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This piece was inspired, in part, by Daryl Morey’s tweet that former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon is the best NBA center ever. Morey went on to say that in today’s NBA, Olajuwon might have been the best player ever.
Is Morey out of his mind?
Probably. But I don’t think so.
In fact, I’ve been arguing that Olajuwon is the best center of all-time amongst friends for years now.
When most people think about the best centers in NBA history a few players immediately come to mind:
The argument for Abdul-Jabbar is simple. Abdul-Jabbar owns more career MVPs (6), points, and Win Shares than any player in NBA history. He won six NBA championships, two Finals MVP awards, and made the All-Star team a staggering 19 times.
Abdul-Jabbar played 20 seasons and finished with career averages of 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 blocks per game. His patented sky hook was arguably the most unblockable shot in league history and helped make him an effective player even into his 40s.
Chamberlain’s numbers are the stuff of legend. Take his 1961-62 season as an example: 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a night, while shooting just 61.3 percent from the free throw line.
He finished with career averages of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. He won two NBA championships and finished with the two best player efficiency rating (PER) seasons in NBA history.
Statistically, he can’t be touched.
So, why didn’t Wilt win more titles? The answer is simple: Bill Russell.
Russell won 11 NBA Championships during his career, including two (1968, 1969) as a player-coach.
Russell’s career averages of 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game don’t capture his value as a player.
A defensive genius, Russell managed to win more than 60 percent of his head-to-head matchups against Chamberlain, including a 1969 NBA Finals win that is still considered one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.
Then, of course, there is Shaquille O’Neal.
The most dominant center of his generation and perhaps the NBA's last dominant big man, Shaq overwhelmed opponents with his sheer size and strength. He won four NBA championships, three Finals MVP awards, and was a 15-time NBA All-Star.
Shaq dominated the head-to-head series against Olajuwon too, going 14-6 all-time against the Rockets’ hall of fame center in 20 regular season matchups. He averaged 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game during his illustrious career, while becoming an undeniably unstoppable force in the paint.
O’Neal finished his career shooting 58.2 percent from the field, but only hit 52.7 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.
Easily one of the top-5 centers of all-time, many basketball pundits believe that O’Neal actually underachieved during his playing career.
All of these hall of fame centers starred in different generations and the NBA has since evolved since any of these players have stepped foot on the hardwood. The game is much less physical today then when Shaq was throwing elbows in the paint and the three-point shot has revolutionized the way teams run their offenses.
Make no mistake about it – Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Russell, and O’Neal would be great players at any point in league history. But, how would they fare in today’s space and pace NBA?
All four of the guys above are traditional centers that do most of their work in the painted area. Forget about the rule changes for a moment – how would Shaq fare switching out on pick-and-rolls in today’s game? Would Chamberlain’s effectiveness be marginalized in a game full of stretch fives and athletic big men?
And how about Olajuwon? How would his game translate to the modern NBA?
The Rockets big man had arguably the most complete skill set of any center ever. The Dream dazzled NBA fans and frustrated opponents with an arsenal of post moves that has yet to be duplicated.
On the defensive end, Olajuwon was one of the most menacing defenders to ever play the game. Athletic enough to disrupt passing lanes and strong enough to protect the rim, Olajuwon finished with career averages 1.7 steals and 3.1 blocks per game.
Olajuwon remains the all-time leader in blocked shots and is the only player in NBA history in the top-15 all-time in each category (he’s 8th all-time in steals). He was Defensive Player of the Year twice and made the NBA All-Defensive Team nine times.
On March 29, 1990, Olajuwon flashed his versatility by becoming the third player in NBA history to record a quadruple-double. He finished the game with 18 points, 16 rebounds, 11 blocks and 10 assists to help lead the Rockets to a 120-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Of all the centers listed above, Olajuwon is the most likely to have developed a three-point shot in the modern NBA. During his playing career, Hakeem had a reliable turnaround jumper in the post and a mid-range game that extended beyond the top of the circle.
NBA shot range data only exists since 2000, but it is safe to say that he would have been as good, if not better than the 37.8 percent that he shot from 18 feet in 2000-01.
