his career, then after teaming up with the ever-dominant Boston Celtics of the early 1960s. Neither his Playoff Performance nor his Advancement Shares resonate historically, despite the three trophies he can place on his mantle. 

    Joakim Noah

    Rest assured that Joakim Noah will work his way into the featured portion of these rankings before his career is over. After all, he only turned 30 during this 2014-15 season, and he's still playing at a high level for the Chicago Bulls when his knees allow it. The health of those joints is really the only major concern at this point.

    A dominant defender, Noah is one of the more unique centers in NBA history, a statement that applies to more than just his trademark hairstyle and side-winding jumper. He's capable of serving as an offensive hub in the half-court set, dominating with his passing and even running the break as a de facto point center. Though he's never been a great scorer, he still provides a huge boost for his team whenever he's on the floor. 

    Jack Sikma

    Though these honorable mentions aren't technically ordered in any fashion but the alphabetical one, Jack Sikma is the best of the bunch. He was quite close to earning the No. 25 spot, though his defense ended up holding him back. 

    Was Sikma a bad defender? Absolutely not. In fact, he even made the All-Defensive team for his work during the 1981-82 season, in which he averaged 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, both career highs. However, his work on the less glamorous end just doesn't come close to stacking up with the player who you'll soon see leads off the countdown. 

25. Alonzo Mourning

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    Years Played: 1992-2008

    Teams: Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.8 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 23.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 3.9 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 21.2 PER, .583 TS%, 108 ORtg, 100 DRtg, 89.7 WS, 0.166 WS/48, 0.968 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1006.05 PP, 100.67 AS, 222.97 CC, 14.86 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.34 LMVP Shares

    Defense, defense, defense. 

    Alonzo Mourning always prided himself on that end of the court, and it paid rather large dividends. He anchored the paint for so many great defenses throughout his tenures with the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat—especially the Heat—and he was rewarded for his efforts with two selections as Defensive Player of the Year. 

    Though the award hasn't been around for the careers of every player featured in these rankings, Mourning is still one of only five top-25 centers with multiple wins. 

    Of course, it wasn't as if he was a slouch on the offensive end, either. Mourning averaged an efficient 17.1 points per game over the course of his standout career, highlighted by the 1999-00 campaign, when he put up 22.5 points per contest on 55.1 percent shooting from the field for Miami. 

    Mourning was never really "the man" on his most successful teams, but he thrived as a second fiddle and defensive stalwart for so many years. Plus, there would have been even more of those standout campaigns if he hadn't been held back by kidney problems during his early 30s, even missing the entire 2002-03 season, which ended his first tenure with the Heat. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year) 

24. Bob McAdoo

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    Years Played: 1972-86

    Teams: Buffalo Braves, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 22.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.5 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 34.5 points, 15.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 3.3 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 20.7 PER, .551 TS%, 104 ORtg, 100 DRtg, 89.1 WS, 0.151 WS/48, 1.494 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1269.94 PP, 343.52 AS, 232.22 CC, 14.51 CC/Season, 1 LMVP, 1.74 LMVP Shares

    During his sophomore season, just two years removed from playing collegiate ball at Chapel Hill, Bob McAdoo averaged 30.6 points, 15.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.3 blocks per game while shooting a league-best 54.7 percent from the field. He was a dominant two-way player at the tender young age of 22, recording an NBA-high 24.7 PER and recording 15.3 win shares. 

    Plus, he did it without much help. 

    The second-best PER on the roster belonged to Jack Marin—16.6 in only 680 minutes of action. Gar Heard (16.0), Randy Smith (15.9) and Jim McMillian (15.6) were the only other players above the league average. 

    Those 15.3 win shares came despite the Braves winning just 42 games, showing just how valuable McAdoo was early in his career. It might not have earned him the MVP, but he did qualify as the LMVP second runner-up that season. 

    The next year, McAdoo would claim both types of MVP awards, the official one and my literal interpretation of the honor. That was the high point of his career, though. He peaked early on in his NBA tenure, dominating the league from the center position for a few years before tailing off in his late 20s and early 30s. 

    Excellence can get you into the rankings, but it's not as beneficial as sustained excellence.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

23. Willis Reed

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1964-74

    Teams: New York Knicks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 12.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 21.7 points, 14.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists

    Career Advanced Stats: 18.6 PER, .523 TS%, 93 DRtg, 74.9 WS, 0.156 WS/48, 1.073 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1127.88 PP, 493.69 AS, 170.62 CC, 17.06 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.44 LMVP Shares 

    You can't be blamed if one Willis Reed moment stands out above all the rest. 

    It's that fateful Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, which the New York Knicks would win to clinch the championship against the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed had torn a thigh muscle earlier in the series, and after sitting out Game 6, there was no way he'd be able to play in the concluding game of the interconference clash. Nonetheless, he strode out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel, shocked the crowd, inspired his teammates and scored the first four points for his team. 

    That was his only impact, though, and Walt Frazier would go on to submit one of the best performances of all time in a Game 7, recording a whopping 36 points and 19 dimes on the night. 

    Allowing that moment to serve as a microcosm of Reed's career is both giving him credit for his toughness and failing to capture his true statistical excellence. Though knee tendinitis and a litany of nagging injuries would cut his career short, holding him to only 650 games played, he was quite good in his prime. 

    Remember how valuable McAdoo was to those Buffalo Braves squads? Well, thanks to his early work with the Knicks, Reed has a slightly higher score in the Career Contributions per season category. He was particularly impressive in 1968-69, earning 14.7 win shares on a 54-win New York squad. 

    That year, his Career Contributions score was a stellar 30.28, nearly double his career average. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

22. Nate Thurmond

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    Years Played: 1963-77

    Teams: San Francisco/Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 15.0 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.1 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 21.9 points, 22.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.9 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 16.5 PER, .470 TS%, 93 DRtg, 78.0 WS, 0.104 WS/48, 0.370 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1175.31 PP, 276.47 AS, 208.26 CC, 14.88 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0 LMVP Shares

    The conversation has to begin and end with rebounding when discussing Nate Thurmond's career. 

