The Greatest Centers of All-Time

By Chris Le

(Original post on 3/7/07)

In celebration of Shaquille O’Neal’s 35th birthday, ESPN.com compiled a list of the greatest NBA centers to ever play. Check it out here. Their top five looks like this:

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  2. Wilt Chamberlain
  3. Bill Russell
  4. Shaquille O’Neal
  5. Hakeem Olajuwon

Here’s my take:

  1. Bill Russell – 11 championships in 13 seasons. That’s really all I need to say.Russell, the greatest winner in all of sports, revolutionized the game of basketball, forging the maxim that defense wins championships. He was the first player to effectively shut down the paint and made the blocked shot an art form, breaking it down to a science. The manner with which he deflected shots was so adept he could direct a block to a teammate, essentially starting a fast break by himself. He was the cornerstone to the NBA’s most dominant team, and he created the blueprint to winning a title.
  2. Wilt Chamberlain – Statistically, the most dominant player the league will ever see. His list of records is so ridiculous, it borders on comical: 100-point game, 50.0 point average for a season, the all-time lead in rebounds with 23,924 (next best is Russell with 21,620), and career averages of 30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG, and 4.4 APG (how’s that for a fantasy line?). The knock on “The Stilt,” though, was that he wasn’t a winner. Can a man with two rings be truly labeled as a loser? I believe so. A player of Chamberlain’s size and athletic capabilities should have enough rings to accessorize two hands. What kept Wilt from winning more championships and what keeps him below Russell, in my eyes, is his lack of killer instinct and an over-valuing of statistics.
  3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – The man just never lost…at any level. Not in high school at Power Memorial. Not at UCLA. And more importantly, not in the NBA, with a career that includes six titles, the same number of MVPs, and 38,387 career points (a record). With nine years separating MVPs and 16 separating his first and last NBA title, few players have matched his sustained level of excellence for such a long period of time. But with so many different skills, his greatest attribute may very well be his ability to adapt and still succeed. He won when he was a young stud with the Milwaukee Bucks and an aging Oscar Robertson, and he won when he was an old veteran who took a back seat to Magic Johnson with the Lakers. Put him in any circumstance, and he found a way to win.
  4. Shaquille O’Neal – Probably the most unstoppable physical force in NBA history. But he was so much more than a bully. Never has a player of Shaq’s height and girth possessed such agility, quickness, and balance (his baseline spins for one-handed alley-oop dunks are simply sick). But what makes O’Neal so impactful, like Chamberlain, is his presence on the offensive end of the court. Shaq demands the attention of every player on the floor and must often be double- if not triple-teamed. Pretty much the only way to stop him is to foul him. And don’t be mistaken, Shaq was the most important player in all of his championship seasons—not Kobe Bryant or Dwayne Wade. O’Neal’s mere presence opens up the game for his teammates, making life much easier. That’s a mark of a truly great player. It’s a shame he only has one MVP. (Uh-hum, Steve Nash)
  5. Hakeem Olajuwon – In an era of great centers such as David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and a young Shaq, “The Dream” was the best of them all.Olajuwon was possibly the best all-around center of all-time, even more well-rounded than the four players that rank ahead of him in this list (but being versatile doesn’t necessarily equal greatness).He simply didn’t have a weakness.With a career average of 1.75 steals and an NBA record 3,830 blocks, which comes out to 3.09 blocks a game, he was a defensive menace.And we all know about his post-moves (i.e. Dream Shake).I just shake my head every time I see Hakeem school my boy, David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals.
  6. Stay tuned for my rankings of the greatest players in each position.

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6 responses to “The Greatest Centers of All-Time

  1. Pingback: Basketball » The Greatest Centers of All-Time

  2. Let’s see now one player, Russell is drafted and plays on a literal all-star team with a huge number of hall of famers.
    The other player, Wilt is drafted by worst team & later traded to another worst team.

    If you’re going on rings, I guess Robert Horry must be one of the greatest ever…..lol.

    Russell was good but Wilt was much better.

  3. Most of the times, it’s difficult to compare two players of a sport because they played in different eras. Fortunately, Wilt and Bill not only had almost concurrent careers but also spawned the greatest on-court rivalries of all-time.

    Wilt obviously improved all of the teams he joined throughout his career. But in his later career, he was never the only Hall of Famer on his team.

    In his three and a half seasons with the Sixers, he only managed one title playing alongside Hall of Famers Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham. In five seasons with the Lakers, just one more title with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and for the most part, Gail Goodrich. One reason for the shortness in titles: Russell’s Celtics beat Wilt’s four different teams in playoff series, 7-1.

    Keep in mind, when the two faced off against each other, Russell not only contained Wilt better than anyone in the league, but he matched his offensive output for the most part as well.

    The press, at the beginning of several series showdowns between the two, called an even matchup in all positions. With Russell’s major team success and matching your rival head-to-head, Cahawk, it’s tough to say that Wilt was much better than Russell.

  4. Cahawk, you won’t get any argument from me when you say Wilt was a better overall athlete than Russell, and light years ahead offensively. But this doesn’t equate to being greater in my book.

    It’s all about their approach to the game. Wilt was a notorious stat whore, who routinely checked his numbers at halftime. I’ll take a consummate team player who only cares about winning–and that’s Bill Russell. Also, in all seriousness, Wilt was too nice a guy. Example: 1970 NBA Finals, Game 7. Willis Reed famously played on one leg (one leg!), and held Wilt to only 16 shot attempts. You can credit Reed’s defense, but Wilt just didn’t want to attack the wounded media hero. Russell wouldn’t have given a damn, doing anything he could short of taking a baseball bat to Reed’s knee.

  5. Chris please stop this mess of ranking Shaq ahead of Hakeem. The number of titles u’ve won, doesn’t make u any better than ur competitor. It is what u’ve done on the court as well as the weaknesses an strengths u posses that matters. Hakeem had no weaknesses in the game and is still a top 12 in points, rebounds, steals {yes steals} and block. Shaq could hardly shoot a freethrow, had no post moves, couldn’t even defend the perimeter or shoot from thereof and Shaq couldn’t win a title all by himself. He had to play with Kobe, Wade and now Lebron to win it all. Shaq had no competitor to play with while Hakeem had tons of them. Hakeem also had about 2 quadruple doubles while there were only 3 other ones in the name and history of the game. Finally, when Jordan was asked who and who his starting 5 players will be, if he had to pick them, he picked Hakeem at center over everyone else, young and old. WHY bcos according to MJ, versatility was where the game is and is going and Hakeem was da total package and yesss da dream !!

  6. I don’t refute Hakeem’s versatility. In fact, I stated in my post that “Olajuwon was possibly the best all-around center of all-time, even more well-rounded than the four players that rank ahead of him in this list.”

    And while versatility is good, it isn’t always best.

    In a fight, I’ll take a machete over a swiss army knife anyday. Shaq, in this analogy, is the machete. You’re right: Hakeem was a better defender and had more tools at his disposal. And it may be true that Shaq was one-dimensional — but it was the most unstoppable, fear-inspiring dimension I ever saw.

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