The NBA has been home to some of the greatest athletes of all time, and among these are the dominant and towering big men who made the paint their territory. Of course, a “great” basketball player can score in various ways, and some of these behemoths have shown their willingness to adapt by doing so. Who are some of the NBA’s greatest big men, active and retired? This article will break these players down for you.
What is Considered a Big Man in Basketball?
When you hear someone refer to somebody as a “big man” in a basketball context, it may refer to his physical stature as a large human being. When you’re a big man, you are also expected to play certain positions, and in basketball, these are the center and power forward slots.
For decades, the NBA big men camp in the paint, looking primarily for scoring opportunities inside. However, as the game evolved and became more perimeter-oriented, they became more versatile in their offensive skill set. The legendary big guys in NBA history decades play close to the basket, but modern bigs can now take their range to the three-point line.
Big men are expected to rebound the basketball and protect the paint on the defensive end. The latter could mean he should be adept at blocking opponents’ shots or knows how to use his body to crowd the paint and prevent easy looks. On offense, they must set excellent screens and picks to get their teammates open and, in some cases, be the team’s enforcer. Big men make it a point to be a physical presence on the court and should be excellent rebounders.
15 Top Big Men in NBA History
Height is the one thing you can’t teach and will always be considered an advantage when playing basketball. This is why there are more big men than any other position when discussing all-time greats. In fact, the NBA’s first superstar was a center, a traditional position for a big man. Without further ado, here are the top big men in NBA history, split into five active and 10 retired players.
Current Big Men in NBA (Still Playing)
1. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
Jokic was an interesting player because he has the build of an old-school big man but possesses the game of a modern do-it-all point center. In fairness to him, there are virtually no “point centers” before in the NBA, except perhaps Arvydas Sabonis or Vlade Divac, to some extent. The team allows the Joker to bring the ball up the floor like a point guard, set the table for his teammates, or look for his own shot. He’s already a two-time MVP and the 2023 Finals MVP when he averaged a ridiculous 30.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game.
2. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid is possibly the most overwhelming physical presence in the NBA right now. At 7-foot-1, 280 pounds, Joel can score in the paint at will and protect it with the best of them. He also has an array of shake-and-bake moves in the post and a consistent fallaway jumper he can rely on. Embiid averaged 33.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 66 games in the 2022-23 season, earning him his first MVP award.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF/C, Milwaukee Bucks
Aptly named “The Greek Freak,” Giannis is a freak of nature in the very sense of the word. He’s like a modern-day Shaquille O’Neal, who bullies opponents in the paint but is as agile and quick as any guard. Antetokounmpo was also a back-to-back NBA MVP and a Finals MVP in 2021, so there’s no problem if personal hardware is part of the criteria. The only clear-cut deficiency in his game is a consistent outside shot, but who needs that if you’re as strong as an ox and as graceful as a gazelle?
4. Anthony Davis, C/PF, Los Angeles Lakers
The knock on Davis is his availability, but when he’s in uniform, he’s a nightmare who can affect both sides of the floor. Just look at that defensive masterpiece he had against Memphis and Golden State in the 2023 playoffs, 14.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks while averaging over 22 points on 52% shooting from the field and over 85% from the line. Davis reportedly likes playing more power forward than center, but the Lakers don’t care as long as he’s available.
5. Bam Adebayo, C/PF, Miami Heat
Name three centers that can keep up with any guard step-by-step, and Bam Adebayo is probably in the top spot in every list. While it helps that he’s a power forward masquerading as a center, Bam’s defensive instincts are a marvel. He’s not much of a counting stats guy, but he does the little things that don’t appear in the stat sheet.
On offense, he’s an underrated passer and someone capable of taking over in spurts. He averaged a career-high in scoring for the 2022-23 season (20.4 PPG) while grabbing over nine rebounds and dishing three assists per outing.
Old School NBA Big Men (Retired)
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Center
Kareem was an incredible player who once held the all-time scoring record until LeBron James surpassed it in the middle of the 2022-23 season. He was a six-time MVP and won six championships, one with the Bucks and five with the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar was also no slouch defensively, making 11 All-Defensive teams in his 20-year career. In his first season with the Purple and Gold, Kareem averaged 27.7 points, 16.9 rebounds, five assists, and 4.1 blocks. All time, Abdul-Jabbar is second in scoring (38,387), third in rebounding (17,440), and third in blocked shots (3,189). If that’s not outstanding, then what is?
