It was, for my grandfather’s generation, the defining basketball argument. Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain? Talent or intensity? The guy with the numbers or the guy with the rings?
Though they both retired before I was born, I felt the reverberations of their rivalry even in my time. After all, Russell was the first coach of the Sacramento Kings and Chamberlain starred in “Conan the Destroyer,” so they were still a big part of my life. And we argued about their playing days, too. Impressed by Wilt’s scoring feats (100 points in a game!), we nevertheless had our elders to remind us that Russ won the championships, that Russ played the team game, that Russ got in Wilt’s head and always came out on top.
In “The Book of Basketball,” Bill Simmons worries that Wilt’s statistical dominance would eventually overshadow Russell’s edge in the hearts and minds of those who saw him play. I think the opposite has happened — Chamberlain’s scoring record looks increasingly like a relic from a time when basketball wasn’t fully formed, while the legend of Russell the Champion grows with each passing year.
Now, Apples & Oranges is purely a stats-driven exercise, so Russ gets no bonus here for leadership, rings or intangibles. But even taking that into account, even being a dyed-in-the-wool Celtics fan, I think Wilt has gotten a bit of a bum rap in the comparison. We don’t want to root for Goliath, for the selfish stat-chaser. Russell represents the team-first ethic, the sacrifice of personal glory for the good of the group. We want that player to be the one that comes out ahead. And I think, in that, the sheer overpowering greatness of Chamberlain gets lost in the noise.
The Big Dipper
The numbers are the stuff of legend … a 100-point game, averaging 50.4 for the 1961-62 season, 55 rebounds in a game. Watch him on film and it’s easy to see how. He’s a physical marvel; not just bigger and stronger than everyone else, but blessed with impeccable footwork and balance.
As I said in the Basketball page, his career can be broken down into three phases. The first is the Warriors years, 1959 to 1962 in Philly and 1962 to 1965 in San Francisco. These are the seasons of the insane scoring feats. With the Warriors he averaged more than 36 points and 22 rebounds a game, every year.
Not only did he average more than 50 points a game in 1961-62, he averaged 48.5 minutes, to emphasize his physical dominance. He scored over 60 four games in a row. He also shot between 28 and 30 field-goal attempts every year, the entire offense designed to get him the ball. And, of course, the Warriors struggled to construct a championship team around him.
The Warriors traded him back to Philadelphia, to the 76ers, in mid-season, beginning the second phase. His shot attempts went from 33 a game in San Francisco to 23 in Philly. It was back up to 25 the next year, but down to 14.2 in 1966-67, the year the Sixers finally won the title, with Wilt shooting an absurdly good 68 percent from the field. What should have been the lightbulb moment, Chamberlain understanding how to integrate his skills into a winning offense, instead produced a bizarre overreaction — he decided to be really unselfish and lead the league in assists the next season. His Sixers wouldn’t win another championship.
I think it’s worth considering these two phases. If he plays in Warriors mode all his life, averaging 40 points a game but never winning a title, I don’t see that the narrative really changes. He’d still be seen as the underachieving scoring freak (he doesn’t really get credit for the rings he did win), only his numbers would be better. If he’s Sixers Wilt all his career — say, 24 points a game and three or four titles — then he’d be thought of as Larry Bird or Tim Duncan; a first-ballot Hall of Famer, certainly, but not in the conversation for greatest ever. The idea that stat-chasing hurt his legacy is, I think, not well founded.
Lastly, there’s the Lakers phase. In Los Angeles, he joined a team loaded with scoring players just has he started to decline, so his shooting stats really start to drop. At this point he’s still a star center, but no longer the scoring machine. In fact, he was roundly criticized for not demanding the ball enough against a hobbled Willis Reed in the 1970 finals. Some guys just can’t win.
Bill Russell, on the other hand, did nothing but win: 11 NBA championships, two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. Where Wilt was widely despised, Russell was seen in a complicated light: basketball obsessives loved his competitive spirit, but the general public struggled to warm up to his prickly personality.
In the years since, he has become the symbol for everything right in sports; an uncompromising civil-rights crusader who endured racist abuse from his own fans, a dedicated winner, a team-first leader. He’s the closest thing to a saint ever produced by American sporting culture. So I feel I should touch on why Apples & Oranges doesn’t rate him higher than it does.
As I said, this is purely as statistics-based method and there are specific issues in his statistical record that prevent us from getting a full look at his greatness. For one thing, unlike just about every other top-tier star, he didn’t have to carry the scoring load for his team. He was generally the third scoring option for the Celtics, who had a balanced offense loaded with guys who could produce.
On defense, the thing he was greatest at, blocking shots, wasn’t tracked at all until years after he retired. Anecdotally, he may have been getting six a game. He still benefits from Boston’s great team defense, and his hellacious rebounding numbers, but his No. 1 skill isn’t there. On top of that, his rather awful shooting percentage (44 percent) reduces the impact of his rebounding. He still finishes with a defensive rating of 12.66, which is not only the highest in basketball, but the highest of any “team defense” player (that is, not a goalie, pitcher or bowler).
Know who’s No. 2? Wilt, at 12.27.
And that’s the thing. Russ has a 0.39-point edge on defense, and Wilt is ahead 14.57 on offense (34.83 to 20.26). We see this over and over in every sport — defense is a team activity, credit is more spread-out and it’s harder for the great ones to dominate.
One more word about the eternal debate. We often say that Russ sacrificed offense to excel on the defensive end. That’s true insofar as he could have scored more than he did. But often, people take that to mean that he could have matched Wilt’s scoring numbers if he’d wanted to, that he chose not to play that way. That’s the part of the legend we shouldn’t embrace. Wilt was Wilt and Russ was Russ, and each played his own game, as God intended.
Russ was no mug on offense. He was a genuine NBA-quality scoring center. It’s just that Wilt was on another level.
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