    Though he thrived in other areas as well—even becoming the first player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double when he did so against the Atlanta Hawks in 1974—there are just too many accomplishments on the glass to focus anywhere else. 

    Not only is he one of five players to average at least 15 rebounds per game over the course of a career, but he has some legendary seasons on the boards. That's not an exaggeration, as he averaged over 20 rebounds per contest during both the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons with the San Francisco Warriors. For the latter, he topped 20 points during the average outing as well, putting him in even more elite company. 

    According to Basketball-Reference.com's Play Finder, only he, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas and Wilt Chamberlain have ever managed to accomplish that feat. 

    So, why doesn't he rank even higher? I mean, this is a guy who flat-out dominated in one facet of the game while thriving in many others. He has an impressive playoff resume, though he was never an LMVP for his team, much less for the entire league. 

    The short answer is that rebounding numbers were largely inflated during his prime, as teams played with an incredibly fast pace and shot inefficiently from the field, both of which combined to produce more rebounding opportunities. Dominant as he was, Thurmond's career total rebounding percentage of 16.7 percent (which admittedly only tracks the second half of his career) is far from being one of the elite marks in these rankings.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

21. Walt Bellamy

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1961-75

    Teams: Chicago Packers, Chicago Zephyrs, Baltimore Bullets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Jazz

    Career Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 13.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 19.8 PER, .554 TS%, 99 DRtg, 130.0 WS, 0.160 WS/48, 0.002 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 826.62 PP, 87.17 AS, 352.48 CC, 25.18 CC/Season, 1 LMVP, 2.85 LMVP Shares

    Few players have been better at taking advantage of teams that weren't all that great. 

    That's why there's such a huge disparity between Walt Bellamy's playoff-related performance metrics and how he fared in the Career Contributions categories. He did make it to the conference finals on two separate occasions, but that was as far as he got, despite the relatively weak nature of the league. 

    Nonetheless, he was hugely valuable to his teams, putting up dominant numbers and thriving as the No. 1 option. Bellamy finished with the most win shares on his team during eight separate seasons, earning 2.85 LMVP shares in the process. He even won the LMVP with the Chicago Packers in 1961-62. 

    That was his rookie season, and fresh out of Indiana, he averaged a stellar 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, all while shooting a league-best 51.9 percent from the field. He was too big and too skilled for anyone to stop on a consistent basis, and his defense was impressive as well. Despite the Packers winning only 18 games all season—they were a true one-man team—Bellamy had 16.3 win shares. 

    That's value. 

    Unfortunately for Bellamy, it's just not good enough to keep putting up strong numbers on middling—or worse—teams. Success is usually required as well, at least when operating in this historical setting and being compared to the legends of the game. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

20. Bill Walton

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1974-87

    Teams: Portland Trail Blazers, San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.2 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 18.9 points, 14.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 3.6 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 20.0 PER, .551 TS%, 103 ORtg, 96 DRtg, 39.3 WS, 0.142 WS/48, 0.522 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 603.19 PP, 362.2 AS, 94.14 CC, 9.41 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.14 LMVP Shares 

    Bill Walton earns my nomination for the strangest career. 

    His peak was absolutely ridiculous, strong enough that you can sometimes find Walton listed as a top-10 center of all time. Although the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers had a strong roster from top to bottom, it was still Walton who led the team to a title. Leading the league in blocks and rebounds per game, the red-headed center thrived on both ends of the court, asserting himself as one of the best single-season players of all time. 

    Problem is, injuries held him back afterward. Walton would make the All-Star team the next season, despite playing only 58 games. Then, recurring injuries kept him out for an entire season and prevented him from playing even 300 more games for the rest of his career. 

    We're looking at the entirety of a career here, which is vitally important when analyzing Walton's. At his best, he was an undeniable Hall of Famer whose skilled outlet passes and two-way play made him feel like a lock for the top 10. But that pesky injury imp had other plans. 

    Why do those Career Contributions numbers look so bad? They're both rather easily the worst of any player featured in this article, and that's because Walton had such a short prime before playing out his career in lackluster fashion, even coming off the bench to help the Boston Celtics win a title. 

    He retired with only 468 regular-season contests to his credit. To put that in perspective, Dwight Howard is already more than 300 games ahead of him. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

19. Neil Johnston

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    Years Played: 1951-59

    Teams: Philadelphia Warriors

    Career Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists

    Ultimate Season: 24.4 points, 15.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists

    Career Advanced Stats: 24.7 PER, .534 TS%, 92.0 WS, 0.241 WS/48, 0.003 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 313.26 PP, 240.68 AS, 327.49 CC, 40.94 CC/Season, 4 LMVPs, 4.67 LMVP Shares

    Neil Johnston might be the best player that even some of the most in-tune fans of NBA history have never heard of. 

    The 6'8" center from Ohio State entered the NBA in 1951-52, and it took him only one go-round to get his sea legs. Then, he led the Association in scoring each of the next three seasons, thriving with his long-armed skyhook long before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used it even more effectively. He was a man amongst boys while playing for the Philadelphia Warriors, a team that was content to let Johnston rack up stats...and losses. 

    Earning 40.94 Career Contributions per season is insane. During his sophomore season, he actually racked up 106.7 in just a single year, earning a league-best 15.3 win shares despite playing on a squad that went 12-57. 

    Think about that for a second, and revel in Johnston's sheer dominance. He had more win shares than his team had wins, which means the rest of the roster finished in the negatives. If there's ever been a one-man team, it would be that one. 

