At this point in NBA history, the true center has become somewhat of a lost art. The big man is no longer about just pounding the post, and dominating the paint. The current NBA game offers a need for their big man to be able to step away from the basket and create space for the driving guards and swing men. The line has even become blurry between power forward and center. In this article we will try to keep the two separate. For example: I think of Tim Duncan as a power forward rather than center in which he did play at the end of his career.
The NBA was not always this way, some of the greatest players ever have played the NBA position. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell made the dominant center the blue print to winning from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Then came the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Shaquille O’Neal to name a few. The 2000s and 2010s have offered up their share of talented big men that led to success in the league. Most recently there are promising young big bodied centers rejuvenating the position in Karl Anthony-Towns, Joel Embiid, and DeMarcus Cousins.
Maybe the decrease in value has come from how diligent teams used to be to try to find a true center to insert into the lineup, only to find incapable players. Big body or not, some players couldn’t play the position. Along came Shawn Bradley at 7-5 in 1993, only to never average more than 9 RPG in his career. Coaches may have found it easier to just come up with a new NBA plan with small ball, rather than chase the next great center.
To get more of a grasp on the recent history of the position, in this article we will count down The 8 Best and 7 Worst NBA Centers since 2000. Here we go:
15. Best – DeMarcus Cousins
The youngest player on the list, Cousins is representing the reemergence of the big man in today’s NBA. After spending one year at Kentucky, Cousins became the 5th overall pick in the 2010 NBA by the Sacramento Kings. Since entering the league Cousins is a 3x NBA All-Star and a 2x All-NBA player. The Kings’ star has also added a Olympic Gold Medal in 2016, as well as a FIBA World Championship in 2014. In the midst of his seventh season Cousins’ career numbers are 21 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 1.2 BPG.
The beginning of Cousins’ career was clouded by lack of maturity and bad Sacramento Kings teams. As his NBA skill set continues to improve so do these defaults. Cousins is currently heading to his third straight All-Star game while averaging a career high 27.9 PPG while adding 10.7 RPG.
As mentioned in the intro, the current NBA game allows centers to step away and take the occasional three point shot. Cousins fits the mold, currently attempting just under five 3 point shots per game. Cousins will make a move up the list when it is all said and done.
14. Worst – Javale McGee
Javale McGee! The Shaqtin’ A Fool star. The physical abilities are all there. A 7 foot 270 lb center with an outrageous wing span, and can jump out of the gym. It just has never come together for McGee. After a career high year in 2011-12 in which he averaged 11.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, and 2.2 BPG, McGee was rewarded by the Denver Nuggets with a 4 year 44 million dollar contract. Since the contract McGee has never averaged more than 10 PPG nor has exceeded 5 RPG. It got so bad in 2015, McGee was traded with a first round pick by the Nuggets to the tank ridden 76ers in exchange for a guy named Cenk Akyol, who has never played an NBA minute. If that wasn’t enough the 76ers would waive Javale after just 6 six games and a grand total of 18 points. The Mavericks would add McGee for the 2015-16 season where he played 34 games before again being waived.
Believe it or not, McGee is currently on the NBA Title favorite Golden State Warriors, where he averages 8.9 MPG.
13. Best – Dikembe Mutombo
By the time the 2000-2001 NBA season rolled around, Mutombo had already played nine years in the league. And while his best days were probably behind him, Mutombo was still able to add productive years and accolades to his NBA resume during the 2000’s.
Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo began the 2000-2001 season on the Atlanta Hawks, where he made the NBA All-Star game. This All-Star game can be remembered for being one of the more exciting exhibitions in which the East came back from 21 points down in the final nine minutes to win the game. After the All-Star break Mutombo would be traded to Larry Brown’s 76ers who just so happened to be the Eastern Conference All-Stars coach that season. Mutombo would add the NBA Defensive Player of the Year to his trophy case that year, en route to helping Allen Iverson guide the 76ers to the NBA Finals. For the Sixers that season Mutombo averaged 11.7 PPG, 12.4 RPG, and 2.5 BPG. While that was his best year since 2000, Mutombo would go on to be a role player with the Nets, Knicks, and Rockets through the 2008-2009 season.
12. Worst – Greg Oden
Unfair? Maybe. Oden probably isn’t one of the worst as in the skills he possessed, but ask a Trail Blazers fan if they’d put him on the list.
From being a 2x High School Player of the Year, McDonald’s All-American MVP, and an All-American in his loan season at Ohio State, Oden seemed poise for NBA super stardom. The Trail Blazers took Oden with the 1st overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft. After sitting out the entire 2007-08 season, Oden played in 61 games during the 08-09 season. During that season Oden did manage to put up 8.9 PPG and 7.0 RPG. Unfortunately that season started off with an injury on opening night, which resulted in a few weeks missed, and offered a few more injuries scattered through out the year ultimately resulting in 61 games player. That would turn out to be a career high. During December of the 2009-10 NBA season Oden would fracture his left patella, and that night would actually turn out to be his last game ever played for the Portland franchise. Oden missed three straight seasons after that, before trying a comeback with the Miami Heat in 2013-14. Oden is out of the NBA after appearing in just 105 total games.
