It all starts with the giant in the middle. The defensive anchor. The tallest player on the court most nights. The center. It’s the cornerstone of every championship team. Shaq’s retirement has renewed the age old debate about the NBA’s best centers.
As is the case with all good things, great centers are one in a million. The scarcity of great bigs can be boiled down to two factors. First, skilled 7-footers are hard to come by anywhere outside of Pandora. Also, big men are perpetually plagued by injuries. Finally, it’s not enough to be big and muscular. Just as being well endowed doesn’t automatically guarantee sexual prowess, a 7-foot frame doesn’t guarantee basketball talent. In both cases, you must know how to use your size to your advantage. What follows is a list of 10 NBA legends who complemented their size with strength, agility, and a never-say-die attitude. Here are the 10 greatest NBA centers of all-time.
10. Willis Reed
The story has been told a million times. It’s Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals and Knicks center Willis Reed is nowhere to be seen. Reed had suffered a torn muscle in Game 5 and missed Game 6. The Lakers took advantage of the void and tied the series 3-3, powered by Wilt Chamberlain’s 45-point performance. The Knicks had no choice but to move on without their captain. But just before tip-off, Reed limped through the tunnels and joined his teammates on the court amid cheers and puzzled looks from players on both teams. Reed’s presence and Walt Frazier’s MVP performance inspired the Knicks to victory and their first NBA championship. But one game doth not a great center make. Willis Reed was a beast among men. As an undersized center, he scored easily against bigger and better opponents. He was a clutch performer who raised his game in the postseason. The higher the stakes, the bigger the moment, the better Reed’s performance.
9. George Mikan
How great was George Lawrence Mikan? He was a basketball pioneer of sorts, who helped define the role of future bigs with his rebounding and scoring. Playing with those unmistakable thick frames, Mikan popularized the hook shot and used it to his advantage in every game. He won seven championships in the various incarnations of the Association. Mikan’s passion for the game remained even after his retirement. Today’s hoop stars have Mikan to thank for the shot clock, wider foul lanes, among other developments.
8. Patrick Ewing
Ewing was a warrior, a hard-nosed, never-say-die warrior. His dominance notwithstanding, Ewing was guilty of a lot of things. He was guilty of sweating up a storm, guilty of wearing more bandage than should be humanly possible. But you could never accuse Patrick Ewing of being disinterested in the game. And like most dominant centers, he was smart on both ends of the court. He had a strong low post presence and a smooth mid-range jumper. Better yet, he was an intimidating force on defense, swathing at anything and anyone that dared venture within the box.
7. David Robinson
Robinson wasn’t just a class act and a great competitor, he was one of the best defensive bigs of all-time. The Admiral had a well-rounded game. He was a terrific shot-blocker, a consistent low-post scorer, and a hell of an outside shooter for a 7’1″ center. His records speak for him. Robinson is only the second player to ever lead the league in scoring, rebounding, and block title. In a 1994 demolition of the Detroit Pistons, Robinson recorded 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 10 blocked shots, and 2 steals in 43 minutes, thus becoming only one of four NBA players to ever notch a quadruple-double.
6. Moses Malone
Malone is one of the game’s all-time greatest players at any position. At 6’10”, Malone had no trouble manhandling much bigger guys. He relied on his remarkable quickness and incredible strength to finish at the rim. One of the essential qualities of a good center is the ability to rebound the ball. Malone was a dominant rebounder, as evidenced by his record offensive rebounds of 6,731 and his five rebound titles.
5. Shaquille O’Neal
Any adjective that can be used to describe a bull aptly applies to Shaquille O’Neal: strong, muscular, and a brute of a machine. If you’re lucky enough, he’s one of the most intimidating people you’ll ever stand next to. His size and agility made Shaq practically unguardable. Sure, he was kind of a lousy defender who relied more on strength than skill. Too bad the NBA doesn’t tally smackdowns, because I’m willing to bet that Shaq recorded more smacks than blocks. But his efficient scoring and sheer dominance made up for everything else. In his prime, Shaq was the most important player on the court each time he played. The outcome? Three straight titles with the Lakers and slew of MVP trophies. By the time Shaq announced his retirement on Wednesday via Twitter, he had established himself as one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon
You can make the argument that The Dream is the greatest offensive center of all-time. He was certainly one of the most creative, thanks to his fancy footwork. Throughout his 18-year career, Olajuwon left many a great centers bamboozled with his patented “Dream Shake.” But that’s just half the story. Olajuwon was a beast on the boards and vicious shot-blocker. He’s the leagues all-time leader in blocks. Happy Feet here led Houston to the promised land, winning two NBA championships and two Finals MVP. And when he was matched up with other great bigs, Dream showed up huge. Against Shaq, he avergaed 33 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in one of the finest Finals performances in NBA history.
3. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Before video games became a primary source of entertainment, Kareem played like a video game god. He was akin to something out of a build-a-basketball-legend factory. Combining great scoring with vicious shot-blocking ability, Kareem helped his team to six NBA championships. Cap perfected the “Sky Hook” and torched anyone who dared stand between him and a “W.” By the time he walked away from the game, he had scored more points, blocked more shots, won more MVPs, and made more All-Star trips than anyone around. Kareem was a winner, a leader, a fighter, and one of the greatest NBA centers of all-time. Kareem boasts two scoring titles (31.7, 34.8) and rebound titles (16, 9) to go along with four blocks titles (3.3, 4.0, 3.4, 4.1).
2. Bill Russell
The only man who had the antidote to Wilt Chamberlain was Bill Russell. He slowed down the Dipper in the playoffs and won more championships. Sure, Wilt still averaged a triple double and pulled down a ridiculous 55 boards against Russell, but it was Russell who stood taller at the end of the day. More importantly, Bill Russell wrote the blueprint on how to dominate the game as a defensive center. That’s the most important attribute of a quality center–defense. With his ability to change shots, block, and intimidate, Russell will go down as the best defensive big man in the history of the NBA. Anyone who disagrees can talk to his bejeweled fingers–all 11 of them.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt must have known that people would talk smack about his legacy down the line. Look, Wilt Chamberlain did not dominate the league because the competition was weak. He dominated because he simply refused to acknowledge the competition. He was as graceful in his approach as he was physical. Go watch old clips of The Big Dipper and you’ll quickly realize that he wasn’t a one-trick pony; he possessed a slew of offensive moves, from the hook to the fadeaway. In case you still have any doubts about his greatness, check his record. Men lie, women lie. Numbers don’t. 100 points in a game? Check. 55 rebounds in a game? Check. 50 PPG average for a season? Check. Check. Check. He once led the league in assists, and we’ll never know how many times he led in blocked shots since they didn’t keep that stat back then. By setting a about 70 NBA records that will never be broken in this lifetime, Wilt made sure that even the doubters would remember him.