    To put that in perspective, the second-best single-season Career Contributions score belongs to Walt Bellamy: 78.12 during the 1961-62 season with the Chicago Packers. Bellamy (twice), Alex Groza, Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Johnston (twice), Brook Lopez, Kevin Love and George Mikan are the only players in NBA history on the right side of 50.

    Johnston doubled that milestone in just one year. 

    Sadly, there's a trio of factors working against him. Not only did he play on bad teams during his prime, but he was going to work in an era that was far less advanced than today's game. The league was filled with nondescript players, and his size already worked to his advantage, even if he'd be an undersized power forward in 2014. 

    Finally, his career was too short to resonate any more than this. He retired after the 1958-59 season, still in his 20s, as a knee injury made it impossible for him to play any longer. Had he maintained his level of play into the 1960s and had a chance to square off with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit, there's a chance we'd remember him far more favorably.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

18. Ben Wallace

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1996-2012

    Teams: Washington Bullets, Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 5.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.0 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 9.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 3.5 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 15.5 PER, .474 TS%, 106 ORtg, 96 DRtg, 93.5 WS, 0.140 WS/48, 0.066 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1398.8 PP, 402.8 AS, 217.32 CC, 13.58 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.16 LMVP Shares

    It's not every day that you find a truly excellent center who averaged only 5.7 points per game throughout his career. In fact, at Ben Wallace's best, he produced 9.7 points during the average contest for the 2004-05 Detroit Pistons. And even that season, he shot just 45.3 percent from the field, which further devalued his scoring. 

    To put that in perspective, 9.8 points per game is the second-worst career average among the 25 featured players and five honorable mentions, and even that is better than Wallace's best. Yikes. 

    Nonetheless, defense is half the battle, and therefore it's supposed to count just as much as offense. That works out nicely for Wallace, as he's one of the best defensive bigs the NBA has ever seen, racking up four Defensive Player of the Year awards during his career and anchoring the title-winning 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, who boasted one of the most suffocating defenses of all time. 

    "I didn't get to see [Bill] Russell or [Wilt] Chamberlain, but I can't remember a guy that wreaks so much havoc of the court like Ben does," Joe Dumars, then the Detroit president of basketball operations, said after Wallace was granted his fourth DPOY, per The Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "Olajuwon and Mutombo were great defenders, but they only guarded centers. Ben can basically guard 1s through 5s, and the closest guy I saw do that was Dennis Rodman."

    That's high praise, and it was much deserved.

    If there's ever been a player who proved you don't have to score to win games, it was Wallace. After all, he's the proud owner of the three best defensive box plus/minus seasons in NBA history, as well as five of the top nine.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

17. George Mikan

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    NBA Photos/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1948-56

    Teams: Minneapolis Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists

    Ultimate Season: 28.4 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists

    Career Advanced Stats: 27.0 PER, .483 TS%, 108.7 WS, 0.249 WS/48, 0 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1335.6 PP, 1026.46 AS, 172.65 CC, 34.53 CC/Season, 1 LMVP, 2.2 LMVP Shares

    Ah, the toughest player of all centers to rank. 

    George Mikan did everything early in his career, carrying the Minneapolis Lakers to title after title while posting ridiculously dominant numbers. During his third season, he actually managed to average 28.4 points and 14.1 rebounds per game while shooting 42.8 percent from the field. That last number is supposed to be impressive, even if it doesn't stack up against today's big men. After all, the NBA as a whole shot 35.7 percent during that 1950-51 campaign. 

    His Playoff Performance and Advancement Shares numbers are fantastic, each ranking in the top half of the 30 players given kudos in this article. Plus, his Career Contributions show just how valuable he was to the Lakers, even earning 2.2 LMVP shares, which is the No. 23 mark of all time, regardless of position. 

    But the game was just so different when Mikan thrived. 

    The lane was widened to slow him down, if that puts things in perspective. He once dominated while hobbling up and down the court on a broken leg, using his ahead-of-its-time 6'10" frame to terrorize the opposition all the same. If there's any testament to the weakness of the early NBA, it would be that. 

    Can you imagine any player with a broken leg successfully finding holes against even the most porous squads of the last two decades? That would be nonsensical and borders on impossible. 

    Mikan may have been the league's first superstar and still possesses some of NBA history's most dominant numbers. But context has to matter. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

16. Dikembe Mutombo

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    Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1991-2009

    Teams: Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 9.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 2.8 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 16.6 points, 14.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 4.5 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 17.2 PER, .573 TS%, 111 ORtg, 99 DRtg, 117.0 WS, 0.153 WS/48, 0.003 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1074.64 PP, 88.96 AS, 320.29 CC, 17.79 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.78 LMVP Shares

    If you played any pickup basketball during the 1990s or early 2000s—and you were tall/athletic enough to block a shot—you likely broke out the infamous finger wag after a particularly thunderous rejection. Remember, it was Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo who popularized that, long before a certain Geico commercial brought the celebratory finger motion back into the public consciousness. 

    That was the aftermath of Mutombo wreaking havoc with his ridiculous rim-protecting skills and overall defensive presence. Few players have been more terrifying when they set up shop in the paint on the less glamorous end, and Mutombo usually backed up that imposing presence with high-quality play. 

    Just like Ben Wallace, Mutombo was a four-time Defensive Player of the Year. Just like Wallace, he was named to the All-Defensive team six times over the course of his impressive career. 

    But unlike Wallace, he was a decent presence on the offensive end, and his total rebounding percentage is 0.2 percent better. Whereas Wallace's career-best single-season scoring average was 9.7 points per game, Mutombo's career average was higher. Plus, the 7'2" center averaged 16.6 points per contest as a rookie, shooting 49.3 percent from the field in the process. 

    In fact, Mutombo's overall numbers would look far better if we could just strike the later part of his career from our memories. Through his age-35 season, the four-time DPOY averaged 12.3 points and rebounds per game on 52.2 percent shooting, and his PER rose slightly to 17.8.   


