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NBA: Centers of Attention

It's no secret the impact that NBA big men have had on the game of basketball. But which low post legend rises to the top? We go above the rim to crunch the numbers.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

When basketball fans talk of the game's greatest players, it isn't long before big men are taking center stage. could wilt chamberlain have stopped shaquille o'neal's power? Could Bill Russell have checked Tim Duncan off the dribble? Could anyone—and I mean anyone—have stopped Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's patented sky-hook?

Discussions about the kings of the paint go on and on because it's virtually impossible to agree on what the "best" means. Is the best center someone who, no matter what is thrown against him, simply cannot be stopped? Or does it mean the most dominant in his time?

There are several candidates for the latter. In the late 1940s, George Mikan was logging 50-point games for the Minneapolis Lakers when entire teams were barely totaling 80. Then came Russell, whose spidery defense and shot blocking ignited the Boston Celtics' fast break and helped the franchise earn 11 championships in 13 seasons. Next was Chamberlain, who for seven years racked up points as if he were playing against the Overbrook High JV team in his hometown of Philadelphia. Wilt the Stilt carved up the National Basketball Association, which in the mid-1960s was a nine-team circuit with four future Hall of Fame centers: Chamberlain, Russell, Walt Bellamy and Nate Thurmond. Four of nine teams with great centers is a far greater percentage of teams that have great centers in 2003.

If you were keen on hoops from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, you know that Kareem always rises to the top. And '80s devotees like Hakeem Olajuwon, the man with the tap dancer's grace, or his bullish, lead-with-the-shoulders opposite, Moses Malone. The latest evolutionary stage of centerdom is found in the irrepressible Shaq—all 340 pounds of him—and his leaner counterpoint, Tim Duncan.

Being unable to agree on what it means to be the best, we might travel the statistical route to see who truly dominated. But one problem immediately arises: it's virtually impossible to measure defense with statistical precision. Blocks and steals, which offer only a partial picture of defensive prowess, weren't tracked before 1974, so we can't begin to assess the feats of Russell (1957ñ69) and Chamberlain (1960ñ73). The NBA claims that Olajuwon is the all-time blocks leader, when in actuality, it is unknown who holds the record. How can we know if Olajuwon exceeded Russell or Chamberlain in blocks? Not to mention it's a virtual certainty that he trails Jabbar, whose total is 641 shy of Olajuwon's, despite not having any blocks recorded in his first four seasons.

With defense unable to be accurately factored, determining the greatest center of all time comes down to one thing: offense. But how do we begin evaluating the great offensive centers?

Let's begin by adding a player's career averages for points, rebounds and assists, doubling the latter since an assist leads to two points. By doing this we have a starting point, but since averages don't necessarily reveal a player's excellence over time, the picture remains incomplete. There are 47 centers in NBA history who have reached either 10,000 points or 10,000 rebounds. Among them, Jabbar leads in points and assists, while Chamberlain leads in rebounds, Artis Gilmore in field goal percentage and Jack Sikma in free throw percentage. All four players receive a one rating for being first in a category. The remaining players receive a .99, .98 and so on, depending on how close to the standard-bearer they are.

It is also important to factor per-game averages into the equation. Chamberlain leads all centers in points, rebounds and assists per game. His points, rebounds and assists per game (times two) add up to 61.8. We multiply this number by .98, which is the value for his .540 field goal percentage. We then multiply by .87 for his free throw value, by .93 for his total points, and by 1.0 for being first in rebounds. Last, we multiply by .98 for his assists. Do the math and Chamberlain's numbers equal 48.02.

But one more adjustment needs to be made to find a player's final rating. Chamberlain played from 1960 to 1973 when points were a plentiful 114.2 per game. If we use 100 points per game as a baseline that equals 1, we can say that Chamberlain's 48.02 total must be divided by 1.142 to normalize his benefit from playing in an offense-rich era. Dividing 48.02 by 1.142 gives Chamberlain a final value of 42.05.

Here's how the top 10 posted up:

 

1. Wilt Chamberlain 42.05
The name Chamberlain will forever be synonymous with setting records, and many of the records that he achieved four decades ago have gone untouched over time. How about 100 points in a game, 55 rebounds in another and a 50.4 scoring average in 1962, just to name a few? He was known as the Big Dipper and Wilt the Stilt—both fitting, because they remind us that Chamberlain was a colossus.

Only Jabbar had more points than Chamberlain's 31,419, and Wilt's 23,924 rebounds are first and completely out of sight. The runner-up is O'Neal, who entered the 2003ñ04 season with 9,012. Translation: if O'Neal rebounds at his current pace, he will be 49 years old before he catches Chamberlain.

Chamberlain was the first player to score 4,000 points in a season and also the last. Quick: how many of the other 3,535 players who have played in the National Basketball League, Basketball Association of America, NBA and American Basketball Association since 1946 have averaged 40 points in a season? Try none. The only player to average 25 rebounds per game in a season? Answer: Wilt, in each of his first three years.

Last season, three years after Chamberlain's death, his name resurfaced. Kobe Bryant scored 40 points or more in nine successive games, "just like Wilt," they said. Well, not exactly. During the 1961ñ62 season, Chamberlain had a nine-game run in which he scored 78 points, 61, 55, 54, 52, 43, 50, 57 and 55. It was almost impossible to stop him. Two nights after Chamberlain's 100-point game, New York Knicks center Darryl Imhoff left the court to a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden. He had held Wilt to a mere 54 points.

