Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

15 greatest centers in NBA history

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The greatest centers of all time aren’t just giants — they’re behemoths performing ballet. If Michael Jordan were merely great instead of the GOAT, the greatest player of all time would have been a center.

The 90s would have been dominated by big men. You could argue that four of the five greatest players in the history of the NBA were centers. The center position isn’t as prominent as it used to be, but a dominant center still tilts the game more than any other position.

Greatest centers of all time

Today we’ll break down the best centers in NBA history. Who were the big men that didn’t just dominate the post but raised their team’s ceiling?

15) Nikola Jokic

Nobody has broken the concept of the center position more than Nikola Jokic. He has a classic back-to-the-basket game, can finish with force or touch, utilizes a complete toolbox of post moves, and can drain threes. But that’s not what makes him unique.

Jokic isn’t just a good passer for a center — he’s one of the greatest passers ever. If you’re the Jokers teammate, expect a healthy dose of wide-open buckets. Whether you’re cutting or hunting shots along the perimeter, Jokic will find you. There are no right answers for defending the Serbian big man. If you double him in the paint, he’ll find an open shooter — if you guard him one-on-one, he’s taking you for a ride. The man understands timing and positioning as well as any center ever to play.


However, the two-time MVP isn’t perfect. Jokic’s lack of athleticism and conditioning often makes him a target on defense. While he’s improved in recent years, Joker remains average on that end. If he turns himself into an above-average defender for a center — Jokic retires in the top ten.

14) Wes Unseld

If you ask the great centers of the 70s who their most challenging matchup was, Wes Unseld‘s name comes up a lot. Like Draymond Green, Unseld’s contributions can’t be seen on the box score. The 6’7″ and 250-pound center put his own spin on the position. Wes grabbed defensive rebounds like a quarterback, immediately looking down the court and connecting on an outlet pass for an easy bucket.

He set screens like a linebacker, using his stout frame to knock bigger men off balance. The great Wilt Chamberlain even struggled to score on Wes Unseld.

It takes a special player to excel at the center position if they’re shorter than everybody else and can’t jump — but that’s precisely what Unseld did. He helped carry the Washington Bullets to the NBA Finals four times, winning the championship once and bringing home the Finals MVP. Unquestionably one of the greatest centers of all time, playing 48 minutes against Wes Unseld was like going 15 rounds with Joe Frazier.

13) Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the prototype for the modern-day center. Face-up, back-to-the-basket, rebounding, defense, and shot-blocking. Embiid does it all. He even stretched his game out to the perimeter so point guards who are afraid to shoot could avoid taking uncontested layups too. Embiid’s old-school post-game gives opposing defenses fits. Very few centers are equipped with the knowledge to defend his array of moves in today’s game.


Additionally, Joel Embiid is so good that he not only made losing cool, but it now has a cool nickname as well. The Process resulting in the Philadelphia 76ers landing Embiid has excused losing across the NBA. You can go 47-199 over three seasons, and the fanbase will argue it’s the right move cause you might end up with a Joel Embiid.

12) Willis Reed

Although he’s forever immortalized due to his heroics in Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, Willis Reed‘s career was much more than a single game. Reed continuously battled the best big men the NBA had to offer. Nothing about Reed’s game was pretty, but it was effective. He had a way of guiding his shots into the hoop from anywhere within 18 feet.

And, of course, he always came up in the biggest moments. Outside of the Willis Reed Game, his New York Knicks teams would beat opponents led by Chamberlain, Unseld, Kareem, and Walt Bellamy in star-studded playoff series, cementing his legacy as one of the best centers in NBA History.

11) George Mikan

He’s one of the greatest centers of all time, but George Mikan suffers from an era issue. He was basketball’s first star. However, basketball was barely a sport then.

Mr. Basketball played the game before there was a shot clock or lines on the court. Did he dominate? Yes, absolutely — you can only play against those in front of you. But considering a large percentage of the population was still forbidden from playing the game, I think it’s fair to dock Mikan’s all-time standing.

Although, he is responsible for putting basketball on the map. If it weren’t for Mikan’s dominance, I wouldn’t be writing an article about the NBA in which I unfairly judge him.

10) David Robinson

David Robinson would be remembered like Patrick Ewing if Tim Duncan didn’t save him. Robinson was built like a Terminator and is perhaps the most explosive center in NBA history. While Ewing and Hakeem would use a combination of finesse, power, and tricks to work their way toward the net, the Admiral used his athleticism to overwhelm defenders.

One moment his back is to the bucket at the top of the key, then in a blink of an eye, he’s blown through the heart of the defense to jam it in. Robinson’s stride made it seem like he was never more than two steps away from the basket.