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year) 

15. Pau Gasol

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Years Played: 2001-Current

    Teams: Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls

    Career Per-Game Stats: 18.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.7 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 2.1 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 21.6 PER, .568 TS%, 113 ORtg, 105 DRtg, 121.7 WS, 0.169 WS/48, 0 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1714.65 PP, 501.04 AS, 283.81 CC, 21.83 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.93 LMVP Shares

    You might not think of Pau Gasol as a center, but that's where he qualifies, per Basketball-Reference.com. The 5 is given as his primary position for seven of his 14 seasons, including most of his prime years with the Los Angeles Lakers. Plus, 66 percent of his career minutes have come at what's usually the biggest position on the court. 

    But let's move past that. 

    Whether he was leading the Memphis Grizzlies or teaming up with Kobe Bryant to win multiple titles in purple and gold, Gasol has established himself as a dominant offensive force, one who can thrive as a scorer while still excelling as a distributor. He's one of the most creative players of the modern era on that end of the court, and it's not like he's a shabby rebounder, either. 

    Gasol has never been a defensive stalwart, but it's only been the later years of his career that have seen him struggle with his assignments and exhibit a bit of laziness on the less glamorous side. The 42.5 defensive win shares accumulated over the course of his career don't look too shabby, and he has literally never posted a negative defensive box plus/minus.

    A reliable presence during the playoffs, Gasol has actually been surprisingly valuable no matter the situation. He's led his team in win shares on eight separate occasions, even doing so during his first four full seasons with the Lakers. Bryant may have stolen the headlines and scored the most points, but the little things added up for Gasol, just as they have throughout his impressive career. 

    With 0.93 LMVP shares, Gasol is the No. 61 player of all time in that category. Yet somehow, he's never earned even a single MVP vote. 

    That in and of itself is a travesty, even if it doesn't hinder how he's ranked here. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year) 

14. Dave Cowens

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1970-83

    Teams: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 17.6 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 20.5 points, 16.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.3 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 17.0 PER, .496 TS%, 106 ORtg, 96 DRtg, 86.3 WS, 0.140 WS/48, 1.338 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1595.77 PP, 630.79 AS, 185.11 CC, 16.83 CC/Season, 1 LMVP, 1.08 LMVP Shares

    Apologies for the length of this upcoming excerpt, but there's a passage about Dave Cowens from Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball that is just seared into my brain. Don't worry, though; I'll clean up the language: 

    I remember thinking the same thing as everyone else: "Good God, Dave Cowens has a girlfriend!" How was this possible? The guy had a competitiveness disorder, playing every game in fifth gear, berating officials like they were busboys, bellowing out instructions to teammates, diving for loose balls, crashing over three guys for rebounds, battling bigger centers game after game and getting into fights at least once a month. Whenever Cowens fouled out, he stood in disbelief with his hands stuck on his hips, staring the offending official down and hoping the guy might change his mind. Don't you realize what you just did? This means I can't play anymore! Don't you realize what you just f-----g did?

    [...]

    Even after all these years, he remains my father's favorite Celtic—the guy who never took a night off, the guy who cared just a little bit more than everyone else. 

    And now he had a girlfriend? I was totally confused by the revelation. Does this mean they hold hands and go on dates? Do they sleep in the same bed together? I kept picturing her forgetting to buy milk and Cowens flipping out the same way he freaked after an especially terrible call. That's what separated Cowens from everyone else: he played with such unbridled ferocity that little kids couldn't even conceive of him having a girlfriend. Imagine Jason from Friday the 13th heading home from a weekend of killing camp counselors, showering, changing into clean clothes, then taking his lady to Outback Steakhouse. That was Cowens with a girlfriend. 

    It was that unbridled passion that allowed Cowens to enjoy such an impressive peak. During his MVP-winning 1972-73 campaign, he was an unstoppable force, averaging 20.5 points, 16.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He'd continue to torch the opposition for the next half-decade. 

    But then he quickly faded away.

    Cowens struggled as a 31-year-old center for the C's in 1979-80, then walked away from the game too soon. He'd come back for one ill-fated season with the Milwaukee Bucks three years later, but that did nothing more than depress his career stats. 

    Nonetheless, the red-headed center hustling his butt off is an image you can't soon forget. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

13. Robert Parish

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1976-97

    Teams: Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls

    Career Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.5 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 19.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.9 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 19.2 PER, .571 TS%, 111 ORtg, 102 DRtg, 147.0 WS, 0.154 WS/48, 0.286 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 2392 PP, 899.79 AS, 309.61 CC, 14.74 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.19 LMVP Shares

    From one Boston big man to another. 

    Robert Parish's peak is nothing like Dave Cowens'. His very best season was one of his first two with the Celtics, and he averaged 19.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game over the course of those two campaigns. 

    Then again, his longevity is nothing like Cowens', either. 

    Parish entered the league with the Golden State Warriors in 1976 at the tender young age of 23. When he retired, it was at the conclusion of the 1996-97 season, two decades later. That's an insane amount of career endurance, and it's not as though Parish played out his career as a scrub for too long. 

    The last three seasons of his NBA life were lackluster ones, spent filling limited roles for the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls. But up through the end of his Boston career, which drew to a conclusion in 1994, he was still an impact player, even if he wasn't the dominant force he'd established himself as years earlier. 

    Parish doesn't have too many LMVP shares, and his Career Contributions are rather limited—boosted by that ridiculous longevity. However, he was a crucial part of so many fantastic Boston squads, winning titles as part of the Big Three formed by himself, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. 

    Was he the third wheel? Sure, but most players would function as such when Bird and McHale are serving as the other two. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

12. Bob Lanier

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    NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1970-84

    Teams: Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks

    Career Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 25.7 points, 14.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.0 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 21.7 PER, .559 TS%, 111 ORtg, 98 DRtg, 117.1 WS, 0.175 WS/48, 0.504 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1120.91 PP, 62.5 AS, 317.74 CC, 22.7 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 1.43 LMVP Shares

    The biggest thing holding Bob Lanier back is a distinct lack of playoff success. 

