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25 Greatest Centers in NBA History

All-time Best Centers: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain

All-time Best Centers: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain

Since the NBA was formed in the late 1940s, every team has needed a big man in the middle to make a run at a championship. There have been many great centers to play pro basketball who have stood out in a game that continue to evolve after 70 years.

NBA logo: All-time Best Centers

But before we begin breaking down the best centers in NBA history, there are a few points to note.

  • Since the Basketball Association of America (BAA) merged to form the NBA and the American Basketball Association (ABA) ultimately merged with the NBA in the 1970s, I count players’ success in these leagues on this list.
  • The NBA did not begin recording blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, which is why some players on this list have that statistic under their name and others do not.

Here are the 25 best centers in NBA history.

— Rankings by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.

25. Yao Ming

Houston Rockets (2002-11)

Tallest NBA Players: Yao Ming

Points per game: 19.0 (regular season), 19.8 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 9.2 (regular season), 9.3 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.6 (regular season), 1.0 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 1.9 (regular season), 1.5 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2016

"He could play inside, he could play outside, and if he didn't have those injuries he could've been up there in the top five centers to ever play the game." – Shaquille O’Neal

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

24. Dikembe Mutombo

Denver Nuggets (1991-96)
Atlanta Hawks (1996-2001)
Philadelphia 76ers (2001-02)
New Jersey Nets (2002-03)
New York Knicks (2003-04)
Houston Rockets (2004-09)

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Points per game: 9.8 (regular season), 9.1 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 10.3 (regular season), 9.5 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.0 (regular season), 0.8 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.8 (regular season), 2.5 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2015

Mutombo led the NBA in blocks three times on his way to becoming one of the best rim protectors in league history.

23. Artis Gilmore

Kentucky Colonels (1971-76) – ABA
Chicago Bulls (1976-82, '87)
San Antonio Spurs (1982-87)
Boston Celtics (1988)

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ABA titles: 1 (Colonels, 1975)

Points per game: 18.8 (regular season), 17.7 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 12.3 (regular season), 12.7 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.3 (regular season), 2.3 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.4 (regular season), 2.2 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2011

"The A-Train' is the ABA's record holder for career blocked shots and rebounds per game.

22. Bob Lanier

Detroit Pistons (1970-80)
Milwaukee Bucks (1980-84)

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Points per game: 20.1 (regular season), 18.6 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 10.1 (regular season), 9.6 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 3.1 (regular season), 3.5 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 1.5 (regular season), 1.5 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1992

The eight-time All-Star’s No. 16 jersey was retired by both the Pistons and Bucks.

21. Bill Walton

Portland Trail Blazers (1974-78)
San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers (1979-85)
Boston Celtics (1985-87)

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NBA titles: 2 (Trail Blazers, 1977; Celtics, 1986)

Points per game: 13.3 (regular season), 10.8 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 10.5 (regular season), 9.0 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 3.4 (regular season), 3.0 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.2 (regular season), 1.7 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1993

There is no telling how great Walton would have been if his body had cooperated with him.

20. Walt Bellamy

Chicago Packers/Zephyrs/Baltimore Bullets (1961-65)
New York Knicks (1965-68)
Detroit Pistons (1968-70)
Atlanta Hawks (1970-74)
New Orleans Jazz (1974)

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Points per game: 20.1 (regular season), 18.5 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 13.7 (regular season), 14.8 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.4 (regular season), 3.0 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1993

Bellamy's rookie season, where he averaged 31.6 points and snagged 19 rebounds a game, is only eclipsed by Wilt Chamberlain’s and Bill Russell's debut campaigns.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

19. Alonzo Mourning

Charlotte Hornets (1992-95)
Miami Heat (1995-02, '05-08)
New Jersey Nets (2003-04)

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NBA titles: 1 (Heat, 2006)

Points per game: 17.1 (regular season), 13.6 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 8.5 (regular season), 7.0 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.1 (regular season), 0.9 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.8 (regular season), 2.3 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2014

Mourning played relentless defense, twice winning Defensive Player of the Year honors. Although he played power forward at times, the overwhelming majority of his NBA career was spent at center.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

18. Nate Thurmond

San Francisco/Golden State Warriors (1963-74)
Chicago Bulls (1974-76)
Cleveland Cavaliers (1976-77)

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Points per game: 15.0 (regular season), 11.9 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 15.0 (regular season), 13.6 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.7 (regular season), 2.8 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.1 (regular season), 1.9 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1985

Thurmond was the first player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double and once snagged 43 rebounds in a game.

