The NBA is very much a copycat league, and more and more teams looking to get a shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy are adopting the “pace-and-space” style of play. With a greater emphasis on athleticism and versatility, the way NBA rosters are assembled is very different from even just a few years ago. Despite this change in focus regarding personnel, few teams are able to get away with having a subpar defensive center on their roster.
A good defensive center can solve a lot of problems for teams in the NBA, and a dominant defensive center can be so disruptive that opposing teams are forced to radically alter their offensive style of play. Teams that can count on an excellent rim protector are also able to be more aggressive playing perimeter defense, as wing defenders can count on their center to be an effective deterrent while operating as the last line of defense.
While there are few “traditional” big men left in the NBA today, nearly every contending team recognizes the need to have a strong defender operating as the backbone of their defense. Just because teams recognize this need does not mean that there are enough great defensive big men to go around or that teams are unwilling to try sacrificing defensive prowess for offensive output, as there have been plenty of NBA centers that have been extremely limited on the defensive end.
The 15 centers appearing on this list are among those possessing little aptitude for defense, though there are certainly some who simply did not care for the work required to succeed on the defensive end. While there have been many worthy candidates over the years, this list is limited to those who were at least good enough to warrant regular rotation minutes and made relatively frequent appearances at center in their team’s starting lineups. It should be noted, of course, that each player’s status as a defensive liability does not mean that he did not make other meaningful contributions to his team; it only means that those contributions were significantly offset by their defensive limitations.
15. Michael Olowokandi
Olowokandi had all of the raw physical gifts necessary to excel in the NBA and it was those gifts that made the center the top pick of the 1998 NBA Draft. Widely regarded as one of the biggest draft busts in history, Olowokandi was described by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as “uncoachable,” a fact that was readily apparent while watching the 7-foot center play defense early in his career.
During nine seasons in the NBA, Olowokandi only averaged more than two blocks per game in one season and never topped double-digits in rebounds per game (he finished with a career average of 6.8 rebounds per game), and his career defensive rating of 104 (defensive rating is an estimate of the points a player allows per 100 possessions) would be considered quite poor under any circumstance.
For Olowokandi, his status as a defensive liability was underscored further by his similar status as an offensive liability. It certainly doesn’t help that Olowokandi was the anchor of some historically awful defensive teams while playing for the Clippers.
14. Walt Bellamy
A Hall of Famer who was selected with the top overall pick of the 1961 NBA Draft, Bellamy quickly earned a reputation as an immensely talented player that was generally unwilling to exert much effort on the defensive end. Though Bellamy posted career averages of 20.1 points and 13.7 rebounds per game and was regarded as more than capable enough to hold his own against the best of the best in the NBA, his teammates were often openly critical of his defensive efforts.
Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a teammate of Bellamy’s while the center still played for the Knicks, summed up Bellamy’s shortcomings perfectly, saying, “If Bellamy had Willis [Reed’s] work ethic, he would have been the best center in the history of the game. But he didn’t work hard. He’d get up for Chamberlain and Russell. But then the next night, Tom Boerwinkle would get 30 on him.”
13. Mark Blount
Mark Blount will always be remembered by fans of the Boston Celtics as the classic example of a player tricking his team into a high-dollar contract with outstanding play during the tail end of a contract year. From his rookie season up until his contract season of 2003-04, Blount posted a decent defensive rating of 101, which, when combined with his second-half output during that 03-04 contract year (13.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks), made the center look like a player worthy of a six-year, $38.5-million deal. The next season, however, Blount’s production went in the tank, especially on the defensive end, where his defensive rating shot up to 108, where it essentially remained for the rest of his career.
12. Al Jefferson
Jefferson’s outstanding offensive game has more than made up for his poor defense throughout his NBA career, as post defense has been considered a glaring weakness for the Charlotte center since he first came into the league fresh out of high school. It’s certainly not for a lack of effort on Jefferson’s part, as he has improved significantly since his early days with Boston and Minnesota, but he owns a career defensive rating of 105 and is still widely regarded as something of a liability when it comes to interior defense.
11. Chris Kaman
Kaman has been a solid NBA big man throughout his 12-year career, but defense has not exactly been his calling card. The 7-footer’s strengths have always been as a pick-and-roll center who can capably step out for a mid-range jumper, and Kaman showcased these particular abilities during his lone All-Star season of 2009-10, when he averaged a career-high 18.5 points per game to go with 9.3 rebounds per game. During that season, however, it also became apparent that Kaman’s offensive output came with a price on the defensive end, as his 109 defensive rating was tied for the worst of his career.
