NBA All-Time Player Rankings: Top 10 Centers

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2019

NBA All-Time Player Rankings: Top 10 Centers

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    Who's the greatest center of all time?

    We've already answered the question for point guardsshooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. Now, it's onto the position that dominated basketball for much of the game's history.

    It makes sense. In a game with the goal 10 feet off the ground, height is a pretty obvious advantage.

    For decades, players such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ruled the NBA. And while the sport has changed dramatically in the last five to 10 years, a new batch of big men seem poised to try shifting the balance of power back to the bigs.

    Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid and others have found the baton. Now they're running with it.

    Ranking the legends who came before them will be a largely subjective endeavor, but numbers provided a baseline and were plenty influential throughout the process. 

    Catch-all metrics like box plus/minus (available from the 1973-74 season on) and win shares per 48 minutes came into play. And you'll see pace- and playing-time-adjusted numbers (in the form of "per 75 possessions"). But intangibles have to be factored into these conversations as well.

    One final housekeeping note: We'll consider Basketball Reference the arbiter of positional determinations for this piece and the four other top 10s.

    And that's actually pretty important here. General perception tabs Tim Duncan as a power forward, but the site has him at center for 71 percent of his minutes (and lists him as a center for 10 of his 16 seasons).

    No such positional controversy exists for the rest of the inclusions.

    With all that out of the way, it's time to dive in.

    For more NBA analysis and conversations, download the Full 48 podcast with host Howard Beck, B/R's senior national writer. Today's episode with Warriors coach Steve Kerr includes conversation about his experience with Team USA, his expectations for the upcoming Warriors season, and what to expect from Stephen Curry

10. Bill Walton

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    Robert Lewis/Getty Images

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 16.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.7 blocks, 1.0 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.2

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: 4.4

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.142


    Injuries robbed the basketball world of a long career from one of the greatest passing bigs of all time and the precursor to Jokic.

    The difference between Jokic and Bill Walton, though, was that the latter was also dominant on defense. Over the course of his first four seasons, he was third in the NBA in defensive box plus/minus, seventh in block percentage and first in defensive rebounding percentage.

    He was named first-team All-Defensive in both 1976-77 and 1977-78. And again, we're just talking about one side of the ball.

    Combine the playmaking with Walton's scoring and defense and you had a player who, if healthy, would've been much higher on this list.

    "If you talk to people who have been around the league, they'll tell you that if Bill Walton would have been healthy for a longer period, he might have gone down as the best center ever," longtime Portland Trail Blazers play-by-play man Bill Schonely said, per Portland Monthly's Casey Jarman.

    Sadly, he really only had two peak seasons. Over the course of his third and fourth campaigns, Walton averaged 18.8 points, 13.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.9 blocks and 1.0 steals in 34.1 minutes per game. He won Finals MVP in 1976-77 after leading his Blazers to a title over the Philadelphia 76ers. And he won league MVP the following regular season.

    "Between that season and the next, it was probably the greatest stretch of a center that I ever saw play," former NBA player and coach Mike Dunleavy said, per Jarman. "He did virtually everything."

    But injuries derailed Walton's unique career after that fourth season.

    "I had 30 operations," he told Slam Online's Alan Paul.

    All of that cost him three full seasons in his prime (1978-79, 1980-81 and 1981-82). Walton was never quite the same when he came back, though he found new life with the 1985-86 Boston Celtics. That season, alongside Larry Bird, he won Sixth Man of the Year and earned his second title.

9. Patrick Ewing

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.1

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: 2.0

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.150


    Patrick Ewing averaged at least 20 points in each of his first 13 seasons. He averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds during each of nine straight seasons from 1989-90 to 1997-98.

    For over a decade, Ewing was the steady presence in the middle who made the New York Knicks relevant. From his 1988-89 campaign to his last with the Knicks in 1999-00, New York trailed only Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in Eastern Conference simple rating system, which combines point differential and strength of schedule.

    If you sort every season in Knicks history by simple rating system, a Ewing-led team fills two of the top four spots and seven of the top 15.

    And he didn't just lead the Knicks to all those wins by virtue of his defense and massive frame. Over the first few years of his career, he developed a well-rounded game on offense that included a soft jumper and a variety of moves on the low block.

    Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum explained in 1990:

    "The power, the intimidation, the fearlessness are still there, but so are grace and finesse and economy of movement, terms previously associated with Houston's [Hakeem] Olajuwon, Ewing's yardstick through most of the '80s, and San Antonio rookie David Robinson, the only other NBA center currently mentioned in the same breath with Ewing and Olajuwon."

    Like a couple of members of the previously published top 10 power forwards, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, Ewing's peak was unfortunately timed. Jordan was around for the majority of it.

    Ewing had his shot at a title in 1994 when Jordan was in the middle of his fling with baseball. That year, the Knicks made it all the way to Game 7 of the NBA Finals, only to fall to Olajuwon's Houston Rockets.

8. Moses Malone

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.4 blocks, 0.9 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +3.5

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: 1.8

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.178


    We can never say never, but John Stockton's record for total assists feels about as close to unbreakable as sports records get. There's a 23.5 percent decrease from Stockton's 15,806 to second-place Jason Kidd's 12,091.

    Moses Malone's cushion on the offensive rebound leaderboard is even bigger.

    There's a 31.7 percent decrease from Malone's 6,731 to second-place Robert Parish's 4,598. No active player is even close to Parish's mark.

    "The offensive rebound is always original and unscripted, as one player makes something out of nothing for his team," Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote. "And it was not just Moses Malone's specialty in a dominant career; it was his personal basketball domain."

    The term "playmaker" is often reserved for guards and wings, or the occasional point center like Jokic. But offensive rebounding is absolutely a form of creation. As Ding wrote, it's "something out of nothing..."

    This may come as a surprise to some, but 29.3 percent of Rudy Gobert's career field goals are unassisted. Just 21.0 percent of Klay Thompson's career makes are unassisted.

    One reason for the discrepancy? Gobert's 13.0 offensive rebounding percentage ranks fifth among players with at least as many minutes over the course of his career. And that 13.0 percent is well behind Malone's mark.

    Over 19 NBA seasons, Malone's offensive rebounding percentage was a whopping 16.4. Over his first eight campaigns, the number was 17.9. In that stretch, he grabbed 6.2 offensive rebounds per game.

    There's certainly much more to the Chairman of the Boards than what he did on the glass, but it was the foundation of his greatness.

    Being so thoroughly dominant in one area helped Malone make 13 All-Star teams, eight All-NBA teams and two All-Defensive teams. He also won six rebounding titles, three MVPs, one NBA title and one Finals MVP.

7. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 2.6 assists, 1.8 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.1

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: 4.9

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.177


    There are plenty of places we could start with Hakeem Olajuwon: the Dream Shake, his two titles, defense or even rebounding.

    But we'll hone in on a specific aspect of his defense at the outset. Olajuwon is the NBA's all-time leader in blocked shots, and his 3,830 place him 541 swats ahead of second-place Dikembe Mutombo.

    The Dream is also fourth all-time in games with at least 10 rejections (11) and tied for first in triple-doubles that include blocks (10). 

    And on March 29, 1990, Olajuwon posted one of the three points/rebounds/assists/blocks quadruple-doubles in NBA history. In a 120-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, he had 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks and 10 assists.

    He could truly do a little bit of everything, and his all-around game led to 12 All-Star appearances, 12 All-NBA selections, nine All-Defensive selections, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, two Finals MVPs, two NBA titles and an MVP.

    When asked about his all-time starting five on The Today Show in April, Shaquille O'Neal took Olajuwon over himself at center.

6. David Robinson

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    DOUG SEHRES/Associated Press

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.5 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.3 blocks, 2.8 assists, 1.6 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +5.4

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: 7.4

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.250


    If the list were based on nothing but numbers, David Robinson would likely be even higher. He's fourth all-time in career box plus/minus, trailing only LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

    Jordan is the lone player ahead of The Admiral in career win shares per 48 minutes, and the difference there is minuscule: .2505 to .2502.

    Robinson's basic numbers paint a pretty impressive picture, as well. During his first seven years in the league, he averaged 25.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals with a 59.2 true shooting percentage.

    MJ was the only player in that stretch who had a box plus/minus better than Robinson's 8.6.

    And unlike some of the other legends of the '90s, he was able to outlast His Airness and win two championships in the post-Jordan vacuum. Sure, Tim Duncan helped on that front, but Robinson deserves far more credit than he gets for those titles.

    In 1999, when the San Antonio Spurs won their first championship with head coach Gregg Popovich, Robinson led the NBA in regular-season box plus/minus. His responsibility as a scorer had diminished by then, but he was still one of the game's best all-around players.

    Now, the elephant in the room is that Robinson is placed ahead of Olajuwon. The 1995 Western Conference Finals were a big moment in the careers of both centers. Houston won in six games, and the basic numbers of the two centers were revealing:

    • Robinson: 23.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.2 blocks, 1.5 steals, 55.3 true shooting percentage
    • Olajuwon: 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 4.2 blocks, 1.3 steals, 59.0 true shooting percentage

    But cherry-picking one series from the careers of players who each appeared in over 1,000 games (regular season and playoffs combined) doesn't cut it.

    When you look at the numbers from their entire careers, Robinson has the lead in box plus/minus, win shares per 48 minutes, true shooting percentage and playoff win shares per 48 minutes.

5. Wilt Chamberlain

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    PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press

    Per Game: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists

    Per 75 Possessions: 19.5 points, 14.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +5.5

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: N/A

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.248


    When asked about the debate many have over Michael Jordan and LeBron James, Scottie Pippen threw a curveball, saying, "In my eye, Wilt Chamberlain is the greatest basketball player."

    In terms of basic numbers, that's a tough position to argue against.

    Everyone knows about the 100-point game and the 1961-62 campaign in which Wilt averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds.

    But for six years, Wilt averaged over 40 points per game. His exact numbers from 1959-60 to 1964-65? 40.6 points, 24.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

    Of course, the question with all the legends from the '50s and '60s applies here: How much do we account for the evolution of basketball over the decades? What kind of numbers would Wilt put up in today's league? What if he had access to modern knowledge and technology concerning training and nutrition? What would someone like Shaquille O'Neal have done in the '60s?

    Ultimately, these questions are probably impossible to answer but nevertheless worth considering.

    What's less debatable, though, is how much deeper and more talented the league is now. In the '60s, a total of 138 players logged at least 5,000 minutes. The number of players who hit that mark within the last 10 seasons is 402.

    And it's not just the fact that the league is up to 30 teams. Opening up the talent pool to include the entire world has done wonders for the game.

    So while Chamberlain's numbers are certainly eye-popping, they need to be read in context.

    Still, 50 points per game is 50 points per game. Regardless of era, that's wild. And while he may not have scored quite that much in today's league, rest assured he'd still be phenomenal.

    "If you define athleticism as a combination of size, speed, strength and agility," Gary M. Pomerantz wrote for The Post Game, "the young Dipper, a decathlete and basketball star who at full speed covered nearly eight feet of hardwood with each elongated stride, might have been the greatest pure athlete of the 20th century, there with Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown."

4. Bill Russell

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    Associated Press

    Per Game: 22.5 rebounds, 15.1 points, 4.3 assists

    Per 75 Possessions: 15.3 rebounds, 10.2 points, 2.9 assists

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: -0.8

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: N/A

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.193


    Bill Russell didn't have the raw numbers Chamberlain put up, but he's one of the game's ultimate winners. And nine of his record 11 championships were won during Wilt's career.

    "Bill Russell has 11 rings," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said when asked to weigh in on the GOAT debate on ESPN's The Jump. "Hey, eight championships in a row? Eleven rings? Come on. It's about winning the game. It's not about this stat or that stat."

    Of course, the same caveat discussed in the Chamberlain slide applies here. Over Russell's 13 NBA seasons, the league had an average of 9.3 teams per season, just over half the number of squads that make the postseason these days.

    That obviously wasn't up to Russell, though. And he deserves credit for dominating his era.

    On top of the 11 championships, Russell piled up 12 All-Star appearances, 11 All-NBA selections and five MVP trophies. Regardless of the level of competition he faced, Russell's defensive instincts and abilities may be unmatched across history.

    Ditto for his confidence.

    When he received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, Russell pointed at Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, and said, "I would kick your ass."

3. Tim Duncan

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Per Game: 19.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 blocks, 0.7 steals

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 blocks, 0.9 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +2.0

    Net Rating Swing: +7.7

    Box Plus/Minus: 5.5

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.209


    When San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was asked in 2011 (h/t Yahoo Sports) about who would start a game at center, he responded, "Tim Duncan, like we have for the last 15 years."

