Often considered the most valuable spot on the court, the center position has been graced with a stable of elite big men. Ranking them is not easy; choosing just eleven is not easy. The top five could go in almost any order, it depends a lot on what defines greatness and legacy for you personally. I know that a certain Celtic defined winning in sports and a lot of people might have him number one. Many value individual performances, like 100-point games.
There is no right answer, only the debate. As it was meant to be, legacy is subjective and is forged off of the arguments of those who remember.
Career Accolades: 2X Defensive Player of the Year, Champion, 7X All-Star, 2X All-NBA, and 2X All-Defense
‘Zo would absolutely lick the centers of today’s game. Do not be fooled by the low number of All-Star or All-NBA appearances. Remember he was drafted the same year as the Diesel. ‘Zo was one of the last true back-to-the-basket, beat-you-up-inside centers. The game is less physical and more about finesse nowadays but make no mistake, who would you rather watch: Roy Hibbert or Alonzo Mourning?
In his prime, he was averaging around 20 points, 10 rebounds, and just shy of four blocks a night. He was also maintaining those numbers while shooting above 50 percent from the field. Mourning didn’t win a ring as “the man” but he also got stuck in the East during the back half of the Jordan era. Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning very well might have hoisted the Larry O’Brien in ’97 had it not been for the Bulls. Oh, and for those who complained about him making the Hall of Fame, take a look below.
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10: Willis Reed
Career Accolades: 2X Finals MVP, 2X Champion, MVP, 7X All-Star, 5X All-NBA, and All-Defense
I considered quite a few old school guys for the 10 spot on the list but Reed is the name I kept coming back to. He’s one of only 15 players ever to win an MVP, Finals MVP and championship in the same season. He brought not one but two championships to the mecca of basketball. He helped the Knicks beat the Lakers not once but twice in the Finals, sending home Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain the first time, and West, Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich the second time. He was the Finals MVP both times for a reason.
He also led the league in win shares during the ’68-69 season whilst Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and company were all still going at it.
9. Bill Walton
Career Accolades: MVP, Finals MVP, 2X Champion, 2X All-Star, 2X All-NBA, 2X All-Defense, and Sixth Man of the Year
Walton is the Tracy McGrady or Grant Hill of his generation. A sensational talent, coming out of college he was pre-ordained to be the next great big man and he hit the floor running. If it wasn’t for injuries he might be in the same conversation as our top five.
Walton won a championship in his third year in the league and an MVP in his fourth year. If you’re not tired of sports references, he’s basketball’s Terrell Davis. An absolute phenom but it was a short ride. Walton was a monster on the glass, could score with a bevy of post moves, and had no problems getting up to block shots. If you want to hear someone really broadcast their love for him go look up what Bill Simmons had to say about him.
His peak numbers, while impressive, just don’t hold up with the very best of the class. When we consider he started his decline near the end of his fourth year it’s impressive that he’s made this list at all.
8. Patrick Ewing
Career Accolades: 11X All-Star, 7X All-NBA, 3X All-Defense, and Rookie of the Year (one of the players not named Michael Jordan to appear in Space Jam.)
The best player in the second-best era of Knicks basketball. The ’90s Knicks are known for their inability to ever get past Jordan to win a title. However when we get past that they are also known for the great defensive play that made them competitive year after year. Ewing was the anchor of that defense. He had five consecutive years of 24-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and two-plus blocks per game. He was an absolute monster and though he never took home the MVP award he finished top five in the voting on six different occasions. When a center averages 28.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and four blocks a night on 55 percent shooting and comes fifth in the MVP voting, you know it’s a tough era.
Ewing didn’t get a storybook-like finish like Mourning; he didn’t get to win a ring even as a secondary player. It’s that lack of ultimate success holding him from moving further up our list.
(Look for Mourning on highlight at No. 1)
7. David Robinson
Career Accolades: 2X Champion, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, 10X All-Star, 10X All-NBA, and 8X All-Defense
The Admiral is an awesome nickname and is a worthy accolade in itself. I think the younger generation as a whole remembers Robinson more for his tutelage of young Tim Duncan and work as the No. 2 guy on the early Spurs championships. While that’s not inaccurate and should be viewed as a positive, let’s not forget this guy was a legitimate superstar talent in his own right.
The season prior to his MVP he won the scoring championship. He only shot less than 50 percent from the field over the course of a season twice in his entire career. Like Mourning, and really everyone on this list, he played in a tough era for bigs. In his MVP season he was out-dueled by Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the eventual champion Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. We will never know what would’ve happened if the Spurs went to the championship that year and faced a young Shaq and Penny duo.
David Robinson has some of the best individual games of all time, including a 71-point explosion and a quadruple-double. Yeah, a quadruple-double!
6. Moses Malone
Career Accolades: Champion, 3X MVP, Finals MVP, 12X All-Star, 8X All-NBA, and 2X All-Defense
Moses Malone gets a lot of crap for not winning early on, but you don’t win three MVPs being a bum. At 31.1 points, 14.7 rebounds, shooting a scary 52 percent in 42 minutes a night… wait, what kind of center plays 42 minutes? Dwight Howard‘s career-high minutes per game over a season is 38.3 in 2011-12. Most centers today play between 33 and 35 minutes a game.