Even with these scoring accomplishments, people argue that Bill Russell was superior to Chamberlain, pointing to the Celtics' 11 titles in Russell's 13 seasons. Chamberlain replied that Russell won more because he played with a stronger cast. In 1957, Russell joined a team loaded with talent, including future Hall of Famers Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn. When that cast aged, Boston was reloaded in the early '60s with Sam Jones and John Havlicek. Chamberlain had a point.

 

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 34.2
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) dominated the NBA from the moment he stepped on the court. He won Rookie of the Year in 1970, when Milwaukee made a quantum leap from 27 to 56 wins, and in 1971, Jabbar ran the table. He won the scoring title, Most Valuable Player and the Finals MVP, and the Bucks were crowned champs in their third season, the fastest ever for an expansion team.

Jabbar thought differently about basketball than Chamberlain. In his college varsity debut, he scored 56 points against USC at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and later eclipsed that total, scoring 61 against Washington State. "That had all been done before," he said about scoring records. "Frank Selvy once scored 100 points. If I play my games and work hard and we win, they don't have to remember me for setting records."

Winning was what Jabbar always did best. UCLA—called "Lew-CLA" during his time—was 82-2 over his three years. Observing the rough treatment given to him on road courts, Notre Dame's Johnny Dee said, "The only way to beat Alcindor is to hope for the three Fs—foreign court, friendly officials and foul out Alcindor." None of it worked. UCLA won all three NCAA titles from 1967 through 1969 and the Bruins weren't really challenged, winning their finals by 15, 13 and 20 points. No wonder that the philosopher-coach John Wooden called Jabbar "the finest truly big man ever to play basketball. He could do anything you asked of him and do it almost to perfection."

After being traded to Los Angeles in 1975, Jabbar anchored five title teams from 1980 to 1988 and was twice named Finals MVP. "We called Kareem's number so often it was an act of arrogance," coach Pat Riley said. "It was as if we were saying, 'This is what we're going to do and we don't think you can stop it.'"

 

3. Shaquille O'Neal 25.0
During O'Neal's first few seasons, critics crowed that he could only dunk and shatter glass. Those naysayers have disappeared. O'Neal owns the third highest scoring average ever (27.6), behind Michael Jordan (30.12) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07), and his field goal accuracy (.577) is second to Artis Gilmore (.582) among all centers.

He also owns a deserved reputation as a pulverizing force under the basket that no center can contain. Regardless that NBA talent in the pivot is at an all-time low, O'Neal would be a force to contend with at any time.

When he left Orlando in 1996, the Magic had finished their third straight 50-win season. The team hasn't reached 50 since. With the Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson urged O'Neal to play better defense and improve off the boards. Immediately, O'Neal increased his blocks and rebounds, and in 1999 he enjoyed his best season, winning the scoring title (29.7 points per game) and posting personal bests in blocks (3.8) and rebounds (13.6).

In 2000, he led Los Angeles to a 67-win season and its first NBA title since the KareemñMagic Johnson tandem of 1988. In the Finals, O'Neal was unstoppable, averaging 38 points and 17 rebounds and winning his first of three consecutive Finals MVPs.

 

4. George Mikan 24.9
A Clark Kent look-alike with quarter-inch-thick glasses, George Mikan was the first dominant center. At 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, Mikan was too strong and too skilled for his 1940s low-post opponents. He employed a running hook and used his size—and elbows—to make room for close shots and tip-ins.

Playing for the Chicago American Gears in 1947, he led the National Basketball League in scoring. In 1948, Maurice White, the president of the American Gear Co., pulled the team out of the NBL and Mikan was awarded to the Minneapolis Lakers in November. He won the scoring title that year and again in 1949, when the Lakers were transferred to the Basketball Association of America. Mikan finished the season with 48- and 51-point games against New York, 53 against Baltimore and 46 against Rochester—amazing totals, considering the league average was 80 points.

The BAA and NBL merged for the 1949ñ50 season, but it didn't matter to Mikan. He continued to dominate, scoring 30 or more points 25 times in the NBA's first season. In Game 6 of the Finals, Mikan tallied 40 points as the Lakers ousted the Syracuse Nationals, 110-95.

In 1951, Minneapolis lost to Rochester in the playoffs—a series in which Mikan played with a fractured leg—marking the only time that one of Mikan's teams would lose a playoff series in 22 attempts. He earned his fifth consecutive scoring title that season, an accomplishment that only Michael Jordan (10 titles overall) and Chamberlain (7) have surpassed. Over the next three years, the Lakers won three straight titles, besting New York in 1952 and '53, and Syracuse in 1954.

Because accurate rebounding statistics were not kept in the early years, the NBA record book doesn't credit Mikan with a single rebound from 1947 through 1950. Thus, the official record reduces his rebounding average to 9.5 per game by counting 209 games from those years and crediting him with no rebounds. The fairer approach is to credit him with his rebounding average for the years we do have accurate records—from 1951 through 1956, when he averaged 13.4 rebounds a game for 311 games and twice led the circuit in rebounding. That approach is used here.

As a gate attraction, Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers were responsible for making the league a financial success. So dominant was Mikan that the old Madison Square Garden marquee on 50th Street and Eighth Avenue once read, "Knicks versus Geo. Mikan tonight." Mikan wondered why his teammates didn't get dressed. "The marquee says you against the Knicks," one replied, "so we thought you'd like to go it alone."

Another symbol of Mikan's dominance as a big man were several rule changes that occurred during his career. In 1951, league officials widened the lane from six to 12 feet. It could have been called "The Mikan Rule," since its intent was to counter his inside scoring. In 1954, when the league adopted the 24-second clock, some said it was another measure to stop Minneapolis. More likely the move was made to preserve fan interest, which was dying due to widespread stalling tactics. The clock foiled the Laker's deliberate style of getting the ball inside to Mikan.

 


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