In what will become a daily entry over the course of the next month, Waiver Wire writers Greg Kaplan and Vinny Ginardi will release a list of the the 25 players who they believe to be the best in NBA history. Players were judged on their careers as a whole rather than short stretches of dominance (for example, Bill Walton didn’t make the list due to injuries cutting his career short).
Vinny Ginardi: We haven’t quite gotten to the dominant centers who have played the game yet, but Hakeem Olajuwon might be the best all-around center ever.
Offensively, Olajuwon had a multitude of moves he could use to put the ball in the hoop. In each of his first 13 seasons, The Dream (he also gets Vinny Points for having one of the best nicknames ever) averaged more than 20 points per game and shot over 50% from the field. When Olajuwon got the ball down low, he found a way to score.
But Olajuwon also thrived defensively. The Dream earned two Defensive Player of the Year awards (1993,94) and was named to nine All-Defensive teams (five first) in an era with an abundance of great defensive centers. Oh, and he averaged 3.4 blocks per game or more nine different times, with three of those seasons having averages of 4.2 or more. Olajuwon also got it done on the glass, averaging double digit rebounds in each of his first 13 seasons and leading the league in rebounding twice.
Throughout his career, Olajuwon picked up the 1994 MVP award, two Finals MVPs (94 and 95) and won two championships (94 and 95). He was also named to 12 All-NBA teams. Critics will point to the fact that his MVP and championship seasons came during Jordan’s baseball years. It’s tough to argue, but you can’t fault a guy for taking advantage of his opportunity.
Greg Kaplan: I’m going to start off with a point Vinny ended with. I think the criticism that Olajuwon capitalized during the two-year window when Michael Jordan was on his baseball sabbatical is completely unfair. Everybody in the NBA had two years to show that they were the dominate player in the league without Michael Jordan that the media and fans should take notice of. Everyone had that opportunity. And it was Hakeem Olajuwon who didn’t just capture the spotlight, he owned it. He shouldn’t be criticized for that. He should be applauded for seizing his brief opportunity.
Olajuwon was truly one of the first new era centers to enter the NBA. He had star written all over him even before he got to the NBA, leading the now famous Phi Slamma Jamma teams at the University of Houston in college. Fittingly, the Rockets gobbled him up first overall in the 1984 draft. He got to the league a year before Patrick Ewing, who isn’t on our list, and a couple years before David Robinson, who is.
We talked earlier in these rankings about Kevin McHale and how he was special for having all sorts of unbelievable moves near the basket that left defenders scratching their heads. Well, Olajuwon may not have had as many unique moves as McHale, but he was close. And the difference was Olajuwon is a 7-foot monster. His ridiculous height and wingspan, plus his versatility under the rim fueled his career to a 21.8 points average throughout his 18-year career. He maintained a 51.2% field goal for his career. His four-year peak, during which the Rockets won two NBA titles, The Dream averaged more than 10 field goals made a night, above 26.0 points per game and no worse than 51.4% from the field.
Vinny touched on it, but his impressive defense is what thrusts him above a player like Moses Malone, who was probably a better rebounder. Not to say Olajuwon couldn’t rebound, considering he averaged 11.1 rebounds per game in his career and had six seasons of posting 12+ boards a night. Instead, teams had to form totally new game plans to go against the Houston Rockets when The Dream was at his peak. You couldn’t drive to the rim against Houston, or even depend on your centers to be able to have successful nights around the rim when bodied up against him.
Olajuwon accomplished much more than many other players during his era because it was he, not others, who grabbed the opportunity during the Jordan low. That’s his credit that he deserves. And that’s why he’s #12 on our countdown.