Top 5 NBA Centers

Written By: SimpleSlates

April 27, 2020

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

The center position was once a position of great prestige in the NBA. Teams had to game plan for a dominant center. These days, even what passes as a dominant center, just isn’t the same.

The position has evolved, and many teams are opting to use a large forward instead. This gives the team more shooting and a better ability to run the floor. Something about it is less exciting to the older fan though, the fans that remember two powerhouses going at it in the post. It had the feel of a great heavyweight fight.

Truth be told, if there ever is another dominant center, he would largely be unstoppable. There simply isn’t the same level of aggression from the bigs in the NBA now. Even the center’s that score in the post, just don’t do it the same as the centers of yesteryear. 

TOP 5: DEAD OR ALIVE

With all of the nostalgia around the center position, we thought it would be fun to list the best big men, dead or alive. Below you will find our top five centers of all time, ranked in ascending order.

#5: Wilt Chamberlain (1959-1973)

Chamberlain is fondly remembered by most basketball enthusiasts, mostly because of his single game scoring record of 100 points. His name is actually holding six of the top ten single game scoring records of all time. Why is Wilt so low on the list you might ask.

Simply put, Chamberlain played half of his career against farmers. The few really great centers that he played for the first half of his career (when most of his scoring  was done) were really guards and forwards by today’s standard. There were a few centers on par with Chamberlain’s size, and some of them even considered all-time greats, but most were very undersized…and many under talented.

Teams

Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors

Philadelphia 76ers

Los Angeles Lakers 

Accolades

4x MVP

Finals MVP

13x All-Star Team

10x All-NBA Team

2x All-Defensive Team

Rookie of the Year

Hall of Fame

Championships

1967

1972

Career Stats

30.1 PPG

22.9 RPG

4.4 APG

54.0% FG

 

#4: Tim Duncan (1997-2016)

Duncan played power forward for much of his career, as he started it paired with David Robinson who played center. For the purposes of this list however, we are focusing on the art of playing the big role, not really the exact position you are listed at in the lineup. Duncan was as true a center as anyone, dominating in the post, and having probably the best face up game of any big that has ever played.

Duncan wasn’t overly flashy and did the subtle things that would go unrecognized until the game was over and you were amazed by his stat line. Even though we have him listed at four, an argument could easily be made that Duncan was the most complete package to play the center position in history.

Teams

San Antonio Spurs

Accolades

2x MVP

3x Finals MVP

15x All-Star Team

15x All-NBA Team

15x All-Defensive Team

Rookie of the Year

Hall of Fame

Championships

1997

2003

2005

2007

2014

Career Stats

19.0 PPG

10.8 RPG

3.0 APG

50.6% FG

 

#3: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969-1989)

Kareem is number one on most lists you will find. A dominating force in the paint, and the inventor of the “sky hook”. At his best again during a time when the competition was less than  what it was during the nineties at the center position however, it hurt him on our list. This is not to say he played farmers like Chamberlain, but he certainly didn’t battle a beast game after game either.

From a skill perspective, Abdul-Jabbar could do everything well, except shoot a three of course which was not a required skill of big men at this point in history. He passed with great vision, scored with ease, was fierce on the glass, and defensively handled his business. We can understand why he would be number 1 on many lists at the center position, as well as why he could even be on the top five all-time list without position restrictions. For us though, he falls to number three at center, and probably wouldn’t grace our top five. 

Teams

Milwaukee Bucks

Los Angeles Lakers

Accolades

6x MVP

2x Finals MVP

19x All-Star Team

15x All-NBA Team

10x All-Defensive Team

Rookie of the Year

Hall of Fame

Championships

1971

1980

1982

1985

1987

1988

Career Stats

24.6 PPG

11.2 RPG

2.6 BPG

55.9% FG

 

#2: Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-2002)

Hakeem Olajuwon doesn’t make many top five lists, but should definitely make most top tens. We value Olajuwon at number two however, as he was every single center’s nightmare during the nineties. He was a dominating  force in the post, not only able to use his strength inside, but also had the best post fadeaway of anyone that played the block.

The era that Olajuwon played, and dominated, during is one of the prime factors in his ranking on our list. The eighties and nineties were a period of dominant big men. Even the “bad” bigs of this time period would be starters and major producers on most teams today. Hakeem made these players look like babies, and even did this to many of the top bigs of the time period.

Teams

Houston Rockets

Toronto Raptors

Accolades

1993-94 MVP

2x Finals MVP

12x All-Star Team

12x All-NBA Team

9x All-Defensive Team

Hall of Fame

Championships

1994

1995

Career Stats

21.8 PPG

11.1 RPG

3.1 BPG

51.2% FG

 

#1: Shaquille O’Neal (1992-2011)

“Shaq” is the most physically imposing center to ever play the game of basketball. There have been taller, there have been heavier, and there have been some more polished. None, however, have dominated the game with the level of aggression that O’Neal did during his time in the game.

The early part of his career with the Magic will show you an athletic beast that ran the floor, jumped out of the gym, and passed like a guard. The prime portion of his career with the Lakers displays a level of back to the basket post dominance that you will likely never see again. Unfortunately he would go on to play some forgettable years with other teams towards the declining part of his career which could possibly be why he falls on other lists. Bottom line however, Shaq would dominate any center in history, and if that isn’t deserving of the number one spot, we don’t know what is.

Teams

Orlando Magic

Los Angeles Lakers

Miami Heat

Phoenix Suns

Cleveland Cavaliers

Boston Celtics

Accolades

1999-00 MVP

3x Finals MVP

15x All-Star Team

14x All-NBA Team

3x All-Defensive Team

Rookie of the Year

Championships

2000

2001

2002

2006

Career Stats

23.7 PPG

10.9 RPG

2.3 BPG

58.2% FG

 

THE FUTURE LOOKS BLEAK

The focus of the game in this era has shifted to shooting more threes, playing smaller, and the  days of the center are likely over. If a true dominating big was to return to the league however, he would undoubtedly put up numbers that had never been thought of before.

What passes as a skilled big in today’s league just isn’t strong and aggressive enough to handle the work that a true big man would put in. It is a pipe dream however, as the bigs just aren’t developing those skills anymore.

What would your top five big man list look like? Would any of today’s centers make it? They wouldn’t even sniff our list, but that is just our simple minded opinion.

 

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