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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:


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