Top 10 best NBA centers of all time

Profile Picture: Ryan Murphy

Ryan Murphy

May 4th, 2020

There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when you couldn’t win without a dominant center. George Mikan, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain helped their teams capture 17 of the first 23 NBA championships thanks to their powerful post play. It was a similar story with the league most valuable player award, as 22 of the league’s first 28 MVP recipients were pivots.

The game may have changed, but the impact of the league’s best big men will live on forever. Join us on a trip down memory lane as we celebrate the top 10 centers in NBA history.

10. George Mikan

NBA team: Minneapolis Lakers
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 4x All-Star, 5x NBA Champion

The NBA is a multi-billion dollar enterprise now, but could be just a footnote in history if not for the efforts of George Mikan. The bespeckled big man led the league in scoring in each of his first three seasons and won five championships from 1949 to 1954 as the undisputed star of the Minneapolis Lakers.

"Mr. Basketball" put the NBA on the map and paved the way for generations of physically-imposing back-to-the-basket bigs.

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ABC commentator Bill walton calls a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Seattle Sonics. (Photo by Jeff Lewis/Icon Sportswire)

9. Bill Walton

NBA teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 2x All-Star, NBA MVP, 2x NBA Champion, NBA Finals MVP

Walton’s Hall of Fame career was sadly cut short by injuries, but few centers were more impactful than "Grateful Red" when he was in the line-up.

That was especially evident in 1976-77, when the three-time National College Player of the Year topped the charts in rebounding and blocks and led the Trail Blazers to their first title in franchise history. Few players – yet alone centers – have ever possessed his rare blend of court awareness, basketball IQ, and defensive tenacity. We understand he’s also pretty good at tracking down some Maui Waui.

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Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks leans over with his hands on his knees during an NBA game against the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

8. Patrick Ewing

NBA teams: New York Knicks, Seattle SuperSonics, Orlando Magic
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 11x All-Star, Rookie of the Year

Although it’s true that Patrick Ewing never won a ring, he accomplished nearly everything else during his 15 years in New York. The Jamaican-born center led the Knicks to the playoffs for 13 straight seasons, and willed his teams to the NBA Finals twice in 1994 and 1999.

Along the way, Ewing was named to 11 All-Star teams and three NBA All-Defensive teams, and dunked his way to gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics as a member of the U.S. Dream Team. His ability to influence the game at both ends of the court makes him one of the greatest centers in NBA history.

7. David Robinson

NBA team: San Antonio Spurs
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 10x All-Star, NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, 2x NBA Champion

Few players are more synonymous with a single franchise than David Robinson, who played his entire 14-year career with the Spurs and continues to be a force in the community with his many charitable endeavors.

Opponents probably wish he had been a little more charitable around the hoop, where the chiseled 7’1” Robinson built his reputation as one of the most fearsome interior defenders in NBA history. “The Admiral” was a Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time All-Defensive Team honoree who averaged 3.6 swats per game from 1990 to 1996. His selfless play resulted in two titles and a place as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

6. Moses Malone

NBA teams: Buffalo Braves, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Bullets, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 13x All-Star, 3x NBA MVP, NBA Champion, NBA Finals MVP

Just how good was Moses Malone? The burly Norfolk native entered the ABA out of high school in 1974 and promptly averaged 18.8 points and 14.6 rebounds per game as a 19-year-old rookie.

As impressive as those numbers were, Malone continually topped them after transitioning into the NBA two years later. During a nine-year run from 1979 to 1987, the "Chairman of the Boards" averaged 25.5 points, 14.1 rebounds, and countless elbows to the ribs per game. His dominance earned him three NBA MVP awards and helped the 76ers become world champs in 1983.

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Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. (Photo by Matt A. Brown/Icon Sportswire)

5. Shaquille O’Neal

NBA teams: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 15x All-Star, NBA MVP, 4x NBA Champion

Whether you know him as Shaq, Diesel or The Big Aristotle, there’s no doubt that you know who Shaquille O’Neal is. The super-sized center was a 15-time All-Star, four-time NBA champion, and two-time scoring leader who topped the league in player efficiency every year from 1998 to 2002. It’s a testament to O’Neal’s strength and skill that his 19-year career featured nearly as many broken backboards as broken records.

As impressive as O’Neal’s credentials are, they could have been even better. The three-time Finals MVP was a career 52.7% free-throw shooter who missed 5,317 shots from the charity stripe. O’Neal was also notoriously lax about his physical conditioning, and allowed his weight to balloon to 370 lbs late in his career. Had he remained more svelte, he could have extended his prime and avoided many of the nagging issues that dogged him in Cleveland and Boston.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon

NBA teams: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, NBA MVP, 2x NBA Champion

If we’re being perfectly honest, Olajuwon would make it on our list for his draft night tuxedo alone. The 12-time All-Star looked like a Nigerian James Bond in his classic black tux and bold red bowtie.

That sense of style was also apparent on the court, where “The Dream” used his superior athleticism and phenomenal footwork to control every facet of the game. He was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a light-out scorer who was impossible to contain in the paint. It’s no wonder that players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Amar’e Stoudemire all sought him out to learn his slippery post moves.

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Wilt Chamberlain (jumping) of the 76ers lays a ball up against the Celtics. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

3. Wilt Chamberlain

NBA teams: Philadelphia Warriors, San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 13x All-Star, 4x MVP, 2x NBA Champion

There are two numbers that most fans associate with Wilt Chamberlain: 100 and 20,000. The first is the number of points he scored against the Knicks on March 2, 1962, and the second is the number of women he scored with during his days as American’s grooviest bachelor. Both numbers are impressive, of course, but The Big Dipper has another stat you should also know that speaks volumes about his transcendent ability: 8.6.

That’s the number of dimes Chamberlain averaged in 1967-68 when he led the league in assists. It was a career-high for the big man, and it happened purely because he wanted to shut up critics who claimed he was too selfish. His assist total dropped off considerably the next season, but it showed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Wilt was capable of achieving anything he put his mind to on the basketball court.

2. Bill Russell

NBA team: Boston Celtics
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 12x All-Star, 5x NBA MVP, 11x NBA Champion

Bill Russell may not be the greatest center in NBA history, but he’s certainly the fiercest competitor. The 12-time All-Star possessed such an intense desire to win that he threw up before every single game he played. For those of you keeping track at home, that’s 963 times in the regular season and another 165 in the playoffs. It’s a minor miracle that his esophagus doesn’t have more holes than a piccolo.

Russell’s peculiar pre-game routine may not have rubbed off on his teammates, but his intensity did. He inspired them to play with a vicious ferocity on the defensive end that stymied opponents and resulted in 11 NBA championships, including eight straight from 1959 to 1966.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Photo by Christophe Elise/DPPI/Icon Sportswire)

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

NBA teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers
Accolades: Hall of Fame, 19x All-Star, 6x NBA MVP, 6x NBA Champion

Many players are great for a year or two, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was great from the moment he entered the league in 1969 as a spindly 21-year-old to the moment he retired in 1989 as a creaky, but still unstoppable, 41-year-old. The force of nature formerly known as Lew Alcindor was a 19-time All-Star, 11-time All-Defensive selection, six-time MVP, and two-time scoring leader who finished his career as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

All of that is impressive, but Kareem’s greatest accomplishment was winning NBA Finals MVP awards 14 years apart in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks and again in 1985 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Few players are lucky enough to reach the Finals, yet alone to dominate them in two separate decades. Kareem’s skill – and longevity – make him an easy pick at number one.

Honorable mentions: Patrick Ewing, Moses Malone, George Mikan, David Robinson, Bill Walton