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The Top 10 Centers of All Time (*according to statistical +/-)

Posted by Neil Paine on March 4, 2009

We've done several posts on statistical +/- here at the BBR blog over the past month, and it's mainly because I don't know what to make of the metric. I suppose that deep down, I very much want it to be a good, solid linear-weights method of player rating, because there's not really any fudging involved in the original regression -- it simply asks which stats best predict adjusted +/-, which itself is a method that feels "organic" to me (increasing your team's point differential being literally the purpose of the game, after all). No guesswork, no worries over how to deal with assists, defensive rebounds, the value of shot creation, or any of the usual potholes we run into when developing one of these baseball-style metrics for a sport that doesn't really lend itself to that kind of thing.

So I like Bill Russell rating higher in SPM than something like, say, PER. At the same time, though, why is Micheal Ray Richardson rated so highly? Why does it hate poor old Kevin Duckworth so much? And before you say, "well, maybe it's just overrating guards", it also has a huge crush on David Robinson, and is harsh on Wali Jones. Most linear metrics have distinct patterns of over/under-rating player types -- some say PER overrates scorers, for instance, and we know Wins Produced overrates defensive rebounders and low-usage/high-efficiency guys. But what player type is SPM consistently missing the mark on? I don't know about you, but I can't find an easily-discernible pattern.

So I figure I'll just keep messing with it until I find an egregious problem that makes the metric unusable (a tremendous vote of confidence there, I know). Today's task is the 10 best/most valuable centers in NBA history. What I did was take the list from last week and arbitrarily set the replacement level at -5.00, which seems like the level at which you'd get sent to the Dakota Wizards (no offense, rzb0!). Since adjusted +/- (and therefore statistical +/-) measures a player's individual contribution to point differential, I can find each player's value over replacement by adding 5 to his SPM score, dividing by 48 (the # of minutes in a regulation game), and multiplying by the player's career minutes. Here's the Top 10 in alphabetical order:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1970 22 MIL NBA 82 3534 26.9 55.2 3.8 4.7 8.9 3.8 1.5 1.7 3.2 11.2 43.1 8.28
1971 23 MIL NBA 82 3288 32.2 60.6 3.4 5.0 11.3 3.5 1.7 2.2 3.3 12.1 40.1 12.39
1972 24 MIL NBA 81 3583 31.8 60.3 4.2 4.6 10.6 3.4 1.7 2.0 2.7 12.6 44.2 14.17
1973 25 MIL NBA 76 3254 28.8 58.0 4.8 4.5 10.9 3.6 1.6 1.6 2.6 12.8 42.8 12.67
1974 26 MIL NBA 81 3548 25.3 56.4 4.5 3.3 10.3 3.7 1.3 3.3 2.7 11.5 43.8 10.58
1975 27 MIL NBA 65 2747 29.0 55.0 3.9 2.9 10.7 3.7 1.0 3.2 3.1 11.6 42.3 11.02
1976 28 LAL NBA 82 3379 26.3 56.7 4.8 3.1 12.9 3.9 1.4 3.9 3.4 12.6 41.2 12.88
1977 29 LAL NBA 82 3016 29.0 60.8 4.3 3.6 11.1 3.6 1.4 3.5 3.5 12.2 36.8 14.26
1978 30 LAL NBA 62 2265 28.4 58.9 4.8 3.3 10.9 3.7 1.8 3.3 3.2 12.5 36.5 13.40
1979 31 LAL NBA 80 3157 24.1 61.2 5.5 2.6 10.4 3.6 1.0 4.0 2.9 11.9 39.5 11.17
1980 32 LAL NBA 82 3143 25.6 63.9 4.7 2.4 8.8 3.7 1.0 3.5 2.7 11.0 38.3 9.48
1981 33 LAL NBA 80 2976 27.9 61.6 3.6 2.6 8.3 3.3 0.8 3.0 3.3 10.3 37.2 8.53
1982 34 LAL NBA 76 2677 26.6 60.8 3.3 2.5 7.1 3.4 0.9 3.0 3.3 9.4 35.2 6.77
1983 35 LAL NBA 79 2554 26.8 61.9 3.1 2.6 6.6 3.1 0.9 2.6 3.4 9.2 32.3 6.11
1984 36 LAL NBA 80 2622 25.6 60.8 3.1 2.5 6.2 3.3 0.8 2.1 3.1 8.9 32.8 3.85
1985 37 LAL NBA 79 2630 26.1 62.8 3.7 2.4 6.9 3.0 0.9 2.4 3.6 9.7 33.3 7.45
1986 38 LAL NBA 79 2629 27.9 60.3 4.2 2.0 5.2 3.1 1.0 2.0 3.8 9.5 33.3 7.55
1987 39 LAL NBA 78 2441 22.2 59.7 3.3 2.5 6.0 3.0 0.8 1.6 4.0 8.5 31.3 1.80
1988 40 LAL NBA 80 2308 20.3 57.0 2.4 2.1 6.3 2.8 0.8 1.6 3.8 7.4 28.9 -0.90
1989 41 LAL NBA 74 1695 17.7 51.1 1.8 2.4 5.5 2.3 0.9 2.0 4.6 6.3 22.9 -2.89

