The 22 Best NBA Centers of All Time, Ranked

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The center position has historically featured some of the most productive, tall, and talented players in basketball history, making it central to the success of many NBA teams. Defensively, the best NBA centers of all time have been responsible for protecting the rim and rebounding. From the seven-footers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain that towered over their peers and dominated, to the smaller fives like Dave Cowens and Wes Unseld that used their speed and quickness to make an impact, centers comes in all shapes and sizes.

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The newcomer to this list, Nikola Jokić, earned himself a spot having dominated at the rim particularly during the last five seasons, and most recently having lead the Denver Nuggets to their first NBA Championship in 2023. A few players such as Pau Gasol and Tim Duncan were considered but left off of this list due to their time playing primarily outside of the center position. Both played center for huge portions of the latter stages of their careers, but at their peak, they were power forwards. Join us as we take a look at the greatest centers of all time, ranked.

*All Stats are taken from Basketball-Reference*


22. Yao Ming

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  • Notable awards: 8x All-Star, 2x All-NBA Second Team, NBA All-Rookie First Team
  • Career stats: 19.0 PPG/ 9.2 TRB/ 1.0 BPG
  • Teams played for: Houston Rockets
  • Championships: N/A

Yao Ming was selected as the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. He played for the Rockets for his entire NBA career, which lasted from 2002 to 2011. Unfortunately, Yao Ming's career was plagued by injury problems, particularly to his feet and ankles. These injuries ultimately led to his retirement from professional basketball in 2011.

21. Neil Johnston

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  • Notable awards: 6x NBA All Star, 3x NBA scoring champion, NBA rebounding leader
  • Career stats: 19.4 PPG/11.3 TRB/2.5 AST
  • Teams played for: Philadelphia Warriors, Pittsburgh Rens
  • Championships: 1956

In the early days of the NBA, Neil Johnston was one of the best centers in the NBA. At just 6’8” tall, he played for the Philadelphia Warriors. Johnston led the NBA in scoring for three consecutive seasons (1953-1955), and also led the association in rebounding during the 1954-55 campaign. A six-time All-Star, Johnston won a championship in 1956 with the Warriors, averaging 20.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, and 5.1 assists during the title run.

20. Nate Thurmond

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  • Notable awards: 7x NBA All Star
  • Career stats: 15.0 PPG/15.0 TRB/2.7 AST
  • Teams played for: San Fransisco/Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Championships: N/A

One of the greatest rebounders of all time, Nate Thurmond had his jersey number retired by both the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Known for his effectiveness on the defensive end, Thurmond made five NBA All-Defensive teams throughout his career.

He was the first player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double, and his dominance on the glass allowed him to become one of just four players to average at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a season.

19. Bill Walton

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  • Notable awards: NBA Finals MVP, NBA MVP, 2x NBA All-Star, NBA rebounding leader, NBA blocks leader
  • Career stats: 13.3 PPG/10.5 TRB/3.4 AST
  • Teams played for: Portland Trail Blazers, San Diego/Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics
  • Championships: 1977, 1986

Walton doesn’t have the longevity in his career that most of his peers on this list have. He missed a considerable portion of his career with foot problems that caused him to miss more games (680) than he actually played in total (488). Even with the injuries, Walton still has made the NBA Hall of Fame for his run with the Portland Trail Blazers.

The 6’11” big man won a championship with Portland in 1977 and took home the NBA Finals MVP. The next season he won the regular season MVP after compiling 18.9 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 5.0 assists.

A two-time All-Star and a two-time NBA champion, Walton’s brief success in the league makes him one of the greatest “what if” cases in NBA history. Plus, he’s currently one of the funniest and most entertaining color commentators to ever grace the microphone.

18. Dwight Howard

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  • Notable awards: 8x NBA All-Star, 3x NBA Defensive Player of the Year, 2x NBA blocks leader, 5x NBA rebounding leader
  • Career stats: 15.7 PPG/11.8 TRB/1.3 AST
  • Teams played for: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers,
  • Championships: 2020

The only active player on this list, Howard has seen his star fade as he’s accepted a less prominent role with the Los Angeles Lakers. Howard was an All-Star for eight consecutive seasons and was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for three straight years with the Orlando Magic. He was a significant factor in Orlando’s run to the 2009 NBA Finals, averaging 20.3 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks in 20 games.

Though much has been made of the disappointments in Howard’s career, there’s no doubt that at his peak he was a dominant defensive force and one of the best pick-and-roll threats in NBA history. If he plays a few more years, Howard has a chance to join the 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds club which only has 18 members.