Even without a three-point shot, Olajuwon was already impossible to defend.
Most of his contemporaries agree too.
Shaq has said on numerous occasions that Olajuwon was his toughest opponent. He even called Olajuwon his favorite center of all time when speaking to Branson Wright of Cleveland.com. Check out the video below:
According to the L.A. Times, O’Neal had this to say about The Dream in 2013.
“Hakeem Olajuwon was the only guy that I couldn’t intimidate,” O'Neal said. “When I would say something, if you say something back, I had you. If I elbow you and you complain, I had you.”
Right before the 1995 Finals ... I was in my own zone and wasn’t really worried about anybody else. First play of the game, I gave him the patented Shaq elbow, jump hook, 2-0. He just smiled at me. And then he came down and gave me a move, shot a jumper and said, 'Right back at you, Big Fella.'
Former NBA star Sam Perkins, who went toe-to-toe with Shaq in the 2000 NBA Finals, told reporters in 2013 that Olajuwon was the toughest player he every had to defend.
David Robinson agrees. In 2015, he told FanSided that Olajuwon was a tougher opponent than Shaq to play against.
“Size wise Shaq was just a monster. You couldn’t move him. From a skills standpoint though, Hakeem had everything. If I’m starting a team that is probably the guy that I would start with.”
And it’s no surprise that Robinson feels that way.
After potentially being robbed of his second consecutive MVP award, the Dream put on a clinic during his 1995 Playoff run. Olajuwon schooled The Admiral in the Western Conference Finals, averaging 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 4.2 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game.
He capped off that season by taking on the East’s number one seed: Shaq, Penny Hardaway, and the Orlando Magic. The Rockets swept the Magic in the Finals, behind Dream’s 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 2.0 steals per game.
In the 1993-94 season, Olajuwon became the first player in NBA history to take home the NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP trophies home in the year.
His career averages of 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3.1 blocks stack up among the game’s best and are marred by five injury-plagued seasons toward the end of his career. Olajuwon broke down towards the end of his career, starting less than 60 games from 1997-98 through 2001-02.
Still, what makes Olajuwon so special wasn’t just his ability to fill up the stat sheet – it’s how he went about his business on a nightly basis.
Wilt and Russell played each other. Shaq caught some of the dominant all-time centers towards the end of their careers, but enjoyed a period from 1999-2006 when no one in the NBA could guard him.
Olajuwon, on the other hand, had historic battles with all-time greats. He faced off against the likes of David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Moses Malone, Dikembe Mutombo, and Shaq throughout his career. And he found a way to elevate his game against them, especially in the postseason.
In 1986, when overmatched against the Showtime Lakers, Olajuwon averaged 31.0 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.2 steals, and 4.0 blocks per game to help the Rockets upset L.A. in five games.
In the 1993-94 Finals, he held legendary Knicks center Patrick Ewing to just 36 percent from the field, outscoring him in every single contest. The next season, the Rockets took down Malone’s Jazz in the first round, Robinson’s Spurs in the semifinals, and Barkley’s Suns in the Western Conference Finals despite being the sixth seed in the West.
He finished off the 1994-95 season with a sweep of Shaq-and-Penny’s Magic to win his second NBA Championship and complete one of the best individual postseason runs in NBA history.
Olajuwon finished his career as one of the most versatile NBA players to ever grace the hardwood.
Michael Jordan told 2K Sports in 2013 that he would choose Olajuwon to play center on his all-time pickup basketball team.
I’ll leave it to a young Shaq to help explain what Olajuwon meant to the game. Before Shaq ever won a ring or was named Finals MVP, he had this to say about the kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind the league (video below):
“I don’t want to be compared to no Lakers’ center. If you’re going to compare me to someone, compare me to the best center to every play the game, in my opinion, Hakeem Olajuwon.”
So, while there are formidable arguments to be made for Kareem, Wilt, Russell, and Shaq, if I had to choose a center to start a team with in the modern NBA, it would have to be none other than the man they call “The Dream”.