NBA: The Case for Wilt Chamberlain as the Best Ever
With two of the very best active players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant currently playing in the NBA Finals, it is not uncommon to see the age-old debate of who was the best ever come up. There are a handful of names that are always bandied about and impassioned arguments made in favor of each one.
Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson seem to be the most common names to come up. LeBron's name, along with Kobe Bryant's, have begun to be mentioned now and then.
But, the best that ever was—and always will be—none other than Wilt Chamberlain.
Wilt is also usually in the conversation, but his accomplishments are frequently derided and dismissed as a function of his era, the league he was playing in and the competition he faced. Moreover, there are the accusations of his selfish play inflating his stats and the inevitable argument that he didn't win enough championships.
Well, let's see if we can address some of those issues and put it all into context with what the other greats of the game did.
The Raw Numbers
Career PPG: 30.1
Career RPG: 22.9
Career APG: 4.4
Seven scoring titles
11 rebounding titles
Eight win-share titles
Only center in NBA history to lead the league in assists (702 in 1967-68)
Averaged 50.4 PPG in 1961-62
Averaged 48.5 MPG in 1961-62
Two-time NBA All-Defensive First Team
Only player in NBA history to record a 100-point game
Never fouled out in his career
I could add more—a lot more—but I think you get the picture. From the first day he stepped onto an NBA court, Chamberlain utterly dominated the game in a way that no other player before or since ever has.
I remain at a loss as to pick the most impressive stat among all the ones noted above.
Is it the 50.4 points per that he ran up in the '61-'62 season? Or is it that he averaged 48.5 minutes per game in a game that only lasts 48 minutes? Or is it the fact the the most physically dominant force in his era never fouled out? How about being the only center to ever win an assists title?
I'm inclined to say "all the above."
Myth: He Dominated by Being the Biggest Guy on the Floor
This is a common accusation, and to be honest, there is a certain amount of merit to it.
It's an indisputable fact that the average NBA player in the '60s was smaller than the average player of today. During the 1961-62 season, for example, there were only three seven-footers in the nine-team league, along with two guys at 6'11" and three at 6'10". Boston and St. Louis topped out at 6'9".
So the big men like Chamberlain had a major advantage, right?
If that were true, we'd be talking about Swede Halbrook, the 7'3" center for the Syracuse Nationals, as the best ever. Surely his massive height advantage over everyone, including Wilt Chamberlain, would have made him the preeminent dominant force in the paint of all time. But we're not talking about Halbrook.
In that '61-'62 season, Halbrook had an appalling .360 field goal percentage and averaged just 6.3 points per game along with a very pedestrian 6.2 rebounds per game. Numbers so poor that his NBA career ended immediately after his sophomore effort.
The other seven-footer that season, Walter Dukes, wasn't much better for Detroit. With an equally poor .396 shooting percentage, Dukes managed just 9.4 points per game and 10.4 rebounds in the '61-'62 season. Not exactly the kind of domination one would expect from a player who is as much as three or four inches taller than the next tallest guy on the floor most nights.
The fact of the matter is that height is an asset on the basketball court, but it isn't the be-all and end-all. There weren't a lot of giants in the NBA because the true big men simply weren't very good players. They were slow, they were awkward and they fatigued quickly.
With the exception of 6'11" Walt Bellamy, there wasn't a big center in the league who could be counted on to lead his team in scoring night after night.
Chamberlain changed all that.
Here was a guy who was able to use his size in a way no one else could. He could move like a guard, he could finish around the rim, he could rebound, and he seemingly never ran out of gas. He created a need for similar big men that would go largely unfulfilled for quite a few years until Lew Alcindor began his career with the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1969-70 season.
In the meantime, Wilt was simply playing a game that no one else had ever seen and that no one knew how to deal with.
Modern centers, like Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Dwight Howard, exist because Chamberlain set the standard and created the stereotype. Before Wilt, there simply was no such thing.
Myth: The Competition Wasn't Very Good
This is a common thread in these sorts of arguments.
Field goal percentages weren't what they are now. Teams would run and gun, putting up as many shots as possible to earn their baskets.
Defensive play was nearly nonexistent. In the 1960s, the lowest scoring season was the 1964-65 season, where teams averaged 110.6 points. The high water mark was the '61-'62 season, with teams averaging 118.8 points a game.
So that means scoring averages were up overall and rebounding was also up. But generally the numbers were spread around—there weren't individuals putting up the kind of numbers Chamberlain was producing.
Going back to that '61-'62 season, Wilt averaged a league-leading 50.4 points per game and 25.6 rebounds per game. The next best scorer was rookie Walt Bellamy at a much more human-looking 31.6 per game. The only other rebounder over 20 per game was Bill Russell at 23.6 (who, as many people are very quick to point out, was nowhere near as tall as Chamberlain).
So notwithstanding that scoring and rebounding were both up compared to the modern era, The Stilt's numbers were practically in a category of their own. This has less to do with the level of competition than it does with the fact that he was that much better than the competition.
