The once proud and dominate center position has been much maligned the past two decades. From 1946 until 1999 the center position was the premier position in the game. If you were going to be a title contender, you needed a great center.
Twenty-three times from 1956 until 1983 the leagues highest honor, the MVP award, went to a center. Two of the other times it did not go to a center, it went to the other big man position the power forward – both awards were won by Hawks PF Bob Petit. The other three times the award went to a non-center was Point Guards Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson and Small Forward Julius Earving. A Shooting Guard did not win the award until 1988 when Michael Jordan won his first MVP.
The 1980s and 1990s seen the award be more spaced out, but big men still dominated the game. It was this era, specifically the success of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, which changed the game from a game dominated by big men in the paint, to the more perimeter game we see today.
Now the center position is a dying breed. Long gone are the lumbering giants who smash around in the paint. Today’s centers need to be able to shoot the 3-point shot, and be athletic.
So who are the 10 greatest centers in the NBA in the modern era?
First we have to define the modern era. The change really seems to be in the early 2000s. While Jordan dominating the game in the 1990s, many teams still seen their success ride on that of their big man. For example, in 1998, Jordan’s last title, of the 16 teams who made the playoffs that year all had centers or power forwards who were all-star level quality. Even the Bulls, who had scoring issues in their front court, had an elite big man in Dennis Rodman. Rodman may not be a good offensive player, but he’s one of the top defensive bigs to ever play the game.
The game really seemed to change in the post Jordan era. Everyone wanted the next Jordan. Kids were copying Jordan as well, so when they got to the higher levels of basketball as teenagers their games were more perimeter oriented. This of course caused a chain reaction where the next generation copied guys like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, where as those guys had copied Michael Jordan.
So lets start the cut off date at the 1999-2000 season. The first season after the lockout and the first season of the new millennium. This is also looking at the players career from the 1999-00 season until the present, so while guys like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson are greats, they are not very good in this era and therefore are left off this list.
#20 Andrew Bogut
The first pick in 2005 by the Milwaukee Bucks. Bogut had a very long successful career despite never making an all-star appearance. He was a key member to the first Warriors title team, and their record setting 73 win season. He was also all-NBA in 2010.
Bogut never lived up to his #1 billing coming out of the University of Utah, mainly due to players drafted after him having such successful careers (see Chris Paul). But he was still a very good center and a key contributor on some very good teams.
#19 Theo Ratliff
A one time all-star who has kind of been forgotten. Ratliff also was a 3-time block champion and twice named to the all-defensive team. He had some good years with multiple teams, but was frequently traded.
His best year came in 2000 when he made his all-star team, but was traded to the Hawks shortly after making the game.
#18 Roy Hibbert
Truly a case of “what could have been”. Hibbert was the starting center on a very good Pacers team, he was a two-time all-star and one-time all defensive team member. But his career just fell off and within a couple of seasons he was out of the league.
In his prime though, he was a force. The Pacers relied on him with Paul George and they nearly took down the Lebron James lead Miami Heat.
#17 Serge Ibaka
Ibaka, the last player drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, has had a very sold and somewhat unnoticed career. He has come off the bench a lot, but has been the 6th man for a lot of title contenders.
He was a key component to the Thunders’ 2012 finals run, as well as the Raptors 2019 NBA title run. He has gotten better with age, and his offensive game has improved dramatically.
#16 Brook Lopez
One of the best offensive big men of the 2010s. He was a consistent 20 point scorer for the Nets for six seasons before getting traded to the Lakers. His contributions have often been overlooked when his teams are successful because his game is not stylish.
He is a one time all-star who has changed his game to meet the ever changing NBA. Once a paint guy, he has not become a perimeter player, shooting threes. He was once considered soft on defense but in 2020 made the defensive team.
#15 Andre Drummond
A two-time all-star who is one of the best rebounders in the NBA. He has lead the league 4-times in rebounds and was a key part of the Detroit Pistons for many seasons.
One knock on him is his offense. He has been able to average around 14 points per game, but a lot of those points come on put backs and he is an abysmal free throw shooter.
#14 DeAndre Jordan
Jordan became the defensive anchor holding down a very good Clippers team. He made an all-star appearance and was named to the all NBA defensive team twice and was all-NBA three times.
In his prime he was an elite rebounder and lead the NBA in rebounds twice. His offensive game was never anything special, but because he played so close to the rim his offensive game was one of the most efficient in the NBA.
Jordan now is trying to hold down the Brooklyn Nets, but as age and miles have hit his body his production and effectiveness have slipped.
#13 Marcus Camby
Like Jordan, Camby is another elite defender with a limited offensive game. Camby bounced around the league a lot, playing with six different teams in his 973 career games.
He was the 2007 defensive player of the year and lead the NBA in blocks 4 times and was on the all-defensive team 4 times.
#12 Marc Gasol
A 3 time allstar, 2 time all NBA team member, and 2013s defensive player of the year, Gasol was a star for the Memphis Grizzlies for 11 seasons before being traded. He helped the Raptors win the 2019 NBA title and is still contributing to contenders.
Never an elite scorer, Gasol was still a very good scorer. He averaged just under 20 points per game in 2017 and during his prime the Grizzlies were a constant playoff team, even making the western conference finals in 2013.
#11 Tyson Chandler
When Chandler entered the league his perception was that of a scorer, but he never became an efficient scorer in the NBA. In fact, his first few years in Chicago it looked like he would be a bust. But Chandler reinvented himself into one of the best defensive bigs of the era, and quickly became a key component to many playoff teams, including the 2011 NBA championship winning Dallas Mavericks.
Chandler is a one time all-star, a defensive player of the year award winner and 3 time all defensive team member. He has bounced around a lot, playing with 8 teams in his career. The 2020 season appears to have been his last as he was seldom used by the Houston Rockets and has yet to sign somewhere else.