(Photo courtesy of ProHoopsHistory.net)

17. Robert Parish

Golden State Warriors (1976-80)
Boston Celtics (1980-94)
Charlotte Hornets (1994-96)
Chicago Bulls (1996-97)

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NBA titles: 4 (Celtics, 1981, '84, '86; Bulls, 1997)

Points per game: 14.5 (regular season), 15.3 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 9.1 (regular season), 9.6 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.4 (regular season), 1.3 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.6 (regular season), 1.7 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2003

Boston's run during the 1980s would never have happened without the steady play of "The Chief."

16. Bob McAdoo

Buffalo Braves (1972-76)
New York Knicks (1976-79)
Boston Celtics (1979)
Detroit Pistons (1979-81)
Los Angeles Lakers (1981-85)
Philadelphia 76ers (1986)

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NBA titles: 2 (Lakers, 1982, '85)

Points per game: 22.1 (regular season), 18.3 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 9.4 (regular season), 7.6 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.3 (regular season), 1.4 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 1.5 (regular season), 1.6 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2000

McAdoo is the last player to average more than 30 points and 15 rebounds in a season.

15. Neil Johnston

Philadelphia Warriors (1951-59)

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NBA titles: 1 (1956)

Points per game: 19.4 (regular season), 15.0 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 11.3 (regular season), 11.2 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.5 (regular season), 3.3 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

A knee injury cut short a brilliant career that included winning the scoring and rebounding titles in the 1954-55 season.

(Photo courtesy of ProHoopsHistory.net)

14. Dave Cowens

Boston Celtics (1970-80)
Milwaukee Bucks (1982-83)

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NBA titles: 2 (Celtics, 1974, '76)

Points per game: 17.6 (regular season), 18.9 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 13.6 (regular season), 14.4 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 3.8 (regular season), 3.7 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 0.9 (regular season), 0.9 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1991

Cowens is one of only five players to lead his team in all five major statistical categories in a season. 

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13. Dwight Howard

Orlando Magic (2004-12)
Los Angeles Lakers (2012-13, '19-Present)
Houston Rockets (2013-16)
Atlanta Hawks (2016-17)
Charlotte Hornets (2017-18)
Washington Wizards (2018-19)

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Points per game: 17.4 (regular season), 18.4 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 12.6 (regular season), 13.8 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.5 (regular season), 1.4 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.0 (regular season), 2.5 (playoffs)

Howard is the youngest player in NBA history to snag 9,000 career rebounds.

Note: Statistics are through the 2018-19 season.

12. Wes Unseld

Baltimore/Washington Bullets (1968-81)

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NBA titles: 1 (1978)

Points per game: 10.8 (regular season), 10.6 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 14.0 (regular season), 14.9 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 3.9 (regular season), 3.8 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 0.6 (regular season), 0.7 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1988

At a mere 6-foot-7, Unseld was the toughest center in the overtly physical NBA of the 1970s and averaged a double-double for his career.

11. Patrick Ewing

New York Knicks (1985-2000)
Seattle SuperSonics (2000-01)
Orlando Magic (2001-02)

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Points per game: 21.0 (regular season), 20.2 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 9.8 (regular season), 10.3 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.9 (regular season), 2.0 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.4 (regular season), 2.2 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2008

The first player drafted under the NBA Lottery system is one of the greatest shooting centers to ever play the game.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

10. Willis Reed

New York Knicks (1964-74)

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NBA titles: 2 (1970, ’73)

Points per game: 18.7 (regular season), 17.4 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 12.9 (regular season), 10.3 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.8 (regular season), 1.9 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1982

Reed was the first player to be named the NBA regular season MVP, Finals MVP and All-Star Game MVP in the same season.

9. Moses Malone

Utah Stars (1974-75) – ABA
Spirits of St. Louis (1975-76) – ABA
Buffalo Braves (1976)
Houston Rockets (1976-82)
Philadelphia 76ers (1982-86, '93-94)
Washington Bullets (1986-88)
Atlanta Hawks (1988-91)
Milwaukee Bucks (1991-93)
San Antonio Spurs (1994-95)

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NBA titles: 1 (76ers, 1983)

Points per game: 20.3 (regular season), 22.1 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 12.3 (regular season), 14.0 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.3 (regular season), 1.5 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 1.3 (regular season), 1.6 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2001

Prior to Kevin Garnett, Malone was the only player to go directly from high school to pro basketball and achieve greatness. For NBA fans, his prediction that the 76ers would go "fo, fo, fo" in the 1983 playoffs is on par with Joe Namath's guarantee.