17. Robert Parish

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  • Notable awards: 9x NBA All-Star
  • Career stats: 14.5 PPG/9.1 TRB/1.4 AST
  • Teams played for: Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls
  • Championships: 1981, 1984, 1986, 1997

Known as “The Chief,” Parish made nine All-Star appearances and played for 21 seasons and won four championships as a member of the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. A model of consistency in the NBA, Parish averaged double-figure scoring in 17 of his 21 seasons.

One of the Big Three in Boston with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, Parish’s combination of strong offense and quality defense mixed in with durability (he never played less than 72 games in his first 20 years) was central to Boston’s ability to compete for championships throughout the 1980s.

16. Artis Gilmore

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  • Notable awards: 6x NBA All-Star, 5x ABA All-Star, ABA MVP
  • Career stats: 18.8 PPG/12.3 TRB/2.3 AST
  • Teams played for: Kentucky Colonels (ABA), Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics
  • Championships: 1975 (ABA)

A talented seven-footer, Artis Gilmore spent some of his prime in the ABA with the Kentucky Colonels. Gilmore led the NBA in field goal percentage for four consecutive seasons and made six All-Star teams with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. The big man formed a potent scoring twosome with George Gervin. In his career, Gilmore averaged a double-double for eight different seasons.

15. Bob Lanier

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  • Notable awards: 8x All-Star, NBA All-Star Game MVP
  • Career stats: 20.1 PPG/10.1 TRB/3.1 AST
  • Teams played for: Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks
  • Championships: N/A

In his 14-year playing career, Lanier managed to make seven all-star squads. He averaged at least 20 points and ten rebounds for seven consecutive seasons while a member of the Detroit Pistons. While on the Pistons, Lanier formed a solid duo with guard Dave Bing as Detroit qualified for the playoffs for four consecutive seasons.

A Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, Lanier was a skilled all-around center with the ability to rebound, score and defend. Lanier played through pain for much of his career, having seven different knee surgeries.

14. Willis Reed

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  • Notable awards: NBA Finals MVP, NBA MVP, 7x NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year
  • Career stats: 18.7 PPG/12.9 TRB/1.8 AST
  • Teams played for: New York Knicks
  • Championships: 1970, 1973

The famed captain of the two New York Knicks championship teams of the 1970s, Willis Reed, has one of the best moments in NBA history. Despite dealing with a torn muscle in his thigh, Reed stepped out and played Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. The center made his first of only two shot attempts, inspiring his team even after he sat out the rest of the game as the Knicks won the title.

Injuries cut Reed’s career to just ten years, but many of those years were successful. New York qualified for the postseason in eight of Reed’s 10 NBA seasons. A former MVP and seven-time All-Star, Reed averaged at least 20 points and ten rebounds on five different occasions.

13. Dikembe Mutombo

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  • Notable awards: 8x NBA All-Star, 2x NBA rebounding leader, 3x NBA blocks leader, 4x NBA Defensive Player of the Year
  • Career stats: 9.8 PPG/10.3 TRB/1.0 AST
  • Teams played for: Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets
  • Championships: N/A

Mutombo’s career is the opposite of the finger wag. One of 10 kids from a family in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mutombo initially moved to the United States to pursue a career in the medical field. At Georgetown, coach John Thompson persuaded him to focus on basketball and the rest is history.

Mutombo dominated in college and went on to be one of the greatest shot blockers of all-time. Second on the NBA’s career blocks list (3,289), Mutombo made eight All-Star teams and won Defensive Player of the Year an astonishing four times. He was a solid contributor on offense as well, averaging double-figure scoring in his first 11 seasons.

12. Nikola Jokić

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  • Notable awards: NBA Finals MVP, 2x NBA MVP, 5x NBA All-Star
  • Career stats: 20.2 PPG/11.8 TRB/9.8 AST
  • Teams played for: Denver Nuggets
  • Championships: 2023

The Serbian center first entered the NBA in 2015 after being drafted by the Nuggets in 2014, and he seems to get better each season. Jokić, who comes in at 6'11", is a major threat under the basket and has been a gigantic game changer to the dominant Nuggets team.

His success, particularly as a shooter, is unconventional, but what makes him so dangerous is how difficult he is to defend. Jokić is a master of the fundamentals who can do it all, and is above all a team player who is constantly setting his teammates up for success. "The Joker" will be a force to be reckoned with in the NBA for many years to come.

