Sam Smith's 2002 List of the 10 Greatest NBA CentersBack in 2002 when Sam Smith wrote for the print edition of the Chicago Tribune (instead of Bulls.com, his current employer) and before he received the prestigious Curt Gowdy Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame, he wrote a nice tribute in honor of the recently retired Patrick Ewing. At the end of that article, Smith offered his list of the 10 greatest NBA centers, with a brief comment about each player. Here is Smith's list, along with his comments:
1) Wilt Chamberlain: "Most dominant big man in NBA history."
2) Shaquille O'Neal: "May pass Wilt if he stays around."
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: "Most productive player in NBA history."
4) Bill Russell: "Winningest but surrounded by best players ever."
5) George Mikan: "Dominated the premodern era."
6) Hakeem Olajuwon: "Graceful big man who played like a guard."
7) Moses Malone: "Moved around and made everyone better."
8) David Robinson: "Bill Russell without the teammates."
9) Bill Walton: "The Sandy Koufax of the NBA--five great years."
10) Patrick Ewing: "Or perhaps Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, Jack Sikma or Wes Unseld."
I included three centers in my Pantheon: Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar (listed here in chronological order). O'Neal was not eligible because I only considered retired players. It is very difficult to make meaningful comparisons of players who played in different eras under different conditions/with different rules but I would still go with Russell, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar as the three greatest centers in pro basketball history. If winning is the most important criterion in terms of ranking individual impact in a team sport, then Russell has to be listed first: he was the one indispensable player on the greatest dynasty in pro basketball history. Smith is correct that Russell was "surrounded by best players ever" but Russell's presence also enabled those players to maximize their potential individually and collectively.
Chamberlain set records that will never be broken and he was a more complete all-around player than Russell; Chamberlain could control the game individually at either end of the court, while Russell was a dominant defender/rebounder who was a complementary scorer and a fine passer/screener. The classic, unanswerable dual hypothetical question is if Chamberlain would have won 11 rings had he played with the Celtics or if Russell would have won more than two rings had he played with the various teams that employed Chamberlain. Or, to put it more simply, "Was Chamberlain a better player than Russell but Chamberlain only rarely had the right supporting cast or was Russell a better player than Chamberlain because Russell consistently brought out the best from all of his teammates?"
Abdul-Jabbar may be the most underrated great player in pro basketball history; his sky hook is the sport's greatest single weapon and he was much better as a rebounder and defender--particularly during the first half of his 20 year career--than most people realize. He represented an amalgamation of Chamberlain and Russell, possessing both the ability to be a dominant scorer as well as the ability to blend with various kinds of teammates in order to win multiple championships.
O'Neal ranks no higher than fourth on my list. He relied on his physical prowess--not just size and strength but, at least early in his career, surprising agility and quickness. However, O'Neal was not consistently dedicated to staying in shape and consequently he missed a lot of games due to injuries and his athletic skills dissipated earlier than they might have if he had worked harder. Russell would have frustrated and outsmarted O'Neal had they faced each other when they were both in their respective primes. Chamberlain and O'Neal would have each scored a lot against the other but Chamberlain was a better passer and a better defender. The young Abdul-Jabbar was way too skilled and fundamentally sound for O'Neal; O'Neal now implores Roy Hibbert to "jump hook" opposing centers "to death" and that is exactly what Abdul-Jabbar would have done to O'Neal, using his height/reach advantage and impeccable footwork to launch sky hooks over O'Neal. Abdul-Jabbar would not have relished the body contact involved with guarding O'Neal--and strong centers like Moses Malone sometimes gave Abdul-Jabbar problems--but Abdul-Jabbar's length and his knowledge of basketball fundamentals would have helped him on defense as much as on offense in this hypothetical matchup.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 PM