Unfortunately, David Robinson shrunk in high-stakes moments. Unlike Ewing, who mixed the good with the bad and couldn’t get over the hump, Robinson actively disappeared in the playoffs. The unspeakable things Hakeem and Karl Malone did to the Admiral aren’t for public consumption.

9) Patrick Ewing

I thought I made a mistake when Patrick Ewing was only ranked ninth. Nope, the center position is just that stacked.

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, it’s a terrible fortune Ewing never won a title. The eventual title winner eliminated the New York Knicks for five consecutive seasons. In three of those seasons, it was MJ burying them. That shouldn’t overshadow how incredible Ewing was in the 90s. The Knicks made the playoffs 14 straight seasons on the sweaty back of Patrick Ewing, and there was only one center capable of shutting down Pat in the post (we’ll get to him later).

During the 1989-90 season, Ewing averaged four blocks and 28.6 points per game while shooting 55%. That doesn’t feel humanly possible — he deserved the MVP that season. Sorry, Magic.

8) Bill Walton

Take Nikola Jokic, turn down the passing just a smidge, and crank up the defense. Congratulations, you just created prime Bill Walton.

It didn’t last very long, but Walton was the best player in the NBA at his peak. I don’t care that Walton was the NBA’s Mr. Glass — if your peak is the greatest player on the planet, you’re one of the 15 greatest centers of all time.

7) Moses Malone

The original board man. Once Moses Malone planted himself on the block, nobody was moving him off it. He’s the best rebounder and most underrated player in NBA history. Here’s the list of players with more MVPs than Malone: LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yet, how often have you heard his name come up as one of the greatest centers of all time? You haven’t, and it’s a travesty, he’s one of the greatest players ever.

Nobody in the NBA could hang Malone on the boards. He dominated in the paint. Watching Moses highlights is hilarious — he often throws the ball off the backboard three or four times in a row, and nobody comes close to grabbing a rebound from him. Did he lack finesse? Sure, but it didn’t matter.

6) Shaquille O’Neil

I don’t know how many people in the history of humankind have been over 7 feet tall, 300-pounds, and agile, but I know Shaq was.

Known for his freight train power that he’d use to maul defenders and shatter backboards — Diesel was also light on his feet. Watching Shaq with his back to the basket was like watching a tactical boxer. Every movement was carefully planned to move into his opponent’s space and eradicate them. Oh, and don’t forget he was an exceptional passer, shot blocker, and defender.

5) Wilt Chamberlain

How does a player who owns every single season and single-game record that matters only have two titles? The use of the word only isn’t ridiculous in this context either, there were less than ten teams for the first eight seasons of his career, and he was a create-a-player.

He was bigger and more skilled than every other player in the league, but he wasn’t a winner. Most impressive player ever? Maybe, but he’s not the best center in NBA history.

4) Hakeem Olajuwon

The most talented post player ever and one of the greatest centers of all time, watching Hakeem is a treat. The Dream paints pictures in the post.

He was the best center of the 90s. The best big men in the history of the NBA lined up so Hakeem could knock them down.

Karl Malone, Ewing, Charles Barkley, Robinson, and Shaq were all banished to the shadow realm by Olajuwon’s wizardry.

3) Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan wasn’t just one of the best centers ever — he’s the greatest winner of the 2000s. Five-time NBA champion, three-time Finals MVP, two-time league MVP, and made 15 All-Defensive teams. Duncan is the definition of ‘playing the right way.’

Everything he did was to make the San Antonio Spurs better. The Big Fundamental wasn’t flashy, he was effective. You want your best players to elevate play on both ends of the court, and that’s exactly what Tim Duncan did.

2) Bill Russell

The leader of the greatest dynasty in North American sports history, Bill Russell wasn’t just everything you want in a player — he’s everything you want in a person. One of the few people who lived up to the trite, “As good as he was on the court, he was an even better man off the court.”

On the court, he spent his days erasing the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, and Jerry West and collecting championship rings like they came in cereal boxes. Off the court, he fought, so the generations after him entered a better world than the one he did.

1) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is on his heels. They’re both six-time NBA Champions, and the Big Fella is the only player to win six MVPs. The separating factor is Jordan won all six titles as the undisputed top dog while Kareem shared the baton with Magic.

Cap stretching out his peak for as long as he did will only be matched by LeBron. On top of that, Kareem’s 1971-72 season is one of the most dominant seasons of all time. He averaged 34.8 points and 16.6 rebounds per game while shooting at 57.4%! That’s unreal efficiency for that kind of volume.

The skyhook was like spamming low kicks in Mortal Kombat — irritating and unstoppable. You wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for arguing Kareem over Jordan once you watch the tape and compare their resumes, and that makes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the greatest center of all time.

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