Top 10 Greatest Centers in NBA History

Throughout the off-season, we’ve been breaking down the top players all-time at each position. Before we start, I want to be clear that ABA and BAA/NBL accomplishments are factored in to these rankings, because those leagues merged into the NBA.

No top ten list is complete without some healthy debate. Tweet at us at @hoop_social and let us know how your list differs from ours!

With that being said, here are the top 10 Centers of all time!

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

7’2 Hall of Fame Bucks, Lakers. (#1 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

6x Champion, 2x Finals MVP, 6x MVP, 19x All-Star, 15x All NBA, 11x All Defense, ROY, 2x Scoring Title, Rebound Title, 4x Block Title, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.

Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor jr. has the best resume in NBA history. If not for the media lying about him in college and therefore damaging the relationship with the eventual Kareem Abdul-Jabbar he probably has 8-10 MVPs.

Kareem was that good.

He earned 4 Finals MVPs even though he only got 2. His MVPs are farther apart than MJ’s first stent with the Bulls— before as you should know, MJ quit.

The all-time leader in points used his incredible soft touch to master the Hook shot to deadly effect. His amazing ability to score should have made him the most beloved athlete of all time. His winning impacted the league in a variety of ways. Kareem had the ability to lead his team to championships 17 years apart as at least a top 2 guy. Shaq’s entire Career was 18 years.

My top 8 of my top 10 have all had people argue them for GOAT and win, but Kareem seems to be one people forget a lot. To me, the true ‘Greatest Of All Time’ is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

2. Bill Russell

6’10 Hall of Fame Celtics (#4 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings) 

11x Champion, 5x MVP, 12x All-Star, 11x All NBA, All-Defense (the only year they had it and he played), 4x Rebound Champion, 25th Anniversary Team, 35th Anniversary Team, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team. 

William Fenton Russell was the best defender in the history of basketball.

I’m not a huge advanced stats guy, but Russell is first in Defensive Win Shares by over 27, and that is the same difference between number 2 (Tim Duncan) and number 11 (Artis Gilmore).

There has never in history been a defender singularly capable of ending the other team. Red Arbauch used to make him sit out of practice so the team could work on offense. We don’t have his blocks or steals numbers, but we have footage of him having several 20+ block games.

Russell was the ultimate competitor, the original GOAT. No one could match him in his ability to lead teams to titles. Watching his defense you just know it would translate to today. His athleticism was off the charts. A reported max reach of 14ft. Russell could actually kick the net. The American Olympic committee made Russell choose between High Jump or Basketball even though he had the best jumps in the qualifying events, he was ranked #7 in the world. His times in Hurdles would have won the Olympics. We are talking about someone taller than Dwight Howard who is an Olympic-level sprinter and high jumper.

Add to that incredible timing and instincts and you have the greatest defender in history. Also, adding in the fact of his off-court impact and his impact on the subsequent generations of basketball players, Russell is a true Giant in the history of the game we love.

3. Wilt Chamberlain

7’1 Hall of Fame Warriors, Sixers, Lakers (#9 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings) 

2x Champion, FMVP, 4x MVP, 13x All-Star, 10x All NBA, 2x All-Defense, 7x Scoring Title, 11x Rebounding Title, Assists Title, ROY, 35th Anniversary Team, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team. 

Wilt the Stilt was a bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic, more skilled, better defensive, Shaq.

In college, Wilt’s coach Phog Allen advocated moving the rims to 12ft. The Big Dipper decided he would just dunk on those anyway, his vertical was at least 40” and some say up to 50”! We have on video him blocking a shot at the top of the backboard (13.5 ft.), he was a Big 8 champion in the high jump 3 years in a row topping out over 50 inches.

After his retirement, while contemplating a comeback with the Knicks, he squatted a 600 lbs. cart that had broken one of the elevators in MSG. Once Paul Silas was about to fight Wilt’s teammate Happy Hairston (I promise I didn’t make that name up) and wilt picked Silas up and carried him away, Silas was 6’7 235. Wilt and Jim Brown ran barefoot against each other in a sprint at a party, Wilt won… Twice. Wilt ran a sub-eleven second 100m, 49 seconds 400m, 1:58.3 800m for Kansas.

All of that and Wilt had the audacity to decide to be a skilled player instead of just an athlete.