11. Best – Al Horford
After winning back to back National Championships at Florida, the Atlanta Hawks made Al Horford the number 3 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Horford would go on to play his first nine seasons in Atlanta before moving on to the Boston Celtics for the 2016-2017 season. Horford is the definition of consistency. Including his rookie year, Horford has never averaged less than 10.1 PPG and 7 RPG. His highest totals top in at 18.6 PPG and 10.2 RPG.
Horford has been able to adapt the NBA’s new found view on the big man stretching the floor. Horford took just 64 total 3 point field goals in his first 8 seasons in the league. In 2015-2016 alone, Horford has added the shot to his game attempting 256 while shooting 34 percent.
The Dominican Republic native has appeared in 4 All-Star games, and received an All-NBA nod in 2011. After some deep playoff runs with Atlanta, Horford hopes to one day add a NBA Championship to his legacy in Boston.
10. Worst – Calvin Booth
In 10 years in the NBA, Booth was traded five times and played for seven NBA teams. Boot was the 35th pick in the 1999 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards. A defensive force coming out of Penn State, Booth was never able to translate the skills into the NBA game. Booth’s career highs include: 18.6 minutes per game, 6.2 points per game, 4.5 rebounds per game, and averaged over 1 block per game just three times in his 10 year career. From the 1999-2000 to the 2003-2004 Booth did start 79 games. But after that Booth only managed four more starts for the rest of his career, appearing in just 167 games for the last five years of his career. During that span Booth never averaged more than 2.5 points per contest, or 2.1 rebounds.
Booth didn’t come into the NBA which quite as much hype as some of the others on the list, but for a center who managed to stay in the league for ten years, Booth made more of a bad mark than good on the NBA.
9. Best – Marc Gasol
For the record, we view Marc’s brother Pau on the Best Power Forward list even though he has played center towards the ladder part of his career.
Gasol was selected with the 48th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. He ended up beginning his career in Memphis after being traded by the Lakers in a package that included bringing his brother Pau to L.A. Gasol hit the ground running in his rookie season of 2008-09 averaging 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, earning a spot on the NBA All Rookie Second Team. For his defensive dominance in 2012-13 Gasol was awarded the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Although known for his defense, Gasol has now become the focal point of the Grizzlies offense. During the current NBA season, Gasol is averaging 20.8 PPG while adding 4.1 assists. Although now 32 years old, Gasol is continuing along in his prime, adding his 3rd All-Star nod for the 2016-17 season. Gasol’s career averages of 14.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, and 3.2 APG will continue to trend upward in the future.
8. Worst – Erick Dampier
The number 10 overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, Dampier somehow managed to make just shy of 100 million dollars in his NBA career. His huge 7 year 73 million dollar contract in 2004 is probably the main reason he lands on the wrong side of this list. Dampier put up career numbers during the 2003-04 season averaging 12.3 points and 12.0 rebounds per contest. Fortunately for Dampier this was a contract year, and NBA teams were still looking to acquire dominant big men. The Dallas Mavericks gave him the new contract, and in the first year Dampier did average 9.2 PPG and 8.5 RPG. Not bad for a role player, but for a 73 million dollar man, it had to get better right? Wrong. That would prove to be his best year for the Mavs. Never eclipsing 8 points or 8 rebounds again in his career. Dampier would have brief stints in Miami and Atlanta to end his career. In Atlanta he finished his career averaging 5.5 minutes per game while adding .1 points and 1.7 rebounds.
7. Best – Yao Ming
A 7 foot 6 inch center out of Shanghai, China, Yao entered the league surrounded buy huge expectation and some doubt amongst analysts. But he delivered. Once the Houston Rockets made Yao Ming the number 1 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, Yao took control of the middle averaging 13.5 points 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game in his rookie season. His next six season were a model of consistency, averaging no less that 17.5 PPG and up to 25, while adding 8.4 RPG all the way up to 10.8. In all Yao was an 8 time All-Star (every year he was active), 5 time All-NBA, and in 2016 was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately Yao’s career was slowed and ultimately cut short due to injuries. After his longest playoff run in 2008-09, Yao was forced to miss the entire 09-10 season. The following year, he tried one last come back appearing in 5 games, which would turn out to be his last. Had his body held up Yao may have found his spot atop our list.
6. Worst – Hasheem Thabeet
One of the true busts in NBA history. Thabeet was selected with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. At 7 foot 3 and a knack for blocking shots, Thabeet seemed like a sure thing coming out of UCONN. Since then Thabeet has been traded three times and waived twice, playing his majority of basketball in the NBA Developmental League. For his career he has racked up per game averages of 10.5 minutes, 2.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, and .8 blocks.
