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Showdown: David Robinson vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
The tale of the tape for two legendary centers.
David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon are two of the greatest centers of all time, players who could dominate a game on either end of the court. Who gets the nod if we pit their careers head to head? Let’s put them under the microscope.
I. Awards and Honors
Let’s take a look at the qualitative information first:
Both players are in the Hall of Fame.
Olajuwon was a 12-time All-NBA selection (six First Team, three Second Team, and three Third Team) while Robinson received 10 All-NBA nods (four First Team, two Second Team, and four Third Team).
Olajuwon was selected to nine All-Defensive teams (five First Team and four Second Team), one more than Robinson’s eight (four First Team and four Second Team).
Olajuwon received MVP votes in 13 different seasons, winning the award in 1993-94 and finishing second in 1992-93. Robinson earned MVP consideration in 10 different seasons, winning the award in 1994-95 and finishing second in both 1993-94 and 1995-96.
Olajuwon earned votes for Defensive Player of the Year 10 times, winning the award in 1992-93 and 1993-94 and finishing as the runner-up in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Robinson received consideration nine times, winning the award in 1991-92 and finishing second in 1990-91, 1992-93, and 1993-94.
Olajuwon was named to 12 All-Star teams, Robinson 10.
Both Olajuwon and Robinson played in two NBA Finals and won two NBA titles. However, Tim Duncan was clearly the best player on the Spurs when Robinson won his two titles, while Olajuwon was named Finals MVP in both 1994 and 1995.
Due to his greater longevity and performances in the NBA Finals, the qualitative evidence comes out on the side of Olajuwon. Let’s dig a little deeper and see what stories the numbers have to tell us.
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There are many things a player can do on offense to help his team, but the five most important skills are probably the following:
Make shots from the field.
Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line.
Create shots for others.
Extend possessions with offensive rebounds.
Let’s compare and contrast Robinson and Olajuwon in these categories.
Make shots from the field
Robinson’s career effective field-goal percentage of .519 is good for 169th among players with at least 2,000 field goals made, while Olajuwon’s .513 ranks 212th all time. That’s a difference of about 12 points per 1,000 shots, which isn’t huge but also isn’t insignificant, and over the course of a long career it adds up.
Verdict: Edge, Robinson.
Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line
Robinson got to the free throw line almost 60% more often than Olajuwon, averaging 57.7 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts compared to 36.3 for Olajuwon. And when Robinson got to the charity stripe he was slightly more efficient, with a career free throw percentage of .736 versus .712 for Olajuwon.
So Robinson has a big edge in opportunities — which has the side benefit of getting his opponent in foul trouble — and a slight edge in efficiency. It’s pretty clear who wins this category.
Verdict: Big edge, Robinson.
Robinson averaged 14.1 turnovers per 100 individual possessions*, while Olajuwon’s corresponding rate was 15.7. That amounts to about 24 more turnovers for Olajuwon over a typical season, a figure that can’t be ignored.
* The formula for individual possessions was developed by Dean Oliver. It takes into account most offensive statistics that can be found in the box score.
Verdict: Small edge, Robinson.
Create shots for others
Neither player was much of a playmaker — Robinson assisted on approximately 12.4% of his teammates’ made field goals while he was on the floor, just a bit higher than Olajuwon’s assist percentage of 12.1%. These numbers are estimates based on season totals, though, so the small advantage for Robinson is essentially meaningless.
Extend possessions with offensive rebounds
Both players were solid offensive rebounders, with Robinson averaging an estimated 10.6 offensive rebounds per 100 opportunities and Olajuwon averaging 10.3. As above, though, these numbers are estimates based on season totals and don’t determine a clear winner.
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What about defense? That can be harder to measure, of course, but let’s take a look at the evidence we do have, namely:
As in the section above, let’s compare and contrast Robinson and Olajuwon in these categories.
We obviously can’t assign all of the credit to either player for the defensive success of their teams, but both played significant minutes (about 35 per game) at perhaps the most important defensive position.
Robinson played on 11 teams with a top-five defense (based on points allowed per possession), including four teams that led the NBA. Meanwhile, eight of Olajuwon’s teams finished with a top-five defense, leading the league once.
