The best centers in basketball history have been the big men in the paint around which their teams pivoted, and relied on, as part of storied franchises that won multiple championships. Serving as the central character on a squad of winners, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has produced some truly outstanding athletes in this position.
From towering terrors who threw down dunks and crashed the boards to the graceful finesse players who redefined the position, the best centers in basketball history will always be remembered for their high-quality play both around and above the rim. These were the best to ever play.
Considered by many qualified experts and NBA historians as not only one of the best centers in basketball history but perhaps the greatest player of all time, Russell was a dominating force on a Boston Celtics team that won eight titles in a row, eleven in his career. In an era before blocks or steals were recorded, Russell won games by playing defense and team ball, rather than scoring, and it proved to work better than any other competing formula. Despite playing in the same age as Chamberlain, another entry on the list, Russell was the clear winner and played the game in a stoically domineering fashion that has yet to be truly emulated.
When a player has the highest career points-per-game average of all time, including a season of over 50 points per game and once notching 100 points in a single match-up, it is difficult not to include that player on a greatest-ever list, especially at that particular position. It can be seen as quite a compliment to Chamberlain’s athletic superstardom that the only knocks against his skill level were his free-throw shooting and the fact that he “only” won two championships. The rules were changed because he was so definitively dominant, widening the lane, and he was the biggest player in the league, but with agility and dexterity that allowed him to score at will and impose that will upon every game.
Abdul-Jabbar was a unique player, whose signature “sky hook” move was impossible to defend, and whose distinctive personality was a good fit for the Showtime Lakers team he was a part of in the 1980’s, with whom he won five championships, and that was after leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their to-date only NBA championship early in his career when he was known as Lew Alcindor. What is perhaps most remarkable about Abdul-Jabbar
was his longevity, a byproduct of his dedication to physical fitness and a refined game, that resulted in an incredible 19 times selected to the All-Star game and the all-time career NBA scoring record, with over 38,000 points amassed in his remarkable career.
Shaq, who is still in the league at the time of writing this article, entered the league with highly touted expectations, yet managed to rise even above those lofty ambitions. His showcase smile and charismatic persona made a splash in a big way, as even from his rookie season he showed that he was an intimidating presence in the interior court, and was able to take over games and utterly annihilate opposing centers. Despite strong initial efforts with the Orlando Magic, he did not win championships until he was paired with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won three rings; then, as an encore, also won a ring with the Miami Heat. The Big Diesel in his prime was a powerful center who forced opposing teams to formulate entirely new tactics just to figure out how to contain him.
Like Chamberlain, he “only” won two rings, and his statistics, while impressive enough, are not entirely overwhelming. However, Olajuwon was a player that could have gone toe-to-toe with any center in history and stood a chance, and perhaps demonstrated this most effectively in the memorable Finals match-up between O’Neal’s Magic and Olajuwon’s Rockets, who swept Shaq’s squad 4-0. The match-up problems for any opposing centers with Hakeem “The Dream” were obvious on both sides of the court. On offense, Olajuwon had a series of technical, wondrous moves near the rim, an arsenal of head and hand fakes, pivots, hooks, and turnarounds called the “Dream Shake” that was remarkably difficult to guard and was consistently good for points near the basket. On defense, he was an outstanding player, who set impressive shot-block records while even once posting a very rare quadruple-double in a game. He was an all-around great who played in a singular fashion not likely to be copied any time soon.
Mikan played in the early days of the NBA pro league, back when the Lakers were in Minneapolis. But even all these decades later, Mikan is still considered one of the best centers in basketball history for his thorough skills and being the archetypal standard-setter for what it meant to dominate at the center position. He won championships and posted great stats while playing a very cerebral game, beating opponents as much with his mind and smart play as he did with his physical size and strength of will. He provided the pillar of an example needed to inspire entire new generations of great centers.
Honorable mentions: Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, Dwight Howard, Moses Malone, David Robinson, Willis Reed.