There’s often a debate around who the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) is in any sport. For many in basketball that is Michael Jordan. Some say LeBron, a few other names slip in occasionally but the difference usually depends on the criteria used. It’s difficult also to compare different positions, centers especially are difficult to compare.
The role, traditional or otherwise, of a center, is just so different to the other positions, especially guards. The easier (albeit cheating) way to differentiate is to have two separate categories: The G.O.A.T. and the G.O.A.T. center. There have been plenty of unbelievable centers in the NBA’s rich history but there those who stand out among the others.
The Top 10
10. Patrick Ewing
Considered by many to be the greatest Knick of all time, Ewing had an amazing career. The man defined Knicks basketball in the ’90s and for good reason. Ewing looked unstoppable most nights as he dominated both ends of the court. What stains Ewing’s resume is the lack of a championship, Ewing was asked to do it all himself which rarely works in basketball. Like Iverson and Barkley, Ewing was never given the help other stars had. He never had a Pippen, McHale, or Wade. It’s not an excuse, just an unfortunate reality. Arguably the greatest teammate Ewing ever has was Allan Houston who was a very good player but not on that level of second-fiddles.
Ewing ended his career as an 11-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA, three-time all defense, 1985-86 Rookie of the Year, 1958-86 All-Rookie, and a member of the NBA’s Hall of Fame. Ewing was one of the greatest of his time in one of the greatest eras of centers in NBA history.
9. George Mikan
George Mikan is one of the pioneers that changed the game forever. Because of Mikan, the NBA instituted goal-tending, the shot clock, and even widened the foul lane. The reason Mikan is so low is that he only played for seven seasons but what he did in that time was truly remarkable.
Mikan was a four-time All-Star, three-time scoring champion, 1952-53 rebounding champion, 1952-53 MVP, made six All-BAA/NBA, and won a BAA championship to go along with four more NBA championships.
8. Willis Reed
Championships don’t mean everything but two championships and two finals MVPs mean plenty. Even ahead of the great Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed stands as the greatest Knick of all time. In addition to his two championships and two Finals MVPs, Reed was a seven-time All-Star, five-time All NBA, 1969-70 MVP, and 1969-70 All-Star MVP; he also was a member of the 1969-70 All-Defensive team, the 1964-65 All-Rookie team, and is a member of the NBA Hall of Fame.
Willis Reed isn’t the biggest Center on this list but he was a bad, bad man on the court. Reed could rebound against the best of them and was an intimidating presence down-low. With career averages of 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds, Reed was an imposing player though he only played for 10 seasons.
7. David Robinson
David “The Admiral” Robinson had a long and decorated career playing 14 seasons, all for the San Antonio Spurs. Over those years, Robinson amassed career averages of 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. What’s even more impressive is that he didn’t even join the league until he was 24. After Robinson graduated from the Naval Academy, he served two years with the Navy before joining the Spurs.
The Hall of Famer’s accolades include ten All-Star appearances, eight All-Defensive teams, a 1990-91 rebounding title, a 1991-92 block title, a 1993-94 scoring title, the 1989-90 All-Rookie team, 1989-90 Rookie of the Year, 1991-92 Defensive Player of the Year, two championships, and finally, 1994-95 MVP.
6. Moses Malone
The man who brought the Sixers to the promised land, Moses was like few others. He was a dangerous scorer, bruising defender, and among the greatest rebounders in NBA history. The “Chairman of the Boards” most notably spent time with the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers in his 21-year career. Malone averaged 20.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, and shot 76% from the free-throw line over the course of his career.
Moses’ lone championship came with the Sixers as a part of one of the greatest teams assembled. With players like Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Bobby Jones, and of course, the Dr himself, Julius Erving; the Sixers managed to sweep a loaded Lakers team featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, and Bob McAdoo. Moses was famously quoted before the playoffs stating his team would go “fo, fo, fo” (the Sixers had a first-round bye) sweeping the entire playoffs, and he wasn’t far off. The Sixers actually managed to lose only one game in the entirety of the playoffs.
Moses was a 13-time All-Star, eight-time All NBA, a six-time rebounding champion, two-time All-Defensive team, 1974-75 All-Rookie team, 1982-83 NBA champion, 1982-83 Finals MVP, three-time MVP, and a member of the ABA All-Time Team.
5. Shaquille O’Neal
Bigger than basketball, bigger than life itself, Shaq is possibly the most overpowering force the game ever saw. Standing 7’1″ weighing 325 lbs, Shaq could bully his way past anyone and everyone who stood between him and the basket. He may not have had the most well-rounded game but he frankly didn’t need it. He was bigger, stronger, and faster than anyone else around and knew just how to take advantage of it. Averaging 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks over his 19-year career, Shaq had an impressively long career given his who game was based on his athleticism.
