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June 17, 2024

The Men in the Middle – The Top 10 NBA Centers of the ’90s

The Men in the Middle – The Top 10 NBA Centers of the ’90s

The Men in the Middle – The Top 10 NBA Centers of the ’90s


What are the first things that come to mind when you think of the NBA during the 1990s?

I’m sure Michael Jordan and the dominance of the Chicago Bulls come to mind. That’s also when Dennis Rodman emerged as a pop culture phenomenon. Perhaps you may think of the original “Dream Team” during the 1992 Olympic Games, the first to feature NBA players. You might also think of the ‘90s New York Knicks teams and the Madison Square Garden organ, Shaquille O’Neal entering the league of the Orlando Magic as contenders, the San Antonio Spurs playing at the Alamodome, and the “Clutch City” Houston Rockets teams. What about all the perfectly square high-top fade haircuts (I’m especially looking at you Pat Ewing), The Dream Shake, and “no-no-no?”

Yup. The list that I’m about to share with you has all of that. Before skilled shooters like Dirk Nowitzki came into the league as a shooting big man and Stephen Curry (greatest shooter ever) who revolutionized the way the NBA game is played with the amount of three-point shooting spreading the floor, the NBA became a slower place, defensive grind-it-out kind of league that often-required excellent low-post play. NBA teams were searching for a talented center to be their franchise player, a 7-footer that could excel on both offense as a scoring threat and be defensive force that protected the point.

This player would be able to play in the post, command double teams, and then kick out to open shooters to hit from downtown. Said big man would make wing players think twice about driving to the basket. The NBA was a different game during the 1990s and rules dictated the style of play. Defensive three-seconds wasn’t a thing. Hand-checking was allowed anywhere on the court. If you had a good-to- great center on your team, chances were that you would be able to contend for an NBA championship.
Chess matches were being played among coaches deciding whether or not to double great centers in the post.

There have been some great NBA centers in its history: George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Moses Malone – to name a few. However, the 1990s is arguably the NBA’s Golden Era of traditional centers playing the pivot. It also brings back memories of watching games with my dad where he’d yell, “c’mon big dummy!” every time one of the big men got the ball. Then again, I grew up with the ‘90s Bulls. Our centers were Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, Luc Longley, and Bill Wennington. It was hard to argue with my old man.

I’ll take you through a list of who I believe were the NBA’s Top 10 Greatest Centers of the 1990s. I ranked these men in the middle over the 10-season stretch beginning with the 1989-90 season and ending with the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. First, the honorable mentions…

Honorable Mentions:
Robert Parish – If this was a list of best centers of the 1980s he’d be on it.
Kevin Duckworth – He was an All-Star in 1991 but went on a steep decline after that.
Bill Laimbeer – His decline with age came quickly and…just, no.
Elden Campbell – He was solid, never great.
Tim Duncan – He played as a power forward, not a center.
Kevin Willis – See explanation for Tim Duncan above.

Now to the Top 10. There are seven Hall-of-Famers on this list. Six of these men were perennial 20 and 10 guys (20 points/10 rebounds per game). Identifying the first five or six guys to add to this list was easy. Rounding out the second half was tougher than I thought. Here we go!

#10 – Vlade Divac
‘90s Stats: 12.5 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game (715 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: None
‘90s Notable Awards: None
Vlade Divac, for better or worse, is known most for being traded for Kobe Bryant on Draft Night in 1996 and being one of the biggest floppers in NBA history. Believe it or not, he was a highly skilled basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte Hornets, and Sacramento Kings. On offense, the Serbian big man was a solid-post player who had a jumper. In addition, the Hall-of-Famer (yes you read that correctly) he could handle the ball if needed and was an underrated passer. Divac was also underrated on the defensive end. No one would confuse him for Dikembe Mutombo, but Divac did average 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals per game in the 90s.> #9 – Rony Seikaly
‘90s Stats: 15.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game (600 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: None
‘90s Notable Awards: NBA Most Improved Player (1990)
Remember him? Seikaly’s name doesn’t get brought up much, but he was a sneaky-good center. The 1989-90 NBA Most Improved Player award winner was a solid, high-scoring center for the Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Orlando Magic, and New Jersey Nets during the 1990s. He averaged a double- double in four straight seasons and had a 34-rebound game in 1993. Seikaly has since gone on to bigger and better things – as a DJ! DJ Rony, as he’s now known globally, is an EDM DJ and music producer who has performed at various music festivals around the world. Go figure.