Walt Bellamy

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1962 22 CHP NBA 79 3344 30.5 55.4 2.6 7.4 10.9 4.6 1.2 2.5 3.4 11.3 42.3 9.87
1963 23 CHZ NBA 80 3306 28.3 57.1 3.0 6.2 10.4 4.8 1.0 2.3 3.6 11.2 41.3 8.42
1964 24 BAL NBA 80 3394 25.3 55.5 1.5 5.8 10.2 4.4 1.0 2.1 3.5 8.4 42.4 4.74
1965 25 BAL NBA 80 3301 24.1 55.9 2.3 5.2 9.0 4.1 1.0 2.1 3.2 9.3 41.3 5.12
1966 26 TOT NBA 80 3352 22.0 54.3 2.8 5.8 9.4 3.9 1.1 2.1 3.5 9.8 42.1 5.08
1967 27 NYK NBA 79 3010 20.3 56.0 2.8 5.2 9.2 3.8 1.1 2.0 3.7 9.3 38.1 4.47
1968 28 NYK NBA 82 2695 20.8 58.3 2.5 5.4 9.2 3.5 1.2 2.1 3.9 9.1 32.9 5.25
1969 29 TOT NBA 88 3159 19.6 55.5 2.3 4.9 9.2 3.1 1.4 1.7 4.1 8.5 36.1 3.42
1970 30 TOT NBA 79 2028 18.7 54.9 2.9 5.1 9.3 3.3 1.4 1.7 5.3 9.0 27.8 2.08
1971 31 ATL NBA 82 2908 16.2 53.5 3.1 4.4 9.9 3.3 1.3 2.0 3.7 9.0 35.5 2.83
1972 32 ATL NBA 82 3187 19.3 56.7 3.3 4.3 9.0 2.8 1.4 1.5 3.2 9.5 38.9 4.94
1973 33 ATL NBA 74 2802 16.6 52.7 2.5 4.5 8.9 2.8 1.2 1.5 3.4 8.2 37.9 1.85
1974 34 ATL NBA 77 2440 16.1 52.1 3.0 4.2 7.6 3.1 0.8 0.8 3.7 8.3 31.7 0.54
1975 35 NOJ NBA 1 14 16.4 104.2 0.0 0.0 13.6 0.0 0.0 0.0 5.5 0.0 14.0 -8.02

Wilt Chamberlain

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1960 23 PHW NBA 72 3338 31.2 49.3 1.9 8.8 13.6 4.6 1.2 2.8 1.7 11.1 46.4 8.91
1961 24 PHW NBA 79 3773 31.5 51.9 1.5 9.0 13.3 4.3 1.3 3.2 1.4 10.3 47.8 8.08
1962 25 PHW NBA 80 3882 40.2 53.6 1.9 8.7 11.8 4.8 1.3 2.7 1.2 11.6 48.5 15.18
1963 26 SFW NBA 80 3806 36.9 55.0 2.8 8.0 12.0 4.7 1.3 2.4 1.4 12.8 47.6 15.46
1964 27 SFW NBA 80 3689 32.7 53.7 4.5 7.5 12.3 5.1 1.5 2.4 2.0 14.2 46.1 16.13
1965 28 TOT NBA 73 3301 30.2 51.3 3.0 7.9 12.0 4.6 1.3 2.4 1.7 12.1 45.2 12.23
1966 29 PHI NBA 79 3737 28.2 54.7 4.4 7.8 12.9 4.5 1.4 2.7 1.8 13.7 47.3 13.15
1967 30 PHI NBA 81 3682 21.3 63.7 6.9 7.4 13.9 4.3 1.4 3.1 1.6 14.6 45.5 15.08
1968 31 PHI NBA 82 3836 20.4 55.7 7.2 7.5 12.5 4.6 1.5 3.0 1.6 14.3 46.8 13.04
1969 32 LAL NBA 81 3669 18.9 56.4 4.2 6.7 12.7 3.4 1.4 2.9 1.6 11.5 45.3 8.51
1970 33 LAL NBA 12 505 26.8 55.4 4.0 6.8 11.3 3.6 1.6 1.9 2.5 12.5 42.1 11.19
1971 34 LAL NBA 82 3630 18.5 55.8 3.8 4.8 11.5 2.7 1.6 2.3 1.9 10.5 44.3 6.78
1972 35 LAL NBA 82 3469 13.4 61.0 3.6 5.2 12.2 2.3 1.4 2.6 2.2 9.5 42.3 7.88
1973 36 LAL NBA 82 3542 12.1 68.9 4.1 4.8 12.3 2.4 1.2 2.3 2.1 9.4 43.2 9.37

Artis Gilmore

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1972 23 KEN ABA 84 3666 22.0 62.0 2.5 4.6 11.8 3.7 1.6 4.5 3.1 9.7 43.6 7.41
1973 24 KEN ABA 84 3502 20.2 58.9 3.4 5.2 11.9 3.3 1.4 3.4 3.5 10.6 41.7 7.12
1974 25 KEN ABA 84 3518 17.7 53.1 3.7 5.4 12.0 3.6 0.6 3.2 3.4 10.4 41.9 6.28
1975 26 KEN ABA 84 3493 22.8 61.5 2.4 4.9 10.8 4.0 0.7 3.0 3.7 9.5 41.6 6.26
1976 27 KEN ABA 84 3286 25.4 59.5 2.6 4.9 11.1 3.6 0.7 2.5 4.2 10.2 39.1 7.38
1977 28 CHI NBA 82 2877 22.6 56.6 2.9 4.6 11.2 3.4 0.7 3.0 3.9 10.2 35.1 7.04
1978 29 CHI NBA 82 3067 25.8 60.4 3.6 4.4 10.3 5.0 0.6 2.5 3.6 11.1 37.4 5.67
1979 30 CHI NBA 82 3265 24.4 61.9 3.5 3.7 9.4 3.9 0.6 2.0 3.5 10.3 39.8 6.84
1980 31 CHI NBA 48 1568 22.1 64.3 3.4 2.8 8.4 3.4 0.7 1.5 4.3 9.5 32.7 5.12
1981 32 CHI NBA 82 2832 21.0 69.9 2.5 3.1 8.7 3.4 0.7 2.8 4.2 8.5 34.5 6.29
1982 33 CHI NBA 82 2796 22.1 70.2 2.0 3.3 8.9 3.3 0.7 3.2 4.2 8.1 34.1 6.51
1983 34 SAS NBA 82 2797 21.1 66.8 1.8 4.3 9.8 3.6 0.6 2.7 3.9 8.1 34.1 2.83
1984 35 SAS NBA 64 2034 18.4 67.5 1.3 4.0 8.4 2.8 0.7 2.5 4.3 6.7 31.8 2.38
1985 36 SAS NBA 81 2756 22.1 68.0 1.9 3.3 8.8 3.4 0.6 2.5 4.4 7.9 34.0 3.25
1986 37 SAS NBA 71 2395 19.4 66.1 1.7 2.7 7.1 3.1 0.6 1.8 3.9 6.8 33.7 1.47
1987 38 SAS NBA 82 2405 15.4 63.4 2.5 3.0 6.5 2.9 0.6 1.6 3.9 7.1 29.3 0.00
1988 39 TOT NBA 71 893 12.2 55.8 1.0 3.2 6.5 3.1 0.7 1.4 6.8 4.8 12.9 -7.03