    Despite advancing to the postseason nine times in his 14-year career, Lanier's teams were often eliminated in the early stages. And that's key: His teams were eliminated. Playoff success is important, but it's ultimately a team accomplishment, not solely based on individual merit.

    As an individual, Lanier actually played quite well during the most crucial part of the season. 

    All the same, he advanced to the conference finals only twice in those nine attempts. Both times, he was knocked out of the running before having a chance to grace the stage of the NBA Finals, which doesn't allow his Advancement Shares total to stack up with the rest of these elite bigs. In fact, 62.5 Advancement Shares beats out only Brad Daugherty, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and Joakim Noah among the 25 featured players and the five honorable mentions. 

    But during the regular season, Lanier was an unstoppable force and an ultra-valuable player. Though he might not have won LMVP at any point in his career, he did manage to record three top-four finishes while leading his team in win shares eight different times. 

    Most impressive was the 1974-75 season with the Detroit Pistons. Averaging 24.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game, he earned 12.4 win shares for the 40-42 Pistons. His Career Contributions that season trailed only Bob McAdoo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's figures. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year) 

11. Artis Gilmore

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1971-88

    Teams: Kentucky Colonels (ABA), Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.9 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 23.7 points, 13.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.7 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 20.2 PER, .643 TS%, 117 ORtg, 104 DRtg, 107.4 WS, 0.174 WS/48, 0.066 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 459.9 PP, 40.58 AS, 276.96 CC, 23.08 CC/Season, 1 LMVP, 2.78 LMVP Shares

    If Artis Gilmore's work in the ABA counted for the purpose of these rankings, he'd fare even better. After all, here's a quick recap of what he accomplished before his league merged with the NBA in 1976: 

    • Averaged 22.3 points, 17.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.7 steals and 3.4 blocks per game for the Kentucky Colonels over the course of five seasons
    • Led the ABA in rebounds per game four times and field-goal percentage twice
    • Paced the league in win shares and win shares per 48 minutes twice
    • Advanced to the ABA Finals twice and won a title

    But even with that part of his resume stricken from the record books—these are rankings of NBA players, after all—Gilmore is one of the all-time best to suit up at the center position. He still posted some excellent numbers, was incredibly valuable to his team (even winning LMVP in 1978-79 and posting a Career Contributions per season of 23.08) and has some remaining records. 

    Thanks to his deft touch and 7'2" frame, the southpaw center finished with a career field-goal percentage of 59.9 percent. Tyson Chandler's 58.4 percent is currently in second place throughout NBA history, at least among qualified players. Gilmore leads in true shooting percentage by an even wider margin, and his effective field-goal percentage makes him the all-time leader as well. 

    Gilmore's relatively short NBA career and lack of postseason success hold him back, but it's not as though anyone could do that to him when he was on the court. He was just too big and too skilled, and the sheer terror of his shot-blocking presence and work in all areas of the half-court set stood in stark contrast to his calm, reserved demeanor.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

10. Dwight Howard

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Years Played: 2004-Current

    Teams: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.1 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 22.9 points, 14.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.9 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 21.9 PER, .598 TS%, 109 ORtg, 99 DRtg, 105.9 WS, 0.178 WS/48, 1.249 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1243.53 PP, 121.25 AS, 233.55 CC, 23.35 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.88 LMVP Shares

    Dwight Howard has not handled himself too well over the last few seasons, burning bridges with the Orlando Magic, underwhelming mightily with the Los Angeles Lakers and then playing out his free-agency saga before joining the Houston Rockets. He pushed the general public past the breaking point with his antics, which, unfortunately, distracted everyone from his unbelievable talent.

    When he's healthy, Howard is a game-changing force on both ends of the court. Think back to his best days with the Magic, when opponents had to plan around either letting him dominate one-on-one matchups on the interior or risk the bevy of shooters torching them from the perimeter while they paid more attention to the force in the middle. 

    Few players inspire that type of decision-making process before every game, and Howard's weakest aspect of the game is his offense. His poor free-throw shooting, limited post moves (which his explosiveness compensates for), absence of shooting range and lack of passing chops are just about all that hold him back. 

    Up to this point of his career—and remember, Howard is still playing out his athletic prime—this prep-to-pro phenom has a total rebounding percentage of 20.7 percent. Though we don't have numbers for Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain's are misleadingly low because they only capture the tail end of the career, that's the single best figure of any featured player. Bar none. 

    And then there's his defense, which has allowed him to earn five All-Defensive selections and three Defensive Player of the Year trophies. That's the best part of his game, as his pick-and-roll coverage and off-ball work is some of the best we've ever seen. 

    Howard might not be popular anymore, contagious smile notwithstanding, but he's only going to keep moving up the historical center rankings. He turned 29 this season, and, when healthy, it looks as though he still has plenty left in the tank. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

9. Wes Unseld

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1968-81

    Teams: Baltimore/Capital/Washington Bullets

    Career Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 16.2 points, 18.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 16.0 PER, .537 TS%, 113 ORtg, 96 DRtg, 110.1 WS, 0.147 WS/48, 0.639 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1679.09 PP, 448.09 AS, 241.01 CC, 18.54 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.39 LMVP Shares

    Wes Unseld is the king of non-glamorous production, as NBA.com's profile of the Hall of Famer deftly notes: 

    As a player, Wes Unseld seemed to have been chiseled from a block of granite, with a stoic demeanor and an iron resolve to win. A 6-7 bull of a center, he forged his reputation on relentless rebounding, bone-jarring picks, and laser-beam outlet passes. He did all the unspectacular things that led to glamorous victories. He was the league's MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1968-69 and a five-time NBA All-Star who captained the Baltimore and Washington Bullets to four NBA Finals appearances in the 1970s and to a championship in 1977-78.