10. Brendan Haywood
Brendan Haywood, a staple of the starting lineup for the Washington Wizards throughout his first nine seasons in the NBA, has always been limited as a defensive center. Despite his size, Haywood has only had two seasons in which he has exceeded two blocks per game and has always had difficulty staying out of foul trouble. While his offensive output has kept him in the league for a long time, his career defensive rating of 106 reflects his inability to control the paint on the defensive end.
9. Zaza Pachulia
Another center that has carved out a solid NBA career mostly due to his ability as a role player on offense, Pachulia is known for getting under the skin of opponents on defense despite owning a reputation as a poor defender. Never one to shy away from making the most of his personal fouls, Pachulia’s lack of lateral quickness makes it difficult for him to excel as a defender. Even though this is the case, Pachulia can be effective as a defensive player when used properly, as evidenced by his improved defensive play since joining the Milwaukee Bucks. In spite of these improvements, Pachulia has twice posted a defensive rating over 110 and owns a career average of 106.
8. Rony Seikaly
Rony Seikaly was an All-Star caliber center during a time when the league was loaded with talent in the pivot, keeping the Heat big man from ever earning an appearance alongside the league’s best at his position. During his time in Miami, Seikaly averaged a double-double in five out of his first six seasons, but he also earned a reputation among his Heat teammates as an unwilling and “soft” defender.
Seikaly’s reputation for being soft was so severe that his Heat teammates reportedly took to betting on which made-up malady Seikaly would employ to avoid having to guard Shaquille O’Neal. Though it seems absurd that a professional basketball player would fake an injury or an illness just to avoid a tough defensive assignment, the longtime Miami star did not suit up against Shaq in four out of the last five games he played with the Heat before being traded to Golden State.
7. Bill Cartwright
An All-Star as a rookie with the New York Knicks, Cartwright saw his mobility and production prematurely reduced due to a slew of foot fractures. At 7-1, Cartwright was an excellent offensive center for New York and his 16.8 points per game with the Knicks were enough to offset his relatively low rebounding numbers (7.1 rebounds per game as a Knick) and frequent foul trouble.
Following the 1987-88 season, Cartwright was sent to the Bulls in exchange for Charles Oakley, and while the Knicks got the more productive player in the deal, the Bulls viewed Cartwright’s size as a necessity to compete with the outstanding big men in the Eastern Conference at the time. With Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan playing outstanding perimeter defense and Horace Grant’s emergence as a strong post presence, the Bulls were able to make the most out of Cartwright’s relatively limited skill set.
Though his focus shifted to defense, Cartwright still posted a poor defensive rating of 108 while with the Bulls and, despite his size, never averaged more than one block per game in a season during his time in Chicago (Cartwright was never much of a shot blocker: In 15 NBA seasons, he only averaged more than one block per game during four). The center did, however, become known for his physical post play — particularly due to his penchant for making frequent use of his elbows — and was an integral part of the Bulls’ first three-peat as NBA champs from 1991 to 1993.
6. Joe Barry Carroll
The top overall pick of the 1980 NBA Draft and a player who was the return in a trade that ultimately sent two-thirds of the Celtics’ “Big Three” of the 1980s to Boston, Carroll’s career is almost always viewed as a disappointment simply because Golden State essentially handed Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to the Celtics. No amount of production from Carroll would have prevented that trade from being one of the most lopsided in the history of the NBA, and it is certainly not Carroll’s fault that Golden State was fleeced by Red Auerbach during a time in which the legend was still at the peak of his powers.
Carroll did end up being a very productive offensive center who retired with solid career numbers: 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game over 10 NBA seasons that included an All-Star appearance in 1987. Unfortunately, Carroll’s lack of effort on the defensive end earned him some dubious nicknames like “Just Barely Carroll,” and “Joe Barely Cares,” and his poor defensive work ethic is reflected by many of the advanced metrics: Carroll owns a career defensive rating of 107 and accumulated a total of just 23.2 defensive win shares over his decade in the NBA (for basis of comparison, Patrick Ewing posted 23 defensive win shares in just three seasons from 1991-92 to 1993-94).