    Whether Popovich was serious or just trying to add to the mythos surrounding Duncan's true position, the quote remains evidence for the "Duncan was a center" camp. Basketball Reference listing him as a center for 10 of his 19 seasons and designating 71 percent of his possessions at center from 2000-01 on drives the point home.

    Regardless of how he's classified, The Big Fundamental is undoubtedly one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

    Longevity is one of Duncan's strongest points in any argument over his place in history. His career-low box plus/minus is 2.4. That gives him 19 seasons with at least 500 minutes and a 2.0-plus box plus/minus. Jason Kidd's 18 are the second-most all-time.

    Bump the qualifying box plus/minus up to 3.0 and Duncan's all-time lead increases. His 18 seasons are well ahead of the 15 posted by Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and LeBron James (who'll likely add more).

    For nearly 20 years, Duncan was an unwavering presence for one of the most successful organizations the NBA has ever seen. Here are San Antonio's league-wide ranks over the course of his career (1997-98 to 2015-16):

    • Wins: first
    • Simple Rating System: first (and on this one, the distance between the Spurs and the second-place Dallas Mavericks is about the same as the distance between the Mavs and the 16th-place Cleveland Cavaliers.)
    • Defensive Rating: first
    • Offensive Rating: fifth
    • Effective Field-Goal Percentage: first

    Throw in 15 All-Star appearances, 15 All-NBA selections, 15 All-Defensive selections, five titles, three Finals MVPs and two league MVPs and you can see why Duncan is revered.

2. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 26.4 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.5 blocks, 0.7 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +5.4

    Net Rating Swing: +7.7

    Box Plus/Minus: 5.0

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.208


    "Shaq was a beast," Olajuwon wrote of Shaquille O'Neal in The Players' Tribune. "If you let him get position, it was over. ... There won't ever be someone with Shaq's combination of size and skill."

    For the majority of the '90s and 2000s, O'Neal was the most imposing player in the game. And the only players who may have been more physically dominant compared to their eras were Chamberlain and LeBron James.

    It would have been enough for Shaq to just rely on his size and nothing else. But as Olajuwon wrote, he supplemented that natural advantage with a hefty toolbox of skills. Drop steps, turnaround hook shots, repositioning in the post, boxing out. Shaq did everything you expect of a center.

    Defenses were helpless.

    Over a 10-year statistical peak that spanned from 1993-94 to 2002-03, O'Neal averaged 28.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 blocks. He shot 57.8 percent from the field and won three of his four titles during that stretch.

    But even those regular seasons may not be Shaq's most impressive feats.

    Over the course of his first seven playoff runs with the Los Angeles Lakers (100 games), O'Neal averaged 29.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 blocks. During the Lakers' three-peat, he averaged 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.9 blocks in 15 Finals games. 

    During the 2000 Finals alone, he put up 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 2.3 assists on the way to his first title.

    Shaq's regular-season numbers are ridiculous, but getting better as the stakes grew bigger puts him above almost every other center in league history.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Paul Shane/Associated Press

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

    Per 75 Possessions: 22.5 points, 10.0 points, 3.3 assists, 2.4 blocks, 0.9 steals

    Relative True Shooting Percentage: +6.8

    Net Rating Swing: N/A

    Box Plus/Minus: 5.8

    Win Shares per 48 Minutes: 0.228


    In 20 NBA seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar totaled 19 All-Star appearances (first all-time), 15 All-NBA selections (tied for first all-time), 11 All-Defensive selections (fourth all-time), six NBA titles (tied for ninth all-time), six MVPs (first all-time), four blocks titles, two scoring titles, two Finals MVPs and one rebounding title.

    His individual ranks in a handful of stats are equally impressive:

    With his unstoppable skyhook and dominant defensive abilities, Kareem ruled the NBA over multiple eras. His MVP awards were spread from 1971 to 1980. His first and last Finals MVPs (1971 and 1985) came well over a decade apart.

    As William C. Rhoden wrote of the GOAT debate for The Undefeated, "You may not put him at the top of your list, but if Abdul-Jabbar is not part of the discussion, you’re having the wrong conversation."