Dan Issel

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1971 22 KEN ABA 83 3274 29.8 54.8 1.9 5.1 8.1 2.7 2.0 1.9 3.9 9.1 39.4 6.18
1972 23 KEN ABA 83 3570 28.6 54.4 2.2 4.0 6.5 2.8 1.8 1.1 2.7 8.7 43.0 4.78
1973 24 KEN ABA 84 3531 26.3 56.3 2.5 3.8 6.8 2.5 1.5 1.3 2.9 8.9 42.0 4.94
1974 25 KEN ABA 83 3347 25.1 53.4 1.6 4.1 5.9 2.0 0.8 0.4 2.4 7.4 40.3 2.89
1975 26 KEN ABA 83 2864 20.6 50.7 2.6 3.6 6.4 2.2 1.1 0.7 2.8 8.2 34.5 1.61
1976 27 DNA ABA 84 2856 26.0 56.7 2.7 4.1 8.3 2.7 1.3 0.8 3.6 9.6 34.0 3.77
1977 28 DEN NBA 79 2507 27.0 57.8 2.7 3.2 7.4 3.8 1.4 0.4 3.8 9.2 31.7 3.83
1978 29 DEN NBA 82 2851 24.1 57.1 4.2 3.5 8.0 3.6 1.4 0.6 3.9 10.5 34.8 4.70
1979 30 DEN NBA 81 2742 20.1 56.8 3.7 3.5 7.3 2.5 0.9 0.7 3.4 9.3 33.9 2.99
1980 31 DEN NBA 82 2938 26.3 57.1 2.7 3.2 6.5 2.2 1.2 0.7 2.6 8.8 35.8 4.87
1981 32 DEN NBA 80 2641 24.6 57.5 2.2 3.2 6.3 1.8 1.2 0.7 3.5 8.0 33.0 4.81
1982 33 DEN NBA 81 2472 27.5 60.8 2.7 2.6 6.5 2.5 1.0 0.8 3.6 8.7 30.5 4.23
1983 34 DEN NBA 80 2431 26.1 57.3 3.4 2.3 6.7 2.6 1.3 0.7 3.4 9.3 30.4 3.29
1984 35 DEN NBA 76 2076 26.6 56.1 3.1 2.0 7.1 2.2 1.1 0.8 3.2 9.0 27.3 1.82
1985 36 DEN NBA 77 1684 22.2 52.8 3.1 1.8 5.7 2.1 1.5 0.7 3.9 8.0 21.9 -0.43

Bob Lanier

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1971 22 DET NBA 82 2017 26.3 50.3 3.0 4.7 8.9 3.6 1.8 1.6 5.6 10.2 24.6 4.08
1972 23 DET NBA 80 3092 26.3 53.8 3.2 4.7 9.8 3.6 1.6 1.7 3.8 10.7 38.7 6.03
1973 24 DET NBA 81 3150 24.5 52.7 3.3 5.3 10.0 3.4 1.6 1.5 3.5 10.8 38.9 5.71
1974 25 DET NBA 81 3047 24.2 54.8 4.6 3.6 10.7 4.0 1.5 3.3 3.6 11.6 37.6 10.41
1975 26 DET NBA 76 2987 25.4 55.9 4.9 3.1 9.6 3.7 1.0 2.4 3.3 11.6 39.3 9.15
1976 27 DET NBA 64 2363 23.2 57.9 3.7 3.7 9.0 3.3 1.3 1.5 3.4 10.3 36.9 8.32
1977 28 DET NBA 64 2446 25.9 57.3 3.4 3.2 8.7 3.2 1.1 2.0 2.8 10.2 38.2 7.71
1978 29 DET NBA 63 2311 26.5 58.0 3.7 3.4 8.9 3.9 1.4 1.6 3.2 10.6 36.7 7.57
1979 30 DET NBA 53 1835 27.0 56.4 3.0 3.5 7.1 3.8 1.1 1.6 3.9 9.5 34.6 5.25
1980 31 TOT NBA 63 2131 22.2 59.1 3.4 2.8 7.3 3.0 1.4 1.6 3.7 9.1 34.4 5.20
1981 32 MIL NBA 67 1753 21.5 57.3 4.0 2.9 6.4 3.1 1.6 1.8 4.1 9.3 26.2 4.70
1982 33 MIL NBA 74 1986 20.2 59.6 4.4 1.9 6.0 3.4 1.5 1.1 4.3 8.9 26.8 2.42
1983 34 MIL NBA 39 978 17.6 53.4 4.4 2.4 6.0 3.5 1.4 1.0 5.3 8.7 25.1 0.82
1984 35 MIL NBA 72 2007 20.4 60.7 3.9 2.9 6.5 3.4 1.2 1.1 4.8 9.1 27.9 2.82

