The best centers in NBA history
NBA centers are some of the most physically imposing athletes on the planet. They usually stand at least 6 feet 10 inches tall with arms and legs that are longer than some teenagers’ entire bodies. Having a dominant center at the forefront of your team is a practice that has gotten less popular in today’s NBA, thanks to the rise of versatile power forwards and non-stop three-point shooting, but these giants are almost mythical in how they ruled the game in the league’s early years.
We’ve made our selections for the greatest centers to ever play in the NBA, using a combination of stats, career accomplishments, legacy and advanced metrics used by the NBA stat keepers at Basketball-Reference.com as of January 2019 to rank them in order of greatness. Where did your favorite big man end up?
25. Neil Johnston (1951-1959)
Standing at 6 feet 8 inches, Neil Johnston is one of the shortest centers on this list, but in his era, he was tall enough to dominate down low. Johnston led the league in scoring three times and was an All-Star six times in a career that lasted only eight seasons. He played his entire career for the Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State), which he led to a title in 1956. Johnston averaged 19.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game and landed a spot in the Hall of Fame.
24. Andre Drummond (2013-Present)
As gifted a rebounder as there’s ever been, that’s a stat category Andre Drummond has led the league in twice so far in his career. But what elevates him to elite status is when you realize he’s averaged 21.2 total rebounds per 48 played in his career, which is the best average of any player since 1973.
This 6-foot 11-inch monster has also averaged a double-double for his career, as you’ll notice nearly everyone on this list has, putting up 13.9 points and 13.5 rebounds per game since 2013. Drummond is also a two-time All-Star whose talents have unfortunately been spent on a Detroit Pistons team that’s only made the playoffs once in his career.
23. Jack Sikma (1978-1991)
Arguably the greatest center to not be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Jack Sikma dominated the paint with the Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks during his career. This big blondie averaged 15.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in a career that included seven All-Star Game appearances and an NBA title. Sikma was a great shooter, sinking about 85 percent of his free throws, which made him even more dangerous than other centers. Unlike other big men, Sikma was also nearly unbreakable, playing at least 80 games in 10 out of his 14 seasons in the NBA.
22. Dikembe Mutombo (1992-2009)
One of the most feared defenders in NBA history, regardless of position, Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year a record four times in his career. He stood at 7 feet 2 inches and was able to swat basically any ball that came anywhere near the basket. Mutombo averaged 4.3 blocks per 48 minutes played, which is sixth-best among all centers. While virtually everyone on this list could outscore him on any given night — he actually averaged more rebounds than points per game in his career — Mutombo would make them earn every basket.
21. Bob Lanier (1971-1984)
A dominant center who spent his entire career in the Midwest, Bob Lanier had his jersey number retired by both the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks. In 14 NBA seasons, Lanier averaged 20.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game at the center position, and he shot better than 51 percent from the floor. From 1972 to 1982, Lanier was an All-Star eight times. In four playoff runs with the Pistons, he averaged 25.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game, but despite that Herculean effort, never won a championship.
20. Dan Issel (1970-1984)
A record-setting stud at the University of Kentucky, Dan Issel went on to be one of the best offensive threats in ABA or NBA history. Issel spent six seasons in the ABA before the league merged with the NBA, winning a championship and becoming the league’s second-leading scorer of all time. He continued to be a monster on the paint in 10 years with the Denver Nuggets, averaging just shy of a double-double for his career, with 22.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Perhaps the most impressive stat from Issel’s Hall-of-Fame career? He only missed 24 games in 15 seasons in a physical era for players down low.
19. Alonzo Mourning (1993-2008)
In 15 years of service in the NBA, ‘Zo averaged 4.4 blocks per 48 minutes played, which is the fifth-highest mark ever among NBA centers. A number like that is what secured him two NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors and two selections on the All-Defensive first team. But Mourning wasn’t just a beast on defense, he also averaged 17.1 points per game to go along with 8.5 rebounds — averages that, unfortunately, took a significant hit in the final years of his career following a kidney transplant he had to undergo in 2003. Mourning was also a seven-time All-Star and won a title in 2006 with the Miami Heat, who retired his jersey number in 2009.
18. Robert Parish (1976-1997)
Talk about iron men. No one has ever played more NBA games than Robert Parish, as he appeared in 1,611 contests from 1977 to 1997. Playing in that many games is bound to net you some impressive stats and you’ll find Parish in the top 10 all-time in career rebounds and blocks, even if his per-game statistics are a little more pedestrian compared to others on this list at 14.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. Parish played for four franchises but is most remembered with the Boston Celtics, where he won three rings in the 1980s. He was also a nine-time All-Star and won a fourth ring with the Chicago Bulls in his final season.