    Unseld was intelligent on and off the court, and over the course of his career he came to personify the virtues of hard work, dedication, and courage. 

    If any of his skills still resonate today, it's the outlet passing. Unseld had a ridiculous knack for hitting those full-court dishes after corralling one of his many rebounds, and it was obvious just how much time he and his teammates practiced running and passing to certain spots. 

    When you aren't particularly big, you have to find ways to compensate.

    "I was watching TV in my room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, and this sportscaster, Charley Eckman, came on. He was screaming and hollering that the Bullets were idiots for drafting a slow, 6-foot-7 center from Louisville," Unseld told Mike Klingaman of The Baltimore Sun back in 2012. "Well, Charlie was wrong. I was 6-foot-6."

    Size didn't matter. All Unseld did to prove that was win MVP and Rookie of the Year during his first NBA season with the then-Baltimore Bullets, joining Wilt Chamberlain as one of only two men to accomplish such a feat. Of course, he also won a title with the Bullets later in his career, just to add one more honor to the brimming-over resume.

    For a player who averaged 10.8 points per game over the course of his career and topped out during his sophomore season at 16.2, earning a top-10 spot is quite the accomplishment. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

8. Patrick Ewing

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1985-2002

    Teams: New York Knicks, Seattle SuperSonics, Orlando Magic

    Career Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.4 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 28.6 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 4.0 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 21.0 PER, .553 TS%, 106 ORtg, 99 DRtg, 126.4 WS, 0.150 WS/48, 1.424 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 2198.98 PP, 237.84 AS, 289.18 CC, 17.01 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 0.87 LMVP Shares

    If only Patrick Ewing had been able to get over the hump and win a championship. Alas, shots like his missed finger-roll to tie up Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers will always remain a part of his up-and-down resume. So too will inexplicable series like the one in 1992 that featured Michael Jordan's Bulls coming back from a 2-0 deficit to advance to the NBA Finals.

    Ewing did get close. 

    He led his team to the NBA Finals twice, losing to the Houston Rockets in 1994 and falling to the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, though he sat out during the latter series. This isn't horseshoes or hand grenades, though, so that just won't do the trick. 

    Really, that's the only glaring flaw on Ewing's resume, though he was never as individually dominant as most of the remaining centers in this countdown toward No. 1. He was a fantastic two-way force during his prime—and let's please just forget that he played out his career with the Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic—and posted some remarkable numbers. 

    However, he earned only 17.01 Career Contributions per season, the worst mark of any player coming after Robert Parish in these rankings. His LMVP shares (0.87) beat out only Wes Unseld among the post-Parish crowd, and Unseld was famous for doing the little things that don't necessarily show up on the stat sheets. 

    Ewing's career was undeniably excellent, but it will always be remembered for what it could have been, especially by those New York faithful still lusting after their first championship since 1973. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

7. Moses Malone

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    Ken Regan/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1974-95

    Teams: Utah Stars (ABA), Spirits of St. Louis (ABA), Buffalo Braves, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Bullets, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs

    Career Per-Game Stats: 20.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.3 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 31.1 points, 17.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.2 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 22.3 PER, .569 TS%, 114 ORtg, 105 DRtg, 167.1 WS, 0.178 WS/48, 2.873 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 1796.34 PP, 388.87 AS, 363.37 CC, 19.12 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 1.97 LMVP Shares

    "It starts with Malone, whose pre-playoff "Fo'-Fo'-Fo'" prediction of three series sweeps sounded like the crazy bellowing of a jolly hoops giant but turned out to be just about right," Michael Bradley once wrote for NBA.com. 

    If any phrase sums up Moses Malone's career, it would be that one. A confident player who found himself leading strong teams throughout his time in the NBA, Malone was usually able to back up his words. 

    Of course, he wasn't able to steer the Philadelphia 76ers to a triple sweep during the 1983 playoffs, as he predicted before they started. The Milwaukee Bucks stole one game during the Eastern Conference Finals. But he sure came close, as the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers won nary a game against him. 

    "Fo'-Fi'-Fo'" is still pretty darn good. 

    With that title secured, Malone's resume is pretty darn good as well. Though his Advancement Share isn't as impressive as the top players in these rankings, everything else looks quite excellent. He was a dominant force during both the regular season and the playoffs, thriving on the glass and scoring plenty of efficient points. 

    In fact, among all 30 featured players and honorable mentions, only Dwight Howard has a higher total rebounding percentage. And how about those LMVP shares? Though he never posted the top score in the league, Malone finished close to the pole position so many times that he trails only six centers in that category, three of whom still have yet to appear.

    "A little banging and a little shoving—he didn't like that," Malone told Bradley, referring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "That's the way the game should be played. I liked the pounding and the hard work. That made me more aggressive."

    If banging and shoving really is how basketball should be played, then it's hard to pick a better representative for the sport.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year) 

6. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    Lou Capozzola/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1984-2002

    Teams: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors

    Career Per-Game Stats: 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.1 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 27.8 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.6 steals, 4.6 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 23.6 PER, .553 TS%, 108 ORtg, 98 DRtg, 162.8 WS, 0.177 WS/48, 2.611 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 3324.85 PP, 573.28 AS, 362.6 CC, 20.14 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 1.23 LMVP Shares

    Hakeem Olajuwon might be lower than you expect. Having him outside the top five might seem downright blasphemous, especially given his uniqueness, sheer dominance in the post, MVP trophy to his credit and two rings on his fingers. 

    It's the last part that is problematic. 

    Olajuwon earned those championships. No one can ever take them away from him, and they shouldn't. He even won Finals MVP each time he capitalized on a Michael Jordan-less league. However, he was also playing on a team with a gaudy collection of talent, which is emphasized by his Career Contributions. 