Hakeem Olajuwon

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1985 22 HOU NBA 82 2914 23.2 56.4 1.5 6.0 7.3 3.2 1.4 3.0 4.7 7.8 35.5 4.82
1986 23 HOU NBA 68 2467 25.6 56.0 2.2 5.3 7.2 3.1 2.1 3.7 4.3 8.9 36.3 9.12
1987 24 HOU NBA 75 2760 25.7 55.4 3.2 4.6 7.9 3.3 2.0 3.7 4.3 10.1 36.8 10.57
1988 25 HOU NBA 79 2825 25.0 55.5 2.3 4.2 9.1 3.4 2.2 3.0 4.5 9.1 35.8 7.86
1989 26 HOU NBA 82 3024 26.6 55.2 1.9 4.4 10.0 3.6 2.8 3.7 4.3 9.1 36.9 9.73
1990 27 HOU NBA 82 3124 24.8 54.1 2.9 3.7 10.6 3.9 2.2 4.7 3.9 10.1 38.1 9.17
1991 28 HOU NBA 56 2062 22.9 54.9 2.5 4.2 10.6 3.4 2.3 4.3 4.3 9.5 36.8 9.27
1992 29 HOU NBA 70 2636 23.3 55.3 2.4 3.8 9.2 2.9 2.0 4.7 4.1 9.0 37.7 9.22
1993 30 HOU NBA 82 3242 27.1 57.7 3.7 3.6 9.9 3.3 1.9 4.3 3.9 11.0 39.5 12.53
1994 31 HOU NBA 80 3277 26.7 56.5 3.5 2.8 8.9 3.3 1.6 3.6 3.5 10.3 41.0 9.95
1995 32 HOU NBA 72 2853 27.7 56.3 3.5 2.4 8.3 3.3 1.8 3.3 3.5 10.2 39.6 8.99
1996 33 HOU NBA 72 2797 27.3 55.8 3.6 2.5 8.6 3.5 1.6 2.9 3.4 10.3 38.8 7.40
1997 34 HOU NBA 78 2852 25.0 55.8 3.3 2.4 7.5 3.9 1.6 2.4 3.4 9.3 36.6 4.51
1998 35 HOU NBA 47 1633 18.8 53.1 3.5 2.8 8.4 3.1 2.0 2.3 3.7 9.0 34.7 4.80
1999 36 HOU NBA 50 1784 21.2 55.9 2.0 2.4 8.3 3.1 1.8 2.8 3.6 7.7 35.7 4.35
2000 37 HOU NBA 44 1049 17.1 48.4 2.3 2.4 7.9 2.8 1.5 2.6 3.3 7.4 23.8 -0.50
2001 38 HOU NBA 58 1545 18.0 52.6 1.9 3.2 8.0 2.1 1.8 2.3 3.7 7.3 26.6 2.81
2002 39 TOR NBA 61 1378 12.9 47.8 2.0 2.9 7.9 2.9 2.2 2.7 4.4 6.5 22.6 -0.61

Shaquille O'Neal

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1993 20 ORL NBA 81 3071 24.8 58.4 2.0 4.5 10.2 4.0 0.8 3.7 4.2 9.0 37.9 5.33
1994 21 ORL NBA 81 3224 29.5 60.5 2.4 4.8 8.5 2.8 0.9 2.9 3.5 9.8 39.8 10.51
1995 22 ORL NBA 79 2923 30.9 58.8 2.9 4.4 7.7 2.7 1.0 2.6 3.4 10.2 37.0 10.53
1996 23 ORL NBA 54 1946 29.5 57.0 3.2 3.7 8.5 3.2 0.7 2.4 4.0 10.5 36.0 7.54
1997 24 LAL NBA 51 1941 27.2 55.6 3.2 4.0 9.1 3.0 0.9 3.0 3.7 10.5 38.1 9.33
1998 25 LAL NBA 60 2175 30.2 58.7 2.5 3.7 8.4 3.1 0.7 2.6 3.4 9.7 36.3 8.20
1999 26 LAL NBA 49 1705 29.3 58.4 2.6 4.3 7.7 2.8 0.8 1.9 3.5 9.7 34.8 9.14
2000 27 LAL NBA 79 3163 29.6 57.8 3.8 4.2 9.4 2.8 0.5 3.0 3.2 11.5 40.0 12.28
2001 28 LAL NBA 74 2924 28.9 57.4 3.8 4.0 8.8 3.0 0.6 2.8 3.5 11.2 39.5 11.23
2002 29 LAL NBA 67 2423 29.6 59.0 3.3 3.8 7.8 2.8 0.7 2.2 3.2 10.4 36.2 10.04
2003 30 LAL NBA 67 2535 28.6 60.2 3.2 4.0 7.5 3.0 0.6 2.5 3.6 10.2 37.8 8.89
2004 31 LAL NBA 67 2464 22.8 57.8 3.1 3.9 8.3 3.1 0.5 2.6 3.6 9.5 36.8 6.79
2005 32 MIA NBA 73 2492 26.8 58.3 3.2 4.1 8.2 3.3 0.6 2.7 4.2 10.2 34.1 8.99
2006 33 MIA NBA 59 1806 25.9 58.6 2.5 3.8 8.1 3.7 0.5 2.3 5.0 9.1 30.6 4.71
2007 34 MIA NBA 40 1135 24.9 56.7 2.8 3.5 7.2 3.4 0.3 2.0 5.0 9.1 28.4 3.83
2008 35 TOT NBA 61 1748 18.9 58.8 2.1 3.8 8.7 4.1 0.7 2.0 5.2 7.9 28.7 -1.00
2009 36 PHO NBA 52 1576 23.0 62.8 2.1 2.9 8.3 2.9 0.5 1.9 4.4 8.1 30.3 3.43