8. David Robinson

San Antonio Spurs (1989-2003)

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NBA titles: 2 (1999, 2003)

Points per game: 21.1 (regular season), 18.1 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 10.6 (regular season), 10.6 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.5 (regular season), 2.3 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 3.0 (regular season), 2.5 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2009

The only graduate of the Naval Academy to ever play in the NBA scored 71 points against the Los Angeles Clippers in 1994.

(Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

7. Hakeem Olajuwon

Houston Rockets (1984-2001)
Toronto Raptors (2001-02)

Hakeem Olajuwon

NBA titles: 2 (Rockets, 1994-95)

Points per game: 21.5 (regular season), 25.9 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 11.1 (regular season), 11.2 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.5 (regular season), 3.2 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 3.1 (regular season), 3.3 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2008

The NBA's career shot block leader is the only player to record two quadruple doubles in a game during his career.

6. Elvin Hayes

San Diego/Houston Rockets (1968-72)
Baltimore/Capital/Washington Bullets (1972-81)
Houston Rockets (1981-84)

Elvin Hayes

NBA titles: 1 (Bullets, 1978)

Points per game: 21.0 (regular season), 22.9 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 12.5 (regular season), 13.0 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 1.8 (regular season), 1.9 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.0 (regular season), 2.6 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1990

Hayes is 10th on the NBA's all-time list in points (27,313) and fourth in rebounds (16,279).

5. George Mikan

Chicago American Gears (1946-47) – NBL
Minneapolis Lakers (1947-54, ‘56) – Lakers moved from NBL to BAA before 1949 NBA merger

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NBL/BAA/NBA Titles: 7 (Lakers, 1947-50, '52-54)

Points per game: 23.1 (regular season), 24.0 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 13.4 (regular season), 13.9 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.8 (regular season), 2.2 (playoffs)
Note: NBL stats not recorded

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1959

Pro basketball's first superstar center also was the foundation of the league's first dynasty with the Lakers.

4. Shaquille O'Neal

Orlando Magic (1992-96)
Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2004)
Miami Heat (2004-08)
Phoenix Suns (2008-09)
Cleveland Cavaliers (2009-10)
Boston Celtics (2010-11)

NBA titles: 4 (Lakers, 2000-02, Heat, 2006)

Points per game: 23.7 (regular season), 24.3 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 10.9 (regular season), 11.6 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 2.5 (regular season), 2.7 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.3 (regular season), 2.1 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2016

The greatest athlete to ever play center fully lived up to his potential, making the finals with three different teams.

Related: 5 Players Who Redefined the NBA

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

3. Wilt Chamberlain

Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors (1959-65)
Philadelphia 76ers (1965-68)
Los Angeles Lakers (1968-73)

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NBA titles: 2 (76ers, 1967; Lakers, 1972)

Points per game: 30.1 (regular season), 22.5 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 22.9 (regular season), 24.5 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 4.4 (regular season), 4.2 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1979

The only player to ever score 100 points in a game and average 50 points a game in a season also never fouled out during his career.

(Photo courtesy of NBA.com)

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Milwaukee Bucks (1969-75)
Los Angeles Lakers (1975-89)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

NBA titles: 6 (Bucks, 1971; Lakers, 1980, ‘82, ’85, ’87-88)

Points per game: 24.6 (regular season), 24.3 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 11.2 (regular season), 10.5 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 3.6 (regular season), 3.2 (playoffs)
Blocks per game: 2.6 (regular season), 2.4 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1995

"Captain Skyhook" is the only player to be named league MVP six times and his No. 33 was retired by both the Bucks and Lakers.

1. Bill Russell

Boston Celtics (1956-69)

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NBA titles: 11 (1957, '59-66, '68-69)

Points per game: 15.1 (regular season), 16.2 (playoffs)
Rebounds per game: 22.5 (regular season), 24.9 (playoffs)
Assists per game: 4.3 (regular season), 4.7 (playoffs)

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 1975

Russell won 11 championships during his 13-year career. It is safe to say that no other player will ever come close to matching that success.