By Neil Beldock
To address this question I picked 11 of the greatest centers of all-time and created an analytical “system-of- measurement” to determine who is the statistically greatest center of all-time.
Now, statistical dominance doesn’t necessarily determine who the best player is or was, but it certainly places things into a certain and specific perspective.
Statistics don’t and can’t measure intangible factors, so I do add my own comments regarding intangibles for contemplation. I also show where each player ranks on ESPN’s list of the 10 Greatest Centers of All-Time.
Subjectively, ESPN weighs MVP awards and Championships as a part of their analysis.
My mission here is to not argue or debunk the ESPN findings, but to put forth a purely statistical analysis.
Here’s the analytical system I created and used to determine statistical dominance:
(Average Points Per Game) + (Average Rebounds Per Game x 2 x 45%**) + (Assists Per Game x 2) + (Blocked Shots Per Game***) = Total-Points-Per-Game (TPPG).
** I’ll explain this piece; What I’m doing is assuming that for each rebound, 45% of the time that rebound will result in 2 points. In essence, I’m assuming an overall shooting percentage of 45%. So 10 rebounds per game equals 20 potential points and, at a 45% shot percentage equals 9 total points (45% of the total potential of 20 points). May not be exactly right, but I think it works for the purpose of what I’m trying to do here.
*** I’m using the total average number of blocked shots as part of the equation to represent defensive statistical impact. Thought process being that blocked shots also accounts for intimidating shots, altering shots and helping on defense which ultimately can/may result in additional points. For 4 of the centers (Wilt, Russell, Mikan & Reed there were no blocked-shot stats kept so I applied what I consider a “fair” figure given their shot-blocking prowess)
Here’s the players analyzed: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, George Mikan, Willis Reed, Patrick Ewing, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Artis Gilmore.
Of Note: ESPN ranks Bill Walton as the 10th greatest center of all-time. I however have not included him in this analysis because, from a statistical standpoint, he doesn’t measure up. What I am doing separately is analyzing his TPPG for the 1.75 years when he was healthy. During that stretch the Trailblazers won an NBA championship, and had the best record in the league through 62 games of the following season (52-10) before Walton went down with injury and was never the same again. His TPPG for that stretch is 42.82 which would place him 4th on my list behind only Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain & Bill Russell. In my mind, when healthy, Walton was one of the greatest centers to ever play the game, and as sound fundamentally as any player who has ever played the game of basketball. He played the game perfectly.
Here’s how the above players rank based upon my TPPG analysis in ascending order (11 – 1):
11) Moses Malone:
Career Averages: 20.3 Points…12.3 Rebounds….1.3 Assists…1.3 Blocks…The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 20.3) + (Rebounds = 11.0) + (Assists = 2.6) + (Blocks = 1.3)…………TPPG = 35.20
Intangibles: One of the greatest rebounders, and specifically offensive rebounders of his era…..A fierce competitor who took an under-manned Houston Rockets team to the NBA Finals, and then when surrounded with talent, proved to be the final piece necessary for the Julius Dr. J” Erving Philadelphia 76ers to win an NBA Championship. ESPN ranks Malone as the #6 on their list of the all-time greatest centers.
10) Willis Reed:
Career Averages: 18.7 Points….12.9 Rebounds…..1.8 Assists….2.0 Blocks……The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 20.3) + (Rebounds = 11.61) + (Assists = 3.6) + (Blocks = 2.0)…………TPPG = 35.91
Intangibles: Willis, when healthy, was an absolute beast……and a great leader, one of the greatest team leaders of all-time. His TPPG is negatively impacted by the number of years he played at less than full strength due to injury. If you look at his first 7 seasons, before injury diminished his abilities, his TPPG elevates to 36.08 which moves him up to 8th on this list. It’s arguable that if not for Willis, the Knicks would still be searching for their first NBA Championship. The Knicks won 2 championships with Reed, and he was the Playoff MVP in both of those seasons. Willis is not ranked by ESPN as one of the 10 greatest centers of all-time (thus showing the failings of their analysis, from my perspective of course).
9) Patrick Ewing:
Career Averages: 21.0 Points….9.8 Rebounds…..1.9 Assists….2.4 Blocks……..The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 21.0) + (Rebounds = 8.8) + (Assists = 3.8) + (Blocks = 2.4)……………..TPPG = 36.00
Intangibles: Patrick was a great, great player, a fierce competitor and leader who, if not stymied by the Michael Jordan Bulls, probably would have banners hanging from the ceiling of Madison Square Garden. He also transformed the Knicks as a team and organization, and produced inarguably the greatest and longest run of successful seasons in Knicks history. In his 15 years with the Knicks, they went to the playoffs 13 times. Another intangible is that he was a highly effective player for 14 of his 17 year career. ESPN ranks Ewing as the 8th greatest center of all time.
8) Artis Gilmore:
Career Averages: 18.8 Points……12.3 Rebounds……2.3 Assists…..2.4 Blocks…The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 18.8) + (Rebounds = 11.0) + (Assists = 4.6) + (Blocks = 2.4)………………..TPPG = 36.80
Intangibles: Artis Gilmore is a player who many don’t realize or remember how great he was. Considered one of the physically strongest players of his era, he was a force to reckon with. He started his career in the ABA leading the Kentucky Colonels to 4 Division titles and one ABA League Championship before being claimed by the Chicago Bulls when the ABA and NBA merged. Legendary NBA & ABA coach, and now NBA broadcaster Hubie Brown, who coached the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA, and the Knicks, Grizzlies and Hawks of the NBA has said that the Artis Gilmore led Kentucky Colonels teams he coached were far and away the best team(s) he ever coached. ESPN doesn’t rank Artis Gilmore as one of the greatest centers of all-time.
7) David Robinson:
Career Averages: 21.1 Points…..10.6 Rebounds….2.5 Assists……3.0 Blocks…….The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 21.1) + (Rebounds = 9.54) + (Assists = 5.0) + (Blocks = 3.0)……………….TPPG = 38.64
Intangibles: The Admiral…….No classier an act has ever graced an NBA floor……And unquestionably one of the all-time greats……It’s easy to recognize Robinson as not only being the key ingredient in the first two San Antonio Spur NBA championships, but perhaps the focal point in laying the foundation of selfless and unselfish play that has led to a continued string of what I’m not ashamed to call an exquisite style and brand of basketball which the Spurs continue to play. Tremendous leader, tremendous basketball player, and most importantly; A tremendous person. All things considered, once all intangibles are considered, he could arguably be moved up higher on the list. ESPN ranks Robinson as the 7th greatest center of all-time.
6) Hakeem Olajuwon:
Career Averages: 21.8 Points…..11.1 Rebounds…..2.5 Assists……3.1 Blocks…….The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 21.8) + (Rebounds = 9.9) + (Assists = 5.0) + (Blocks = 3.1)………..TPPG = 39.80
Intangibles: Just a great, great player. I’m not sure that there are as many intangibles as it relates to Olajuwon as perhaps with others. Just a great, great player and talent who brought it every night he was on the floor. His TPPG is probably very accurate to his overall value and his ranking in this analysis is probably about where it should be. ESPN ranks Olajuwon as the 5th greatest center of all-time.
5) Shaquille O’Neal:
Career Averages: 23.7 Points…..10.9 Rebounds……2.5 Assists…..2.3 Blocks…..The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 23.7) + (Rebounds = 9.8) + (Assists = 5.0) + (Blocks = 2.3)………TPPG = 40.80
Intangibles: Shaq was the most physically dominating player since Wilt Chamberlain played. The biggest intangible adjustment I am going to make as it relates to Shaq is to look at and calculate his TPPG based upon his first 14 seasons, not the full 21 years he played. To some degree, playing 21 years and being an effective player for just about all of those 21 years, is a testament to how great and talented he was. But to get a true statistical read on his greatness, I calculated his TPPG based upon those first 14 years, before age and injury began to take its toll. The result is that his TPPG increases to 45.0, moving him up to 4th on the list. ESPN places Shaq at #4 on their all-time list.