David Robinson

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1990 24 SAS NBA 82 3002 26.5 59.7 2.2 4.0 9.0 3.4 1.8 4.2 3.4 9.1 36.6 10.05
1991 25 SAS NBA 82 3095 26.9 61.5 2.7 4.3 9.3 3.5 1.6 4.1 3.4 9.9 37.7 12.01
1992 26 SAS NBA 68 2564 24.7 59.7 2.8 4.1 8.9 2.9 2.5 4.8 3.4 9.7 37.7 14.78
1993 27 SAS NBA 82 3211 24.2 56.9 3.8 2.9 9.2 3.0 1.6 3.3 3.0 10.4 39.2 10.47
1994 28 SAS NBA 80 3241 31.0 57.7 5.0 3.1 8.0 3.3 1.8 3.5 3.0 12.0 40.5 17.77
1995 29 SAS NBA 81 3074 28.6 60.2 3.0 3.0 8.2 3.0 1.7 3.3 2.9 9.9 38.0 12.94
1996 30 SAS NBA 82 3019 26.7 58.9 3.2 4.2 8.9 2.5 1.4 3.5 3.4 10.4 36.8 13.63
1997 31 SAS NBA 6 147 29.8 55.9 2.2 5.3 9.0 2.2 1.7 1.7 2.5 9.9 24.5 10.28
1998 32 SAS NBA 73 2457 26.2 58.1 3.3 4.0 8.9 3.4 1.1 3.2 3.4 10.4 33.7 11.11
1999 33 SAS NBA 49 1554 20.0 56.4 2.7 3.8 8.9 2.8 1.8 3.1 3.7 8.8 31.7 9.28
2000 34 SAS NBA 80 2557 22.9 56.8 2.3 3.1 9.3 2.6 1.6 2.9 4.0 8.6 32.0 7.54
2001 35 SAS NBA 80 2371 19.8 55.9 2.0 3.6 8.3 2.1 1.4 3.4 3.6 7.8 29.6 7.04
2002 36 SAS NBA 78 2303 16.6 56.2 1.6 3.3 8.0 1.8 1.5 2.4 3.4 6.8 29.5 4.52
2003 37 SAS NBA 64 1677 13.2 53.1 1.5 3.9 8.3 2.0 1.3 2.7 3.0 6.2 26.2 1.61

Bill Russell

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1957 22 BOS NBA 48 1695 15.8 45.0 2.0 7.5 13.6 3.3 1.1 2.6 3.2 8.7 35.3 2.55
1958 23 BOS NBA 69 2640 16.8 46.5 3.0 8.2 14.9 3.6 1.1 2.9 2.7 10.5 38.3 5.39
1959 24 BOS NBA 70 2979 14.7 49.3 2.8 6.9 13.4 3.0 1.0 2.6 2.0 9.4 42.6 6.04
1960 25 BOS NBA 74 3146 16.1 49.6 3.3 7.3 14.0 3.2 1.1 2.7 2.5 10.4 42.5 6.72
1961 26 BOS NBA 78 3458 14.8 45.4 3.0 7.3 13.6 3.0 1.2 2.6 1.7 9.7 44.3 4.50
1962 27 BOS NBA 76 3433 16.4 48.9 3.9 7.2 13.2 3.3 1.2 2.7 2.4 10.9 45.2 7.22
1963 28 BOS NBA 78 3500 14.3 46.4 3.8 7.2 13.0 3.2 1.1 2.6 2.1 10.3 44.9 5.74
1964 29 BOS NBA 78 3482 12.8 46.1 4.1 7.2 13.9 3.1 1.2 2.4 2.1 10.3 44.6 6.47
1965 30 BOS NBA 78 3466 12.3 47.2 4.6 7.1 13.8 3.2 1.2 2.4 2.3 10.5 44.4 7.36
1966 31 BOS NBA 78 3386 11.9 44.8 4.4 7.3 13.8 3.3 1.2 2.6 2.6 10.3 43.4 5.27
1967 32 BOS NBA 81 3297 13.1 50.0 5.8 7.0 13.8 3.8 1.2 2.6 3.2 11.6 40.7 7.26
1968 33 BOS NBA 78 2953 13.1 46.1 4.8 6.8 12.7 3.8 1.1 2.4 3.3 10.7 37.9 4.80
1969 34 BOS NBA 77 3291 9.3 46.7 4.6 5.7 12.3 2.6 1.4 2.1 2.8 9.1 42.7 4.96

Just missed the cut: Patrick Ewing, Wes Unseld, Moses Malone, Jack Sikma, Vlade Divac

Over/under-valued: First off, every ABA player is overrated by this system because it's primarily a measure against one's peers, and the ABA's best players happened to be much better than the league than they would have been had they played NBA ball (particularly in the renegade Association's early days). So that explains Gilmore and especially Issel's presence in the Top 10... Take away their dominant ABA campaigns, and they don't crack the list.

Still, that's not a systemic problem with SPM, but rather an indictment of any method that gives equal weight to ABA and NBA numbers. By contrast, an example of systemic bias is probably the metric's consistent undervaluing of Moses Malone's contributions:

Year Ag Tm Lg G MP P/40 TS% AS/40 OR/40 DR/40 TO/40 ST/40 BK/40 PF/40 V.I. MPG SPM
1975 19 UTS ABA 83 3205 20.4 60.1 1.1 6.0 9.9 4.2 1.1 1.7 3.8 7.0 38.6 0.42
1976 20 SSL ABA 43 1168 21.3 53.8 2.0 6.8 7.5 4.9 0.9 1.0 3.9 8.5 27.2 -4.55
1977 21 TOT NBA 82 2506 18.2 54.0 1.5 7.3 10.7 3.4 1.1 3.0 4.6 7.9 31.2 3.30
1978 22 HOU NBA 59 2107 22.9 55.9 0.6 7.6 10.1 4.4 1.0 1.5 3.6 6.3 35.7 -3.99
1979 23 HOU NBA 82 3390 24.4 60.4 1.8 7.1 10.3 3.9 0.9 1.4 2.7 9.1 41.3 3.61
1980 24 HOU NBA 82 3140 27.5 56.0 1.9 7.4 8.0 3.9 1.0 1.4 2.7 9.3 38.3 4.00
1981 25 HOU NBA 80 3245 27.7 58.5 1.8 5.9 8.8 3.8 1.0 1.9 2.8 9.0 40.6 5.23
1982 26 HOU NBA 81 3398 30.8 57.6 1.7 6.8 7.7 3.6 0.9 1.5 2.5 9.2 42.0 6.33
1983 27 PHI NBA 78 2922 26.2 57.8 1.4 6.1 10.3 3.6 1.2 2.2 2.8 8.4 37.5 4.10
1984 28 PHI NBA 71 2613 25.1 56.6 1.5 5.5 9.3 3.9 1.1 1.7 2.9 8.2 36.8 0.94
1985 29 PHI NBA 79 2957 26.6 57.7 1.8 5.3 8.9 3.9 0.9 1.7 3.0 8.7 37.4 2.66
1986 30 PHI NBA 74 2706 26.4 55.3 1.4 5.1 8.0 3.9 1.0 1.1 2.9 7.8 36.6 -0.20
1987 31 WSB NBA 73 2488 28.5 54.5 1.9 5.5 7.8 3.3 1.0 1.5 2.2 9.0 34.1 4.03
1988 32 WSB NBA 79 2692 24.2 57.7 1.7 5.6 7.7 3.8 0.9 1.1 2.4 8.2 34.1 1.15
1989 33 ATL NBA 81 2878 23.3 58.1 1.6 5.5 8.1 3.5 1.1 1.4 2.2 8.0 35.5 0.51
1990 34 ATL NBA 81 2735 22.9 56.4 2.0 5.5 6.7 3.5 0.7 1.3 2.4 8.2 33.8 0.26
1991 35 ATL NBA 82 1912 18.0 57.0 1.4 5.6 8.2 2.8 0.6 1.5 2.8 7.1 23.3 -2.68
1992 36 MIL NBA 82 2511 20.6 55.6 1.5 5.2 6.8 2.4 1.2 1.0 2.2 7.2 30.6 -0.33
1993 37 MIL NBA 11 104 19.4 44.9 2.7 8.5 9.3 3.9 0.4 3.1 2.3 9.8 9.5 -3.02
1994 38 PHI NBA 55 618 18.9 51.9 2.2 6.8 7.7 3.8 0.7 1.1 3.3 8.4 11.2 -4.55
1995 39 SAS NBA 17 149 12.9 49.9 1.6 5.3 6.9 2.9 0.5 0.8 4.0 6.3 8.8 -5.63