    To be fair, earning 362.6 of them over the course of a career is absolutely remarkable. So too is earning 20.14 per season and racking up 1.23 LMVP shares, even without a No. 1 finish to boast about. Against the rest of the field, those numbers stand out. 

    Problem is, we're no longer comparing him to the players below him, but rather to those who finished higher in these rankings. The No. 5 finisher, for example, earned an additional 7.38 Career Contributions over the course of his NBA tenure despite playing in 251 fewer games. He earned approximately 6.28 more during his average season. And his LMVP shares? 3.22, which makes this Houston Rockets big man pale in comparison.

    In fact, among the top six players featured here, Olajuwon finished at the bottom of the pile in the following important categories: LMVPs, LMVP shares, Career Contributions, Career Contributions per season, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and MVP shares. And that's saying nothing of his PER, which beats out only one of the remaining players, one who just happened to be a defensive specialist. 

    Olajuwon remains a household name to this day, and the Dream Shake allowed him to play an incredibly entertaining brand of basketball. The numbers, however, do put him in the elite tier but don't compare favorably to those ranked ahead of him. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

5. David Robinson

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1989-2003

    Teams: San Antonio Spurs

    Career Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.0 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 29.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.3 steals, 4.5 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 26.2 PER, .583 TS%, 116 ORtg, 96 DRtg, 178.7 WS, 0.250 WS/48, 3.123 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 2061.48 PP, 363.13 AS, 369.98 CC, 26.43 CC/Season, 1 LMVP, 3.22 LMVP Shares

    Thanks a lot, Tim Duncan. 

    David Robinson has always been massively underrated because of his superstar teammate, one that would go on to enjoy an even more impressive career than he did. Not only has the biggest knock on Robinson long been that he didn't win a title until Duncan came around, but there's also what I like to call the Duncan Theorem. 

    It goes as such: When a dominant player joins a squad while an aging superstar is already in place, fans aren't able to appreciate the incumbent as much as they should. There's no drop-off period as typically occurs after a superstar leaves, because that player is there to pick up the slack, and the lack of a down season or two (or three) prevents everyone from fully appreciating what was just lost. 

    So again, thanks a lot, Tim Duncan. 

    The claims that Robinson couldn't win until he was joined by another frontcourt stalwart are true, but they're also a bit unfair.

    Consider the 1994-95 season, when Robinson's San Antonio Spurs advanced to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Houston Rockets. That year, the center's best teammates (ordered by win shares) were Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and Vinny Del Negro. In 1992-93, he attempted to carry a 32-year-old Dale Ellis, Elliott and a 31-year-old Antoine Carr through the postseason. 

    The deck was stacked against him for so many years, especially since he played in an era that was so loaded with superteams and dynamic duos. He just didn't have his Robin in place until Duncan came along and created a constant argument as to which one of them was Batman. 

    How valuable was Robinson throughout his career, which was sadly (for us, not for the United States) too short because of his tenure with the Navy? Despite playing until he was 37 years old and remaining effective until the very end, he averaged 26.43 Career Contributions per season. 

    If you're familiar with the scale, which you might be by this point, your jaw should drop. No post-merger center has come close to matching that mark, which Robinson still earned while playing for high-quality teams, not nondescript ones. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

4. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1992-2011

    Teams: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.3 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 29.7 points, 13.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.9 steals, 3.5 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 26.4 PER, .586 TS%, 113 ORtg, 101 DRtg, 181.7 WS, 0.208 WS/48, 4.380 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 4190.4 PP, 1113.62 AS, 384.31 CC, 20.23 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 1.86 LMVP Shares

    Shaquille O'Neal might not have known what the Parthenon is, but he didn't need to in order to wreak havoc on the basketball court. 

    At his best, O'Neal was a constant source of quotes, nicknames and games that stacked up to turn into some of the most dominant seasons we've ever seen, regardless of position. His 1999-00 campaign for the Los Angeles Lakers may well be the very best, as he averaged 29.7 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 blocks per game while leading the NBA in scoring, field-goal percentage, PER, offensive win shares, defensive win shares and win shares per 48 minutes. 

    His Career Contributions that season were an insane 33.16, absolutely remarkable for a team with other stars that won 67 games under Phil Jackson's supervision. That's just not supposed to happen, even if O'Neal was kept from the LMVP by Elton Brand's work for the struggling post-Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls. 

    It wasn't possible to game-plan for O'Neal during his prime; opponents just had to accept his dominance and do their darnedest to keep everyone else in check. Strategies like the infamous "hack-a-Shaq" were employed, simply because traditional methods proved remarkably ineffective. Plus, he was a terrifying presence on the interior, and his passing is quite underrated. 

    With a career assist percentage of 13.9 percent, O'Neal actually trails only eight of the 30 featured players and honorable mentions. 

    In fact, the biggest problem for O'Neal—bigger even than his free-throw shooting, penchant for lackluster rap songs and feud with Kobe Bryant—was the absence of an ability to retire. He hung along for far too long, playing himself into shape during the regular season so he'd be ready come playoff time. 

    It will always be a shame that some younger basketball fans only remember a slightly overweight O'Neal plodding down the court for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

3. Wilt Chamberlain

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    PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press

    Years Played: 1959-73

    Teams: Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists

    Ultimate Season: 50.4 points, 27.2 rebounds, 8.6 assists

    Career Advanced Stats: 26.1 PER, .547 TS%, 247.3 WS, 0.248 WS/48, 4.269 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 4166.4 PP, 1180.08 AS, 568.71 CC, 40.62 CC/Season, 6 LMVPs, 8.12 LMVP Shares

    I could regale you with gaudy Wilt Chamberlain statistics until your ears start bleeding. 

    He averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds per game over the course of his entire career. He put up 50.4 points and 25.7 boards per contest during the 1961-62 season. He led the league in total assists six years later despite playing center for the Philadelphia 76ers. 