11. Dave Cowens

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  • Notable awards: NBA MVP, 8x NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year
  • Career stats: 17.6 PPG/13.6 TRB/3.8 AST
  • Teams played for: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks
  • Championships: 1974, 1976

With the storied history that the Boston Celtics have, it’s very easy for a player like Dave Cowens to get lost in the shuffle. A 6’9” center, Cowens was a special all-around center that could score, rebound and initiate the offense. His hustle and effort to pursue every loose ball was unmatched.

Cowens won the NBA MVP for the 1972-73 season and made the All-Star team eight times. A two-time NBA champion with Boston, Cowens drove a cab for one night, and once retired briefly to sell Christmas trees at his family’s farm.

The Top 10 Centers of All Time

10. Wes Unseld

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  • Notable awards: NBA Finals MVP, NBA MVP, NBA Rookie of the Year, NBA rebounding leader
  • Career stats: 10.8 PPG/14.0 TRB/3.9 AST
  • Teams played for: Washington Bullets
  • Championships: 1978

The master of the outlet pass, Unseld was a unique center. Playing in a league full of tall big men nearing or exceeding seven feet, the 6’7” Unseld held his own. An MVP in his rookie season and a five-time All-Star, Unseld averaged double-figure rebounds in all but one of his 13 pro seasons. Though he wasn’t a primary scorer, he made up for it with leadership, defense, and passing.

Later on in his career, he teamed with Elvin Hayes to take the Bullets to an NBA championship in 1979. Unseld was named Finals MVP.

9. George Mikan

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  • Notable awards: NBL MVP, 4x NBA All-Star, NBL scoring champion, NBA rebounding leader
  • Career stats: 23.1 PPG/13.4 TRB/2.8 AST
  • Teams played for: Chicago American Gears, Minneapolis Lakers
  • Championships: 1949, 1950, 1952-1954

Known for the fact that he played with thick glasses, Mikan redefined the center position in the 1940s and 1950s. His mere presence as a dominant scorer and defender played a factor in the NBA creating the goaltending rule, widening the foul lane and creating a shot clock.

A player with the Minneapolis Lakers, he won five titles in the BAA/NBA and two championships in the NBL. A three-time scoring champion, Mikan made four All-Star teams.

8. Moses Malone

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  • Notable awards: NBA Finals MVP, 3x NBA MVP, 12x NBA All-Star, 6x NBA rebounding leader
  • Career stats: 20.3 PPG/12.3 TRB/1.3 AST
  • Teams played for: Buffalo Braves, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Bullets, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs
  • Championships: 1983

As a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, Moses Malone famously predicted that the 76ers would sweep their way to an NBA championship in 1983 by uttering the phrase “Fo, Fo, Fo.” The 76ers didn’t quite reach that goal, but came close, just losing one game on their way to an NBA championship. Malone was dominant, winning the Finals MVP and averaging 26 points and 15.8 rebounds during that playoff run with Philadelphia.

A three-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, Malone played 19 seasons in the NBA and was productive for the majority of his career. Maybe the greatest offensive rebounder of all-time, he had his jersey retired by the 76ers and the Houston Rockets.

7. David Robinson

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  • Notable awards: NBA MVP, 10x NBA All-Star, NBA Defensive Player of the Year, NBA scoring champion, NBA rebound leader, NBA blocks leader, NBA Rookie of the Year, SI Sportsman of the Year
  • Career stats: 21.2 PPG/10.6 TRB/2.5 AST
  • Teams played for: San Antonio Spurs
  • Championships: 1999, 2003

“The Admiral,” Robinson’s impact on the San Antonio Spurs franchise was felt immediately. In his rookie season, the Spurs went from 20 wins the previous season to 56 victories with Robinson in the lineup. Robinson would continue to dominate with highlights that included a 71-point evisceration of the Los Angeles Clippers and an NBA regular season MVP in 1995. An elite defensive center and an athletic wunderkind, Robinson averaged at least 23.2 points over six years in the mid-’90s.

In the latter stages of his career, Robinson would form the Twin Towers duo with Tim Duncan as the Spurs captured championships in 1999 and 2003.

6. Patrick Ewing

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  • Notable awards: 11x NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year
  • Career stats: 21.0 PPG/9.8 TRB/1.9 AST
  • Teams played for: New York Knicks, Seattle SuperSonics, Orlando Magic
  • Championships: N/A

The best player in New York Knicks history, Patrick Ewing was a staple of New York’s roster after being drafted first overall in the 1985 NBA Draft. A sweet-shooting big man with an exceptional turnaround move out of the post, Ewing was an All-Star 11 different times and helped the Knicks to two Finals appearances in the 1990s.