Malone was an athlete, to say the least. While he was still in Houston he took Bird and the Celtics to six games in the NBA Finals with Robert Reid as his second option. Who is Robert Reid? But when Malone got back to the Finals he made no mistakes. The Sixers swept the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson-led Lakers and Malone averaged 26 and 18 over the course of the series.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
Career Accolades: 2X Champion, 2X Defensive Player of the Year, 2X Finals MVP, MVP, 12X All-Star, 9X All-Defense, and 12X All-NBA (the Dream Shake)
The Dream is the most likable center in history. He was taken No. 1 overall in the same draft as Jordan and no one resents him for it. He may not be the “GOAT” but he was a true franchise player. He did the fans of Houston right. He spent essentially his whole career with the Rockets, bringing home two championships, an MVP award, and numerous playoff runs.
Olajuwon was also incredibly good at taking care of business in the postseason. He absolutely carried the Rockets to his first title, with maybe the least surrounding talent for a championship run of all time. (That or Dirk‘s 2011 Mavericks) In 26 career elimination games, here are Olajuwon’s numbers: 14 wins, 27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists, on 52 percent shooting. In Olajuwon’s second title run, he had to go through Barkley‘s Suns, the Malone-Stockton Jazz, MVP David Robinson’s Spurs, and the Shaq and Penny-led Magic. The Dream sent five top-20 players packing in the same playoff run.
4. Bill Russell
Career Accolades: 11X Champion, 5X MVP, 12X All-Star, 11X All-NBA, All-Defense, and the reason we have a Finals MVP Award
Russell is the hardest player to place. He won 11 championships in 13 seasons. It’s incredibly hard to ignore how successful he was. At the same time, no matter what Bill Simmons says he wasn’t better than Wilt. His numbers just don’t compare. While you can argue his game completely transcends basic statistics I refuse to give him all the credit for the Celtics title teams. They were clearly so far ahead of the game in terms of team play, coaching and management.
Russell played with a bevy of Hall of Famers, All-Stars and talented support players. I’m not saying he wasn’t the most important player in the dynasty. He was. Russell wasn’t overly efficient on offense. He shot above 50 percent over the course of the playoffs just once! Yet, here we are doing circles because it clearly worked for the Celtics. If winning is the sole component of what defines legacy for you, than undoubtedly Russell is your guy. However I believe the three guys above him on this list offer a better mix of individual dominance and team success.
3. Shaquille O’Neal
Career Accolades: 4X Champion, 3X Finals MVP, MVP, 15X All-Star, 3X All-Defense, and 14X All-NBA
The Shaqtus and Dream routinely flip flop between three and four for me. One day someone will pay me to ultimately decide who was the better player, but on this particular day, I’m leaning toward Superman. No offense to Kobe but Shaq Daddy carried the Lakers on that three-peat. It wasn’t a 1A/1B scenario. Shaq absolutely feasted during his five-year peak. He was physically unstoppable.
We all know Shaq’s flaws: he was lazy, he couldn’t hit a free throw to save his life and he had a soft ego. Yet there wasn’t a single player in the NBA who had the strength to push him off the block in his prime. Shaq is a top-ten player of all time, but he could’ve been the greatest player ever, by a wide margin. He was that good. Imagine if he truly developed his post game? Became a 60 percent free throw shooter? Committed to defense? Well he settled and that settling amounted to some of the best individual seasons ever, four championships, and an MVP award.
Side note: it is incredibly comical that fan rankings have Shaq at the 47th-best player ever on Basketball-reference.com.
2. Wilt Chamberlain
Career Accolades: 2X Champion, 4X MVP, Finals MVP, 13X All-Star, 10X All-NBA, 2X All-Defense, and Rookie of the Year
Wilt the Stilt has the most infamous game in NBA history. His 100-point game is legend. My mother knows some guy named Wilt scored 100 points back in the day. Ninety-nine percent of people who talk about that game have never seen it in its entirety, yet everyone adores him for it. The game is part of NBA lore. It was a superhero performance.
Athletes transcend society. They are idolized because they can do think the average individual cannot. Wilt exemplified that quality when he notched that 100th point. I don’t think–due to changes in the game, pace of the game and gains by athletes in today’s society–any player will ever post the kind of stat lines Wilt did. Whether the numbers were inflated, or you believe Wilt was a “me” guy, they are etched into history forever. If Wilt never won he couldn’t be this high on the list but he did. He has the most dominant stats of all time and mixed it in with decent career success.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Career Accolades: 6X Champion, 6X MVP, 2X Finals MVP, 19X All-Star, 11X All-Defense, 15X All-NBA, and Rookie of the Year
Kareem is the complete package in terms of legacy. He has an elite number of championships, and an elite number of MVP awards, to go along with a ridiculously long career. If you were trying to argue someone other than His Airness for the GOAT position, Kareem might be your best bet. His career numbers are monstrous. His prime years are second only to Wilt and he matches Jordan in championships. He won a championship his second year in the league. He was superstar the second he stepped on the court.
The 7-2 giant was born to play basketball. He played NBA basketball for 20 years, only missing the All-Star Game once. The 1977-78 season when Kareem missed the All-Star Game, he averaged, 25.8 points, 12.9 rebounds, three blocks, and shot 55 percent from the field. Kareem also had the skyhook, even more memorable than the Dream Shake, and his trademark shot transcends his playing career.
What do you think?
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