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Shaq’s Place Among The Best Centers Ever

Shaq carried the Lakers from good to great, and from great to legendary.With Shaq’s retirement Wednesday, people are looking back at the big man’s career and trying to figure out his place among the all-time greats. Before we start that huge fight, let’s at least consider his place among the all-time great centers. Stats obviously don’t translate very well from era to era, but we can examine the basic attributes we know about the game’s best in the middle. Keeping things as straight-forward and objective as possible, here’s my ranking of the NBA’s six best centers ever (for the record, the closest two are #3 and #4).


1. Bill Russell

best defender ever
one of two best rebounders ever
possibly the best passing big man ever (starting the fast break and in the half-court)
possibly the smartest and most cohesive team player ever
amazing in playoffs (worst set of playoff stats: 11 ppg, 21 rpg, 5.4 apg in 1969)
was unquestioned leader of the ultimate winning franchise ever

wasn’t a dominant scorer from a PPG or FG% standpoint (still good, though)

*It's worth noting that Russell was indeed tall enough to play center in any era. He was measured at 6-feet-9 and 5/8" in college without shoes, which means he was taller than both Dwight Howard and Alonzo Mourning, who were measured at 6' 9.0" and 6' 9.5" without shoes, respectively.*


2. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar

was good forever
carried some bad teams in the 70’s
dominant and efficient scorer
improved both teams (Mil, LAL) when he arrived
very good shot blocker
remained great in the playoffs and at the ends of games

not a particularly good rebounder (lead league once, top-3 only four other times)
was quickly second-fiddle to Magic on those good Laker teams in the 80’s
his drive was continually questioned during his career


3. Shaquille O’Neal

dominant interior force for 10 years
outstanding shooting percentages (career 58% FG)
unstoppable in 4 straight playoffs
teams he joined always got significantly better (until age 35)

never lead league in rebounds (top-5 only 5 times)
lots of foul trouble
terrible FT shooter, had to sit at the ends of some playoff games 
poor conditioning and inconsistent drive


4. Hakeem Olajuwon

amazing combination of offense and defense
probably the second-best defender ever
unstoppable moves with the ball when given space
absolutely owned opposing centers in many post-seasons
carried bad teams

not a dominant rebounder (very good, but not dominant)
lots of foul trouble
FG% was never great (51% career)


5. Wilt Chamberlain

greatest combination of strength and athleticism ever in a center
great scorer
great rebounder
was capable of being a good passer when he tried

terrible teammate, valued his stats over his team, all but uncoachable
didn’t mind losing, which certainly hurt his team
soft at the ends of games due to 51% FT and not wanting to foul out


6. Moses Malone

absolutely dominant rebounder  (lead league 6 times)
best offensive rebounder ever
great scorer for a decent stretch on nothing but hustle and muscle
played out of his mind to carry Philly to the ’83 title in the middle of 8 by Bos/LA

very short peak for an all-time great (5-6 years) that really didn't fit rest of career
was traded from or allowed to leave way too many teams
limited scorer
poor passer
OK defender


Next group in approximate order:
7. David Robinson
8. Willis Reed
9. Dave Cowens
10. Patrick Ewing
11. Robert Parish
12. Nate Thurmond

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Reader Comments (21)

Olajuwan 4, Shaquile 3.???

June 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNorman

Thanks for the comment. Honestly, I had Hakeem a little ahead of Shaq until I checked out their head-to-heads (see link). You can't even say Hakeem cumulatively won their two battles in his MVP season (93-94).

From their two games together in that '93-94 season:
Shaq: 21-for-38, 47 pts, 20 rebs, 3 blocks, 6-2 assist-turnovers
Hakeem: 21-for-40, 52 pts, 18 rebs, 11 blocks, 10-5 assist-turnovers

Orlando (50-32) split the contests with the Champion Rockets (58-24). It was Shaq's second year in the league; he was 21.

June 3, 2011 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

its difficult to put shaq over hakeem by just looking at 2 head to head matchups in the regular season. Although Shaq has 2 more rings than the dream, hakeem swept the magic in the finals, which to me is a big red flag.

