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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson • Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon • Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson]
THE MATCHUP: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
Bill Russell won titles in his first and final seasons. Chamberlain led the league in both scoring and rebounding as a rookie and still was the NBA’s best board man entering retirement. Both made the All-Star team every year but one — Russell because his Olympic team commitment cost him the start of his rookie year and Chamberlain because a ruptured right patellar tendon cost him all but 12 games in 1969-70. Cutting their careers down to a specific prime almost seems disrespectful.
For his 14-year career, Chamberlain averaged 30.1 points (54.0 FG%, 51.1 FT%), 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 45.8 minutes per game. During that span, he led the league in scoring seven times (while leading the league in field-goal percentage nine times) and rebounding 11 times. His single-season highs were 50.4 points, 27.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists. (And, wildly, 48.5 minutes per game.) Chamberlain is, quite simply, the most dominant player statistically the game has ever seen.
Meanwhile, Russell averaged 15.1 points (44.0 FG%, 56.1 FT%), 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in 42.3 minutes per game over his 13-year career. Stats don’t do him justice, especially since the league did not track blocks for the greatest defender in NBA history. Russell never averaged more than 18.2 points per game.
To give you an idea of Russell’s impact beyond statistics: Outside of his rookie season, when he received the seventh-most Most Valuable Player votes, he finished lower than fourth in MVP voting just once, in his second-to-last season, when as a player-coach he led the Celtics to the title. He won five MVPs, finishing second, third and fourth in the voting twice apiece. (In his 14 seasons, Chamberlain won four MVPs and finished outside the top four in the voting on five occasions.)
But we’re talking about stats here, and while we could argue whether Russell might have compiled greater individual numbers had he not played with a host of Hall of Famers, Chamberlain played with a cast of all-time greats, too. And any discussion always leads us to the same conclusion: The stats favor Chamberlain.
It depends on what you want out of Wilt if you are trying to determine his peak. From a statistical standpoint, he led the league in scoring and rebounding with 50.4 points and 25.7 boards while averaging 48.5 minutes over the course of a full 80-game season in 1961-62. That is the season he scored 100 points in a single game.
Still, both Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, who averaged his triple-double that season, lost the MVP race to Russell by a wide margin, back when the players used to vote. That speaks to both the ludicrousness of the statistics at the time and the general opinion of Wilt, who attempted almost 30 percent of his team’s field-goal attempts that season (to Russell’s 6.3 percent) and was traded two years later.
It wasn’t until 1966-67 that Chamberlain dialed back his ball dominance for the betterment of the team. Sharing the wealth with three future Hall of Fame teammates, a 30-year-old Wilt averaged 7.8 assists to go with his 24.1 points (on career-high 68.3 percent shooting) and 24.2 rebounds per game. He was in the midst of a run on three straight MVPs, earning better than 75 percent of the vote.
Chamberlain led the Philadelphia 76ers to a league-best 68 wins that season, beating Russell’s Celtics in a five-game East finals set en route to his first title. In those playoffs, Chamberlain averaged a 22-29-9 on 57.9 percent shooting.
Of course, Russell already had nine rings by then. It’s hard to peg which of the four seasons in which Russell won regular-season MVP and a title was his best, but that ’62 season will do just fine. Again, the fact that he decisively won MVP in a season when Chamberlain and Robertson were at their statistical peaks says an awful lot.
The 1961-62 Celtics won 60 games in the regular season before taking a seven-game series against Chamberlain’s Warriors and a Los Angeles Lakers team stacked with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West at the top. Russell posted 30 points and an NBA-record 44 rebounds in Game 7 against the Lakers to win his fourth of eight straight titles.
Russell posted a career-high 18.9 points (on 45.7 percent shooting) at age 27 during that regular season, with 23.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. As usual, he raised his game in the playoffs, averaging a 22-26-5 on 46/73 shooting splits. Really, though, you could pick any of Russell’s eight straight championship seasons as his peak, because he was so remarkably consistent — and consistently driven.
That’s the thing. When Chamberlain finally bought in to winning a ring, he submitted one of the great seasons in NBA history from the standpoint of individual statistics, team success and wall-to-wall domination. We can also debate whether that was because Russell struggled in his first year as player-coach or because his Celtics teammates had retired or faded by then, but I’m giving Wilt the slightest of edges when it comes to his absolute apex. It makes you wish he bought in all the time.
Russell’s averages rose to 16.2 points, 24.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists in his 165 career playoff games. Chamberlain’s dropped to 22.5 points, 24.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his 160 career playoff games. But let’s dispense with the numbers for a minute and concentrate on Russell rising to the occasion as Chamberlain stumbled.
