About nine months ago, I was commissioned to write a book about the 20 greatest athletes in Philadelphia sports history. The results of that effort, Philadelphia Phenoms: The Most Amazing Athletes to Play in the City of Brotherly Love, are out now, and you can buy it now on Amazon and at various bookstores throughout the Delaware Valley.
In that book, I list, from 20 to 1, the greatest players to play a professional team sport in Philadelphia, and write a couple thousand words on each, including statistical and quantitative analysis of his career, biographical details, and a discussion of the mythology and historical context that necessarily surrounds players of that stature, ranging from the Flyers' role in Cold War diplomacy to Allen Iverson's importance as a cultural figure at the turn of the century to Chuck Bednarik's harrowing experiences in World War II.
If you're a multi-sport Philadelphia fan, you should buy this book. If you hate your dad, you should buy this book and give it to him, because I said some things about Donovan McNabb and Buddy Ryan that will make him angry.
What follows is a brief excerpt, in which I deliver my take on the Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain debate.
This seems as good a time as any to debunk the bizarrely pervasive myth that Russell was a better player than Chamberlain. Any pro-Russell argument is grounded in two things: 1) he was the best defensive center of his generation, if not of all time and 2) his Celtics teams routinely beat Wilt's Warriors and Sixers teams in the playoffs.
I'd rebut those claims by saying 1) Yes he was and 2) Yes, they did. However, there's never been a better offensive player or rebounder, relative to his competition, than Wilt. I bring this up now because in 1961-62, Wilt averaged 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds, and 48.5 minutes per game, and remember, a regulation NBA game is only 48 minutes long. And yet Russell was named the league's MVP over Chamberlain. Russell and Chamberlain were roughly equivalent per-game rebounders over their careers (Chamberlain pulled down 22.9 boards per game, while Russell had 22.5 in slightly fewer minutes). Without block or steal numbers, much less advanced metrics and SportVu cameras, it's tough to say for sure how good a defender either Russell or Chamberlain was, but in this 1961-62 season, the Celtics had the best defense in the league on both a per-possession and per-game basis, while the Warriors allowed the most points per game, but thanks to playing at the league's highest pace, ranked third in per-possession defense. And insofar as we can reverse-engineer win shares, Russell led the league in defensive win shares in 1961-62. However, three of the next four players on the list were Russell's Boston teammates, and the only non-Celtic to break the top five was Chamberlain, who came in second.
In a league where, again, Bob Pettit could pull down 18.7 rebounds per game, Chamberlain must've been a plus defender because his size allowed him to protect the rim and pull down more rebounds than anyone else.
So Russell's a better defender, and I'll even stipulate that his edge on defense was non-trivial.
Yet arguably the most important difference lies in their scoring ability. In 1961-62, Wilt scored 4,029 points. Second place went to Walt Bellamy, who scored 2,495. Russell also recorded a career-high points total in 1961-62, with 1,436. Put Russell's points total together with that of the second-place scorer, and you still wouldn't have matched Wilt's total.
This would be less of a big deal if his gap over Russell weren't so enormous, and also if scoring points weren't the object of basketball. Sure, Wilt took 3,159 field goal attempts that season, but I'd rather have him making 50.6 percent of those shots than give them to the Warriors' second-leading scorer, Paul Arizin, who shot 41 percent from the floor. Russell was the third option on a relatively egalitarian Celtics team that had five players take 1,000 or more shots, resulting in the seventh-worst per-possession offense in a nine-team league.
Chamberlain played almost every minute of every game and almost literally lapped the field in terms of quantity of offensive production while maintaining an elite level of efficiency as well. Russell's edge on defense, while considerable, doesn't come close to matching Chamberlain's edge on offense. Put in numerical terms, Russell's career defensive win shares dwarf Chamberlain's: 133.6 to 93.9. Russell is first all-time, Chamberlain fifth. On offense, Chamberlain beats Russell 153.3 to 29.9. Chamberlain's total is second behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's, and in a neighborhood with Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. Russell is 293rd all-time, having just missed out on being a better offensive player, relative to his competition, than Sleepy Floyd.
The common retort is that Russell won 11 NBA titles to Chamberlain's two. And that counts for something. But saying that distorts the truth: the Celtics won 11 titles, while the Sixers and Lakers won one each. Russell and Chamberlain weren't the only players on the floor, and holding up team success, without context, as a measure of individual achievement is facile and reductive. Great players tend to play on great teams, but they don't always play on great teams for their entire careers: some supporting casts are so underwhelming not even a talent such as Chamberlain could elevate them above Russell-himself one of the greatest basketball players ever-and a superior band of sidekicks.
It also presupposes that playoff success matters to the exclusion of regular-season achievement and that there's an easy translation from team playoff success to individual moral fortitude. (Because that's how these debates are always framed, as if Chamberlain's failure to win more titles is a failure of character more than it is a failure of not being drafted by the team run by Red Auerbach. By the way, no modern pro sports executive was ever more ahead of his competition than Auerbach, with the possible exception of Branch Rickey.)
In the playoffs, Russell averaged 16.2 points and 24.9 rebounds per game on 43 percent shooting from the field and 60.3 percent shooting from the line for a PER of 19.4 and .178 win shares per 48 minutes. Chamberlain averaged 22.5 ppg and 24.5 rpg on 52.2 percent shooting from the field and 46.5 percent shooting from the line for a 22.7 PER and .200 WS/48.
That Russell-led Celtics teams beat Chamberlain-led Warriors, Sixers, and Lakers teams seven times out of eight despite Chamberlain having moderately better career playoff numbers than Russell is a pretty powerful argument for how great the Celtics of the 1960s were. It is not, however, compelling evidence that Russell was the superior player. Maybe Russell did have some innate metaphysical ability to affect the outcome of important games, a "clutchness," as some people like to call it. However, I'm more inclined to believe that Russell, while a stupendous player and monumental historical figure in his own right, wasn't quite as good as Chamberlain, rather than believe that he possessed abilities that escape the statistical (i.e. factual) historical record.
It's far easier to believe that Russell's Celtics were better-put together and better-coached, and that in a short series, anything is possible-even in eight short playoff series. Barring some new information, any attempt to say that Russell was a better player than Chamberlain is an attempt to talk around an obvious empirical truth.