An incredible 15-time All-Star, Shaq also made 14 All NBA teams, three All-Defensive teams, three All-Star MVPs, two scoring titles, made the 1992-93 All-Rookie team, and one the 1992-93 Rookie of the Year award. Between his time with the LA Lakers and the Miami Heat, Shaq won four NBA titles and was named Finals MVP three times. Needless to say he made the NBA Hall of Fame.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon
Hakeem “The Dream” was truly poetry in motion. No other center in the history of the game was as technically proficient. Olajuwon was almost the counterpart to Shaq. One dominated based on pure size while the other used an unmatched skill to overcome his opponent. Showing some of, if not the greatest footwork in the NBA, Olajuwon picked up right where Moses left off for the Houston Rockets. With career averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 3.1 blocks, The Dream dominated nearly every aspect of the game. In an era defined by quality big men, Olajuwon stood tall among them all.
He finished his career as a Hall of Famer, a 12-time All-Star, 12-time All NBA team, 9-time All-Defensive Team, three-time block champion, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 1984-85 All-Rookie team, two-time NBA champion, two-time Finals MVP, and 1993-94 MVP. Few others were as strong a force on both sides of the ball as The Dream.
3. Bill Russell
Bill Russell is considered by many to be the greatest center of all time, after all, he owns the record for the most NBA titles (11). Russell certainly belongs in the conversation though even beyond the number of rings he has. He could do it all, defend, pass, score a bit, and he was one of the greatest rebounders in NBA history, a solid second actually. Russell was a 12-time All-Star, made the All-NBA team 11 times, he was named to the 1968-69 All-Defensive team in its inaugural year (he would’ve won many more if it had been around). He won four rebounding titles, five MVPs, and the obvious 11 NBA titles.
Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds in a league that didn’t count blocks, if they did, you can bet he’d be among the best every year.
Being the G.O.A.T. isn’t just about championships though, Russell didn’t win those rings on his own. Here is a list of the Hall of Fame teammates Bill Russell had in those 11 years: John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, KC Jones, Tom Heinsohn, and Bill Sharman. While Bill Russell was incredibly talented, a Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest if not the greatest defenders of all time, he is not the G.O.A.T. center.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor)
The all-time leading scorer in the NBA deserves no less than a top-three spot in the greatest centers of all time. With his patented “Sky Hook”, Kareem was able to score against the best defenders the league had to offer. His record of 38,387 points looked to be one of the unbreakable records in sports (though LeBron James will likely break it in a couple of years). Kareem is not only historically one of the league’s best scorers, but he’s also one of the top rebounders and shot blockers of all-time. With career averages of 24.6 points, 11,2 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks, Kareem was truly an all-time talent deserving of the Hall of Fame.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is as decorated as they come. In his 20 seasons in the NBA, Kareem was an All-Star an astonishing 19 times, that’s an average of 95%. In addition, he made 15 All-NBA teams, 11 All-Defensive teams, the 1969-70 All-Rookie team, won four-block titles, two scoring titles, a rebounding title for the 1975-76 season, and the 1969-70 Rookie of the Year. Not to mention six MVPs, six NBA titles, and two Finals MVPs. Kareem had a one of a kind career but only managed to come in second in the G.O.A.T conversation.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
There never has, and likely never will be a player who did the kind of things Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain was able to. The numbers Chamberlain would put up are the stuff of legend. The stats don’t even look real, that’s how dominant Chamberlain was. Wilt averaged 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds over 14 years in the NBA. Like with Russell, the league at that time didn’t count blocks but that would have only been one more stat for Wilt to dominate.
It’s said that Wilt would pick a stat each season to dominate and the numbers seem to reflect that. Wilt averaged over thirty points over his first seven seasons including one averaging over 40, and another over 50. Chamberlain was constantly a tenacious rebounder and in my opinion (also factually backed by numbers) the greatest rebounder of all-time. Chamberlain some time later decided to focus on assists averaging 7.8 from 1966-67 and 8.6 one season later. He did this while averaging over 20 points and rebounds per game.
Chamberlain holds many NBA records including several that seem unbreakable. To name a couple, Wilt once scored 100 points in a single NBA game, he also pulled down 55 rebounds in a game. He finished his 14-year career as a 13-time All-Star, 11-time rebounding champion, he made 10 All-NBA teams, two All-Defensive teams was named the 1959-60 All-Star MVP, the 1967-68 Assists champion and the 1959-60 Rookie of the Year. Wilt also won seven scoring titles, four MVPs, two NBA titles, and was named the Finals MVP twice.
Again, there never has been and likely never will be another player who can do the kind of things Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain was able to. Make any excuse you want but as far as the numbers, history, and I am concerned Wilt is now, and will likely always be, the G.O.A.T. for NBA centers.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports