The Greatest Centers In NBA History

Greatest center ever? Nah. But where does Shaquille O’Neal rank?

The Big Aristotle officially retired Wednesday, about two years too late, and he certainly belongs in the discussion. Maybe not where Elliott Kalb has him ranked (as the best player of all-time) in “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Basketball?” But in the discussion of the best centers in history.

Some thoughts:

— The only players who can possibly be considered the greatest center of all-time are Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Before you start telling me that Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points a game in one season, read Bill Simmons’ chapter on the subject in “The Book of Basketball.” Seriously, you have to read it.

Simmons, who admittedly comes at the argument from a Celtics bias, utterly eviscerates the notion that Chamberlain was as valuable as Russell. I’ll distill the argument to a couple of points:

Chamberlain was traded once for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer, and cash; and once for Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark, and Darrall Imhoff. Do you think Russell would have been traded for those guys? Ever? In a million years?

When the Lakers had a chance to trade for Chamberlain in the mid-60s, the owner had the players vote and they voted 9-2 against the deal. Simmons got this from Chamberlain’s own biography, where Wilt chalked it up to guys like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor not wanting him to steal their spotlight. Yeah, I’m sure that was it.

Chamberlain was obsessed with stats; Russell was obsessed with winning. Among those was Wilt’s desire to never foul out of a game (he never did), to the point where he would stop playing defense when he got in foul trouble. Another was when Chamberlain ended up leading the league in assists (the only center to do so), and he became obsessed with it, questioning the scorer during the game about a particular assist or checking during timeouts to see how many he had. This reached its nadir when Wilt’s 76ers team blew a 3-1 lead in the conference finals and he took two shots in the second half of Game 7.

Simmons includes a seemingly endless series of quotes from contemporaries of Russell and Chamberlain, explaining how Russell simply did more to help his teams win. Some of the most damning quotes come from Chamberlain himself.

Chamberlain put up statistics that have never been approached and never will be approached. But there’s no doubt in my mind that I would rather have Russell as a teammate, and isn’t that ultimate measure?

— Anyway, after Russell and Abdul-Jabbar, you have Chamberlain, O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, in some order or another. Two of them have the same albatross — free-throw shooting. For his career, Chamberlain shot .511 from the line; in the playoffs, it was .465. According to the anecdotal evidence, Chamberlain became gun shy late in close games because he was afraid of getting fouled. Shaq shot .527 during the season and .504 in the playoffs. How can that not hurt you in a close playoff game?

(Russell shot .561 during the season, and .603 in the playoffs. Still not great, but is it a coincidence that the winningest player in North American team sports got better when the stakes were highest? Hmmmm.)

— O’Neal was first-team all-NBA eight times, second-team twice; Chamberlain was 7-3; Olajuwon was 6-3.

— Chamberlain won four MVP awards; the other two won one apiece. Wilt was second in the voting twice, and finished in the top five 10 times. Shaq was second twice, top five eight times. Olajuwon was second once, top five six times.

— O’Neal won four titles (three as the dominant player), while the others won two apiece (always as the Alpha Dog).

Given that, here’s my list of the greatest centers: Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, O’Neal, Olajuwon, with a nod to Moses Malone. But I’m still not convinced I would rather have Wilt on my team than Shaq.

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