Moses still rates as "above-average" on the whole, but every basketball fan of the 80s will tell you that Malone was much better than that -- he was a dominant force in his prime.

Bob Lanier and Walt Bellamy don't show up in a lot of "best centers" lists, but I kind of like them here, if not simply to throw some well-deserved props their way. Mikan didn't play enough to rank here (the NBA didn't track minutes played until 1952), and ditto Bill Walton, whose injuries marred his potential. Robert Parish, Dikembe Mutombo, Bob McAdoo, Nate Thurmond, Dave Cowens, Willis Reed... these are all names who enter the discussion, naturally -- but if you kick Issel out on the basis of his "ill-gotten" ABA numbers, I'm not particularly disgruntled with an all-time top 10 list of Kareem, Wilt, Hakeem, The Admiral, Shaq, The A-Train, Russell, Bellamy, Lanier, & Ewing. You could certainly do worse.

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23 Responses to “The Top 10 Centers of All Time (*according to statistical +/-)”

  1. Fred Says:

    If I understand well, David Robinson's 1994 season, with an SPR of 17,7, is the best ever by a center? He was my favorite player, and I am really happy to see that!

  2. Eddy Says:

    Looks like the tag of best center, according to statistical +/- is between Kareem, Wilt and David Robinson. For the longest time, I've always thought of Wilt as the best big man ever .. but I've begun to buy into the argument, a bit, of the idea that Wilt feasted on inferior competition, (that's a fact) while players like Kareem & David Robinson had stiffer competition themselves. In this case, it seems as though one could then surmise that either Kareem or David Robinson would battle for the ultimate honor of best center under this metric.

  3. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Eddy, the competition was inferior, but by that argument, modern players will always have to be ranked at the top. In 50 years David Robinson or whoever will have to be ranked below the players of 2059 because the athletes will be that much better. That's not necessarily a useful way of ranking players across time, because players will always be getting better. (But also note that Wilt was in a much smaller league, so whatever talent there was was more concentrated.)

    I had been thinking about center rankings lately. I had something like this in mind:

    Tier I: Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar
    Tier II: Olajuwon, Malone, O'Neal, Robinson
    Tier III: Ewing

    A lot of guys I haven't seen/heard about/studied enough yet to really classify. I suppose another few guys could go in Tier II. And obviously a bunch more in Tier III.

    Walton is hard to classify. It sounds like he might have been as good as anyone ever when he was healthy, but he was hardly ever healthy.

    I never thought Robinson was so spectacular, but some of these modern stats push me to put him in that 2nd tier.

    Not sure why Duncan is usually considered a forward instead of a center. He'd be a Tier II guy.

  4. Eddy Says:

    You make a valid point, Johnny. I'm merely trying to differentiate between Wilt & Kareem/David Robinson simply for comparisons sake. In any case, they're all phenomenal talents. Can't go wrong with any of them.

  5. wordbfree Says:

    Minute Bowl...'nuff said!

    And also, Wilt's 100, 20,000 women, Conan the Barbarian and Pro volleyball put him that much above the rest. Props to Kareem for total points/longevity and Airplane cameo.

  6. Ryan Says:

    Players simply get better? Sorry, I don't see any centers near Hakeem, Robinson, Ewing, or Shaq (prime) these days. And the competition today's top bigs have to face? Yeah, let's not even go there. Physically and athletically, in comparative terms, Dwight is basically a mini-Wilt in this era.

    Great study, Neil.

  7. Jason J Says:

    I'm sorry if this is someplace obvious and I'm just missing it, but what exactly is the formula for statistical plus / minus?

  8. Neil Paine Says:

    Jason J: Sorry, I forgot to link to the original article on SPM. It's in this paper:

    http://www.82games.com/comm30.htm

    Scroll down to "Table 2: OLS Estimates..." and you'll find the coefficients. Then I force the weighted sum of each team's players' raw SPM to equal the team's efficiency differential (ORtg - DRtg).

  9. lin Says:

    Derrick Rose, the Bulls’ #1 Draft Pick Rookie, wins the 2009 Playstation Skill Challenge with a double-pump reverse dunk. The 35.3 seconds he set is enough to bring him the title.