    He even scored 100 points in a single game, though that performance has become slightly overrated—strange as that is to say—as time has allowed the details to slip through the cracks. 

    But how about these? 

    Among all centers, Chamberlain's 40.62 Career Contributions per season trail only that of Mr. One-Man Team himself—Neil Johnston. The total he racked up during his years in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Los Angeles beat out every other big man in NBA history, bar none. 

    During the 1964-65 season, in which he was traded from the San Francisco Warriors to the Sixers after 38 games, he still managed to lead both teams he played for in win shares. No player in NBA history besides Chamberlain has ever led the charge for two squads in a single season. And it gets better. 

    Despite spending only 38 contests with the Warriors, who would win just 17 games all year, Chamberlain was still so valuable that his Career Contributions for the Warriors alone allowed him to earn one of his six LMVPs. Somehow, he managed to finish No. 1 and No. 8 in the same season. 

    But as has been the case throughout this article, context is vitally important. Isn't it telling that Chamberlain's career total rebounding percentage (which only accounts for the last three years of his career, when he averaged "just" 18.7 boards per game) trails that of Moses Malone, Dwight Howard and Bill Walton? 

    He racked up some gaudy statistics, but he did so during a weak era. The idea that there were no big players around is a popular misconception, but Chamberlain was still so far ahead of his time physically and athletically that he wasn't exactly fair. Plus, he won only two championships during his NBA career, both of which came on remarkably stacked squads. 

    As a producer of numbers, Chamberlain was the best. But even in an article that relies rather heavily on metrics, that's not enough.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

2. Bill Russell

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    Bill Chaplis/Associated Press

    Years Played: 1956-69

    Teams: Boston Celtics

    Career Per-Game Stats: 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists

    Ultimate Season: 18.9 points, 24.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists

    Career Advanced Stats: 18.9 PER, .471 TS%, 163.5 WS, 0.193 WS/48, 4.827 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 3636.6 PP, 2773.72 AS, 333.64 CC, 25.66 CC/Season, 0 LMVPs, 1.67 LMVP Shares

    With 11 rings to his credit—including a remarkable eight-year stretch in which his Boston Celtics won the final game of every season—Bill Russell is the greatest champion this sport has ever seen.

    However, that doesn't make him the greatest player, or even the greatest center. 

    Championships are a team accomplishment, and Russell had arguably the best supporting cast the NBA has ever witnessed. Between Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, K.C. Jones and so many others, there was never any shortage of quality players to help him do the heavy lifting. Plus, having Red Auerbach on the sidelines couldn't possibly have hurt. 

    It's also notable that Russell, who earned a remarkable 25.66 Career Contributions per season, never earned a single LMVP and finished his reign with the C's possessing only 1.67 LMVP shares. Throughout all of NBA history, there are 34 players who provided more value to their teams, based on that metric, which admittedly relies heavily on the sometimes-faulty win shares stat.

    During his 13-year career, there were actually two seasons in which another Celtic earned more win shares than him: Sharman did it twice. That's likely because his full defensive value was tough to gauge properly, but it's significant nonetheless.

    The point of all this isn't to diminish what Russell accomplished on the basketball court. He was a legendary defender, one who could apparently reject shots so accurately that they served as de facto outlet passes. He was ahead of his time as an athlete, and his offensive game wasn't exactly a liability for Boston, despite the team posting so many subpar offensive ratings during his tenure at center.

    Instead, it's merely to recognize just how good Russell's team was, and that makes it a bit harder for him to excel as an individual. Excel he did, though not enough to earn that coveted No. 1 spot.  


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Robert Lewis/Getty Images

    Years Played: 1969-89

    Teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers

    Career Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.6 blocks

    Ultimate Season: 34.8 points, 16.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.7 steals, 4.1 blocks

    Career Advanced Stats: 24.6 PER, .592 TS%, 115 ORtg, 99 DRtg, 273.4 WS, 0.228 WS/48, 6.203 MVP Shares

    Performance Metrics: 4915.38 PP, 1520.97 AS, 554.3 CC, 27.72 CC/Season, 5 LMVPs, 7.25 LMVP Shares

    With one of the most unstoppable weapons in NBA history at his disposal, this center managed to average at least 20 points per game in a remarkable 17 consecutive seasons.

    He entered the league as Lew Alcindor, fresh off his dominance at UCLA, and he immediately asserted himself as an imposing two-way force, even leading the league in scoring as a sophomore. He exited as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, boasting more points than any other player (past, present or—though he wouldn't know it—future) in NBA history. 

    Some players have remarkable peaks. Others have ridiculous longevity. 

    Abdul-Jabbar had both. 

    Just look at those performance metrics for proof. 

    The 7'2" center with the unblockable, infallible sky hook has the highest Playoff Performance score in NBA history, regardless of position. His Advancement Share leaves him trailing only Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Sam Jones (note the Celtics ties), as he was a crucial part of six title-winning squads that spanned 17 years. 

    His Career Contributions leave him trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, though he earned them on teams that were—for the most part, at least—better. And his Career Contributions per season? Chamberlain, George Mikan and Neil Johnston—all solely pre-merger players—are the only featured centers above him. 

    Topping that off, he has the third-most LMVPs of all time, trailing only Chamberlain and some guy named Michael Jordan. His 7.25 LMVP shares leave him in the same position, though the gap between him and the field grows ever higher. 

    If there's a flaw on the resume, I have yet to find it. 


    Metric Cheat Sheet (refer to the second slide for more detailed descriptions) 

    PP = Playoff Performance (individual success and longevity in the playoffs)

    AS = Advancement Shares (team postseason success weighted by importance of contributions)

    CC = Career Contributions (scaled importance to team with team quality factored in)

    LMVP = Literal MVP (earned with highest Career Contributions score in the league)

    LMVP Shares = Literal MVP Shares (gives credit to non-first-place finishers in the LMVP standings each year)