4) George Mikan:
Career Averages: 23.1 Points….13.4 Rebounds……2.8 Assists……4.0 Blocks….The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 23.1) + (Rebounds = 12.0) + (Assists = 5.6) + (Blocks = 3.0)………TPPG = 43.70
Intangibles: This one is a weird one. And I certainly understand those who say he shouldn’t be this high on the list. But…….Let start by saying that George Mikan was chosen as the Greatest Basketball Player of the 1st Half Century. He was also a completely, completely dominant and unstoppable force in his era, and we shouldn’t blame him for being born when he was born. He played just 6 full seasons, but led his team to 5 championships. And the one year they didn’t win, he was injured with a broken leg, but still tried to play with a splint!!! So an argument most definitely can be made that Mikan should be lower on the list once intangibles are factored in, but the numbers are the numbers, and this is a statistical analysis. ESPN places Mikan at #9 on their list.
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar:
Career Averages: 24.6 Points….11.2 Rebounds……3.6 Assists…..2.6 Blocks….The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 24.6) + (Rebounds = 10.0) + (Assists = 7.2) + (Blocks = 2.6)…….TPPG = 44.40
Intangibles: Nobody in NBA history was selected as the league MVP more than Kareem with 6 MVP awards. Nobody in NBA history was selected to play in the All-Star game more often than Kareem with 19 All-Star game appearances. He is one of just two players to ever be selected to the NBA All-League First Team 10 times (Michael Jordan is the other). He won 6 NBA championships. And he is the NBA’s All-Time leader in points scored. (The closest active player to Kareem as it relates to points-scored is LeBron James who is over 10,000 points behind Kareem.) Much like is the case with Shaq, his ability allowed him to be an effective player for many years past his prime as his play was in decline due to age. If we analyze the first 13 years of his 20 year career, which brings him to the age of 34, his TPPG is 51.86 and he moves to 2nd on this list. Kareem was the most dominant player I’ve ever seen, and from my perspective, not only the greatest center ever but the greatest player ever. ESPN ranks him #1 on their list of the All-Time Greatest Centers.
2) Bill Russell:
Career Averages: 15.1 Points……22.5 Rebounds……4.3 Assists…..5.0 Blocks…The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 15.1) + Rebounds = 20.2) + (Assists = 8.6) + (Blocks = 5.0)…….TPPG = 48.90
Intangibles: To many, the greatest center and player of all-time. An argument can certainly be put forth; 11 NBA championships in 13 years, 5-time NBA MVP, 12-time NBA All-Star, etc….etc…..etc……Russell re-defined defensive basketball and is considered the greatest defensive player of all-time. So, if you buy into the theory that defense wins championship……………..ESPN ranks Russell as the #3 greatest center of all-time.
1) Wilt Chamberlain:
Career Averages: 30.1 Points…..22.9 Rebounds…..4.4 Assists…..4.0 Blocks….The TPPG analytics work out as follows:
(Points = 30.1) + (Rebounds = 20.6) + (Assists = 8.8) + (Blocks = 4.0)…….TPPG = 63.50
Intangibles: Statistically and physically, the most dominating player to ever play. Averaged 50.0 points-per-game in 1961-62 and 44.8 the following season. Scored 100 points against the Knicks on March 2, 1962. Led the NBA in assists in 1967-68 at 8.6 per game. His TPPG compared to everyone else is off the charts. Bill Russell (48.90), Kareem (51.86 in his prime), Shaq (45.00 in his prime) are all great, great, great players. But all, statistically trail Wilt-The-Stilt by a wide margin. As interesting as doing this analysis has been in determining where some of the greatest players of all-time line-up, it is this final piece, and the obscene number calculated for Wilt which is most surprising; not that he statistically is number 1, but that the difference to others is so stark. ESPN ranks Wilt as the #2 center of all-time.
So there you have it……….Let the debate begin!!!!!!!