Russell famously finished his career 10-0 in Game 7s and 16-2 in close-out games. Chamberlain was 4-5 and 10-11, respectively. The two titans met eight times in the playoffs, and Russell won seven of those series, including four Game 7s by a grand total of nine points. You can probably guess who has 11 rings and who won two.
Those four Game 7s ...
1962: Celtics 109, 76ers 107
Russell held Chamberlain to a season-low 22 points during a year in which Wilt averaged 50 points, while scoring 19 himself. Russell also deflected the inbounds pass intended for Chamberlain, expiring the clock after Sam Jones’ game-winner.
1965: Celtics 110, 76ers 109
Russell posted a 15-29-9 on a bad foot and was aided by John Havlicek’s steal.
1968: Celtics 100, 76ers 96
Russell held Chamberlain to 14 points and just two field-goal attempts in the second half. In the final seconds, Russell blocked the would-be game-tying shot and grabbed a rebound over Chamberlain to secure victory. Oh, and he coached the winning side, completing the first comeback from a 3-1 deficit in NBA history.
1969: Celtics 108, Lakers 106
Chamberlain was essentially benched for the final 5:19. After banging his knee and asking out of the game, the Lakers erased a sizable deficit, and coach Butch van Breda Kolff refused to let Wilt re-enter the game. Afterward, Russell reportedly said, “In a game like that, they would have to carry me out to get me off the floor,” contributing to a rift between the two legends that lasted nearly a quarter-century.
We could break this category down in further detail, but there are countless accounts from both media and players from that era, including from Wilt and his own teammates, that make clear how much more Russell simply wanted to win — a trait that translated to his success in the final moments of the biggest games.
The most damning of those accounts comes from Rick Barry, via Bill Simmons’ “Book of Basketball”: “When it comes down to the closing minutes of a tough game, an important game, he doesn’t want the ball, he doesn’t want any part of the pressure. It is at these times that greatness is determined, and Wilt doesn’t have it.”
• Chamberlain: Two-time champion (1972 Finals MVP); four-time Most Valuable Player; 13-time All-Star (1960 All-Star Game MVP); 10-time All-NBA selection (7x First Team, 3x Second Team); two-time All-Defensive First Team selection; 1960 Rookie of the Year; seven-time scoring champion; 11-time rebounding leader; 1968 assists leader; 1957 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player
• Russell: Eleven-time champion; five-time Most Valuable Player; 12-time All-Star (1963 All-Star Game MVP); 11-time All-NBA selection (3x First Team, 8x Second Team); four-time rebounding leader; two-time NCAA champion (1955 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player); 1956 Olympic gold medalist
Chamberlain was voted the First Team All-NBA center over Russell in seven of the 10 seasons during which their careers overlapped, but let me ask you this: Would you rather have 11 championship rings and five MVP trophies or two and four? There is not another player in NBA history who can compare hardware with Russell.
For the culture
You may have noticed that Chamberlain won a Finals MVP, while Russell did not. That is because they did not institute the honor until 1969, when the NBA awarded it to Wilt’s teammate, Jerry West, during a losing effort to Russell’s Celtics in his final season. Instead, they named the freaking award after Russell 36 years later.
Russell is widely considered the greatest winner in the history of team sports. That is an untouchable legacy on its own, and it may not be his best. Russell was as great a champion for civil rights, famously turning down an invitation to stand onstage alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his “I Have a Dream” speech, sitting front row so as not to distract from organizers of the March of Washington. From Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, Russell continues advocating for social justice, to say nothing of his lifelong charitable commitment to mentorship. For all of this, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2011.
As The Undefeated’s Justin Tinsley detailed, Chamberlain’s activism came in quieter forms, although he too attended Dr. King’s funeral in 1968. Amid criticism from prominent members of the black community, Chamberlain campaigned for Richard Nixon that same year, when he believed that the Republican presidential candidate was the best path toward equality, a stance he later came to regret.
Chamberlain’s lasting off-court legacy more likely links him to his claim in a 1991 biography that he had bedded roughly 20,000 women — a back-of-the-envelope calculation that equals out to roughly 10 women a week over a 40-year period.
That, too, he came to regret, just as he lamented his Game 7 losses to Russell in one of the final interviews of his life. He would have turned 83 today. It is a shame we could not see the ambassador he could have become over the past 20 years.
THE DAGGER: Bill Russell is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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