  10. MCT Says:

    Thoughts on a couple of these players –

    Dan Issel:

    If you’re inclined to discount ABA statistics, Issel is one of your poster children. He put up much bigger numbers in the ABA than he did in the NBA. Further, his biggest ABA numbers came in his first couple of seasons, when the level of competition in the ABA was likely not as close to the NBA as it would be in later years. Another reason to discount Issel is that, IINM, he actually played power forward for the Colonels after Artis Gilmore joined the team. So of his six ABA seasons, I believe that only the first and last were spent primarily at center. On the other hand, Issel had a nice run later on in the NBA, too. According to the chart above, Issel had three seasons in the NBA where his SPM was comparable to all of his best ABA seasons except his first.

    When Issel retired in 1985, he was fourth all-time in combined NBA/ABA scoring, behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. Think about that for a minute – you could probably win a few bets with that question. Even today, he still ranks seventh. Issel actually came very close to occupying third place on the above list. Heading into the 1984-85 season, Issel ranked fifth, but was within striking distance of the players in third (Elvin Hayes) and fourth (Oscar Robertson). At that point, Issel was actually ahead of Erving, who was in seventh (John Havlicek was sixth). Erving was only 378 points behind Issel, however, and at that point in their careers Erving was scoring at a much faster clip than Issel was. Issel managed to pass Roberston to move into fourth, but Erving overtook Issel before the latter could reach Hayes, bumping Issel back to fifth. Erving and Issel both passed Hayes later in the season, finishing the year in third and fourth, respectively. At both the point where Erving caught him and at the end of the season, Issel was only about 200 points out of third place.

    The Dr. J connection is interesting because Issel’s career largely paralleled that of Erving. Given a one-year head start over Dr. J, otherwise playing in the same leagues in the same seasons, Issel managed to stay ahead of Erving for almost his entire career. Yet I suspect that a lot of younger casual fans today have never even heard of Issel.

    Walt Bellamy:

    When Bellamy retired in 1974, he was third on the NBA’s all-time career rebound list, and sixth in scoring. Some today view him as a player who was unfairly overshadowed by Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, having had the misfortune to play in an era of great centers.

    I can’t speak from personal knowledge, as Bellamy’s career was a little before my time, but my sense is that Bellamy was historically seen as a player who put up big numbers but wasn’t as valuable as his stats would suggest. I think this is the main reason he has always been “underrated”. Bellamy was a vagabond who drafted from team to team, playing mostly for weak teams, never coming close to winning a championship. He put up his biggest stats early in his career, playing for an expansion team in a fast-paced time of plentiful scoring and rebounding opportunities. His numbers dropped steadily from there. The trade that sent him from New York to Detroit during the 1968-69 season for Dave DeBusschere and Howard Komives has long been on the list of the most one-sided trades in NBA history (in favor of the Knicks), and Detroit would later pretty much give him away (as would his next team, Atlanta).

    A couple of years ago, on the occasion of the NBA’s 60th anniversary, one of the networks that covers NBA games did a feature in which they sought to “unofficially” add ten players to the 50th anniversary list that had been announced back in the ‘90s (thus making it 60 players for 60 years). The discussion mostly focused on players from the previous ten years, but some players from earlier eras were also discussed, including Bellamy. I can’t remember whether Bellamy made the final cut, but the discussion around him had a “Wow! Look at his numbers! Why didn’t he make the original list! Poor guy, overshadowed by Chamberlain and Russell!” vibe to it. No mention was made of anything discussed in the previous paragraph, however.

    All in all, I think Bellamy is a fair candidate for a Top 10 centers list. He’s in the Hall of Fame, and he must have been doing something right to last as long in the NBA as he did. But he may be one of the most controversial selections on the list. I think I'd take Malone over him.

  11. Raj Says:

    is there anyway to get SPM for playoff performances? because though Robinson has better stats, I don't think anyone who saw the 1995 western conference finals could actually believe Robinson was better than Dream.

  12. Neil Paine Says:

    I'll probably do a post with playoff numbers at some point. I would like to note, though, that the whole Robinson-Olajuwon debate in the mid-90s is sort of like the basketball version of this post about the Big 12 tiebreaker situation last year... There's no doubt that Robinson had better stats against the league as a whole, and there's no doubt that Hakeem was better against Robinson head-to-head. When ranking players, we tend to remember head-to-head performances like Hakeem's against the Admiral -- but who is the "better" center, Player A who matches up incredibly well against Player B but doesn't completely destroy the rest of the league on a nightly basis, or Player B who flat-out dominates everyone else in the league except Player A? It's kind of a circular argument, right? If you were having a draft and you knew you were going to have to deal with Player A at some point during the playoffs if you didn't pick him, you'd take him; if not, you'd obviously take Player B. It's actually a bit like rock-paper-scissors (which Bill Simmons compared the NBA to in his podcast yesterday)... D-Rob matched up well against pretty much everyone but Dream, but he got destroyed by Dream in a very high-profile playoff series, and that's what people remember.

  13. Romain Says:

    Olajuwon did not just destroy Robinson in the 1995 western conference finals, he also had amazing stats of his own during his careers, look at his stats in the late 80's:
    1988-89: 24.8ppg 13.5rpg 3.4bpg 2.6spg (that many steals for a center that's really amazing)
    1989-90: 24.3ppg 14.0rpg 4.6 bpg 2.1 spg

    And more importantly Olajuwon came up really big the only years he had a real shot at winning a championship, that is during MJ's 1st retirment. During those 2 playoff runs he dominated three of the best centers of all-time (Ewing, Robinson, O'Neal).

    If I had to rank the all-time centers in tiers, I would put Robinson in tier 3 with Ewing and B. Walton because no matter what the stats say, he would probably never even have played in a NBA final if he had not played with Duncan. He just did not have the leadership.