The all-time leading scorer (23,665 points) for the Knicks franchise, Ewing, also holds the crown for franchise highs in games played, minutes, rebounds, and blocks. I think New York wishes the Ewing era still existed. The Knicks have made the playoffs just five times since Ewing’s departure in 2000.

5. Hakeem Olajuwon

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  • Notable awards: 2x NBA Finals MVP, NBA MVP, 6x NBA All-Star
  • Career stats: 21.8 PPG/21.8 TRB/2.5 AST
  • Teams played for: Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors
  • Championships: 1994, 1995

Selected first overall in the 1984 NBA Draft, Olajuwon was a success from the moment he stepped foot in the NBA. He teamed with fellow seven-footer Ralph Sampson to form the original twin towers in Houston and helped lead the Rockets to a Finals appearance in 1986. Later on in his career, Olajuwon led the Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. The center was consistent as well, averaging at least 20 points for 13 consecutive seasons.

A smooth player on the court, Olajuwon had every move in the post, making opponents look foolish. Olajuwon’s dream shake was notorious, and he still teaches his post moves to NBA players today.

4. Shaquille O’Neal

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  • Notable awards: 3x NBA Finals MVP, NBA MVP, 15x NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year, 2x NBA Scoring Champion, AP Player of the Year
  • Career stats: 23.7 PPG/10.9 TRB/2.5AST
  • Teams played for: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics
  • Championships: 2000-2002, 2006

O’Neal carried many nicknames along the way in a storied career. The Big Aristotle, The Big Shaqtus, Diesel and Shaq Fu were just a few of the aliases the big man went by. Arguably the most physically dominant player in NBA history, O’Neal’s brute physical style mixed with a rare athleticism at his frame, made him impossible to defend, leading him to one MVP in 2000 and 15 All-Star appearances.

A four-time NBA champion, O’Neal was named Finals MVP in all three years of the Lakers’ three-peat in the early aughts. His run as an inside, outside superstar tandem with Kobe Bryant took the NBA by storm. O’Neal’s post-NBA career run is also just as impressive.

3. Bill Russell

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  • Notable awards: 5x NBA MVP, 12x NBA All-Star, NBA Lifetime Achievement Award, 4x NBA rebounding champion
  • Career stats: 15.1 PPG/22.5 TRB/4.3 AST
  • Teams played for: Boston Celtics
  • Championships: 1957, 1959-1966, 1968-1969

The ultimate winner in NBA history, Bill Russell won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics. The best defensive center of all-time, Russell’s ability to dominate the boards and also impact the game outside of scoring, made him invaluable. Russell was the first player in NBA history to average 20 rebounds in a season. His run as a player-coach with the Celtics netted the Celtics three of those rings. A winner of the MVP on five different occasions and a 12-time All-Star, Russell’s impact on civil rights as an athlete is equally important.

2. Wilt Chamberlain

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  • Notable awards: NBA Finals MVP, 4x NBA MVP, NBA Rookie of the Year, Most Points in One Game, Most Rebounds in One Game
  • Career stats: 30.1 PPG, 22.9 TRB, 4.4 AST
  • Teams played for: Harlem Globetrotters, Philadelphia/San Fransisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Championships: 1967, 1972

The statistics behind Wilt Chamberlain’s game are just ridiculous. They sound like numbers that can only be produced on NBA 2K. The big man spent time with three teams in the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers.

The seven-footer is the only player in history to record a 100-point game and has the highest scoring average for a season in NBA history (50.4 points during the 1961-62 season). Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring in seven different seasons and was at the top of the rebounding charts 11 different times. A four-time MVP, Chamberlain’s dominance of the game in all facets (except free-throw shooting) led him to two championships in 1967 and 1972.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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  • Notable awards: 2x NBA Finals MVP, 6x NBA MVP, 19x NBA All-Star, NBA Rookie of the Year
  • Career stats: 24.6 PPG, 11.2 TRB, 3.6 AST
  • Teams played for: Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers
  • Championships: 1971, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988

The all-time leading scorer in NBA history (38,387 points), Abdul-Jabbar played an astounding 20 seasons in the NBA and was an effective player even in his 40s. A six-time NBA champion, six-time NBA MVP, and a 19-time All-Star, there really isn’t any center or player with credentials nearing Abdul-Jabbar’s list of achievements. 

Famous for establishing the skyhook move out of the post, Abdul-Jabbar’s teams made the playoffs for all but two seasons. It’s crazy to say this, but the former Bucks and Lakers player is underrated for how dominant and consistent he was throughout his career.

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