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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sam Smith's 2002 List of the 10 Greatest NBA Centers

Back 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 PM



At Wednesday, July 17, 2013 3:17:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

Most have Russell, Wilt, Shaq, Jabbar and Olajuwon in their top five centers of all time.

Those centers would play well vs Shaq. Shaq would also hold his own against them also. I can't imagine Bill Russell(who was probably Tayshaun Prince's size) containing Shaq.

About Wilt and Russell trading places. I do believe Wilt could have won with Russell's cast. But not eleven. Wilt had a reputation for not being an easy guy to get along with so he probably wouldnt stay around long. He basically bounced around for that reason.

I believe both Wilt and Shaq could win titles with super stacked teams like Russell's. I think they would have a problem allowing inferior guys to be in the spotlight like Russell. They'd want to be the center of attention at all times. Their ego would get in the way of the dynasty lasting for over a decade. And they would eventually leave.prematurely

At Wednesday, July 17, 2013 10:14:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Kareem (at least to me) has a strong case for being the greatest player of all time. I'd still give it to Jordan, but Abdul-Jabbar's resume and talent put him right up there.

Basically, I'd put Kareem as my top center of all time. Also think Olajuwon deserves some more love.

At Wednesday, July 17, 2013 10:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How would you compare Shaq’s overall career with Hakeem Olajuwon’s? Was Olajuwon ever considered for your Pantheon?

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 12:47:00 PM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

The top eight players in minutes played of Russell's last four championship Celtic teams is littered with names like Don Nelson, Larry Siegfried, Satch Sanders, Wayne Embry, Em Bryant, Willie Naulls and Bailey Howell.
Good solid pros all, but...

Mr. Smith's dismissive comment is downright demeaning.

And, as much as I love your site/basketball library and respect your knowledge, even your qualifier egregiously undersells both the performance and impact of this unique player.

It can be argued that the Sixers' 1967 championship squad was more "talented" than any of Russell's -- and that team had pretty much been in place for two or three seasons prior to that.

Please excuse my tone, Mr. F., but I am just SO sick and tired of Bill Russell being presented as a mere product of his teammates and coach.

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 6:41:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In your last post I commented that I was concerned about Kareem's slim physical frame in today's game, thus I am glad that you remind all of us that he faced Moses Malone, Chamberlain, Walton, and other very physical centers. Therefore, I now agree with you that he would play exceptionally well also in the current era. Also, you pointed out that we tend to forget how athletic he was and that the skyhook is the best shot in basketball history: I (as well many other commentators) really cannot understand why nobody else does it, do you have any theory why is that?. More, I remember seeing an old UCLA VHS about the Wooden era, where one could see Abdul-Jabbar rebounding and sprinting across the court for a basket. I've tried to find this footage on YouTube but unfortunately it seems that nobody has uploaded it.


At Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't buy the size argument against Russell. No one would have thought that a 6-6 small forward could be a dominant rebounder in the "modern" game until Rodman did so. Russell had incredible athletic ability plus a great understanding of the mental and psychological games, so he would have been great in any era.

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Building Los Angeles:

That is why I said that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may be the most underrated great player of all-time.

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Olajuwon is a great player who had some dominant seasons and he obviously had a more refined post game than O'Neal but O'Neal was more dominant for a longer period of time than Olajuwon was. I would also rate O'Neal's peak as greater than Olajuwon's peak. Yes, Olajuwon won their only head to head Finals battle but O'Neal was not yet in his prime at that point and I think that the story would have been different if the 2000-02 O'Neal had met the mid-90s Olajuwon.

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Abacus Reveals:

Your comment is very tendentious. I am not interested in having a lengthy back and forth discussion, particularly with someone who feels so strongly about something without knowing (or mentioning) all of the relevant facts, but I will point out a few things that will clarify matters for objective readers who see your comment:

1) Russell's last four championship teams were the least talented/deep of his championship teams but even if we accept your cherry-picked example it is strange that you failed to mention--among other things--that the 1969 team featured two other Top 50 players (Havlicek, Jones) and that Howell was a six-time All-Star. The 1969 Lakers included Keith Erickson, Mel Counts, Johnny Egan and Freddie Crawford in their seven man rotation.

2) I said that if team performance is the top criterion then Russell has to be ranked as the greatest player ever. I don't see how that can be construed as "egregiously" underselling Russell's place in history.

3) The 1967 76ers had not been "pretty much in place for two or three seasons prior to that." Wilt arrived in the middle of the 1965 season and Luke Jackson was just a rookie at that time. Rookie Billy Cunningham joined the team in 1966. The team replaced Coach Dolph Schayes with Alex Hannum after the 1967 season. Then in 1968, Cunningham missed all but three playoff games with a wrist injury. In contrast, the Celtics had the same coach and the same core of future Hall of Fame veterans throughout that period.

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:28:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Abdul-Jabbar is extremely underrated because (1) he played a long time ago, (2) he was not on good terms with most media members and (3) the latter part of his career--when the NBA was starting to enjoy the fruits of the Bird-Magic boom--is when he was least productive individually but most visible due to the league's increased popularity.

