NBA

Why Hakeem Olajuwon Is the GOAT — or at Least the Greatest Center

NBA fans are uniquely stuck on endlessly debating the GOAT — The Greatest of All Time — in a monomaniacal way that other sports fans can’t quite match. It’s probably because a world-changing superstar named Michael Jordan seemed to block out the sun relatively recently.

There is some irony in how close to Jordan another player with a reasonable case for GOAT status is. He even came into the league during the same 1984 draft that Jordan did. And he got picked first. Enter: Hakeem Olajuwon, who, at the very least, has a case for being the best center to ever set foot on an NBA court.

The case for Hakeem Olajuwon’s GOAT status

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Business blogger Ben Hinson tried to set an objective standard for processing NBA statistics to at least try to figure out who the GOAT NBA player is. After sharing his detailed methodology, his results were shocking: Olajuwon edged out Jordan as the best basketball player of all time. And at least in terms of Hinson’s approach, the results appear sound.

The key stats are essentially all major categories, from steals to points scored, per 36 minutes of game time. Outside of that, he weighs Effective Field Goal Percentage Per Game, Win Shares Per 36 Minutes, and the Usage Rate. All of these are weighted evenly in his final analysis, at 9.1%.

The goal is to track an individual player’s direct contributions to winning games. And Olajuwon edges out Jordan definitively. Notably, he proves to have a larger individual impact on the playoff games he appeared in than Jordan did.

Which begs the question: If Olajuwon was this good, playing at the same time as Jordan, why did he only enjoy a fraction of the public attention and fan adoration?

The case against Hakeem Olajuwon

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First off, let’s make it clear that Hinson’s analysis is backed up by Basketball Reference’s page for Olajuwon, which proves that he was a hugely underrated player.

Then, there’s the issue of how Hinson weighs each skill, which is where the analysis veers into subjectivity. A similar attempt at assessing the GOAT is laid out in Dean Oliver’s book Basketball On Paper.

Oliver’s version weighs skills very differently. Shooting accounts for 40%, turnovers for 25%, rebounding for 20%, and finally free throws for 15%. Olajuwon doesn’t come out as good by this reading of the statistics. Jordan comes out ahead, here.

And there’s a huge issue looming over all of this. Similar to the contemporaneous comparisons between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, it’s about titles. Olajuwon has two, while Jordan has six. For many fans, that’s the number that matters above all others, and Olajuwon simply doesn’t come close.

Olajuwon’s undeniable status as the greatest center of all time

So, if you have to shuffle around numbers somewhat arbitrarily to answer the GOAT question, why not stick with an easier case to make? Take Jordan’s primary efforts at shooting guard out of the equation entirely. How does Hakeem Olajuwon hold up purely among NBA centers throughout the history of the game?

Here, Olajuwon comes out looking incredible. He played on far worse teams for much of his career, and played a central role in most wins he was involved with. Defensively, he essentially carried the Houston Rockets on his back during his time there.

He almost was the Rockets during their 52-win 1992 season. Basketball Reference’s tracking on that season shows that if Olajuwon wasn’t on the floor, the team wasn’t winning.

The only knock against Olajuwon at his peak — he declined starting around the mid-’90s — is that he didn’t have pieces anywhere close to Scottie Pippen supporting him. It’s difficult to look at all of Jordan’s achievements and say he isn’t the GOAT without a great deal of equivocation. But it’s just as tough to say, with a straight face, that Hakeem Olajuwon isn’t the GOAT center of all time.