Updated: May 29, 2021
The traditional center is an endangered species in 2020. In today’s game, big men are valued more for their three-point shooting and ability to stretch the floor than for their low-post scoring or paint presence. It wasn’t always this way. For the majority of NBA history, the center was the focal point of both offenses and defenses. A look at the all-time statistical leaders attests to this point. The following is not only a list of the top 10 centers in NBA history, but a collection of some of the most dynamic and impactful players to ever play the game.
1) Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-73
No player has ever dominated the game like Chamberlain. When he entered the NBA in 1959, his size, strength and athleticism were something the league had never seen before. The Hall of Famer and 13-time All-Star led the NBA in scoring his first seven seasons, including an astonishing 50.4 points per game in 1961-62. In that historic season, Chamberlain scored 50 or more points 45 times, including an NBA-record 100 on March 2, 1962. But Wilt was more than just a scorer. He led the NBA in rebounding 11 times, averaging 22.9 for his career, and in 1967-68 became the only center to ever lead the league in assists. In 14 seasons, Chamberlain was a four-time MVP and a 10-time All-NBA selection. He won NBA titles with both the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers.
2) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1969-89
Abdul-Jabbar is the most accomplished player in NBA history. Not only is he the game’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, he also leads in All-Star selections with 19, All-NBA honors with 15 and MVP awards with six. The 7’2” center from UCLA was the most highly-touted prospect ever when he became the number-one overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969. In six seasons with the Bucks, the skilled big man with the unstoppable sky hook won three MVPs, two scoring titles, and led Milwaukee to an NBA championship in 1970-71. For the next 13 years, Abdul-Jabbar was the face of the Los Angeles Lakers, winning three more MVPs and leading L.A. to five NBA titles.
3) Bill Russell, 1956-69
Russell is universally regarded as the greatest defensive player in league history. The Boston Celtics legend is also the most titled with 11 championships, including eight straight from 1959-66. His career average of 22.5 rebounds per game is second only to Wilt Chamberlain. Russell was a 12-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA selection and five-time MVP in his 13 seasons. In the postseason, the Hall of Famer took his game to another level, averaging 16.2 points, 24.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists in 165 playoff games. From 1967-69, Russell expanded his leadership role to include coaching duties, winning two championships as the Celtics’ player-coach.
4) Hakeem Olajuwon, 1984-2002
Olajuwon was one of the most well-rounded centers of all-time. The 12-time All-Star and Houston Rockets great used crafty low-post moves and a strong mid-range game to average 21.9 points per game over 18 seasons. He was also a tenacious defender, winning Defensive Player of the Year twice and holding the NBA’s all-time blocked shot record with 3,830. The Hall of Famer from Nigeria saved his best for the big stage, averaging 25.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 145 postseason games. In 1993-94 and 94-95, “The Dream” got the best of fellow Hall of Fame centers Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal, winning back-to-back titles and Finals MVPs, averaging 29 points, 10 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 3.2 blocks in defeating both the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic.
5) Shaquille O’Neal, 1992-2011
O’Neal was a force of nature in his 19 seasons. The 7’1,” 325-pounder from LSU overpowered opponents with his massive frame, and dazzled them with his athleticism. The Hall of Famer averaged 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for his career. He was a 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA selection and three-time All-Star Game MVP. In the playoffs, Shaq elevated his game, averaging 24.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 216 games. He won three straight NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-02, and a fourth with the Miami Heat in 2006. He was named Finals MVP three times.
6) Moses Malone, 1974-95
Malone’s name often gets lost among other more high-profile stars of his era, but few players in the game’s history were more productive. His 27,409 points rank ninth in NBA history, and his 16,212 rebounds rank fifth. The 13-time All-Star led the league in rebounding six times, earning him the nickname “Chairman of the Boards.” Malone was also adept at getting to the free-throw line. His 8,531 free throws made are second all-time. The Hall of Famer was a three-time MVP, an eight-time All-NBA selection, and was the 1982-83 Finals MVP when he led the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA championship. Malone was one of only four players to win MVP with multiple teams.
7) David Robinson, 1989-03
After honoring a two-year Naval commitment, “The Admiral” took the NBA by storm in 1989-90, averaging 24.3 points, 12 rebounds and 3.9 blocks en route to winning Rookie of the Year. Robinson possessed rare speed and agility for a big man, and a smooth jump shot. The Hall of Famer was arguably the NBA’s best center over his first seven years, winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1991-92, a scoring title in 93-94 and MVP in 94-95. He was named First Team All-NBA five times in those seven seasons. In 1997, the San Antonio Spurs drafted power forward Tim Duncan, and for the next six years they were the best big man combo in the league. The pair would go on to win NBA titles in 1998-99 and 2002-03.
8) George Mikan, 1948-56
Mikan was the NBA’s first great big man, and its first superstar. The 6’10” DePaul alum used an array of offensive moves, including a deadly hook shot, to lead the league in scoring his first three seasons. Dominating the paint on both ends, the Hall of Famer was named First Team All-NBA his first six years. His stellar play helped make the Minneapolis Lakers professional basketball’s first dynasty, as they won five of six championships from 1949-54. Aside from the championships and individual honors, Mikan’s play shaped the game by bringing two monumental changes: the 24 second shot clock and the widening of the lane from six to 12 feet. Over 60 years since Mikan’s retirement, his impact still looms large.
9) Patrick Ewing, 1985-2002
In 1985, the most dominant force in college basketball arrived in the hoops capital of the world, New York City. The three-time All-American from Georgetown did not disappoint. Ewing won the 1985-86 Rookie of the Year and never looked back, being named an All-Star in 11 of his first 12 seasons. Known as a defensive standout in college, Ewing expanded his game to become one of the NBA’s top scorers, averaging 20 or more points 13 years in a row, including a career high 28.6 in 1989-90. The Hall of Famer finished his career with 24,815 points, 11,607 rebounds and 2,894 blocks. Among centers, the points and blocks rank sixth all-time. Ewing is the New York Knicks franchise leader in points, rebounds, blocks and steals.
10) Dwight Howard, 2004-present
Howard is one of the last remaining true centers in the NBA. Possessing phenomenal strength and athleticism, the 2004 number one overall pick has dominated opponents since coming into the league. Before suffering a season-ending injury early in 2018, Howard had 13 straight seasons averaging a double-double. The eight-time All-Star and All-NBA selection led the league in rebounding five times and blocked shots twice. Arguably the best defender of his era, Howard won three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2009-11, and was named to the All-Defensive team five times. His field goal percentage of .583 ranks sixth in NBA history.