At age 29 Thabeet is currently out of basketball altogether last playing for the Grand Rapids Drive of the D-League. Now let’s make his story even worse. Here is who was drafted AFTER Thabeet in the 2009 NBA Draft:
James Harden, Stephen Curry, Demar Derozan, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague
5. Best – Ben Wallace
An undrafted, undersized center with little to no offensive game. Yep that’s our third best center since 2000. At 6-9, what Wallace lacked in height he made up with pure strength. After making the move to the Pistons in 2000, Wallace never averaged less than 11.4 rebounds per game, adding a career best 15.4 during the 2002-03 season. Wallace’s blocks at his size are astounding, averaging 2.0 for his career and a career best 3.5 in 2001-02.
Four NBA-All Star games, 6 All-Defensive Teams, 5 All-NBA honors, and four times the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Wallace also help lead the Detroit Pistons to four straight conference finals including two straight NBA Finals, and adding an NBA Championship in 2004, where he out battled Shaquille O’Neal. Wallace would have brief stints in Chicago and Cleveland before retiring a Detroit Piston in 2012. His #3 jersey is retired and hanging in the rafters at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
4. Worst – Rafael Araujo
The Toronto Raptors made Araujo the 8th pick in the 2004 draft, after his senior season at BYU. Although Araujo stood 6 foot 11 inches 295 lbs, Araujo never seemed to fit in from the start. Seeing limited minutes for Sam Mitchell’s Raptors, his rookie year he averaged 12.5 minutes per contest, while adding 3.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, and just .1 blocks per game. His inability to defend the paint caused his minutes to drop even further in his sophomore NBA season, averaging just 11.6 minutes a contest, which also saw his points, rebounds, and every other statistical category drop.
In June of 2006, Araujo was traded to the Utah Jazz. Many, including Araujo, saw this as a chance to restart his NBA career. It just floundered more. In Utah his minutes per game dropped down to 8.9 and still never found his niche on the offensive or defensive side of the court. Following one year in Utah, Araujo saw his NBA dream come to a close, and decided to sign to play in Russia instead. Araujo’s career was over before it even started. In a game where you can’t teach size, most big men are able to float around the league and find a role. Araujo did none, lasting just three seasons in the NBA before earning his “bust” title.
3. Best – Dwight Howard
Even though his last five years have been very good averaging 15.7 PPG and 11.9 RPG, we are going to focus Howard’s dominant years in Orlando from 2004-2012. In 8 seasons in Orlando, including his rookie year of 12 PPG and 10RPG, Howard averaged 18.4 points and 13 rebounds. Despite being viewed more of a defensive specialist, Howard did have enough athleticism to lend to the offensive side. Howard eclipsed the 20 PPG mark 4 times in 5 years, and his career high for points came in a 2010-11 season in which he averaged 22.9 PPG. Howard has never finished in single digits in rebounds, and has averaged 2 blocks per game for his career, including 2.9 in 2008-09.
He made 8 straight All-Star games from 2007-2014, 8 All-NBA teams including 5 first team selections, and 5 All-Defensive teams. Howard led the league in blocks twice, and rebounds five times. To add to his trophy case, Howard has also won an Olympic Gold Medal, and a Slam Dunk Contest. The Atlanta native became a 3 time Defensive Player of the Year, second only to Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace. And in 2009 he would lead the Orlando Magic to an Eastern Conference Championship. Howard is currently playing with the Atlanta Hawks, and continues to be a top big man in the league.
2. Worst – Kwame Brown
The Washington Wizards used the number one overall pick in the draft to draft Kwame Brown straight out of high school. A 6 foot 11 inch 19 year old kid with a world full of potential that unfortunately he would never reach. Brown struggled a bit his rookie year due to lack of maturity both mentally and physically averaging just 4.5 PPG and 3.5 RPG. The Wizard were not concerned at first, seeing flashes of the skills the youngster possessed. In the following season he upped his minutes from 14 to 22 per contest, and averaged 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds. It just felt like it never got going, and sure didn’t live up to the hype of a number 1 overall pick. Brown had just one season of averaging over 10 points per game, and after his fifth season in Washington he was shipped to the Los Angles Lakers. In L.A. Brown became a role playing big man averaging just over 7 points and 6 rebounds. He continued to do the same with stops in Memphis, Detroit, Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Golden State. But the thought of spending the number 1 pick on a center who would average 6.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and under a block per game is what lands Kwame Brown the number 1 spot on this list.
1. Best – Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq’s best years may have been in the 1990s, but that didn’t stop him from dominating for most of the 2000’s. O’Neal earned his loan NBA MVP award in 2000, in a season where he also added his first NBA Championship. Shaq’s Lakers would again make it back to the NBA Finals in 2001, in a playoffs where O’Neal averaged 30.4 points and 15.4 rebounds while adding 2.4 blocks per game. The Lakers would go on to win again in 2002 to cap off a three-peat during Shaq’s best years as a Laker. He would later add another championship, this time with the Miami Heat in 2006.
Since 2000 Shaq went to nine All-Star games, won three All-Star game MVPS, eight All-NBA teams, 3 NBA All-Defensive teams, three NBA Finals MVPs, and a scoring title in 2000. For his play in the 2000’s and a few years prior Shaq has his number retired by both the Lakers and the Heat, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. He currently sits at 9th all time in career points, 15th in rebounds, and 9th in blocks.
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