The center position has been declared dead for a long time, but that isn’t necessarily the case. There are still great centers in the league including Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond, and Nicola Jokic. These guys have distinct big men skills that are still translated in the game today, from defensive awareness to the ability to pass and score the ball.
But throughout history, big men have dominated the league and most of the top 10 list of all-time include centers. As a result, it is time to rank the greatest centers of all time into tiers.
Bob Lanier, Alonzo Mourning, Yao Ming, Neil Johnston, Nate Thurmond, Marc Gasol, Walt Bellamy
Tier 5 centers are all Hall of Fame worthy but do not possess the ability to lead a team to championships as the main men. Still, they are All-Star performers who have made an impact on the game nonetheless.
Bob Lanier is a valued member of the Hall of Fame who made 8 All-Star teams while averaging a career double-double of 20.1 PPG and 10.1 RPG. Lanier was the full package at the center position, with the ability to score inside with the hook shot and also hit the outside shot. He was also an exceptional rebounder who made his name off of his complete skill set.
Alonzo Mourning is widely regarded as one of the greatest defensive centers of all time, thanks to his ability to block shots and defend the paint. He was also a strong scorer in his prime, averaging 23.2 PPG in 1995. Mourning later won an NBA title with the Heat in 2006, but will forever be known as a dominant shot-blocker extraordinaire and one of the games most competitive centers.
Yao Ming is one of the most influential players in NBA history. Yao single-handedly brought the NBA to an international market, especially to China. As a player, Yao had an unfortunate career filled with injuries but was still a bonafide All-Star player with career averages of 19.0 PPG and 9.2 RPG.
Neil Johnston was a dominant center in the ’50s, possessing a graceful sweeping hook shot that made him one of the game’s most feared scorers during his time. He led the NBA in scoring from 1953-1955 and made a career 6 All-Star teams with averages of 19.4 PPG and 11.3 RPG.
Nate Thurmond was a double-double machine, averaging 15.0 PPG and 15.0 RPG as a brick wall in the paint. He was a defensive monster, who made 5 All-Defensive teams and 7 All-Star teams. Thurmond is the first player in history to record a quadruple-double and also the only player to snatch 18 rebounds in a single game.
Marc Gasol is known as a defensive pillar for his team, using a mix of brute strength and size to influence shots and block many more. Gasol averaged 1.4 BPG for his career, and also won the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2012. Gasol might very well be the greatest player in Memphis Grizzlies history as well.
Walt Bellamy is a first-ballot Hall of Fame player who did his entire work around the rim. He shot a career 51.6% from the field, but still amassed 20.1 PPG for his career along with 13.7 RPG. Bellamy also had an iconic rookie season, winning the Rookie of the Year award by putting up a ridiculous 31.6 PPG and 19.0 RPG.
Willis Reed, Bob McAdoo, Dwight Howard, Dave Cowens, George Mikan, Bill Walton, Dikembe Mutombo, Artis Gilmore, Robert Parish
The Tier 4 centers are great scorers, defenders, and impactful players that have done a lot for NBA history. You can’t tell the story of the NBA without these guys in their respective eras, so here are the Tier 4 centers starting with NBA champion Willis Reed.
Reed won two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs as a member of the New York Knicks, a franchise for which he played his whole career. Reed had career averages of 18.7 PPG and 12.9 RPG but seemed to play his best in the NBA Finals by leading his team to victory on two occasions. Reed will forever be known as an ultimate winner for the Knicks, and the first member of Tier 4.
Bob McAdoo was a sensational scorer among the best we have ever seen from the center position. McAdoo was a 3-time scoring champion, former MVP, and two-time NBA champion who averaged 22.1 PPG and 9.4 RPG over his career. McAdoo had three straight seasons of averaging over 30 PPG in 1973-1976 and is one of the purest scorers we have ever seen.
Dwight Howard is one of the biggest what-if stories ever because he had the athleticism and talent to be among the best 10 big men to have ever played. He never quite got there, but he was still a force and a dominant player in his prime. He led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009, and is one of the most dominant defensive players ever by winning 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards, and making 8 All-NBA teams. Dwight was the best big man in the game in his prime and deserves a Tier 4 spot.
Dave Cowens played 766 games in his illustrious career, averaging 17.6 PPG and 13.6 RPG for the Boston Celtics and later with the Milwaukee Bucks for his final season. Cowens won 2 NBA titles, made 8 All-Star teams, and was the league MVP in 1972-1973. As a valued member of the Hall of Fame, Cowens accomplished everything in the game of basketball before handing it up in 1983.
George Mikan is a Hall of Famer, 3-time scoring champion, and 4-time All-Star who was a Minneapolis Lakers legend. Mikan was a force at scoring the ball, averaging 23.1 PPG, and snatching 13.4 RPG over his 7-year career. Mikan is a Hall of Famer who was unstoppable when healthy and in his prime. Unfortunately, injuries prevented him from having a longer career.
Bill Walton should be mentioned higher, but injuries ruined a career that had no limit. Still, Walton won two NBA titles and was the Finals MVP in 1976-1977. Walton also won the league MVP in 1977-1978, averaging 18.9 PPG and 13.2 RPG that year. Bill Walton only played 468 games in his career but did a whole lot for the game when he was healthy and earned a spot in Tier 4.
Dikembe Mutombo is one of the most iconic international players of all time, and also one of the most dominant defensive players we have ever seen. Mutombo was simply a wall inside the paint, and it was like climbing a mountain when a player tried to score on him. He swatted away shots with ease, averaging 2.8 BPG for his career and winning 4 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Mutombo is a Hall of Famer and one of the most beloved players of all time.
Artis Gilmore has a career filled with accolades, including 11 All-Star selections, 5 All-Defensive selections, an MVP, and a Rookie of the Year award. Gilmore averaged 18.8 PPG and 12.3 RPG for his career and is the best center in Chicago Bulls history in terms of scoring and rebounding ability.
Robert Parish gets overlooked because he was a part of a dominant Celtics squad led by Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, but Parish was an extremely important piece of a historical Celtics dynasty. Parish averaged 14.5 PPG and 9.1 RPG over his career which included 4 NBA titles and 9 All-Star team selections. He was a bonafide star who did his damage on both ends of the court, and a Hall of Famer.
David Robinson, Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing, Wes Unseld
Tier 3 centers are easily superstar players who are among the top 10 centers of all time. They had a dominant two-way play and had the skillsets that earned them into the Hall of Fame without a thought. These four guys came incredibly close to being Tier 2 players, but just miss out thanks to a few unbelievable players ahead of them.
David Robinson is a San Antonio Spurs legend, and the original superstar big man before Tim Duncan took over. The Admiral made 10 All-Star teams, 10 All-NBA teams, won two NBA titles, and the 1994-1995 MVP. Robinson is a valued member of the Hall of Fame and a dominant two-way player who earns his way into Tier 3.
The late and great Moses Malone is one of the top-three Rockets players of all-time and one of the league’s most dominant centers in the paint. He was a 6-time rebounding champion, made 13 All-Star teams, and won 3 MVP awards. Moses was also the Finals MVP in the 1982-1983 season, putting the icing on the cake to a Hall of Fame career of a truly perfect big man.
Patrick Ewing is one of the most unlucky players in NBA history, because he was dominant enough to have won at least one NBA title but ran into Michael Jordan and the Bulls too many times in the playoffs. Ewing was a New York Knicks legend, averaging 21.0 PPG and 9.8 RPG in a career that included 11 All-Star teams and 7 All-NBA teams. Ewing was a superstar big man who had the personality and skillset of a pure leader on the court.
Finally, Wes Unseld was the pure definition of a tough center who had a bruising impact on the floor. Unseld was a fantastic rebounder, a great passer, and a dominant defensive player. He did all the things that lead teams to the NBA Finals, making 4 of them and winning one. Unseld was the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1968-1969, the only player alongside Wilt Chamberlain to ever win both awards.
Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain
This next tier contains the very best centers in NBA history. When mentioning the greats, their names often come first. But what is particularly impressive about Tier 2 centers is the fact that every one of these guys has the argument to be the number one center ever. Unlike any other position, each center in this tier can claim to be the king of all big men.
Bill Russell is the greatest winner in NBA history, winning 11 rings in 12 Finals appearances. To many of the old heads, Russell was the greatest defensive player of all time who made his name altering shots and swatting away weak shots around the post. If the defense was tracked back in the day, Russell would probably top many of the charts. Russell’s leadership of an 11-NBA champion Boston Celtics earns him a spot in Tier 2.
Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon had the best post moves in NBA history. He won two straight NBA championships with the Houston Rockets, being the leader on both offense and defense. Hakeem averaged 21.8 PPG and 11.1 RPG for his career, winning 2 Defensive Player of the Year awards and making 12 All-Star teams.
Shaquille O’Neal was a dominant force unlike we have ever seen. He stood over 7 feet tall and weighed over 300 lbs, so he simply could not be stopped inside the post. He averaged 23.7 PPG and 10.9 RPG, winning 3 Finals MVPs in a row and also making 15 All-Star teams. Shaq probably has the most dominant run in history during 2000-2003 and earns his spot in Tier 2.
Finally, Wilt Chamberlain earns the final spot in Tier 2 and there isn’t a surprise when you consider the records this man has broken. He once scored 100 points in a single game, snagged 50 rebounds in a single game, and had career averages of 30.1 PPG and 22.9 RPG. Nobody owns the stat charts like Wilt Chamberlain, who dominated the 60’s and early 70’s as the original stat-sheet stuffer.
Best of the Best: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
No doubt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the best center of all time. He has the most records, won at every level, and had the most unstoppable move in sorors history in the skyhook. Kareem was a dominant player all the way into his 40’s and was a force on both ends of the floor.
Kareem averaged 24.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 3.6 APG, and 2.6 BPG. Kareem also made 19 All-Star teams, 15 All-NBA teams, 11 All-Defensive teams, 6 MVPs, and 6 NBA titles. Not to mention, Kareem is first among all players in points scored with 38,387 total points ahead of Karl Malone who has 36,928 total points.
Abdul-Jabbar had the best skillset of all centers and has an amazing career that lasted 20 years. In terms of pure dominance, Kareem is number one and it isn’t a discussion.