The way the argument tends to go is this: If you took Chamberlain and put him in the modern era, he'd be nothing special.
The logic that gets a person there is faulty.
It presumes that the old era player would have the same training as he did back then, which is silly. You put Wilt Chamberlain into the modern game, with modern workout routines and modern strategies, and he will still be the best player on the floor on any given night.
Will he be 50 points and 25 boards a game good? Almost certainly not.
As a game evolves, the level of competition tends toward the middle, with aberrations at both ends disappearing; the weakest players will get better and the gap between the good and the great will shrink, bringing the exceptional players back to the pack.
But it would still follow logically that a 21st century Wilt would be in the running for the scoring, rebounding lead and possibly assists titles each year. Being at the very top of the game is the mark of a great player, regardless of the competition.
Myth: Chamberlain Was Selfish
This is a popular accusation and one that holds no more water for Chamberlain than it does for any other great player.
Kobe Bryant has been in the top two in the NBA for field goals attempted eight times, including the last seven seasons in a row.
Michael Jordan led the league in field goal attempts nine times.
Scorers shoot the ball. A lot. They want the ball and they want to take charge of the game offensively. That is precisely what makes a great scorer who he is.
With the Philadelphia Warriors early in his career, Wilt was the man and expected to lead the scoring parade. Paul Azin and Tom Gola could provide solid secondary scoring, but they weren't going to lead the charge. Wilt stepped up and shot the ball way more than those two players combined.
But when he moved to the 76ers, the dynamic changed. Entering a system that was already pretty good, with very solid scoring options in Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham, Wilt didn't have to do it all himself. He began to distribute the ball more and had seasons where he led the team with 414, 630 and a league-leading 702 assists, winning a championship along the way.
Now, you can call me crazy if you'd like, but from where I'm sitting, fundamentally changing your game in the prime of your career and earning a championship as a result is not how I define selfish play.
Myth: Wilt Didn't Win Enough
This is the one that really blows my mind.
Teams that Chamberlain played on won almost two thirds of the time. He went to the finals six times and earned two rings. One of those championships meant doing the undoable for the 60s—beating the Boston Celtics.
Equally telling is that every team he moved to in his career got better when he arrived on the scene.
The Philadelphia Warriors went 32-40 in the 1958-59 season for a .444 winning percentage. With the addition of Wilt for the '59-'60 season, the Warriors improved by 17 wins, to 49-26 and instantly became a contender.
Likewise, the lackluster Philadelphia 76ers went from 34-46 in the '63-'64 season to an even .500 team when Chamberlain was acquired midseason the following year. Then, they had a 55-25 year in '65-'66 and were first place in the East with a full season of Chamberlain at center. They followed that up with a championship the very next year.
The Los Angeles Lakers saw the least amount of improvement with the addition of Chamberlain, going from 52-30 in the '67-'68 season to 55-27 in the '68-'69 season, but they still got better and would go to the finals four times in five years with Wilt on the team, never winning fewer than 46 games.
Only twice in Wilt's entire career did a team he played for have a losing record.
No, Chamberlain did not win championships the way his arch-rival Bill Russell did, but he won significantly more than virtually any other player in any other era.
Bill Russell and the Celtics
During the Bill Russell years, the Boston Celtics won an unprecedented 11 championships in 13 years. That is a feat so mind-boggling that it's hard to even grasp such complete domination of a sport.
When people compare all-time greats and start counting rings, they are often quick to point out Michael Jordan's six rings and two three-peats.
As impressive as that is, it's still just over half of what the Celtics accomplished. Jordan would have had to have won five more just to catch Russell.
Nobody understood the specter of facing Boston in the playoffs better than Wilt Chamberlain. Teams he was on faced the vaunted Celtics eight times and only got past them once to win the 1966-67 championship. The Celtics juggernaut simply would not be denied most years and this is where Chamberlain's legacy as the best ever falters.
In all those games, he and his teams were only able to solve Boston once.
But, to give credit where credit is due, no one else figured out how to beat Russell's Celtics either. They were simply the best team in the history of professional sports and Russell is rightly considered to be one of the top five ever because of his contributions to that team.
Simply the Best
No matter how you shake things out, Wilt Chamberlain had a profound impact on the game.
His domination around the rim forced the NBA to change the rules and widen the key. Although it took more than a decade for the rest of the league to catch up, it became a necessity for players to get bigger, faster and stronger to compete against his singular talent.
These days, seven-footers are commonplace and there have been any number of big centers who have had a superior skill set. This is the direct result of the skills and athleticism Wilt brought to the game.
If he played in the 21st century, would he be able to put up the gaudy numbers he produced back in the day? Doubtful. But make no mistake; The Stilt would still be a dominant force on the floor, a man around whom great teams are built. And he would be a surefire Hall of Famer.
Size, quickness, offensive and defensive skill, Chamberlain was one of the most complete players the NBA has ever seen. A man of extraordinary skill, he changed the way basketball is played.
Simply the best.
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