June 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereverything

I didn't place O'Neal over Hakeem simply because of 2 head-to-heads. You have to look at the complete group of head-to-heads at the link. If you do that, you'll see Shaq smoked him in stats and wins when they faced off, even if you only look at their games up through '97 when Hakeem was still at his peak. Those two I've listed the combos from are from Hakeem's MVP season, when he should have dominated the 21-year-old Shaq but didn't.

Speaking of Houston sweeping Orlando in '95, check out Shaq's stats in that series. It's clear he wasn't the reason his young team lost to seasoned vets. Here they are: 28 ppg (59.5% FG), 12.5 rpg, 6.3 apg, 2.5 bpg, 45 minutes per with no foul outs. Hakeem: 33 ppg (48.3% FG), 9.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.0 bpg, similar minutes and fouls. Can you really look at those stats and say Hakeem outplaying Shaq is the reason the Rockets swept the series?

June 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

Russel shot 44% from the field and 56% from the line. For someone who likes to use advanced stats to seperate players I find it surprising you have russell #1, 11 titles notwithstanding. Make sure you use the same standards when evaluating all players.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamesD

Take a look at the league FG% from Russell's day. Each season's average during his career was between 38 and 44%. That puts him above average to a degree very similar to Hakeem's 51% in his career when they were in the 45-49% range. Throw in his superior passing and the fact he was a team player who certainly wasn't forcing shots, and that 44% isn't hurting his team's offense at all.

As for his 56% FT. For starters, it obviously never hurt his team (see also: 11 titles, including many close playoff wins). Secondly, he only shot 5.8 FT attempts per game. He made 3.3. If he was at 70%, a decent mark for a center, he would have been making 4.1. So I guess he cost the Celtics 0.8 ppg. That's not nearly the effect felt by Shaq and Wilt's teams considering they were always at the line.

June 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

The article discusses who is the best player. While Russell is unquestionably a great team player, that was not the point of the article. I just found it interesting that you moved away from your usual points of analysis when discussing who is the better individual player. The reason it didn't hurt the team was because he was usually the 3rd or 4th option during an era when he NEVER played with less than 2 other HOF players on his team. Doesn't make Russell any less great but if you are going to bring up the era when he played please be intellectually honest.

If this discussion was about current players and someone for example argued Kobe was better than Lebron using the reasons you stated you would immediately go to the advanced stats, win pyth etc etc. All I ask is you rate the centers using the same logic used in other articles, for example this years MVP.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamesD

The most obvious thing to look at for any player is the discrepancy in how the team does with and without that player. I will never contradict myself there. BR's first year = Champs. The year before = no playoffs. BR's last year = Champs. The year after = no playoffs. The one playoffs he was hurt = no Champs. His first year as a player-coach when he faced massive racism as the first black coach in North America = no Champs. The other 11 years = Champs. If you read "The Rivalry," you'll realize quickly that this team of HOFers everyone always talks about usually went on multi-game losing streaks whenever BR missed games. You win that many rings and players will all make All-Star teams and end up in the Hall.

Yes, I love looking at all the other stats, but winning and losing is what it comes down to. We know what BR meant to a team; he meant Championships to a team that didn't even playoffs right before and right after he was there. As for his scoring, keep in mind he revolutionized the fast break with his rebounding and passing, so of course he wasn't going to lead the team in scoring. That being said, he was still regularly within 3-4 ppg of the team leader until Sam Jones took off and became the C's real go-to scorer. As BR was finishing near the team leader regularly, he also often had a higher FG% than the guys ahead of him. Look at Bill Walton's place on the 76-77 Blazers to get an idea what Russell meant to Boston's offense. Walton didn't lead the team in scoring or assists, but it all ran through him and wouldn't have worked at all without him. When BR retired and the C's fell to 34-48 right away, John Havlicek credited BR's missing passing as a major reason for it, and it was already commonly accepted that his other-worldly D was a huge reason. No one else has ever had that sort of instant and sustained impact on his team.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

Everything you posted is factualy correct. Just please evaluate who is better using the criteria you have used in other articles. How Zach Blott determines who is the best player should be consitent in every analysis. If "winning and losing is what it comes down to" then stick with it.