7. Bill Russell, Center
Imagine this: Russell had more NBA championship rings than fingers. He did everything for the sake of winning, but his calling cards were defense and rebounding. Although he never averaged 20 points in any season of his career, he is one of two people who grabbed over 50 rebounds a game and averaged 22.5 for his career. Bill was also an underrated passer, averaging over four assists per game in 963 career games. Russell could be the all-time leader if they recorded blocked shots as an official stat back then. Or perhaps this next guy.
8. Wilt Chamberlain, Center
Nicknamed “The Stilt” and the “Big Dipper,” Chamberlain was an incredibly gifted athlete with a larger-than-life personality. He once scored 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and over 27 rebounds per game in separate seasons. Wilt set 72 records, more than anyone in the NBA, including the highest career rebounding average (22.9), most rebounds in a game (55), and most games scoring at least 50 points (118)! Although he had only two championships, Wilt was considered a better overall player than his friend and rival, Bill Russell.
9. Tim Duncan, Power Forward/Center
Some say Tim Duncan was a center disguising as a power forward, but he was both. He often started at power forward, playing alongside centers like David Robinson, but ended his career mostly playing center.
That said, Duncan was a silent operator with a fundamentally sound game. He was also one of those players who put up better numbers in the playoffs than in the regular season. The accolades and numbers don’t lie: Duncan was a two-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP, five-time champion, 15-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA, and 15-time All-Defense.
10. Shaquille O’Neal, Center
Possibly the most dominant player of all time, Shaq was a vindictive and immovable force that’s often twice as deadly because of what the league allowed him to do. The Big Aristotle has an array of spin moves, drop steps, and baby hooks down in the paint, but if need be, he’d power through double or triple teams and punish them physically.
Check out O’Neal’s NBA Finals stats from 2000 to 2002: 35.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.9 blocks while shooting almost 60% from the floor. These otherworldly numbers enabled him to capture Finals MVP three times. He was also a 13-time All-NBA selection and a 15-time NBA All-Star.
11. Hakeem Olajuwon, Center/Power Forward
Some may rank Hakeem higher than Shaq or Tim Duncan, but you can’t please everybody. While O’Neal operated with destructive force, Olajuwon was pure poetry in motion. His impeccable footwork was among the best things you’ll ever see as a basketball fan. “The Dream” was a consistent 20 PPG scorer since Day 1 and is one of only two people who won league MVP and DPOY in the same year (1994). The other one? Michael Jordan in 1988.
12. George Mikan, Center
Mikan was the first NBA superstar and the main guy in the first-ever dynasty. He led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles from 1949 to 1954 while capturing the scoring title three times during that span. His imprints can still be felt in modern basketball as he was the one who originated the “Mikan Drill” and was the reason why the paint was widened to 12 feet instead of six.
13. Karl Malone, Power Forward
Malone is possibly the best player ever to not win a ring. He had a long and steady 18-season career filled with personal accolades, such as being selected as a member of the Original Dream Team in 1992 and another tour of duty for the Olympics in 1996. Malone was a two-time MVP, third on the all-time scoring list (36,928), and seventh in rebounds (14,968).
14. David Robinson, Center
Despite his accolades, David Robinson was often forgotten as one of the best NBA centers of all time. Maybe a part of the reason is that he didn’t win a championship before Tim Duncan arrived. Nevertheless, The Admiral was still one of the best to ever do it, and the awards don’t lie. He was the league MVP in 1995 and won Defensive Player of the Year in 1992, one of only five players to do so. The others? Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
15. Kevin Garnett, Power Forward
Some may argue there are better big men than Kevin Garnett, but he is right up there in terms of skill and impact in modern basketball. KG was the precursor of today’s positionless basketball because, as a big man, he can literally do it all. Look at his MVP season in 2004 as an example: He averaged 24.2 points, 13.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.2 blocks. He was a master in defending pick and rolls and, as mentioned, is only one of five people to win an MVP and DPOY.
Wrapping Things Up: 15 of the NBA’s Greatest Big Men
The NBA has a rich history, but the league was built upon the shoulders of big men. Tall and hefty guys dominated the league since the late 1940s, and the trend continued in the following decades.
So, who are the NBA’s greatest big men? Naming today’s best NBA big men is relatively simple: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, and Bam Adebayo. Naming the retired greats, however, is another story. Still, no “best big men” list is not complete without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal. The rest could be a matter of personal opinion, but that just goes to show how deep the NBA big men pool is.
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