20 greatest centers ever: The HoopsHype list

·12 min read

We have taken our HoopsHype 75 list and split it into five positions: point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers.

Today, we wrap things up with the 20 greatest centers of all time in the NBA, in our opinion, led off by a GOAT candidate in his own right, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles Lakers
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles Lakers

Top accolades: Six NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, six MVPs, 10 All-NBA 1st Team selections, 19 All-Stars, five All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 1st in scoring, 3rd in rebounds and blocks, 45th in assists, 107th in steals

The GOAT debate is considered a two-horse race at this point in the NBA, but if there is a strong third candidate, it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who dominated for almost two decades thanks to his skyhook shot and overall greatness as a scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. If anything, the longevity argument is still with Abdul-Jabbar, as the all-time big man won his two Finals MVP awards 14 years apart, first in 1971 and then again in 1985. Most players’ careers don’t last anywhere near that long, yet Abdul-Jabbar was dominating at the highest level for that long.

Bill Russell

Bill Russell, Boston Celtics
Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Top accolades: 11 NBA titles, five MVPs, 11, All-NBA selections, 12 All-Stars

NBA rank: 2nd in rebounds, 114th in assists, 155th in scoring

Bill Russell’s record for most NBA titles will never be beaten, as no one has come, or will come close to his 11 career championships. Russell’s resume is actually hurt because many accolades, like Finals MVP or Defensive Player of the Years didn’t even exist in his heyday. What’s more, since blocks weren’t recorded as a stat in his career, there’s no way to know how many Russell had for his career. There’s a chance he would be at the top of blocks standings along with the player coming up next on our ranking. Russell may not have had the longest career, but boy, was that run successful. Just as a curious note: Russell had more MVPs than All-NBA 1st Team selections in his career (three).

Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain, LA Lakers
Wilt Chamberlain, LA Lakers

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, one Finals MVP, four MVPs, seven All-NBA 1st Team selections, 13 All-Stars, two All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 1st in rebounds, 7th in scoring, 81st in assists

The most dominant big man offensively in NBA history, though that partially had to do with the level of competition Wilt Chamberlain faced in his era. Still, when you dominate at the level Chamberlain did, who cares who he did it against? Chamberlain did come a little short in the team success department as he was usually better in the regular season than in the playoffs, something that many believe had to do with an unwillingness to get fouled late in close games due to his unreliable free throw.

Chamberlain’s single-season rebounding and scoring records are unassailable. Plus he has the second-best scoring average behind only Jordan. And had MJ played one more year with the Wizards, Chamberlain might actually be No. 1 in that stat. Chamberlain is also the only guy to lead the league in total scoring, rebounds and assists for a season, and retired as the all-time leader in scoring and rebounding at the time.

Shaquille O'Neal

Top accolades: Four NBA titles, three Finals MVPs, one MVP, eight All-NBA 1st Team selections, 15 All-Stars, three All-Defensive 2nd Team selections

NBA rank: 8th in scoring and blocks, 15th in rebounds, 214th in assists

The most dominant physical specimen in the NBA since the days of Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal was an absolute freak with his blend of size, strength and unreal explosiveness. During O’Neal’s peak years, teams were making moves with the sole intention of containing the big man. Many ho-hum centers made a killing thanks to that just because they were another huge body to throw at O’Neal.

The fact the Big Artistotle won only one MVP was kind of ridiculous in hindsight, as there were various seasons he was the most dominant player in the league. O’Neal wanting to be a star off the court probably took away a bit of impact on the court a bit, but he was devastating throughout his career regardless, even despite being a porous free-throw shooter.

Hakeem Olajuwon 🇳🇬

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, one MVP, six All-NBA 1st Team selections, 12 All-stars, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, five All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 1st in blocks, 9th in steals, 12th in points, 14th in rebounds, 212th in assists

The best international player ever, Hakeem Olajuwon competed and produced at an elite level on both ends of the floor with outstanding low-post moves and defensive skills to match. Olajuwon ranks first in blocks on record, though there’s a bit of an asterisk on that because they didn’t keep track of those before 1973-74. Also, he is the only player to rank Top 14 in four different major statistical categories: points, rebounds, blocks and steals.

