There seems to be little that stirs up more passion amongst NBA fans than the discussion about who the greatest player of all time is. Wilt Chamberlain versus Michael Jordan, with the occasional well deserved plug for some of the other all-time greats.
With all the media hype of Jordan’s Hall of Fame induction and calls by some that Jordan should have gone into the Hall by himself, perhaps some objective reflection is in order.
In all fairness, comparing players from different teams in the same era is challenging enough that comparing players who never even faced each other and played different positions must be near impossible.
Arguments often start with championships won, personal awards received, and stories about how good a player was, but none of these are truly objective.
Championships are won by teams. No player of any era has ever been good enough to will a bad team to a championship by themselves and it would be completely unreasonable to expect this.
On a solely championship criteria, neither Jordan nor Chamberlain should even be in the conversation as Bill Russell has them out-classed by near double and more.
Awards, especially all-star selections, are based as much on popularity and marketing as actual achievement. Both Chamberlain and Jordan were deserving of many more awards than they were actually given. The selection of league MVP is extremely subjective.
And stories of greatness are more related to the age of the player and the fan, the media accessibility of the league, and the time in which a player enjoyed their career.
The NBA has gone from a league that was primarily a live spectator sport to a league that is primarily a live TV event. Players like Chamberlain and Russell never enjoyed the media coverage of today’s or even Jordan’s era.
Wilt Chamberlain played in an era when many fans never even had the opportunity to see him play, even on TV. Jordan’s era didn’t have the unending in-depth TV and internet coverage provided by today’s media either (but it was still very good coverage).
NBA never recorded many of today’s important official statistics during Chamberlain’s era such as blocks and steals. Many rules changed after Chamberlain entered the league and they continue to change up to our present era.
Unfortunately even statistics covering the earlier parts of Jordan’s amazing career are not easily found.
So, doing the best one can with the hard data that is available and trying hard not to be swayed by team awards, individual awards, the unavailability of key statistics, media generated fame and “stories” of greatness, here are some objective comparisons between two of the NBA’s greatest players.
During their rookie seasons, Wilt Chamberlain (”WC”) and Michael Jordan (”MJ”) posted the following hard statistics:
- Points: WC = 2,707; MJ = 2,313
- Assists: WC = 168; MJ = 481
- Rebounds: WC = 1,941; MJ = 534
- FG%: WC = 46.1%; MJ = 51.5%
- Minutes Played: WC = 3,338; MJ = 3,144
Their rookie playoff statistics were:
- Games Played: WC = 9; MJ = 4
- Minutes Played: WC = 415; MJ = 171
- Points: WC = 299; MJ = 117
- Assists: WC = 19; MJ = 34
- Rebounds: WC = 232; MJ = 23
- FG%: WC = 49.6%; MJ = 43.6%
Their personal best game hi-lights included:
- Points: WC = 100; MJ = 69
- Rebounds: WC = 55; MJ = 18
Their personal bests for a season included:
- Minutes Played: WC = 3,882; MJ = 3,311
- Points: WC = 4,029*; MJ = 3,041
- Assists: WC = 702; MJ = 650
- Rebounds: WC = 2,149*; MJ = 652
- FG%: WC = 72.7%; MJ = 53.9%
* Chamberlain scored 3,000+ points in a season 3 times and 2,000+ rebounds in a season twice.
Their personal bests in a playoff season were:
- Games Played: WC = 18; MJ = 22
- Minutes Played: WC = 851; MJ = 920
- Points: WC = 420; MJ = 759
- Assists: WC = 135; MJ = 142
- Rebounds: WC = 444; MJ = 150
- FG%: WC = 57.9%; MJ = 53.1%
For their illustrious careers, their regular season statistics were:
- Games Played: WC = 1,045; MJ = 1,072
- Minutes Played: WC = 47,859; MJ = 41,010
- Points: WC = 31,419; MJ = 32,292
- Assists: WC = 4,643; MJ = 5,633
- Rebounds: WC = 23,924; MJ = 6,672
- FG%: WC = 54%; MJ = 49.7%
In their illustrious playoff careers, their statistics were:
- Games Played: WC = 160; MJ = 179
- Minutes Played: WC = 7,559; MJ = 7,474
- Points: WC = 3,607; MJ = 5,987
- Assists: WC = 673; MJ = 1,022
- Rebounds: WC = 3,913; MJ = 1,152
- FG%: WC = 52.2%; MJ = 48.7%
Each player dominated during their own era. One can use selective data to make solid objective arguments as to why one is better than the other. But taking into account one player was a center and one player was a wing, it gets much harder to see how either was really significantly “better”.
The NBA has declared that “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time” But in fairness to all the great players who came before him, isn’t declaring Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player of his time enough.
Click here for more on Wilt Chamberlain’s career.