While certainly not the case in today’s NBA, the center position was once the key piece in building a championship-caliber team. The Minneapolis Lakers had George Mikan. The Boston Celtics had Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain led both the San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers to NBA titles. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in league history, played a big part in six title teams. The reason the Portland Trailblazers have their lone championship is Bill Walton.
In the 1980s, however, the game began to shift a bit. Centers were still a big commodity but teams began relying more on other pieces to win. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan became the biggest stars in the league as the center position slowly started to take a backseat. However, there was one great decade left in the era of the center: the 1990s.
So let’s take a look back at the best centers of the ’90s.
- Brad Daugherty
- Vlade Divac
- Dikembe Mutombo
- Arvydas Sabonis
- Rik Smits
5. Alonzo Mourning
Just one of many great centers to come out of Georgetown, Alonzo Mourning was taken by the Charlotte Hornets with the second overall pick of the 1992 NBA draft. Playing alongside Larry Johnson, Mourning made an immediate impact in the league on both ends of the floor, averaging 21 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks his first season to earn First Team All-Rookie honors. The following season, Mourning earned the first of four consecutive NBA All-Star appearances. After three seasons in Charlotte, Mourning signed a monster deal with the Miami Heat, the team that brought him the most success of his career. Mourning closed the decade by winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1999, a feat he repeated in 2000.
4. Patrick Ewing
The top overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft, Patrick Ewing, another Georgetown alum, became the leader in just about every important statistical category in New York Knicks history during the 1990s. While Ewing never won an NBA title, he did lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1994 and won an Olympic gold medal with the Dream Team in 1992. During the ’90s, Ewing earned eight All-Star nods and was a five-time All-NBA selection, also earning All-Defensive honors in 1992.
3. David Robinson
David Robinson was the top overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft but didn’t join the San Antonio Spurs until the 1989-1990 season due to his commitments to the Navy. He won NBA Rookie of the Year in 1990, averaging 24.3 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks. The following season, he led the league in rebounding, pulling down 13 boards per game. In his third year, he led the NBA in blocks with 4.5 per game and was named the Defensive Player of the Year. He won the scoring title in 1993-1994, scoring 71 points in the Spurs’ final game of the year to clinch. He was named NBA MVP in 1995 and later became a mentor to Tim Duncan, who helped The Admiral win his first NBA championship in 1999. David Robinson also won two Olympic gold medals in the ’90s.
2. Shaquille O’Neal
While some might argue that David Robinson should be ranked ahead of Shaquille O’Neal, especially seeing as how Shaq didn’t win his four NBA titles until the 2000s, it was the 1990s where the Diesel became the most dominant force in the league. Taken by Orlando with the top pick in the ’92 draft, Shaq quickly became one of the most popular players in the league. He was always bigger than everyone else but what was surprising was his quickness. He moved so well without the ball and was also an underrated passer. Shaq also holds the distinction of being on the last team to eliminate Michael Jordan from a playoff series, the great Magic team with Penny Hardaway and Horace Grant that went to the 1995 NBA Finals. He signed with the Lakers in 1996 and went on to win three titles alongside Kobe Bryant and another in Miami with Dwyane Wade.
1. Hakeem Olajuwon
There is no question that Hakeem Olajuwon was the best NBA center of the 1990s. With an astounding blend of strength, finesse, and quickness, Olajuwon was the total package on both ends of the floor. The top pick in the famed 1984 NBA draft, Olajuwon won Defensive Player of the Year in 1993 and 1994. He also won NBA MVP in ’94, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to win DPOY and MVP in the same season. However, he did Jordan one better by also winning the NBA title that season, beating Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in the NBA Finals. The following year, Olajuwon bested Shaq and the Magic to win his second consecutive championship. “The Dream” led the league in blocks three times in the ’90s and also won the rebounding title twice.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference