If I went nuts and started piling up a Bill Simmons-esque “Pyramid” of my favorite NBA players ever, I’d probably catch grief because the big guys would catch hell. Maybe somebody else loves the big guys who can plant themselves on the block and dare the opposing stiff to stop him, and fair play to them. Personal preference and all that.
My kind of player veers more toward the skill-finesse type of game, the moves or shots that just make you either practice harder or throw up your hands and say “screw it, I quit.” Touting a player as one of the best of all-time simply because he hit the genetic lottery and ended up seven feet tall is kind of knee-jerk. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain could rack the kinds of stats that would make NBA Jam players climb to the next difficulty level, but how many really skilled bigs did he face night in and night out?
So, now that we’ve established that I’m more of a Jerry West/John Havlicek kind of guy than a Chamberlain/Russell sort, does it disqualify me from discussing the best centers of all time? Hope not, because that’s exactly what’s coming.
With Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement, there’s sure to be a rush of historical assessments coming, and some are sure to name Shaq as the best big man ever. I would ask those people to please put down the Kool-Aid. Again, personal preference.
Let’s get into which big men I do rate highly, and why. My Top 5 centers read thusly:
5. Wilt Chamberlain
Career Averages: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, .540 FG%, .511 FT%, 2 NBA titles
Wilt’s numbers were always outrageous, but let’s not front: they should have been. The game had never seen a guy of Wilt’s size, stature, and skill level. There were other tall fellas, guys like the 6’11” Walt Bellamy or the 6’11” Nate Thurmond, but Wilt outweighed both of those guys by 50 pounds.
Watching Wilt play had to be like seeing a high school senior schooling a bunch of freshmen. Still, it wasn’t until he got guys like Hal Greer, Chet Walker, and Billy Cunningham around him, AND let them take some shots once in a while, that he was finally able to win a championship.
1965-66: Wilt 25.2 FGA/game, team goes 55-25, loses to Celtics in East Finals
1966-67: Wilt 14.2 FGA/game (4th on team), team goes 68-13 and wins title
Those who want to eviscerate LeBron because he couldn’t carry Cleveland to a title need to remember Wilt. It took him a few years to prove that the game had passed one-man teams by.
4. Shaquille O’Neal
Career Averages: 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, .582 FG%, .527 FT%, 4 NBA titles
Shaq gets up on Wilt because by the 1990’s, the NBA did have a few skilled big men for him to compete against. Shaq took on the likes of Ewing, Olajuwon, Mutombo, Mourning, Robinson, Duncan, and Howard, and though he still had a physical advantage on them, it wasn’t the straight mismatch that Wilt’s games seemed to be.
The sad part about both guys is simply imagining how many points they could have scored and how many more games they could have won if either man could have shot his free throws worth a damn. Wilt would have had another 2,246 points, about 2.1 per game, if he’d been a 70% free throw shooter. Shaq left 1,941 points on the table, or about 1.6 per game. Both men played a lot of games in their careers that could have swung on another two points.
I subscribe to this philosophy: when it got down to the end of a close game, Shaq and Wilt were liabilities. Until later in their careers, their teams couldn’t ignore them on offense, so opportunities to foul them were endless. When it’s a two-point game and you know it’s not likely a shooter’s making both free throws, why let them do anything with the ball?
It put a ton of pressure on their teammates to go get the offensive rebounds after the inevitable bricks. When over the period of your career, your limitations contributed to a great many losses and never got remedied, you have little claim to being the best anything of all time.
3. Bill Russell
Career Averages: 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, .440 FG%, .561 FT%, 11 NBA titles
Let’s get this out of the way now: if Shaq or Wilt could have shot freebies with any competence, they would leave Russell in the dust. The fact that a 215-pound man could be one of the game’s legendary centers underscores how thin the crop was in the ‘60s.
Russell could charitably be called mediocre offensively, and he was never the prime option for Boston. Of course, he never had to be. I think we could possibly fill an entire 12-man roster with Hall of Famers from those Celtics teams that won 11 championships in 13 years. Let’s try it:
Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, Clyde Lovellette, John Havlicek, Bailey Howell…okay, that’s 10. But if we add in the Hall of Fame coaches John Thompson and Don Nelson, there’s our 12. When you’re surrounded by an entire wing of the Hall of Fame, it’s hard to give you much credit for winning 11 championships.
What Russell did do was dominate defensively, revolutionizing the art of shot-blocking. He got credit for using blocks as outlet passes, starting thousands of Celtics fast breaks. Contrast that with guys like Wilt and just about every center in the SportsCenter era (I’m looking at you, Dwight Howard), who would rather smack the ball into row five and glare at the opponent. “Never mind that you’ll get to score again, I just owned your ass and will enjoy it for these eight seconds. This proves that my testicles are of superior size to yours. And no one will remember if the game’s a one-point loss for us.”
Still, if we wanted to pick a modern-day player to compare to Russell, our closest bet might be Dennis Rodman. Great rebounder, great defensive player, won a lot of titles playing with better, more skilled players. I dare you to find someone better.
2. Hakeem Olajuwon
Career Averages: 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 3.1 blocks, .512 FG%, .712 FT%, 2 NBA titles
This is the one that I expect to catch grief for. “Hakeem over Wilt and Russell, ARE YOU INSANE?” If that’s the definition, then yes, I guess I am. A few points in my favor:
Hakeem played against the same crop of big men that Shaq did, except replace guys like Howard with guys like Kareem. Trade up. Oh, and Hakeem outplayed Shaq in the 1995 Finals, despite being 10 years older, so there’s that, too.
Hakeem did everything well (block shots, rebound, pass, score) that Wilt did, but he had a bit more depth to his jump shot, and he could actually shoot free throws. He was winning rebound titles by a full two rebounds per game, in an era where shooting was better and no one man could possibly dominate the boards the way Chamberlain did.
Where Russell had a bunch of legends helping him win championships, Hakeem’s first championship was aided by the likes of Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, and Kenny Smith. That 1994 Rockets team was the closest thing we’ve had to a one-man championship since…hell, possibly since George Mikan.
If that’s not enough, why not let Michael Jordan tell you a little something about Hakeem?
“If I had to pick a center [for an all-time best team], I would take Olajuwon. That leaves out Shaq, Patrick Ewing. It leaves out Wilt Chamberlain. It leaves out a lot of people. And the reason I would take Olajuwon is very simple: he is so versatile because of what he can give you from that position. It's not just his scoring, not just his rebounding or not just his blocked shots. People don't realize he was in the top seven in steals. He always made great decisions on the court. For all facets of the game, I have to give it to him.”
Tell it, Mike.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Career Averages: 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, .559 FG%, .721 FT%, 6 NBA titles
Yes, Kareem had a lot of help winning his titles. Guys like Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Mychal Thompson, and Byron Scott were big factors in five of his titles. Until the last two, though, Kareem was the biggest dog in the yard, a claim that couldn’t always be made about Russell.
Even on that first title, though, the one with the Milwaukee Bucks, the 24-year-old Lew Alcindor had the legendary Oscar Robertson and career 18-ppg man Bobby Dandridge deferring to him. It could never truly be said that Kareem “carried” his teams to a title, at least not the way Hakeem did, but he was the focus of his teams in a way Russell never was.
The statistical averages favor Wilt and Russell, but that disregards the fact that shooting percentages were hideous when they played. In fact, Wilt was the first player to finish a season over .500 from the floor. Russell’s best was .467. In an era where scoring was up because shooting was decent, Kareem didn’t have the chance to crunch 20-rebound games all the time, but he did rip almost 17 per game in his first year with the Lakers.
In the season where he turned 39, Kareem was still averaging 23.4 points per game. Wilt essentially stopped shooting at 34, and Russell retired at 35. No other player has been as dominant a force in the NBA for as many years.
Again, it goes back to what kind of game you prefer. I’d rather watch a skill and finesse game than see a pass into the low post and the center bulldozing his man with little more than a large ass. Hakeem and Kareem played a much more skillful game than guys like Wilt and Shaq, who could simply overwhelm everyone physically.
Shaq was essentially everything I don’t like in a player. Reliant on his size and strength more than any particular skill set. An unrepentant attention whore. A terrible rapper. But still, he made the court his domain for a lot of years, and deserves great respect for the way he performed.
Best of all time, though? Not hardly.