Moses Malone

Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers
Moses Malone, Philadelphia 76ers

Top accolades: One NBA title, one Finals MVP, three MVPs, eight All-NBA selections, 12 All-Stars, two All-Defensive Team selections

NBA rank: 5th in rebounds, 9th in scoring, 26th in blocks, 134th in steals

Perhaps the most underappreciated superstar ever, Moses Malone was as dominant as it gets at the center spot with physical toughness as a rebounder, leading the league in nightly boards an astounding six times, including once at 17.6 rebounds per game. Malone was also a monster scorer in the paint, using his brute strength to batter smaller foes down low. Many consider Malone the greatest offensive rebounder the league has ever seen, as his timing and instincts to chase boards on offense were second to none.

David Robinson

David Robinson dunk
David Robinson dunk

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, one MVP, 10 All-NBA selections, 10 All-Stars, one Defensive Player of the Year award, eight All-Defensive selections

NBA rank: No. 6 in blocks, No. 32 in rebounds, No. 41 in scoring, No. 60 in steals

One of the best bodies in NBA history, David Robinson’s physique looked like it was molded out of clay in his prime. He used his frame and strength to torture opponents on both ends for years, doubling as a high-level scorer and freakishly impactful defender, especially protecting the rim. Still, Robinson didn’t get over the hump until Duncan came around, which hurt his spot on this list.

Patrick Ewing

Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing

Top accolades: Seven All-NBA selections, 11 All-Stars, three All-Defensive 2nd Team selections

NBA rank: 7th in blocks, 23rd in scoring, 25th in rebounds, 118th in steals

One of the legendary big men of the ’90s, Patrick Ewing was a beastly shot-blocker who had great size and strength down low, but who also had soft touch as a scorer in the post and out of the mid-range. Was never able to win a title, however, due mostly to the Rockets and Bulls.

George Mikan

George Mikan
George Mikan

Top accolades: Five NBA titles, six All-NBA 1st Team selections, four All-Stars

The first truly dominant NBA big man, George Mikan used his massive size to his advantage along with the unusually soft touch he had for a player of his era. Mikan could finish ably with either hand in the paint. There’s a reason the Mikan Drill is still used to this day.

Bob McAdoo

Bob McAdoo
Bob McAdoo

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, one MVP, two All-NBA selections, five All-Stars

NBA rank: 67th in blocks and scoring, 71st in rebounds

A monster-scoring big man who led the league in scoring three consecutive seasons, including once at 34.5 points per game, Bob McAdoo had a pristine mid-range jumper and a plethora of post moves to torment opponents with.

Wes Unseld

Top accolades: One NBA title, one Finals MVP, one MVP, one All-NBA 1st Team selection, five All-Stars

NBA rank: 13th in rebounds, 136th in assists

Despite standing just 6-foot-7, Wes Unseld was one of the most physically imposing centers ever thanks to his incredible strength and stout frame. Unseld was one of the best rebounders in NBA history, averaging 14.0 for his career and leading the league in boards in 1974-75, and was extremely efficient at finishing down low.

Robert Parish

Top accolades: Four NBA titles, two All-NBA selections, nine All-Stars

NBA rank: 8th in rebounds, 10th in blocks, 28th in scoring, 87th in steals

The starting center on those legendary Celtics teams of the 1980s, Robert Parish was a great complement to the likes of Bird and McHale, willing to do all of the dirty work down low while still providing a solid scoring punch in the paint. Parish ranks in the Top 10 in both career rebounds and blocks.

