Ranking the 10 best centers in NBA history: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell lead the way

Here's a ranking of the best big men to ever play in the NBA

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The NBA was once dominated by big men in the 1960s and '70s, but athletic wings and long-range shooters took over the league in the last few decades.

With the rise of Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, the pendulum has swung back to the bigs in recent years. The duo has claimed the last four MVP awards, with Jokic winning three times and Embiid winning once.

The league lost one of its best centers ever on Monday when Bill Walton died at 71. Walton helped continue the legacy of dominant centers in the 1970s and '80s after Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain retired, then had a beloved career as a broadcaster.

Where does Walton stack up historically? Here’s a look at the 10 greatest centers in NBA history:

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Averages and accolades: 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.6 blocks, six-time champion, six-time MVP, 19-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, 11-time All-Defensive

Abdul-Jabbar is perhaps the most decorated player in the history of basketball. In addition to all the accolades listed above, the man formerly known as Lew Alcindor won three straight NCAA championships at UCLA to go along with three straight consensus All-American selections. The NCAA even outlawed dunking between 1967 and 1976 because of his dominance, which is how he refined his signature skyhook.

In the NBA, he starred for 20 incredible seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.

2. Bill Russell

Averages and accolades: 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 11-time champion, five-time MVP, 12-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA

The greatest winner in NBA history, Russell won 11 titles in his 13-year career. He wasn’t the scorer that some of his rivals were, but he was the best defender of his era. The crux of Russell’s career is that blocks and steals weren’t yet an official statistic and there were no All-Defensive Teams.

The Boston Celtics legend has the NBA Finals MVP trophy named after him, though he didn’t win any himself because it wasn’t implemented until his final season. Russell's No. 6 was retired across the NBA following his death in 2022.

Here are five things to know about Hall of Famer and Celtics legend Bill Russell.

3. Wilt Chamberlain

Averages and accolades: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, two-time champion, four-time MVP, 13-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA

On paper, there’s no reason Chamberlain shouldn’t be ahead of Russell. The two played in the same era, and Chamberlain’s offensive numbers top Russell’s in every category. But let’s dig a little deeper. Chamberlain and Russell faced off in the playoffs eight times with Russell winning seven of those series. Year after year, it was Russell getting the better of Wilt.

Chamberlain’s gaudy numbers clearly make him an all-time great -- he’s just a tick below his rival. Chamberlain’s titles came in 1967 with the Philadelphia 76ers and 1972 with the Lakers.

4. Shaquille O’Neal

Averages and accolades: 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 blocks, four-time champion, 2000 MVP, 15-time All-Star, 14-time All-NBA, three-time All-Defensive

The man of many nicknames, Shaq was a beast from the moment he entered the NBA with the Orlando Magic. The Magic defeated Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the 1995 playoffs en route to the NBA Finals on the back of their Superman.

O’Neal’s prime years came with the Lakers, as he was the 1A to Kobe Bryant’s 1B. Los Angeles three-peated from 2000 to 2002 with O’Neal winning Finals MVP each year. Later in his career, Shaq had a title run with a young Dwyane Wade in Miami and played with LeBron James in Cleveland.

5. Hakeem Olajuwon

Averages and accolades: 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 3.1 blocks, two-time champion, 1994 MVP, 12-time All-Star, 12-time All-NBA, nine-time All-Defensive, two-time DPOY

No one is more thankful for Michael Jordan’s baseball career than Hakeem Olajuwon. Hakeem the Dream led his Rockets to the Finals in 1986 during his second season, losing to Larry Bird’s Celtics. Houston wouldn’t return to the Finals until 1994, when Olajuwon helped defeat the New York Knicks for the Rockets’ first of back-to-back titles.

Olajuwon was one of the greatest two-way players in league history. His signature Dream Shake was a thing of beauty for fans as defenders often jumped at the wrong pump fake.

6. Nikola Jokic

Averages and accolades (through 2023-24 season): 20.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 8.1 assists, one-time champion, three-time MVP, six-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA

The Jokic doesn't turn 30 until next February, but he's already penciled in among the all-time great centers. In his first nine seasons, the former second-round pick has been a stat-stuffing machine. Jokic has 130 career triple-doubles, which ranks fourth all-time behind three point guards (Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson).

The Serbian star broke through to win his first NBA Finals with the Denver Nuggets in 2023 after averaging 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists throughout a historic postseason run. He already has a case to be the greatest passing big man ever, but a few more prime seasons could elevate Jokic even higher on this list.

The Serbian center won the 2023-24 NBA MVP award, marking his third in the last four seasons.

7. David Robinson

Averages and accolades: 21.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 3.0 blocks, two-time champion, 1995 MVP, 10-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA, eight-time All-Defensive, 1992 DPOY

The Admiral was appropriately nicknamed after attending school at Navy and missing his first two seasons due to military service from 1987 to 1989. Once he got on the floor for the Spurs, Robinson quickly proved his worth. He averaged at least 23 points per game in each of his first seven seasons before an injury-plagued 1996-97 campaign that delivered the Spurs the No. 1 pick and a guy named Tim Duncan.

Robinson and Duncan became one of the league’s best big man duos, winning two titles in Robinson’s final years (1999 and 2003, which was his last season).

8. Moses Malone

Averages and accolades: 20.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 blocks, one-time champion, three-time MVP, 13-time All-Star, eight-time All-NBA, two-time All-Defensive

Malone’s peak was among the most dominant in league history. During a five-year stretch from 1978 to 1983, Malone averaged 26.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game while winning three MVPs and a title.

The 1983 Finals MVP meshed perfectly with Julius Erving, as both were ABA stars who then shined in Philadelphia. His number is retired by both the Rockets and Sixers.

9. Patrick Ewing

Averages and accolades: 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.4 blocks, 11-time All-Star, seven-time All-NBA, three-time All-Defensive

Ewing is in a league of his own among the 10 players on this list, but not for a reason he wants. He’s the only player listed to never win a title. The New York Knicks made a number of deep playoff runs with Ewing leading the way -- Jordan and the Bulls just always got in the way. Ewing lost to Jordan in five of his 12 playoff runs with the Knicks, including twice in the conference finals.

The Knicks made the Finals in 1994 (losing to Olajuwon’s Rockets) and 1999 (losing to Robinson’s Spurs, though Ewing didn’t play in the series due to injury).

10. Bill Walton

Averages and accolades: 13.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, two-time champion, 1978 MVP, two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, two-time All-Defensive, 1986 6MOY

Walton is the greatest “what if” on this list. His numbers don’t warrant discussion among the all-time great centers. But what he accomplished despite chronic foot injuries is nothing short of remarkable. He won two collegiate championships at UCLA in 1972 and ’73, then quickly led the Portland Trail Blazers to a title in his third pro season after two injury-plagued years.

The injuries only worsened as he hit what should’ve been his prime, playing only 14 games from 1978 to ’82. His career concluded with the Celtics, as he won Sixth Man of the Year and emptied his tank for the 1986 NBA champions.

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