With the NBA lockout in full swing it gives me some time to debate a few things about the game. I thought it would be a good time to start a series of articles on a subject that can sometimes stir up a bit of trouble. That is, ranking recently retired players, or soon to be retired players, all-time and building case for or against them. In this article I will be focusing on the center position and the targets are: Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal, Alonzo “Zo” Mourning, Ben “the Fro” Wallace, Dikembe “I’m really 84 years old” Mutombo, and Yao “Ouch my leg” Ming. All five of these players have either retired in the past 2 years or are real close to it. Let’s take a look at each player and decide their place on the list of all-time greatest centers.
Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq is and was a mountain of a man who often faced challenges with his weight as much as the public. Very few athletes in a major sport have faced as many obstacles off the court. From mocking Chinese people and in particular fellow center Yao Ming to infamous freestyle rap “Kobe, tell me how my ass tastes”, Shaq has had a few run in with the media. None of these compare to the more recent news were Shaq is being accused of hiring a hit man to kill a list of people including a woman pregnant with his own child. Likely, these latest rumors are false, but still they hurt him as a public figure to some degree.
However, on the court Shaq was the best big man that I ever got to watch with my own eyes. I was born in 1977 and never got to see the greats of the past. In my opinion Shaq was the biggest and most dominate center the league has ever had. 7’1” and 325 pounds of pure I’m going to eat your face for breakfast power. In his prime he ran the floor as good as just about any big man in the game, he had handles and was a good passer, he was a monster on the glass, and most importantly when he was backing down in the post he was not guardable. His ability to man handle every center down low and simply rise up and slam it home was amazing.
During the Lakers three-peat he was without question the best player on the team. Kobe Bryant was on the rise, but Shaq was still in his prime. I honestly believe that it is a crime that Shaq does not have at least 5 league MVPs. For the better part of a decade he was the best and most dominate player in the game. Did he play way past his prime? Sure did and it hurt his career numbers a bit, but take the time and look at his numbers from 1992-93 through 2004-05. That was 13 years were he owned the league. No season sticks out more to me then 1999-00 when he averaged 29.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 3.0 bpg, and had a .574 FG%.
The real question is where he stacks up against the other great centers in the history of the NBA. It really did not take me long to insert him into my top ten All-time list. In fact I can only think of 3 other centers that I would want ahead of him on my team. Those three are Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain, in that order. Shaquille O’Neal therefore lands in the number 4 spot on my list of all-time centers.
Alonzo Mourning.Zo was a player I hated due to some stiff rivalries against my Chicago Bulls back in the day, but over time his no nonsense style grew on me and once the Bulls were no longer contenders I became a fan of his. In his prime he was the best defensive center in the league and not a bad offensive player either. His well documented battle with kidney disease really took a toll on his playing career right during the backend of his prime playing days. Mourning had an old-school feel about him and I think he would have been a stud player during any decade that this league has been around. In particular I see him fitting nicely into the 1970s. He would look great with a big old afro. Mourning just makes my top 20 list at the #18 spot. Had he not had his career shortened by illness I could certainly see him on most people’s top 15 list.
Ben Wallace.Some will argue right out of the gate that Big Ben was a system player. While he did have his best seasons with the Pistons, I would argue he was best known for his one on one defense which is more of an individual feat then it is a team one. In his prime he was a muscle ripped beast that could handle any player in the paint except perhaps Shaquille O’Neal. At only 6’9” he relied heavily on pure strength and will to keep players out of the paint. Winner of the Defensive Player of the Year Award an amazing four times shows just what a legendary defender he was. Nobody wanted to get in a scuffle with this guy either. Just remember how quickly bad boy Ron Artest ran away from Big Ben during the infamous “Malice at the Palace” incident and you quickly understand what a presence this guy is and was. He just misses my top 20 list because of his total lack of an offensive game. In my book he is a top 10 all-time defensive big man, but unfortunately he does not make my list. I would rank him in the mid to upper twenties if I had too.
Dikembe Mutombo.Let us not lie to ourselves here. Mutombo entered the league at the age of 63, which is amazing, and went on to play 19 seasons for a handful of teams. He also won the Defensive Player of the year award 4 times, but he did it more with his size then he did with his strength. At 7’2” and with a crazy reach he was a shot blocking animal once averaging 4.5 blocks per game during a season. His finger shaking antics after blocking a shot became a staple and infuriated players and fans alike. Like the rest of the centers in this article not named Shaq or Zo, he too misses my top 20 list. Unlike Ben Wallace, Mutombo did have a decent offensive game averaging double digit scoring during 11 seasons in the league. I would rank him right in between Mourning and Wallace somewhere in the lower to mid twenties.
Yao Ming. The 7’6” Chinese sensation came into the NBA like a storm. He was an instant hit and almost single handedly made the NBA a global sport. Viewership of games overseas soared through the roof. On the court Ming made his presence known from day one. Not only was he huge and imposing down on the block, but the guy had a solid midrange game. Just as he was starting to make strides with his game and just as Shaq was really starting to fade he began to battle injuries. At his peak he was a 25 and 10 player that could hit the 17 footer, but all that ended with only a handful or so seasons under his belt. It is really hard to rank a player that could have been so great but saw his playing days cut short. I guess the best comparison might be Bill Walton even though I think Walton was a much better overall player then Ming was. I would place Yao Ming somewhere in the early to mid 30s in my rankings.
This article would not be complete without my top 20 all-time best centers in the NBA list. This list changes a lot in my head but my top 10 I am pretty certain about. Here it is:
1. Bill Russell
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
3. Wilt Chamberlain
4. Shaquille O’Neal
5. Hakeem Olajuwon
6. Moses Malone
7. David Robinson
8. George Mikan
9. Patrick Ewing
10. Willis Reed
11. Bill Walton
12. Wes Unseld
13. Dolph Schayes
14. Elvin Hayes
15. Artis Gilmore
16. Robert Parish
17. Nate Thurmund
18. Alonzo Mourning
19. Bob McAdoo
20. Walt Bellamy