Wilt Chamberlain was great in his era, but could he compete today?
It is my humble opinion that Wilt Chamberlain was the greatest basketball player to ever set foot on the hardwood, although that opinion seems to be in the vast minority these days.
Regardless of where you put The Big Dipper in the NBA pantheon, the fact of the matter is that he was a Hall of Famer, a four-time league MVP and an owner of two championship rings.
Wilt could play.
His greatness is often criticized on the grounds that he was playing in a different era when defense was almost nonexistent and he was able to exploit smaller players who couldn't contain a 7-footer. I've given my opinion of all those claims.
But if he wasn't really anything special, does it not also follow that he'd struggle in the modern game? I'm convinced that would not be the case.
In fact, the question I've been pondering recently is whether there's even one center in the NBA these days who could contain Chamberlain.
All stats derived from basketball-reference.com
Wilt Chamberlain is a Hall of Famer and most experts place him in the top 10 players of all-time. As a result, I think the notion of comparing him to middle-of-the-pack players in the modern game would be a waste of time and effort. Therefore I'm only going to be looking at the top five currently active centers.
Chamberlain's name is all over the NBA record book. Among his many achievements:
- Career PPG: 30.1
- Career RPG: 22.9
- Career APG: 4.4
- Seven scoring titles
- 11 rebounding titles
- Eight win-share titles, including six of the top 15 win-share seasons (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan are tied for second most, with three of the top 15)
- 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
- Four-time MVP
- Two-time NBA All-Defensive First Team
- Only player in NBA history to record a 100-point game
- Never fouled out in his career
One of the conceits I've been forced to make is evaluating Chamberlain fairly against modern players when many of the stats modern players accumulate were not tracked in the 1960s. To level that playing field I've narrowed my comparisons down to the big three that have come down to us since the beginning: points, assists and rebounds, which when combined are known as PAR.
Admittedly, this is an imperfect way of comparing one player to the next, but I consider it to be the most fair method.
The other conceit I've made is to adjust for era.
During the 14 years of Chamberlain's career teams in the NBA averaged 101.5 shots; over the last 14 years teams have taken 80.9 shots per game. That means that points per game (114.1 then; 97.4 now) and rebounds per game (63.2 then; 41.9 now) are down. However, shooting percentages have improved from .438 in Wilt's day to .451 in modern times. So while players are taking fewer shots, assists haven't dropped off very much at all, going from 23.2 assists per game then to 21.5 now.
Put all that together and a modern Wilt the Stilt's numbers might look a little more like this:
In the 2013/14 season, his career numbers would put him fourth in PPG, first in RPG and a respectable 40th in APG.
So let's have a look at how that compares to the top five current centers, as rated by PAR.
Joakim Noah has been a solid presence for the Bulls for years.
Joakim Noah has been providing a steady presence under the rim for the Chicago Bulls for a number of years now. He doesn't put up huge numbers, but he is consistent. At 11.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, his 27.1 PAR is something the Bulls can count on year in and year out.
In this competition, however, Noah would be badly overmatched. He's giving up two inches and 20-80 lbs when faced up against Wilt (Chamberlain entered the NBA at 250 lbs and bulked up to over 300 by the end of his career). The Big Dipper has a massive advantage in scoring ability and rebounding, although Noah is a consistent passer and knows how to find the open man.
Chamberlain would be able to manhandle Noah all game long and win this battle pretty easily.
Nikola Pekovic has averaged 18.1 points so far this season.
Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves has averaged 18.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game so far this year for a very solid 28.6 PAR.
Now in his fourth season, he's one of the up-and-coming stars in the league and a critical piece of the Timberwolves future.
Pekovic's across-the-board numbers don't seem to be much of a match for Chamberlain. His points per game are 7.6 worse than Wilt's, he doesn't distribute the ball to open teammates as well, earning 3.1 fewer assists per game, and The Big Dipper would dominate Pekovic on the boards, pulling down 5.9 more rebounds per game.
Pekovic would be giving up two inches and the edge in athleticism and as a result would struggle mightily to contain Chamberlain.
Not much question Wilt wins this battle.
Pau Gasol is having yet another good season with the Lakers.
Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers is in his 13th NBA season and is continuing to put up consistent numbers (16.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG and 3.4 APG). He's one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing Lakers season.
Like Pekovic, Gasol would be giving up some size when matching up against Chamberlain. He's an inch shorter and, at 250 lbs, would likely be giving up some weight too, putting him at a disadvantage from the opening tip-off.
Gasol is much better at passing the ball than Pekovic, which makes him more competitive against Wilt, but he's still going to get pushed around under the rim, giving up points and boards and losing the competition.
Dwight Howard is considered by many to be the best center in the NBA.
Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets seems to be happier this year, as a big fish in a small pond, than he was last year as a small fish in the big pond that is the Los Angeles Lakers. His per-game averages of 18.1 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists are all up from last season.
Howard could prove to be a challenge for Wilt. He's quick for a big man and one of the top rebounders in the NBA.
Chamberlain's superior scoring and rebounding skills, not to mention his size and weight advantage, would put him over the top. But even if Howard were able to shut Wilt down under the net, he simply can't involve the rest of his team the way Wilt could, and that gives The Big Dipper the advantage.
DeMarcus Cousins is a good as there is in the NBA right now.
DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings is getting better and better with each passing year, putting up career bests in points (22.6), rebounds (11.6) and assists (1.8). Midway through his fourth NBA season, Cousins is looking like the next big thing.
At 6'11" Cousins is another center who would be giving up a couple inches of height and possibly some weight to Chamberlain, but his numbers compare pretty favorably to Wilt's. Per the adjusted stats I applied to Chamberlain (see Slide 1), Cousins gives up just 3.1 points and 3.6 rebounds to the Stilt. So he could likely give Chamberlain a run for his money and match him shot for shot, board for board.
The final score might still be determined by passing skills. While Cousins might be able to play Chamberlain to a stalemate under the net, Wilt has the edge on getting the ball to the right man at the right time.
There are also a couple wild-card factors here.
Cousins is playing for a bad Kings team and likely gets more touches than he might otherwise on a team less dependent on him for scoring. By comparison, Chamberlain proved that when he went to the Philadelphia 76ers he could fundamentally change his game from shoot first to pass first when he had talent surrounding him.
I'm not convinced Cousins has that in his game.
The other wild card could be health. Cousins is day-to-day right now with a sprained ankle, which could slow him down in the short term and, depending on how bad it is, could nag him for the rest of the season.
I have to once more give the edge to Chamberlain in this matchup, but I think Cousins has the goods right now to give Wilt a serious battle near the rim.
No one was better than Chamberlain. Period.
It is difficult for modern basketball fans to comprehend just how good Wilt Chamberlain was. He played center like a point guard. He could out-run, out-jump, and out-muscle everyone in the NBA. He is revered to this day by workout partner Arnold Schwartzenegger who has said Chamberlain was as strong a man as he ever met.
The NBA right now is lacking real elite level centers. The fact that the recent all star voting produced no starting centers speaks volumes for how far the talent level at that position has slipped in recent years.
Chamberlain routinely faced Hall of Fame-caliber centers such as Bill Russell, Walt Ballamy, Willis Reed and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and still dominated his era statistically in a way no other NBA player has. There is little doubt in my mind, as a result, that he'd dominate this era as well when there really isn't a future Hall of Famer in the league today.
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