17. Dwight Howard (2005-Present)
With numbers that virtually guarantee him a spot in the Hall of Fame, Dwight Howard certainly deserves a spot among the best centers to ever play the game. A three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year — the second-most times anyone has earned that honor — Howard’s average of 12.7 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes played is fourth best all-time among centers.
But if per-game stats are more your style, his average of 12.6 total rebounds per game is the 10th best ever among all centers. He was also a reliable scorer if you could get the ball to him, as he made 58.3 percent of his shots per 48 minutes, which is a better average shooting percentage than Shaq.
16. Wes Unseld (1969-1981)
A Washington basketball legend, Wes Unseld spent his entire career with the franchise that is now the Wizards. His career average of 14 rebounds per game is the fourth-best among all centers. Unseld wasn’t as great a scoring threat as others on this list, averaging 10.8 points per game, but his presence in the paint dictated games and his skills on the glass kept his team in every game. Unseld was named league MVP in 1969 and went on to be named NBA Finals MVP in 1978 when he won his only championship.
15. Bill Walton (1975-1987)
Bill Walton did nothing but win during his basketball career, starting in college at UCLA and continuing into his NBA career. Walton’s average of 13.8 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes played is the highest of any center in NBA history. He also helped his teammates more than most centers, averaging 5.8 assists per 48 minutes played, which is third-best among all centers. He was named NBA MVP in 1978 and would win two titles, one with the Boston Celtics and one with the Portland Trail Blazers. Turnover issues and nagging injuries hurt his overall position on the list but Walton remains one of the best centers to ever suit up.
14. Dave Cowens (1971-1983)
Another dominant center from the 1970s, Dave Cowens helped the Boston Celtics win two titles, being named NBA MVP in 1973. For his career, he put up gaudy numbers, averaging 17.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, proving himself as one of the best dual-threat centers to ever play the game. Cowens was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team once and to the All-Star team eight times. Another number to prove his might? Cowens’ career average of 12.4 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes played is fifth-best among all centers.
13. Patrick Ewing (1986-2002)
It’s a shame that Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing never won a championship because he certainly gave it all he had every night in the playoffs. In fact, Ewing averaged 20.2 points per playoff game in his career, which is the eighth-best mark among all centers. In the regular season, Ewing’s numbers were just as ridiculous, with him averaging 21 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. From 1986 to 1997, Ewing made the NBA All-Star team every year but one. Somehow, he was only named to the All-NBA first team once in his career but the 7-footer was certainly one of the most feared centers in league history.
12. DeMarcus Cousins (2011-Present)
Arguably the best center in the game today, “Boogie” Cousins has averaged 12.1 defensive rebounds per 48 minutes played so far in his career, a mark that’s sixth best of all-time among centers. He’s also one of the most gifted and versatile scoring threats in the history of the position, averaging 31.9 points per 48 minutes played, which is the third-best mark ever at the position.
And don’t sleep on Cousins’ defensive talents, either, as his average of 2.1 steals per 48 minutes played is good enough for third-best among all centers. The only thing that hurts his standing is an issue with turning the ball over and a lack of rings but, now that he’s a member of the Golden State Warriors, the latter is likely to change soon.
11. Artis Gilmore (1972-1988)
The “A-Train” is the greatest rebounder in college basketball history and would continue to torch other teams as a star in the ABA before joining the NBA when the two leagues merged in 1976. The definition of a high-percentage shooter, Gilmore was the NBA’s all-time leader in shooting percentage when he retired, sinking nearly 60 percent of his career shots. He averaged 18.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game in a Hall-of-Fame career that included an MVP season, 11 All-Star Game appearances and four selections on the All-Defensive first team. Put simply, Gilmore would score a ton of easy buckets and keep your opponents from doing anything in the paint themselves, which is exactly what a center should do.
10. Walt Bellamy (1962-1975)
In the 1960s, Walt Bellamy towered over others at 6 feet 11 inches tall, but he ended up stuck in the shadows of contemporaries like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. A bit of a journeyman, Bellamy played for five different franchises but never had the fortune of winning a championship. He was 1963’s Rookie of the Year, setting the all-time mark for field goals made by a first-year player, and would live up to that brilliant season with a career that landed him in the Hall of Fame. Bellamy averaged 20.1 points and 13.7 rebounds per game over the course of his career but somehow was never selected for the All-NBA first team.
9. Bob McAdoo (1973-1986)
Toward the end of his career, Bob McAdoo won two titles with the “Showtime” Lakers, but he had already cemented himself as a legendary center before that. McAdoo’s average of 31.8 points per 48 minutes played is fourth-best among all centers and tops even Wilt Chamberlain’s, while his average of 22.1 points per game is good enough for fifth-best at the position. McAdoo also averaged 9.4 rebounds per game, helping him land MVP honors in 1975 and five All-Star selections.
