Michael Jordan is regarded to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, and with six championships, five regular-season MVP awards, and six Finals MVP awards it would be hard to argue. Jordan also has the highest scoring average of all-time but he is not greatest player ever and here is why.
By the Numbers
When you compare their numbers Jordan's are the more sexier by comparison: 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists to Russell's 15.1 PPG, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Who knows how many blocked shots Russell had; that stat was not kept during his career.
Russell did not have to score 25 to 30 points a game—he had players like Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones, who all averaged more than 20 points a game at some in point in their careers.
Russell did what was necessary for the Celtics to win and that was to rebound and defend. In the history of the NBA no one has ever done those two things better. Russell's 22.5 rebounds a game is only second to Wilt Chamberlain's 22.9 and Russell did this at 6'9".
If Michael Jordan had played with two or three other players that averaged near 20 points a game, would his scoring numbers had been what they were?
The Early Years
From 1987 to 1990 Michael Jordan was putting up out of this world numbers offensively and he was also making the all defense team on the regular. Jordan was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. But there was the Detroit Pistons who knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs three consecutive seasons.
Russell had no such road block, as his Celtics would win nine championships in 10 years, including an unprecedented eight straight from 1959 to 1967. That streak is the longest in U.S professional sports history.
Level of Competition
During Bill Russell's career there were between 8 to 14 teams in the NBA, at least half of those teams had one Hall of Fame player on it some had two or three. In winning six of his 11 championships Russell had to go through the vaunted Lakers, winning three seven-game series against them.
The Lakers featured super stars like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Frank Selvy, and later on Wilt Chamberlain. The Lakers were just as talented as the Celtics, but could never beat them in Finals.
By comparison, when Jordan's Bulls were championship-ready, there was nothing that stood in their way. When the Bulls beat the Lakers in 1991 for the first of six championships, that Laker team had over achieved to get to the Finals.
By that time the Lakers, Celtics and Pistons had gotten old, clearing the path for the Bulls to dominate, also with expansion came the water downing of talent in the NBA. During Jordan's career, Miami, Charlotte, Orlando, Toronto, Minnesota, and Vancouver all came into the league. Combine that with players leaving college early or coming directly out of high school, and you were lucky to see a boarder line All-Star on each team.
In the Clutch
Both players have great playoff numbers for their careers, Jordan averaged 33 PTS, 6.4 REB and 5.7 AST, all up from his career regular season numbers. Bill Russell's numbers were better during the postseason as well: 16.2 PTS, 25 REB and 4.7 AST.
But what separates Russell is that his teams were 11-0 in deciding games including 10-0 in Game Sevens. Russell would average 18 points and 29 rebounds in those games.
The Final Analysis
As great and transcending of a figure that Michael Jordan was there are some flaws in his career, like his early struggles against Detroit or his third comeback with the Wizards, which was all about him and not the team.
I also believe Jordan's defensive reputation is misleading. He was named first team all defense nine times, during the first half of his career there was no debate about that, but in the second half it was Scottie Pippen drawing the toughest defensive assignments.
Pippen guarded the likes of Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill and in the 1991 Finals Magic Johnson.
With Russell there are no holes in his career—he went out a champion and also won a championship as a player-coach, so I will take Russell's winning over Jordan's individual brilliance.