#8 – Rik Smits
‘90s Stats: 15.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.2 blocks per game (706 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: One (1998)
‘90s Notable Awards: None
Ah yes, “The Dunking Dutchman!” Smits stood 7’4’’ and had a remarkable feathery touch. He was a good mid-range shooter and has the highest free-throw percentage during the 90s of any center on this list (78.1%). Smits may not have been the best rebounder or defender, but ask anyone who had to guard him about how tough a matchup he was. He was a key piece to the Indiana Pacers teams on the 1990s and was often considered as a second scoring option to Reggie Miller.

#7 – Brad Daugherty
‘90s Stats: 19.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 0.8 blocks per game (311 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Three (1991, 1992, 1993)
‘90s Notable Awards:1992 All-NBA 3rd Team
Daugherty may have ranked higher on this list if his career had not been cut short due to back injuries. I’m sure fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers used to wonder how the Cavs would have done had their center stayed healthy. The former 1986 #1 Overall Pick was a classic 20-10 guy and averaged a double-double during each of the five seasons he played during the 90s. He was as good of an offensive player as anyone on this list. Daugherty is now a college basketball and NASCAR analyst for ESPN.

#6 – Dikembe Mutombo
‘90s Stats: 12.9 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.6 blocks per game and many finger-wags (603 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Five (1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998)
‘90s Notable Awards: NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 1997, 1998), All-NBA 3rd Team (1998), NBA All-Defensive 1st Team (1997, 1998) 2nd Team (1995, 1999)
Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo is known more for his sharp elbows, defensive prowess, and finger wags after blocked shots. He isn’t the best offensive center on this list. Mutombo averaged a career high of 16.6 points per game – in his rookie season. The former Georgetown Hoya used a decent post game and averaged a double-double in each of the 9 seasons he played in during the 1990s with the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks. Mutombo was always a defensive anchor and made his living on defense. Plus, who could forget his finger wag.

#5 – Alonzo Mourning
‘90s Stats: 21.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 3.0 blocks per game (455 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Four (1994, 1995, 1996, 1997)
‘90s Notable Awards: NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1999), All-NBA 1st Team (1999), NBA All- Defensive 1st Team (1999)
Mourning is the second of three former Georgetown Hoyas to make this list. He was a warrior on both ends of the court. ‘Zo averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in four of the seven seasons he played in the ‘90s. He was just a hair under 20 points or 10 rebounds during the other three seasons. The Hall-of-Fame center did average at least 3 blocks per game in each of those seven seasons and won the NBA’s Defensive Player of Year award in 1999. He is credited as one of the first players who helped Pat Riley establish what is now known as “The Heat Culture” in Miami. Despite his resume, Mourning is the SECOND-best center of his draft class.

#4 – Patrick Ewing
‘90s Stats: 24.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 2.7 blocks per game (702 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Eight (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997)
‘90s Notable Awards: All-NBA 1st Team (1990) 2nd Team (1991, 1992, 1993, 1997), NBA All-Defensive 2nd Team (1992) Ewing has quite the 90s resume and he’s FOURTH on this list! The first ever NBA Lottery pick (1985 #1 Overall Draft Pick) is a Hall-of-Famer, Member of the Original Dream Team, both a Top 50 and 75 NBA all-time player, was a 7-time All-Star, and average at least 20 and 10 during 9 of the 10 seasons during the decade. Ewing was known as a shot blocker so I was surprised to see he only made one NBA All- Defensive Team during the 90s. That’s how deep the talent pool of NBA centers was then. Ewing and his patented mid-range jump shot were the #1 scoring option and the anchor of the 1990s New York Knicks teams, some of which were among the best NBA teams to not win a championship.