Funny you didn't use your usual advanced stats analysis because had you done so, Russell finishes 4th or 5th. Why didn't you use advanced stats for this analysis?

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJamesD

Like I said at the beginning, I wanted to keep my comparison "as straight-forward and objective as possible" by looking at "the basic attributes we know about the game’s best in the middle." It always comes back to winning and losing. It wasn't just that the C's won so much with him, it's that EVERYONE knows the reason they won so much was him. When you start realizing they weren't winning much at all right before he showed up, right after he left, and whenever he was hurt in the middle, there's not a whole lot of conclusions you can come to other than he was the ultimate winner. Then you look at someone like Wilt who may evaluate out better on certain advanced stats (although they use a lot of estimates for that far back, so you can't look at them too closely) but his teams never did what you'd expect, and everything you read makes it clear he disappeared at the ends of games and was perfectly OK with not winning. Being objective makes it clear that Wilt didn't positively affect the game nearly to the degree Russell did. Like I said, though, this comparison was meant to be simple and straight-forward.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

One other thing - I'll be doing a series of articles this summer looking at many of the game's recent greats and how their teams performed with and without them. I got the idea after Dirk was hurt and the awesome Mavs completely fell apart. Obviously a project like that takes time and guys aren't missing 20 games every year, so we have to fall back on the advanced stats and efficiency stats to tell us what someone is actually contributing most of the time.

June 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

Check out my rebuttal for Bill Russell being #1: (My argument is in the comments on the page below. The linked page is this author's article as well.)


Also, it seems some of your facts are incorrect:

"The most obvious thing to look at for any player is the discrepancy in how the team does with and without that player. I will never contradict myself there. BR's first year = Champs. The year before = no playoffs." ---this statement is false.

Bill started with the Celtics in 1956, and the Celtics had made the playoffs every year since 1950. So he did not make this amazing immediate impact that took a non-contender to a title winner by himself.


Also the year Russell left is the same year one of the Celtic's top scorers and your aforementioned team leader Sam Jones left the C's. They clearly had no one backing up Russell in the rebounding department, and that is the one statistic that Boston did miss Russell's participation in. (6'5" G/F John Havlicek led the team in rebounding the year after Russell left, with less than 8 rpg. Rebounding became a team effort, and they weren't very good at it.)

For more facts and points regarding other stats mentioned on this page, check out the link at the top of this comment.

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJason K.

Thanks for the correction on 1956. Upon further inspection, EVERY team made the playoffs that season, and the C's were bumped by the 35-37 Nationals in the Eastern semifinals. In virtually all those previous seasons you mention, either all or a vast majority of teams were put in the playoffs (yes, even much more so than now), and the Celtics were NEVER close to making it to the Finals, let alone winning a title. In fact, they more-or-less did progressively worse in each of the 4 post-seasons leading up to Russell's rookie season, even with all those supposed great players on the team, including HOF center Ed Macauley and C/F Jack Nichols, who brought 14.3 ppg and 10.4 rpg in '56, one of only 8 players in the league who average a double-double that season. Russell inherited a team that looks on paper to be good (two HOF guards, 27-year-old HOF center, double-double big man), but that not only couldn't get far in the playoffs, but was actually progressively getting worse. Boston traded away that HOF center (for Russell) and cut Nichols' minutes from 33 to 22 per game, and immediately they won a title over a team absolutely loaded with bigs (St. Louis). All the chemistry issues that were wrecking Boston's playoffs and defense were gone once Russell stepped in.