8. George Mikan (1949-1956)
You know you’re a dominant player when the league has to create rules just to even the playing field for your opponents. George Mikan is the guy who turned NBA hoops into a game dominated by big men, ushering in everyone else on this list after his short career ended in 1956. Mikan was an offensive machine who took a ridiculous 50.5 shots per every 48 minutes of play, by far the highest average of any center in NBA history. He also averaged 24 rebounds per 48 minutes played and 23.1 points per game, the latter of which is the fourth-best among all centers. In just seven career NBA seasons, Mikan won five championships, an MVP award and was named to the All-NBA first team five times. He basically invented the position.
7. David Robinson (1990-2003)
The only NBA player who ever played his college ball at the U.S. Naval Academy, “The Admiral” averaged more than 4 blocks per every 48 minutes played in his career, good enough for eighth-best at the position, in addition to his 3 blocks per game being the third-best mark ever. But in addition to being a fierce defender around the rim, Robinson averaged a double-double for his career, with 21.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. He played his entire career with the San Antonio Spurs, winning two titles, an MVP honor and being named to the All-Star Game in 10 of his 14 seasons.
6. Moses Malone (1975-1995)
The nature of being a center means going to the free throw line often and there was arguably no big man you’d rather have going to the line than Moses Malone. He averaged the most free throws made per 48 minutes played of any center in NBA history, averaging 9.1 for his career. He also had the second-highest average of offensive rebounds per 48 minutes played, with 7.2.
And if you needed a center to take over in the playoffs, few were ever better than Malone, as his career average of 22.1 points per game in the postseason is among the best ever at the position. In his storied career, Malone won league MVP honors three times, was a 13-time All-Star and was a member of the All-NBA first team four times.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon (1985-2002)
“The Dream” not only has arguably the best nickname in NBA history, he also more than lived up to it. He averaged the most steals per 48 minutes of any center in NBA history, with 2.3. He also averaged 3.1 blocks per game, which is second-best among all centers and that number rose to 3.3 blocks per game in the playoffs, which is the best ever.
In the playoffs, Olajuwon was as reliable a scorer as any center ever, averaging 25.9 points per game in the postseason, which is the best among all centers with more than nine playoff games under their belts. Combine all those insane numbers with the fact that he won two championships, was a former MVP, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 12-time All-Star and you’ve got one of the best resumés in the history of the position.
4. Bill Russell (1956-1969)
It’s insane to think that Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles in his 13 seasons as a player, a record that will never even be sniffed for the rest of time. He was never the star of the Boston Celtics offense but he was the key to its success, thanks to his superhuman rebounding abilities. Russell’s ridiculous average of 25.5 total rebounds per 48 minutes played is the best ever for a center, topping even his rival Wilt Chamberlain. He and Chamberlain are the only two players to average at least 20 rebounds per game for their entire careers. Russell was also a five-time league MVP and a 12-time All-Star selection.
3. Shaquille O’Neal (1993-2011)
Without question the best center of his era, Shaq was one of the most punishing — and popular — players in NBA history, making 15 All-Star teams in his career. No one has ever started in more games from the center position than O’Neal and he averaged the most points per 48 minutes of any center in NBA history, with 32.7. Shaq was also an absolute beast in the postseason, averaging 24.3 points per playoff game in his career, which is tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second-best all time. It’s no wonder he won four championships and was named NBA Finals MVP three times.
2. Wilt Chamberlain (1960-1973)
There are a lot of astounding numbers associated with Wilt Chamberlain’s career, perhaps chief among them being his career average of 30.1 points per game, which is second only to Michael Jordan in NBA history. He also averaged 22.9 rebounds per game, which is the best mark ever.
The fact that Chamberlain averaged 45.8 minutes per game for his entire career — and 47.2 minutes per game in the playoffs — is mind-boggling and shows just how much every team he was a part of relied on him. That’s why he was a four-time MVP who led the league in scoring seven times and in rebounding 11 times out of his 14 seasons in the NBA.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-1989)
His average numbers aren’t quite as gaudy as Chamberlain’s (whose are?) but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played in a more competitive era for centers and put together one of the best careers in NBA history, regardless of position. Not only does Abdul-Jabbar have the records for the most points scored and most minutes played of anyone in NBA history, he also won six NBA championships and had six MVP seasons.
But if you think pure, ridiculous numbers aren’t enough to make him the GOAT, he’s also got the highest win share number of any center by far. This advanced statistic, which Basketball Reference calculates as perhaps the ultimate way of calculating a player’s worth, estimates that Abdul-Jabbar personally contributed 273.4 wins for his teams over his career, which is 26 wins more than Wilt Chamberlain and 92 more than Shaquille O’Neal. Want one more incredible stat? Abdul-Jabbar was an NBA All-Star in all 19 seasons of his career, which is also a league record.
Originally published on Near Far Travel.