Some of that was the rules. It was an offensive foul for the offensive player to initiate contact so Wilt used his agility to slide in between massive behemoths to slam the ball through the hoop. He had a sweet fade-away bank shot and was the second-best defender of his era.

Wilt was basically the best athlete of all time, who didn’t quite live up to his potential. Part of it was coaching. He had 2 elite coaches in his career, Hannam, and Sharman, and basically, he made the finals with them every time. Part of it was his focus on stats over wins. Part of it was the singular brilliance of Bill Russell. Wilt cannot be separated from Russell who was better than him.

Wilt was the greatest athlete to ever live.

4. Shaquille O’Neal

7’1 Hall of Fame Magic, Lakers, Heat (Suns, Cavs, Celtics). (#10 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

4x Champion, 3x FMVP, MVP, 15x All-Star, 14x All NBA, 3x All-Defense, ROY, 2x Scoring Title, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team. 

The summer of my freshman year of college I was working at a camp, where a group of middle schoolers was talking about basketball when one said possibly the stupidest thing ever: “Shaq was ok but Yao was probably better.” Now, firstly I feel very proud of myself that I didn’t punch that child, I wanted to but I didn’t. Shaq, Diesel, The Big Aristotle, Superman, Shaq Fu, Shaq Daddy, was way better than Yao, and I wore 11 when I played because of Yao.

As far as the most dominant player of my basketball lifetime it was prime Shaq. No one was more, to borrow the phrase from Thanos “Inevitable.” Shaq was going to beat you, and you were going to be in a lot of pain afterward.

Shaq is also probably the most disappointing player of all time. His physical skills were top-notch, but he didn’t dedicate himself to being in shape. Even with that, it’s mind-blowing that he only has one MVP. Shaq could do things that defy the laws of physics. Shaq was the most insane physical display I saw watching the NBA.

5. George Mikan 

6’10 Hall of Fame, Lakers, Gears. (#12 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

7 Champion (2x NBL), NBL MVP, 4x All-Star, 8x All NBA/BAA/NBL, 4x Scoring Champ, 2 Rebound Champ. Greatest Player of the Half Century, 25th Anniversary Team, 35th Anniversary Team, 50th Anniversary Team.

From Impact alone, I don’t think any single player affected the league as much as Big Mike.

The first true Superstar, his Lakers leaving the NBL after his first year with the team (His first year had been with the Chicago All American Gears) forced the NBL to seek a merger with the BAA, creating the NBA. Mr. Basketball in his prime averaged 33% of his team points, 14% of his team assists, and 25% of his team’s rebounds. Winning 78% of the Championships he played for.

He did all of this while basically inventing the fundamentals while he went along.

Until Mikan, the Magnificent size was considered a liability in Basketball. At one point MSG’s marquee read “Geo Mikan vs. Knicks” he was that singularly dominant. Pairing with Jim Pollard, (123 in Jordan’s Rankings) and Vern Mekkelson (113) he dominated the first decade of professional basketball.

Mikan was cut from his basketball team before being allowed to try out because he was too tall and wore glasses, he eventually made the team and in college his coach made him run side to side and up and down till his speed and footwork were better than the guards. His coach even made him dance with “the shortest and smallest” girls at school dances to improve his footwork.

His hook shot was basically impossible to guard and the fact that goaltending wasn’t a rule till The Monster proved how much he changed the game. The paint moved from just 6ft to 12ft because of Mikan. The Sky Hook is based on his footwork. Mikan Drills are taught to every big man. The Ft. Wayne Pistons held the ball the entire game to keep Mikan from scoring leading to the creation of the Shot Clock.

Mikan has his fingerprints on the league more than any other individual player. 12th overall might be too low for this all-time great.

6. Hakeem Olajuwon

7’0 Hall of Fame Rockets (Raptors) (#13 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

2x Champion, 2x FMVP, MVP, 12x All-Star, 12x All NBA, 9x All-Defense, 2x DPOY, 3x Blocks Title, 2x Rebounds Title, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.

Hakeem The Dream Olajuwon was born in Lagos, Nigeria a city I have spent considerable time in as it is the second largest city in Africa and I grew up a 15-hour drive away.

Hakeem made basketball the Nations second favorite sport. If this was simply a list of who I want on my team in 2020 I might have Hakeem way closer to 1 than 12, and he sure would be above Kobe and Mikan.

Four players can claim to be the best player on a championship team in the 90s Duncan, Zeke, MJ, and Hakeem.