As for after he left, to pretend the loss of 35-year-old Sam Jones' 3rd-on-the-team scoring (on a club that spread it around and had 7 players averaging 9.9+ points) is anywhere near as important as Russell's massive impact on the boards and on defense is simply laughable. The team's scoring went from 10th in '69 to 11th in '70. The team's defense went from 2nd to 7th. Not only that, Jones didn't contribute anything beyond some points at that point: 3.8 rpg, 2.6 apg (half of what Russell was dishing out that season), and 2.7 free throws per game weren't exactly what the players were missing the next year. And the joke about Jones' defense was that the best part of it was Russell. There is NO DEBATE WHATSOEVER that Russell's absence in '69-70 was far and away the reason the team went from champs to chumps so quickly. And don't forget they replaced Jones with 1st-rounder (and 7-time All-Star) Jo Jo White that year, who nearly replicated every one of Jones' stats.

February 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

I just read your little Russell-Wilt thing on the other page. Players and coaches avoided Wilt at all costs (the Laker players actually voted against picking up his contract 3 seasons before he arrived - he was traded twice in his prime [huge red flag]), and he wanted no part of the action down the stretch of tough games so that he a) wouldn't be fouled and miss clutch free throws, and b) to preserve his stupid no-foul-outs streak. This is well documented, which explains why he had a much bigger "loser" reputation than LeBron has today. He routinely ruined any sort of system his team had in place just so that he could collect stats, which does nothing but hurt his team's ability to win. And please don't say something silly like his defense was as good as Russell's; statements like that are a surefire way to make any knowledgeable fan see you don't know anything about basketball history. For someone to think Wilt was dominant over Russell shows an extreme lack of understanding how these two affected their teams' successes. There is no comparison on the impact they each had.

February 11, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

With everything being said, I do think this is a great list and the only change I would probably make would be dropping Russell to #3. The fact remains any team in NBA history would be thrilled to have ANY of the guys on this list, and it really is splitting hairs when it comes to trying to rank the top 6 (even 10) in any position, much less one with as many talented players as we have seen at the center position.

I look forward to reading more of these articles in the future, espescially with some of the new talent the league is starting to see. That's the beauty of sports and basketball in particular. Who knows what this list will look like in 20 years!

February 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJason K.

Glad to add a new reader. Keep the comments coming; writing the articles is fun, but the interaction between fans is always fun and forces me to stay on my toes factually to support what I'm saying.

February 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

first off kareem a weak rebounder? He averaged 16.9 for a season only behind rodman malone and hayes all time. I mean unless you count completely inflated earlier rebounding like bill russell. Oh and shaq said before in an interview that hakeem was the only center he ever played against who was better than him. Kareem and Hakeem > Russell and it's true you dont use your "advanced statistics" to prove why russell is the best center and your "facts" about those celtics teams are misleading more to it than just russell oh and havlicek is not the second best small forward that's funny lebron takes that claim if he's not already passed bird and pippen #3 most unselfish all around player amazing teamate

but then again im pretty drunk and not much of a basketball fan so who knows what im sayin

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzach blott dont know ball

Hi Zac

Where do you see Dwight Howard finishing up in the rankings? Given that he is a defensive and rebounding beast who can score a bit as well and could well have a couple of rings by the end of his career.

September 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKDDM

Thanks for the comment.
Somewhere around 7-9, especially if he can turn around the team cancer bit he's been working on the last season or two.

September 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterZachariah Blott

In case anyone wasn't aware, Bill Russell was insanely good as a big on the fast break. Cue this video from his college days where he grabs the defensive board, outraces all but 2 players while dribbling full speed down the court, and then completely leaps OVER a defender from near the free throw line to complete the lay in.


February 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZachariah Blott

if alonzo mourning would have been healthy for is full career. he would be up there too. at 10 or 11. how do you think about alonzo mouring? and i would not take shaq over hakeem. shaq was unable to play in clutch situations. he had bad conditioning and had some trouble at defense. hakeem was a clutch performer and one of the verry best defensive players ever. its hard to compare players of the 60s to another decade but hakeem is in my opinion the best ever. he could do it all and no one could handle him. he played in a centers area with the most dominant bigmen around him and was the best of them. chamberlain or bill russel had not to face guys like parish erwing malone robinson shaq mutombo and many more. wilt and russel had not the same competiotn as hakeem.

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterwhatsoever

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