  14. Raj Says:

    I know it's a smaller sample size and with significantly less data available, but it seems that looking at Robinson and Hakeem's playoff numbers I guess would also lay out the case for Hakeem as the "better" player. While not having run WS/3000 (i probably should be working), I would note that it appears Hakeem has a higher rate and that his PER of 25.7 is greater than Robinson's 23.0. From all appearances it would seem Neil that using your question of whom you would build a franchise around, the Admiral would win for the regular season, but come playoff time, you'd rather have Dream. I know this raises the dilemma of whether it's better to get a higher seed and have an easier route in the playoffs with Robinson or whether it's better to simply have the better playoff performer in Hakeem, but I guess (and I should note I grew up in Houston and am a complete homer in this debate) I always come up wanting the better player and willing to take my chances on the road, which I know has only worked for Houston in 1995. Also, what do you think the huge difference in the Admiral's regular season and playoff PER says about his performance against higher quality opponents? Was he just easier to gameplan over a 7-game series than others like Duncan or Olajuwon, or maybe he just performed better against worse competition (the 71 point game was against the Clippers).

    Also, in the original regression, are the original per 40 minute numbers adjusted for pace? Naturally someone like Duncan playing at 90 possessions is going to have lower per 40 numbers than someone like Kareem or Wilt, and it seems that could unfairly skew his numbers. In general, when giving per minute numbers wouldn't it be better to scale them all to some per 40 minute per 100 possession basis?

  15. MyArvydas Says:

    Just being curious...how did you evaluate the blocks for pre-1974 players? I've got a hard time believing Russell did not block more shots than Shaq (especially since the pace of the game was higher then, so there were more shots to block).

  16. Neil Paine Says:

    All the stats they neglected to track are estimates based a regression that uses the player's height and whatever stats they did keep as inputs. It's obviously going to drag everything toward the mean, but it does it for everybody and since the +/- is comparing players to their in-season peers, it doesn't really serve to penalize guys who played before the numbers were kept.

  17. rlee Says:

    How can we best put the canard of Wilt facing "inferior" opposition to rest? We can pick any of his great years. For example, let's look at 1965-66. In a nine team league, each team played each other team ten times. So playing 50 games against Bill Russell, Walt Bellamy, Nate Thurmond, Wayne Embry and Zelmo Beaty is playing against "inferior competition"? You can pick just about any other year and the inference would be the same. Compare this to the "modern era" centers who played in leagues with many more teams (and thus faced the premier centers each far less frequently) and it is clear that Wilt faced "superior" not "inferior" opposition.

  18. Neil Paine Says:

    I'm not saying I buy the "inferior competition" argument, but isn't that kind of a circular argument? You're basically using Russell, Bellamy, Thurmond, Embry and Beaty as evidence that Wilt's competition was strong -- and simultaneously using Wilt as evidence that their competition was strong... But to play devil's advocate, how do we know those guys weren't inferior as well? It's a bit like those folks who advocated Hawaii for the National Championship Game in 2007 (before the bowls). They were the only undefeated team! They beat Boise State, who had been 11-1! Of course, they were sheltered in their own little mid-major bubble the whole time, and when they faced a legitimate team in Georgia, they got destroyed. To advocates of the "Wilt faced inferior competition" argument, he's Hawaii -- yes, he dominated everyone else, they argue, but he was sheltered in the bubble of the 1960s. Put him against Hakeem, Robinson, Shaq, etc., and see how he fares. Unfortunately, while Hawaii got their one shot against a big-time foe, we'll never know how Wilt would do against today's stars.

    And, I repeat, I do not necessarily buy into the "weak competition" argument against Wilt (I used to, but that's another story). But for what it's worth, that's the rebuttal against your comment.

  19. rlee Says:

    Ok, I'll expand. I've been following the NBA since the 50's. I don't denigrate the "modern" players: Dream, Shaq,Robinson - no dispute as to their greatness. I don't see any way to say that Russell, Thurmond et al are inferior based on having seen them play many times. My real point was that most people who make the "inferior" comp argument say that there were only a few outstanding centers back then - what they overlook is that, in a given season, Wilt was going up against the best 10 times each not 3 times each as the "modern" superstars faced each other. It has always been clear to me that that fact is generally overlooked. I don't see any circularity in that refutation.

  20. Steve Sailer Says:

    Having listened to or watched over 60 of the Lakers' 1971-1972 games, I would guesstimate that Wilt's blocks per game that season was between 5 and 6. The Lakers played a high tempo fast break game which gave the opponents a large number of possessions.

    Also, when you get to Jerry West's Steals per Game, you are severely underestimating him. In his mostly injured final season, he averaged 3 per game according to the official count, so it's likely that a couple of years earlier he was averaging around 4.

  21. John Saucedo Says:

    One center has not been mentioned by any of the previous posters.

    The center that I am referring to is the only center, over the last 24 seasons, to post 22 points, 22 rebounds, and shoot 10 for 10 from the free throw line.

    On another occassion he posted 28 points, 9 offensive rebounds, 13 defensive rebounds, and 9 blocked shots.

    He also recorded six triple doubles, which is more than Shaq, Ewing, and Mourning combined.

    Three of his triple doubles included shooting perfect from the free throw line.

    One of his triple doubles was one of only two 20, 20, 10 triple doubles recorded by a center in the last 24 seasons.

    Who was this center?

  22. Neil Paine Says:

    All I can say about #21 without giving away the answer is that I wish we had "times posterized" in the Play Index, because that guy was the all-time leader.

  23. John Saucedo Says:

    #22,

    Please explain how a center who was most often "posterized" was able to post statistics that Hall of Fame centers were not able to match or exceed.

    Your comment implies that you believe he had no talent.

    How does a center with no talent produce 22 points, 22 rebounds, & go 10 for 10 from the free throw line when no other center in the last 24 seasons has been able to do it? Notice that I did not even mention the 13 blocked shots he had that game.

    Hakeem, Robinson, Ewing, Mourning, Shaq... None of those All-Star centers posted a game which matched or exceeded those numbers. No center did.

    Many of them came close. So it is not like they did not try.

    Hakeem posted 2 quadruple doubles and Robinson one. Apparently 22 points, 22 rebounds, and 10 for 10 from the line was more challenging for them than a quadruple double.

    Please do not insult everyone by saying that he was just lucky.