Willis Reed

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs, one MVP, five All-NBA selections, seven All-Stars, one All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 63rd in rebounds

Best-known for limping out onto the court for Game 7 of the 1970 Finals for New York and hitting his first two shots on a bad thigh, Willis Reed is now widely considered one of the greatest Knicks of all time, a big man slightly short on stature but not on talent and sheer will. Reed was a monster rebounder and shot-blocker despite standing just 6-foot-9.

Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

Top accolades: One NBA title, five All-NBA 1st Team selections, eight All-Stars, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, four All-Defensive 1st Team selections

NBA rank: 11th in rebounds, 13th in blocks, 57th in scoring

At one time, Dwight Howard was the best big man in the NBA, an era that lasted for multiple seasons during his time with the Magic. Howard was an awe-inspiring athlete for his size, who would often sky for rebounds, to block shots or to finish alley-oops. Now in the late stages of his career, Howard is approaching Top 10 in NBA history in both rebounds and blocks, an incredible feat for the future Hall-of-Famer.

Dave Cowens

Dave Cowens
Dave Cowens

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, one MVP, three All-NBA 2nd Team selections, eight All-Stars, one All-Defensive 1st Team selection

NBA rank: 35th in rebounds, 193rd in scoring, 235th in assists

Florida State legend Dave Cowens is one of just two players ever to win league MVP in a season they weren’t voted 1st Team All-NBA along with another Celtics legend, Bill Russell. He was a bundle of energy in his prime, one who was a monster rebounder, averaging 15.2 rebounds over his eight-year prime.

Bill Walton

Top accolades: Two NBA titles, one Finals MVP, one MVP, two All-NBA Team selections, two All-Stars, two All-Defensive 1st Team selections, one Sixth Man of the Year award

NBA rank: 93rd in blocks

Had injuries not cut down his prime, Bill Walton would surely have ranked higher on this list and made our HoopsHype75 list. Unfortunately, that was not the case, but Walton still goes down as one of the best centers in league history thanks to his energy, ability to run the floor, score in the post, create for others and defend. He did well to turn himself into a useful role player later on in his career, too.

Artis Gilmore

Top accolades: Six All-Stars, one All-Defensive 2nd Team selection

NBA rank: 25th in blocks, 51st in rebounds, 128th in scoring

Although the majority of his impact was felt in the ABA, where he even won an MVP award, Artis Gilmore’s greatness was still felt in the NBA, where he spent 12 seasons and established himself as one of the deadliest low-post scorers around. Gilmore led the league in field-goal percentage four years in a row and was one of the toughest covers for opposing bigs on a nightly basis.

Nate Thurmond

Top accolades: Seven All-Stars, five All-Defensive Team selections

NBA rank: 10th in rebounds, 161st in scoring, 237th in blocks

One of the best rebounders basketball has ever seen, Nate Thurmond averaged 14-plus rebounds nine times in his 14 years in the NBA, including two campaigns where he averaged over 20 boards per contest. Thurmond was no slouch as a scorer, either, as the Hall-of-Famer averaged at least 20 points nightly five times in his career.

Nikola Jokic 🇷🇸

Top accolades: One MVP, two All-NBA 1st Team selections, three All-Stars

When the NBA inevitably does its NBA100 list in 25 years, and when HoopsHype beats them to the punch with our own HoopsHype100 list, there’s no doubt Nikola Jokic will rank far higher on the list than he is here. Jokic can do it all at the 5-spot, including score, rebound and – most impressively – create. The big Serbian is already the best passing big man basketball has ever seen, and it’ll be exciting to see where his career takes him from here.

Dikembe Mutombo 🇨🇩

Top accolades: Eight All-Stars, two All-NBA Team selections, four Defensive Player of the Year awards, six All-Defensive team selections

NBA rank: 2nd in blocks, 20th in rebounds

One of the best shot-blockers in NBA history, Dikembe Mutombo boasted impressive longevity despite being very limited as a scorer thanks to his ability to defend the paint, as well as thanks to his rebounding down low.

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