At Thursday, July 18, 2013 9:57:00 PM, Anonymous Abacus Reveals said...

No problem, Mr. Friedman.
As always, appreciate your time!

At Friday, July 19, 2013 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Remember, in the 60s,they measured players in their bare feet, as opposed to today where players wore shoes.

Bill Russell's detailed height and weight specifications:

Billed Information:
NCAA: 6-10
Olympics: 6-10
Boston Celtics: 6-9, 215
Basketball Reference: 6-9, 215
NBA : 6-10, 220

Actual Measurements:
Height: 6-10 (likely a rounded number)
Hand Length:10.5"
Playing Weight:
215 - rookie
222 - early career
230 - late career
240 - last season
Shoes: U.S. size 14

At Friday, July 19, 2013 1:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

At the NBA Draft Combine and other "official" events players are measured without shoes, so teams know the players' actual heights. Of course, the heights that are listed in media guides often do not correspond to those actual heights; Charles Barkley is not really 6-6 and I do not think that Dwyane Wade is a legit 6-4, while at the other end of the spectrum Bill Walton is at least 7-0 but he preferred to be listed as 6-11.

If Russell were playing today he would have the opportunity--via a diet program/exercise program--to add bulk if he so desired and at 6-9 or 6-10 with superior jumping ability/athleticism he would have been more than capable of having a similar impact to the impact that he had in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Friday, July 19, 2013 3:44:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I don't disagree Russell would have an impact today. I was just stating Shaq would definately hold his own vs those other centers.

Also about Olajuwon It's impressive how he led the Rockets to the championship in 1994 without a suoerstar/all nba first team calibur player next to.him or an all star level player.

At Friday, July 26, 2013 2:30:00 AM, Blogger HP said...


David, talking about top 10 players(no, i won't ask again about the your Pantheon series, though one can hope for an update)..

I can't pass up a chance ask your thoughts on this list i created; it's about how high or how low you can place the following players on the top 10 list without it being completely off base. It's kind of complex, but you don't have to get too into it, just point out the biggest thing wrong with it.

Here it is:

Jordan - 1 through 3 (You can take both Kareem and Russel over him because of the big man "impact" argument and don't look completely braindead. But put him 4th and the list is just.. Off.)

Kareem - 1 through 5 (You can put Jordan, Russell, Wilt, and Magic [carried him to his last 2 rings] ahead of him.)

Russell - 1 through 5 (You can slip Jordan, Kareem, Wilt, and Shaq [peak play and similar impact offensively as Russell had defensively] past him and the list doesn't completely fall apart)

Wilt - 1 through 4 (You can argue Jordan, Kareem [longevity and defense] and Russell [head to head, drive and rings]. After that, i don't see any legitimate argument for putting people in front of him.)

Magic - 3 through 6 (I feel he has no argument for goat, and none over Wilt.. so the most you can put him and make the list believable is 3. You can also slide him to 6th behind Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Wilt and Bird without putting too many people off.)

Bird - 4 through 7 (No argument over Jordan, Kareem and Wilt... So the highest you can put him at is at 4th in my opinion. The lowest you can put him at is 7th behind Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Magic and Shaq [likewise inpact offensively, more impact defensively]

Shaq - 4 through 8 ( You can put him as high as 4th in my opinion, but no more. In my opinion he has no argument over Jordan, Kareem [Longevity, defensive impact and free-throw shooting, rings] or Wilt [ Better offensively, better defensively. More durable, more stamina.]

The lowest you can put him is 8th, behind Jordan, Kareem, Russell, Wilt, Magic, Bird and Duncan. Duncan has the defense and much better teammate/leader argument over him.)

Duncan - 5 through 10 ( He has no case over Jordan, Kareem, Wilt, Russell [He's better offensively than Russell, but Bill was a better leader, won 11 rings, and was literally a coach on his last 2 championships teams... not to mention he was the greatest defensive anchor of all time.]

He can be argued over all the remaining players, but he can also be argued as the 10th and it wouldn't seem strange. You can put Shaq, Hakeem and Kobe over him.)

Kobe - 5 through 10 ( He can't touch Jordan, Kareem, Russell and Wilt.. but everything else is fair game, though arguing him over Magic is though.

He can be put at 10th without too much trouble, as Hakeem [better player and more impact], Shaq [better player and actually was the best player on Kobe's 1st 3 championship teams], and Duncan [It was argued to death before this year's Finals.] all have cases over him.

Hakeem - 8 through 11 ( LeBron already has a case over him, i'm only putting him because you listed him but... he only has a case over Kobe and Duncan. That's it.)

At Sunday, July 28, 2013 2:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't know that there is anything "wrong" with your list. Your opinions are interesting and, in general, pretty reasonable.

As I have mentioned in numerous articles, I believe that Julius Erving deserves much more Top 10 consideration than he currently receives.


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