5. Eddy Curry
At 7-0 and 295 pounds, Curry was never able to leverage his massive frame for rebounding purposes and, even during the best years of his disappointing career, the center was considered a defensive liability. Weight issues were always a problem for Curry and Scott Skiles, Curry’s former coach, once offered a solution to his center’s inability to rebound by suggesting that Curry needed to do one thing to become a better rebounder: “Jump.”
Curry’s best season came with the Knicks in 2006-07, when he averaged 19.5 points and seven rebounds per game while still just 24 years old, giving New York fans some hope that the young center could possibly deliver on the talent that had made him the fourth pick of the 2001 NBA Draft straight out of high school.
Despite showing some flashes of a solid offensive game while playing for some downright awful Knicks teams, Curry’s work on defense still pushed his net production into the negative on the whole. Curry ultimately posted a career defensive rating of 108 (it was 111 while playing for the Knicks), and, even though he played in parts of 11 NBA seasons, Curry only managed to post a total of 9.6 defensive win shares, a career total that Bill Russell exceeded during a single season on seven different occasions.
4. Enes Kanter
To understand just how important interior defense can be to team success, look no further than the 2014-15 Utah Jazz: With Kanter as the starting center, the Jazz were 19-34 and defensive standout Rudy Gobert was averaging just a little over 20 minutes per game. Once Kanter was traded to Oklahoma City, the Jazz finished 19-10, with Gobert getting close to 35 minutes per game as Kanter’s replacement in the starting lineup. The turnaround had as much to do with Gobert’s unique defensive abilities as it did with Kanter’s lack thereof, but the result illustrates how essential it is for teams to have a strong defensive post presence.
Kanter, a solid offensive player who still has a chance to become a much better defender, has quickly earned a reputation as a player whose offensive output does not quite offset his defensive limitations. Through four NBA seasons, Kanter’s defensive rating stands at 108 and he has averaged just over one defensive win share per season. There have been plenty of big men to struggle on the defensive end early in their careers and Kanter may improve a great deal with more time in the league. At this point in his career, however, Kanter has not yet shown the kind of defensive aptitude teams need to contend for a title.
3. Sean Rooks
During his first two seasons in the league, Rooks was the backbone of one of the worst defenses in NBA history while playing for terrible Dallas Mavericks teams in 1992-93 and 1993-94. Playing alongside Terry Davis, another big man generally lacking in athleticism, the 6-10 Rooks did not have much in the way of interior help and was therefore left exposed on the defensive end, posting a defensive rating of 114 and 110 in his first two years in the NBA.
After leaving Dallas, Rooks was able to improve his defensive output due in large part to a move to a lesser role. A starter during his time in Dallas, Rooks was much more efficient on the defensive end as a role player, but he hardly transformed into a defensive stopper just because he began coming off the bench. Rooks ultimately posted a defensive rating of 109 and racked up just 9.4 defensive win shares during a career that spanned 12 NBA seasons spent with seven different franchises.
2. Primoz Brezec
Brezec, a 7-2 center out of Slovenia, did not do much to refute the “soft” label so frequently applied to European big men, particularly on the defensive end. As the starting center for an expansion franchise, Brezec had his best seasons with the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2004-05 and 2005-06, averaging 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game over the course of those two seasons.
Though Brezec had some years as a decent offensive player with the Bobcats, his defense was particularly poor for a starting center. Brezec was never known as a strong rebounder and posted an awful career defensive rating of 109. Over the course of eight NBA seasons, Brezec’s career total of four defensive win shares were matched or exceeded by 16 players during the 2014-15 season alone.
1. Bryant Reeves
Among centers who spent the bulk of their time in the league as a starter, there are none who have been quite as bad on the defensive end as Bryant “Big Country” Reeves. The big man, whose career was cut short and his effectiveness greatly reduced due to injury, was never much of a defender even before his back began to be so troublesome that he ultimately had to retire following his age-27 season.
The advanced defensive metrics agree wholeheartedly with Reeves’ poor defensive reputation, as the former OSU big man’s career defensive rating of 109 rates as the worst all-time among centers who started a minimum of 300 games. The traditional stats tell the story just as well, as Reeves’ career averages of 6.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks per game are far short of what should be expected out of a 7-footer who averaged over 30 minutes per game during six NBA seasons.
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