This is favorable to Robinson, but one potential fly in the ointment is the arrival of Tim Duncan in 1997-98, as six of the top-five defenses that Robinson played on included Duncan.
Both players were excellent defensive rebounders, as Olajuwon averaged 23.8 defensive rebounds per 100 opportunities compared to 23.4 for Robinson. Once again, though, these are estimates and don’t indicate a clear advantage for Olajuwon.
Olajuwon and Robinson were both amazing athletes with incredible quickness for their size. In fact, Olajuwon and Robinson are the only 7-footers to average at least two steals per 100 defensive possessions (minimum 10,000 minutes).
Olajuwon’s career steal percentage is 2.43%, putting him comfortably ahead of Robinson’s 2.08%. While this difference may not amount to much at the season level (about four steals), over the course of a career it adds up to a clear edge for Olajuwon.
Verdict: Edge, Olajuwon.
As one would expect from two athletic centers, both players were exceptional shot blockers, Robinson averaging an estimated 5.69 blocks per 100 opponent 2-point attempts compared to 5.39 for Olajuwon. Given the same number of opportunities over the course of a season, this amounts to an advantage of about 10 blocks for Robinson.
By the way, you might might be wondering why Robinson has a higher block percentage when Olajuwon averaged more blocks per game in similar minutes per game. That’s because in Olajuwon’s first five seasons in the NBA, the Rockets’ opponents averaged about 85 2-point attempts per game, while the high for one of Robinson’s teams was 80.3. More opportunities per game means more blocks per game.
Verdict: Edge, Robinson.
Olajuwon averaged 4.9 fouls per 100 defensive possessions and fouled out of 80 regular season games (6.5%). On the other hand, Robinson’s career average was 4.3 fouls per 100 defensive possessions with 29 disqualifications (2.9%). This isn’t a large difference, but it’s also not a difference I can simply dismiss.
Verdict: Small edge, Robinson.
IV. The Decision
With the caveat that I would not place equal weight on all categories (e.g., shooting efficiency is much more important than offensive rebounding), Robinson gets the edge in five statistical categories (one big, two small) and Olajuwon gets the edge in one category, with four pushes. I also gave Olajuwon the edge when it comes to qualitative factors.
A few years ago, I developed the individualized wins* system for basketball. In simplest terms, it is an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player through his offense and defense. Robinson is credited with 205 career indi wins (13th all time), while Olajuwon is credited with 202 (14th all time).
* This is my replacement for another statistic I created, win shares. Win shares, in my opinion, overrates low-usage/high-efficiency players and underrates high-usage/low-efficiency players. I’ll have to write up the details at some point.
Of course, Olajuwon did this while playing 251 more regular season games than Robinson, a significant advantage when it comes to career totals. To put it another way, Robinson produced roughly the same number of wins despite playing about 20% fewer games. Per 82 games, Robinson comes out on top 17-13.
Case closed? No, we’ve left out a key factor: postseason performance. This is where Olajuwon shines.
Olajuwon is credited with 28 indi wins in the playoffs, good for 14th place on the all-time list, while Robinson’s 19 postseason indi wins rank 30th. Olajuwon did appear in more playoff games, but that doesn’t come close to fully explaining the difference — per 82 games, the edge is 16-13, Olajuwon.
If we look at a per-minute statistic like Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Olajuwon comes in at 25.7, the sixth-highest figure in NBA history among players with at least 2,000 playoff minutes, while Robinson’s PER of 23.0 is good for 17th place.
There’s also the 1995 Western Conference Finals to consider. Although I think some people put too much weight on these six games, Olajuwon significantly outplayed Robinson in a 4-2 series win:
Olajuwon — 35.3 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 5.0 APG, 4.2 BPG, 56.0 FG%
Robinson — 23.8 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.2 BPG, 44.9 FG%
So while I think Robinson was clearly the better player in the regular season, it’s just as clear that Olajuwon was the better postseason performer.
Final Verdict: As with the Stockton/Thomas debate, I’m going with a split decision on this one. If I had to choose one player to have on my roster for the next 10 years, I would go with Robinson. If I had to choose one player for a postseason run, I would go with Olajuwon.