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Behind The Rankings: Why Hakeem Olajuwon is the Greatest Center in NBA History

Earlier this week. me and three other TWSN analysts ranked our top 10 greatest NBA players of all-time. I had Hakeem Olajuwon at the 3 spot on the all-time list which put him over any other big man in history.

As I predicted, the rest of them had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their top 5 and all but one (with the exception of myself) left Hakeem Olajuwon out of their top 5. One of them even snubbed him from their top 10 altogether and ranked a player like Shaquille O’Neal ahead of him, which I find absolutely blasphemous.

The reason why I am not surprised at all by the rankings made by my peers is that

  1. Kareem’s accolades look very impressive when you go on wikipedia and see what all he’s accomplished.
  2. Mainstream media has told people from a young age that Kareem is the greatest center ever and is a top 5 player ever and most people tend to just go with the flow
  3. Hakeem doesn’t carry as big of a name brand or the Laker title to his legacy as Shaq and Kareem do

I am about to give you a truckload of reasons why Hakeem’s greatness and accomplishments make him the greatest center of all-time and why the popular opinion shouldn’t be used to evaluate players as often it is backed up by very little context. With that being said, let the comparison battles begin:

1. Hakeem vs Shaq

Elaine Thompson/AP Images

We are going to start off by quickly eliminating Shaquille O’Neal from this equation. He’s much easier to eliminate in this scenario than Kareem due to the fact that he and Hakeem have played in the same era and head-to-head on the biggest stage against each other.

Shaq was the more dominant interior force due to his size and physicality, but Hakeem was the better all around player due to his ability to score from various spots and being one of the best defenders of all time due to his elite rim protection and post defense. Let us start off with the finals series in 1995 in which the two faced off in.

1 seed Orlando was favored ahead of 6 seed Houston in that series, but Hakeem had an all-time great finals series recording about 36 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals per game on 48.7 eFG%.

Although Shaq performed great in that series as well, recording 28 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 blocks on 59.5 eFG%, he had a much better supporting cast around him which allowed him to be more effective as he would have less defensive attention. With all of that being taken into factor, Hakeem not only beat him with a worse supporting cast, but swept him as well.

Moving on, let us talk about the situation and competition. Prior to getting Phil Jackson as his head coach along with another top 10 player in Kobe Bryant in LA, Shaq was not a very successful playoff performer. He was swept 5 times prior to the year 2000, which is the most in the modern era. It isn’t like he lost these series battling it out to the end. He got SWEPT 5 times in 6 years and for the majority of those years he had pretty good teams built around him.

There can be multiple reasons why this was the case. It could be that Shaq wasn’t a very good leader, he needed a great coach along with a top 10 player to succeed or the easiest of these reasons to prove, and the fact that he had to face much more dominant centers prior to the year 2000. He faced big men such as Hakeem, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and David Robinson and repeatedly got swept by them.

All of a sudden in 2000, Shaq got Phil Jackson as his head coach (along with Kobe Bryant who was already there) and went on to 3-Peat in championships. The same scenario came up in Miami where he only won with a great head coach in Pat Riley and a top 10 player in Dwyane Wade. The fact that he needed a top 10 player to win along with a great coach is blatantly obvious, as that was the scenario during all of championships.

We’ve already gone over which big men he faced prior to the year 2000. Let’s take a look at which big men he faced during each of his championship runs with the Lakers during his prime years. In 2000, he went up against 31 year old Vlade Divac, 33 year old Clifford Robinson, 35 year old Arvydas Sabonis, and 33 year old Rik Smits.

In 2001, he faced 36 year old Arvydas Sabonis, 32 year old Vlade Divac, 35 year old David Robinson, and 34 year old Dikembe Mutombo. In 2002, he faced 27 year old Rasheed Wallace, 36 year old David Robinson, 33 year old Vlade Divac, and 26 year old Todd MacCulloch. During this time, Shaq was 28, 29, and 31 which was the middle of his prime.

How convenient is it that he dominated right after all the dominant centers of the 90s either got old or retired. I haven’t even mentioned how he got outplayed by Tim Duncan in 1999 or 2003 and how he got shut down by Ben Wallace in the 2004 NBA Finals.

With all of this, we can conclude that Shaq couldn’t get the job done against truly dominant big men meanwhile Hakeem did against players like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and finally Shaq himself.

2. Hakeem vs Kareem:

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Now I find this issue much easier to debate on, but most will not even recognize the debate because they automatically assume Kareem is better just by looking at his accolades. Hakeem is the much better two-way player. He is the greatest defender of all time and although he isn’t the scorer Abdul-Jabbar is on offense, one can argue he’s just as good of an offensive player because he is a damn good scorer himself, as he draws more defensive attention (more so because he wasn’t on stacked teams like Kareem was where he wasn’t given the same opportunity to take advantage of easy matchups), and he is the much better playmaker.