#10 Joakim Noah
Noah was the heart and soul of the late 2000s Chicago Bulls teams that seen Derrick Rose win MVP. He was never a scorer, but he did everything else to help that team win. He was rewarded with two all-star appearances, 3 all-defensive team selections, an all-NBA team selection and being named the 2014 defensive player of the year. He struggled to find the same success he found in Chicago later in his career, but was still amongst the best defenders in the NBA.
#9 Karl Anthony Towns
The first player on this list who could move up. Towns is still in his prime for the Minnesota Timberwolves and has been the west Timberwolves player since Kevin Garnett.
Towns in just six seasons with Minnesota has proven to be the franchises best scorer, averaging a franchise high 27 points per game in 2020 and has proven to be a fantastic rebounder as well.
He has been named to the all-star game twice, the All-NBA team once, and was named 2016 rookie of the year, becoming the first true center since Shaq to win the award.
The one knock on Towns is that his teams have been bad. He did pair with Jimmy Butler and make the playoffs in 2017, only to be quickly eliminated in 5 games. The playoff appearance in 2017 is Minnesota’s only post season appearance since 2004.
#8 Rudy Gobert
Another player who has the opportunity to improve his rankings on this list is Rudy Gobert. Gobert has become the anchor for some very good Jazz teams who have seen some post season success. Gobert is not a great scorer, but he has proven he can be an adequate offensive weapon. He changes the game defensively and because of that has been named to the NBA’s all-defensive team 4 times. He has also been named to the All-NBA team thrice and is a two-time defensive player of the year award winner.
#7 Jermaine O’Neal
O’Neal has become a somewhat forgotten player in recent times. He sadly is mostly remembered for partaking in the Malice at the Palace, but he was still a very good player.
He was a six-time all-star for the Indiana Pacers, and had the brawl never happened, it is likely that Pistons team could have made the finals. They were stacked and he was their best player.
He was a top tier scorer and solid rebounder and an underrated defender in his prime.
#6 Yao Ming
A true “what if” story. The seven-foot-six-inch giant is one of the tallest players to ever play in the NBA, and really the only giant who was good at basketball. Yao unfortunately was injury prone and this prevented him from becoming one of the greatest of all-time.
His impact on the NBA is still being felt, he made the game extremely popular in his native China.
He was an 8-time all-star for the Houston Rockets and a 5-time all-NBA team selectee. He was very good offensively as well. Averaging 25 points per game in 2007. He was never a great defender though, and that caused issues in the playoffs for the Rockets.
#5 Ben Wallace
The story of the rise of Ben Wallace is one of the craziest in NBA history. He was undrafted out of Virginia Union in 1996 but played well in summer league and got on with the Washington Bullets. He averaged just 1 point a game and was seen as an offensive liability.
Wallace found some success with the Orlando Magic, but was traded to the Detroit Pistons for Grant Hill. The deal was seen as extremely one sided for the Magic, but in hindsight it may have been one-sided for the Pistons. Hill had a huge contract and was injured, Wallace was an elite defender helping the Pistons win titles.
The Pistons and Wallace were a perfect match. The Pistons wanted to be a defensive team and Wallace took to their schemes like a duck to water.
Wallace would be a 4-time all-star, 2 time rebounding champ, 5 time all-NBA team selectee, and 6 time all-defensive team member. He would also win 4 defensive player of the year awards cementing himself as the greatest defensive big of the era.
#4 Dwight Howard
Today Dwight Howard is seen mostly as a role player, a job hit embraced in helping the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2020 NBA title, but in his prime he was not only the best center in the NBA, but one of the best players in the game.
Howard’s peak was with the Orlando Magic from 2004 until 2012, in that time he made six all-star appearances, lead the NBA in blocks and guided the Magic to the 2010 NBA finals after an upset series win vs the Lebron James lead Cleveland Cavaliers. In addition to the six all-star appearances with the Magic, Howard has made two others with the Lakers and Rockets.
Overall, Howard is an 8-time all-star, 8 time All-NBA team selectee, 5-time all-defensive team member, 5-time rebounding champ, 3-time block champ, 3 time defensive player of the year winner and in his prime was a consistent 20 point scorer.
#3 Anthony Davis
Davis has spent portions of his career as a power forward, but the majority of it has been at the center spot and that is why he is on this list. Davis is still in the prime of his career, so it is likely that he could move up on this list.
Davis is a 7 time all-star with the Pelicans and Lakers, and 4-time all-NBA and all-defensive team member. He is an offensive force and the best offensive center since Shaq.
#2 Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq at number two may surprise a lot of people. But a portion of Shaq’s great career was spent in the 1990s and thus do not qualify for this list. Still, early 2000s Shaq is probably the most dominant player in NBA history, especially in the way he just physically dominated the game.
Shaq is a four-time NBA champion, winning all of them during the 2000s, and made the all-star team 15 times in his career, 9 of those being after the year 2000. He won the 2000 MVP award and was the star of stars for the Los Angeles Lakers.
#1 Tim Duncan
Some may argue that Tim Duncan is not a center and is a power forward, but Duncan spent the majority of his career at the center position, especially after David Robinson retired in 2003.
Duncan also beats out Shaq because Duncan’s career in the 2000s was longer and more successful, though overall historically Shaq is better. Duncan lead the Spurs to 5 NBA titles, 4 of them in the 2000s, was a two-time MVP, and was the best player on the best team for nearly two decades.
Duncan was not the greatest of scorers though, his scoring high for a season was just 25 points and he only averaged over 20 points a game in 9 of his 18 seasons, but he was so efficient and good on defense that it negated his lack of scoring.