#3 – Shaquille O’Neal
‘90s Stats: 27.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.6 blocks per game (455 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Six (1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998)
‘90s Notable Awards: NBA Rookie of the Year (1993) All-NBA 1st Team (1998) 2nd Team (1995, 1999) 3rd Team (1994, 1996, 1997)
Shocked that I have Shaq at #3 on this list? I am too, actually. I thought “The Diesel” would surely be #1 or #2 on this list. There wasn’t a more dominant force than Shaquille O’Neal. He’s a Hall-of-Famer, an NBA Top 50 and 75 all-time player, won an NBA Scoring Title in 1995, and was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996. No NBA center averaged more points or rebounds per game than Shaq during the 90s. Here’s where it gets tough to rank him ahead of the next two guys. Shaq didn’t win an MVP during the decade nor an NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, let alone make an All-Defensive Team during the 90s. The Diesel missed at least 22 games in three straight seasons from 1995-96 to 1997-98.
Most importantly, Shaq did not win his first championship until 2000 with the Lakers. If you look at solely stats Shaq is the man. But when you start comparing total bodies of work during the 90s, including dude’s trophy cases, he’s third on the 90s medal stand. Don’t feel bad for Shaq. He got his during the 2000s and then some with FOUR rings!

#2 – David Robinson
‘90s Stats: 24.4 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 3.4 blocks per game (685 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Eight (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998)
‘90s Notable Awards: NBA Champion (1999), NBA Rookie of the Year (1990), Defensive Player of the Year (1992), NBA MVP (1995) All-NBA 1st Team (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996) 2ndTeam (1994, 1998) 3rd Team (1990, 1993), NBA All-Defensive 1stTeam (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1998) 2nd Team (1990, 1993, 1994, 1998)
There is an argument to be made for David Robinson being thought of as the best center of the 1990s. Don’t laugh. Like both Ewing and Shaq, Robinson is a Hall-of-Famer and was named as one of the NBA’s 50 & 75 Greatest Players of all-time. “The Admiral” was a member of both the original Dream Team and the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team. He won a scoring title in the 90s (1994) as did Shaq, but with a 71-point performance in the season’s final game to overtake O’Neal. Unlike O’Neal and Ewing, Robinson won an MVP (1995), Defensive Player of the Year Award (1992), and an NBA Championship (1999) during the 90s. Robinson’s All-NBA selections in the 1990s dwarf those of Shaq and Ewing. The man’s resume is impressive, despite missing most of the 1996-97 season with a broken foot. Robinson single-handedly made the 90s San Antonio Spurs contenders and carried the franchise until Tim Duncan arrived in 1997.

#1 – Hakeem Olajuwon
‘90s Stats: 23.9 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 3.5 blocks per game (689 games)
‘90s All-Star Selections: Seven (1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997)
‘90s Notable Awards: NBA Champion (1994, 1995) Defensive Player of the Year (1993, 1994), NBA MVP (1994), NBA Finals MVP (1994, 1995), All-NBA 1st Team (1993, 1994, 1997) 2nd Team (1990, 1996) 3rd Team (1991, 1995, 1999), NBA All-Defensive 1st Team (1990, 1993, 1994) 2nd Team (1990, 1991, 1996, 1997)
Hakeem Olajuwon tops my list of Greatest NBA Centers during the 1990s. The top three men on this list (Olajuwon, Robinson, and O’Neal) were the most dominant players in the NBA during the two season stretch from 1993-94 to 1994-95. All three are Hall-of-Famers and Top 50/75 NBA Players of all-time.
Olajuwon was looked at by many as the best player in the NBA during that time. He doesn’t have a scoring title like Robinson and O’Neal. Olajuwon does have an MVP (same as Robinson), two NBA Finals MVPs, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards (one more than The Admiral), and two NBA Championships (one more than Robinson). In fact, “The Dream” is one of three players in NBA history (Michael Jordan and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the others) to have won an MVP and DPOY award in the same season. Only five players have won both awards during their careers (add Kevin Garnett and David Robinson). Olajuwon was arguably the most athletically gifted player on this list. He was dominant both offensively with his various post moves (and arguably the best footwork in the history of the game) and defensively with his ability to cover a lot of ground to block shots. In my opinion, he was better at both ends of the court than anyone on this list.


Photo Credit: Kip-Koech under Creative Commons License