Quick, name five current NBA starting centers? After Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and possibly Al Horford, the average NBA fan might be stuck. Back in the day, the big man was just as important as the point guard. The two positions were the two pillars of any basketball team. It feels like an eternity since Dwight Howard was supposed to take over the game and Deandre Ayton, who was expected to be the next great big man didn’t turn the world on its head during his rookie season. It’s unfortunate that today’s young fans will never get to truly appreciate the classic big man. And to further that thought, despite their talents, does anyone think that one of today’s best big men would ever find himself in a discussion of the top five centers of all time?
The Top Five Centers of All-Time
He won a pair of titles when Michael Jordan was trying to make the Chicago White Sox roster, but regardless of when he won the rings, Hakeem Olajuwon’s resume places him among the top five greatest big men in NBA history. When you take into account his athleticism and footwork, Olajuwon and his Dream Shake would demolish any current big man.
With a resume filled with individual accolades, the only glaring negative was the fact that the Houston Rockets traded their greatest player ever (as per his request following contract issues) to the Toronto Raptors at the end of his career for what would end up being Bostjan Nachbar and Tito Maddox. As the first overall pick in the illustrious 1984 draft and finishing his career with per-game averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and overall league leader in blocked shots with 3830. Olajuwon proved to be a presence on both ends of the court.
The NBA Finals MVP is named in his honor due to his record of eleven championships, but yet there is a significant list of players that fans will name before they consider Bill Russell as the best player in league history. Just allow that to sink in for a minute. Now sure, you can argue that Robert Horry has seven rings, he should be better than Jordan or LeBron James, but nobody in their right mind will tolerate that nonsense.
Russell won titles in all but two of his thirteen professional seasons. As a player was no slouch statistically with career averages of 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. Russell would have likely led the league in blocks and steals. However, those stats were not recorded during his era. While it is justified in placing the Boston Celtics icon on this list of top five centers of all time, his lack of offence may be the only thing holding him back from being higher in the rankings.
Shaquille O’Neal, all the way back in the early 2000s, when he patrolled the paint for the Los Angeles Lakers, is the last truly great back to the basket NBA big man. While O’Neal would continue his career and still dominate the low post for the Miami Heat and then slowly fade during his time with the Phoenix Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Boston Celtics, there were very few teams in the league that had an answer for the Hall of Fame center on a nightly basis. How the most unstoppable force in the league during his prime years in Los Angeles was only honored with one regular-season MVP is for lack of a better word, silly. 1995, 2001, 2005 could have arguably been years in which O’Neal should have been awarded the MVP.
O’Neal was the focal point on three out of four championship teams. He has countless individual accolades. He has career averages of 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.3 blocks. The only thing that holds O’Neal from being higher on this list was the fact that he never played 82 games in a single season during his illustrious career. Had he taken better care of his body, he could have easily had a hand full of rings.
Imagine Wilt Chamberlain playing in today’s NBA. With his strength, speed, and athleticism, it was almost like he was teleported back into time. In all but two of his fourteen years in the league, Chamberlain dropped at least twenty points per game. This includes an incredible and unbreakable record of 50.4 points per game season during the 1961-62 campaign. Scoring 100 points in a game may have helped that achievement.
Now, sure there were only nine teams in the league at the time. But let’s just allow that total to sink in, as they were still played 80 games in the season. Chamberlain also averaged 25.7 rebounds that year, and that wasn’t even his career-high. Chamberlain won four MVPs and two NBA titles. The only person standing in the way of greater team success was Russell. When conversations of the G.O.A.T come about, unfortunately very few people tend to include Chamberlain in the conversation.
He holds the record for the most points in NBA history and he heads our list of top five centers of all time. That was due to a nearly unstoppable shot with the skyhook, a move that has rarely been duplicated. He also has six NBA championship rings and a half dozen MVPs to his name. So why, like Chamberlain, is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not in conversations as the greatest player of all time? While Chamberlain’s seasonal numbers dwarf Abdul-Jabbar’s, let’s remember that Abdul-Jabbar played in a much more competitive era of big men.
Although Chamberlain may beat out Abdul-Jabbar in the eye test. For those who are into the whole analytics thing, Abdul-Jabbar has a better win-share than Chamberlain. And for those who like numbers, the only thing that stopped Abdul-Jabbar from going 20 for 20 in All-Star games was a broken hand from getting into a fight.
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