Kareem’s resumé looks great. He has 6 rings, 6 MVPs, he’s the all-time leading scorer, and he has 10 first team All-NBA appearances. But too often people look at these accolades and don’t back it up with any context whatsoever. Let us start with his championships. Kareem won 6 championships during his career, but only one of them came as the clear cut driving force of his team.

It was in 1971 when him and Oscar Robertson captured the first title in Milwaukee Bucks history. Many would use this to argue “Oh, Kareem won without an all-time great coach!” Well yeah, he did and it would be kind of disappointing if he didn’t considering the competition he faced. His 66-16 first seed Bucks faced the 41 win Warriors, the 48 win Lakers without Jerry West, and the 42 win Bullets in the Finals.

Many people might have never known that the competition he faced during that title run was this bad and that it didn’t take much from him to win that title, but that goes back to my previous point about how people don’t really know the context behind Kareem’s accomplishments. In his lone title as the clear-cut driving force, his team was far superior, his competition was terrible, and he had one of the best point guards of all time as his teammates in Oscar Robertson.

Now let us get to his Laker titles. Kareem was traded to the Lakers in 1975 and didn’t win any championships until they drafted Magic Johnson in 1980 and had Pat Riley as an assistant coach (later head coach). This was the first time he had to face tougher competition in the playoffs but lucky for him he had another top 10 player of all time on his roster in Magic Johnson, a top 3 coach of all time in Pat Riley on the bench aiding him along the way, and other great players like Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, and Norm Nixon all of whom were All-Stars around that time and in their career.

His Laker teams later got even more depth by adding former MVP Bob McAdoo, Hall of Famer James Worthy, and All-Star guard Byron Scott. Hell the Lakers were so good that they won the 1980 championship without Kareem even playing in the title clinching game 6. With all of that help Kareem had combined with the fact that he faced inferior competition in his title run in Milwaukee, it’s very easy to conclude that he had a much easier time attaining success than a lot of other all-time greats and people gloss over the fact that his teams were loaded from top to bottom, and the competition he faced wasn’t on the same level him or his team was on.

During Kareem’s prime, there weren’t very many dominant centers that he had to go up against as they were either very old or had retired and even then without Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson, he missed the playoffs twice and never won a single round without either of them. Now let us quickly get past his 6 MVP awards. 4 of them came prior to the NBA/ABA merger in the early 70’s which was the easiest era of basketball especially at the center position.

Hakeem only won one MVP because the talent pool in his era was much better and tougher. He had players like MJ, Bird, and Magic dominate the MVP vote and a major factor in the MVP voting is how good a player’s regular season record is and Hakeem never had that advantage because he was always in a situation where he didn’t have a lot of help, so he couldn’t capitalize on that opportunity.

Now let us get to the competition Hakeem had to face during his championship runs. In 94 he went against the 47 win Blazers, 56 win Suns, 53 win Jazz, and the 57 win Knicks. Some notable big men he faced were Clifford Robinson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing with 3 out of the 5 being Hall of Famers and some of the best big men to ever play the game.

In 1995, he faced even tougher competition than he did in 1994. He faced the 60 win Jazz, 59 win Suns, 62 win Spurs, and 57 win Orlando Magic. He faced Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman and Shaquille O’Neal all of whom are some of the greatest big men ever, and he beat all of them.

In both of those playoff runs combined, he faced 3 all-defensive first team players in his positional match-ups. Not to mention he did all of this in 95 as a 6 seed with 47 wins and his only other consistently reliable option was Clyde Drexeler who he acquired during the middle of the season and was still productive but out of his prime.

With all of that being said, we can conclude that Hakeem Olajuwon is a better center than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because he won against tougher competition, was a much better leader, never was placed in a situation Kareem was in, and was a much better all around player due to his skills on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

Honorable Mention: Bill Russell

Before we get started on why Bill Russell didn’t make the cut, I want to let everyone know that Wilt Chamberlain shouldn’t even be in the discussion for the greatest center of all-time. Him and Russell played in the same era and although Wilt was a much more dominant scorer and interior presence, Russell was the better all around player because he did more things to help his team win.

Hell I would dive into all the analytics, but this clip of Wilt himself talking about why Russell is better than him proves my point to the fullest:

The reason I believe Bill isn’t in the conversation for greatest center of all time with Hakeem is because his era was so much different and the rules of his era made it much more easier for a big man to dominate. There was no three-point line which made spacing much less of a problem and allowed more of the points to be generated through the big man on offense as long range shots were less effective and you have a lower percentage of making them.

The defensive end rim protection and post defense (which was Russell’s bread and butter) was much more valuable because as I mentioned before, more points will be scored via the paint and so the defense in the paint will be much more important. There were also other factors such as there being less playoff rounds, less teams, situations, etc that made me determine that Russell really shouldn’t be included in this debate.

It is not a knock against his greatness, but more so because we can’t really compare two very different styles of the same game and we have to take a look at each player’s situations and the situation for big men like Russell and Chamberlain were drastically different than the situations faced by Olajuwon, Abdul-Jabbar, and O’Neal.

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