His low post scoring was masterful, the best in history with his post moves and incredible touch, screen settings were solid, passing is underrated, and his offense is basically 70x worse than his defense. Hakeem is one of the top 5 best defenders ever. If his draft buddy Michael Jordan didn’t exist there would be a generation of people arguing he was the GOAT.

Hakeem is one of the best players ever, a true champion, and a master at both offense and defense.

7. David Robinson

7’1 Hall of Fame, Spurs. (#20 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

2x Champion, MVP, 10x All-Star, 10x All NBA, 8x All-Defense, DPOY, ROY, Scoring Title, Rebound Title, 2x Blocks Title, 50th Anniversary Team.

The Admiral was incredible. Think KAT’s offense with Marc Gasol’s defense IQ in Gobert’s body, with the strength of Embiid, and the athleticism of BAM. That is D-Rob. While he didn’t win a ring before Duncan got to San Antonio he probably would have been top 25 even without the rings, he was that good.

I have a signed David Robinson picture in my room and it’s awesome.

A great passer and one-man offense, the second-best defender of the 90s. The best big man on the dream team. Robinson was awesome and probably didn’t even live up to his full potential. The unstoppable force that he was on a fast break can not be overstated, Robinson was incredible.

8. Moses Malone

6’10 Hall of Fame Rockets, Sixers (Stars, Spirit, Braves, Bullets, Hawks, Bucks, Spurs) (#21 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

Champion, FMVP, 3x MVP, 13x All-Star, 8x All NBA, 2x All-Defense, 6x Rebound Champ, ABA All-Time Team, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.

Big Mo is a tough one to rank. He hoarded rebounds like a Robber Barron hoarded land along the railroads during western expansion. He stole accolades from better people like the communist dictator steals other people’s money. He was loved by coaches for his extra efforts. But, basically, analytics hates him.

His defense is terrible and makes you wonder how those all defensive teams happened, his on/off numbers aren’t great, the year he wins his title he’s the second worst starter and the 5th guy on the team overall.

I asked my dad, a child of the 70s and 80s and a Rockets fan, why he was so beloved. His assessment was that “everyone thought he worked harder than everyone else and that’s why.”

Due to his impact on the league, I don’t feel I can keep him any lower because he seems to me to be the Allen Iverson of the 70s and 80s.

9. Willis Reed

6’9 Hall of Fame Knicks (#34 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

2x Champion, 2x FMVP, MVP, 7x All-Star, 5x All NBA, All Defense, ROY, 50th Anniversary Team, 75th Anniversary Team.

Willis Reed was a lot better than I thought before I watched the footage of him in his prime.

Known for being super clutch in his 2 finals wins I thought he was just a big strong center who took all the credit from Clyde who really was the best player on those teams (I was right about Frazier, wrong about Reed).

Reed was an inspirational leader and that is what he is most remembered for. He was the Tim Duncan of his day, with solid fundamentals, really good at everything, and would slam it on you if you weren’t paying attention. Those Knicks teams needed a strong leader. Cazzie Russell, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas, Phill Jackson, and Clyde Frazier all had very big personalities.

Reed once was called in as a National Guardsmen to a protest, Jackson was leading it. Reed was an anchor on those dominant defenses and the heart and soul of the team.

Reed is probably one of the most underrated big men ever and he played for the Knicks, Knicks get overrated for breathing, I am not sure why Reed doesn’t get the same treatment as his teammates.

10. Nikola Jokic

6’11 284! Nuggets (#35 Overall on Jordan’s Rankings)

2X MVP, 4x All-Star, 4x All NBA, 

Jokic will make this ranking look stupid in a few years. He’s the best passing big man of all time, he might be the best big man shooter of all time when this is all said and done as well.

Jokic is a winner and it is weird that people say he isn’t, his numbers and wins in the playoffs prove that he shows up when it matters. While Joker isn’t the best defender, he does use his positioning well enough to not get played off the floor and he is only going to get better as his career continues to grow.

Jokic has back-to-back MVPs and is still being disrespected by fans.

RELATED: Check out our NBA top 10 all-time lists at each position!

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Jordan Ennis lives in West Africa where he is a pastor at an international church, he also co-hosts the Assisted Development Podcast on the HoopSocial Podcasts feed. He can be found at Assisted Development Podcast on Facebook and @HoopSocialDraft on Twitter.