Why Wilt Chamberlain Will Always Be Just Behind Michael Jordan

Steven ResnickSenior Writer IAugust 4, 2010

There's been an interesting debate that has been stirred up in regards to who the greatest player in NBA history is. The debate centers around Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain. 

While it is tough to determine who's the greatest, the edge goes to Jordan, and I'll go over why. The truth is that it's very difficult to compare the eras both played in, as well as the fact that Jordan and Chamberlain played two completely different positions with different responsibilities.

Also, what's difficult to see is who left their mark defensively because during Chamberlain's time, blocks and steals were not recorded and All-Defensive teams were around, but only towards the latter part of his career. 

The first player I will examine is Chamberlain. Let's start off with his accolades, accomplishments, and then examine the era he played in. 

For his career, Chamberlain ranks first in NBA history with 23,924 rebounds, first in minutes per game at 45.8, first in rebounds per game average at 22.9, averaged 30.1 points - which is good for second, third in field goals with 12,681, fifth in minutes played with 47,859 and sixth in field goal attempts. 

In terms of recognition, he won the 1959-1960 Rookie of the Year award, won four Most Valuable Player awards, one Finals MVP, was a seven-time First Team All-NBA selection and a three-time Second Team All-NBA selection. 


As for the playoffs, Chamberlain ranks second with 3,913 rebounds, second in rebounds per game with 24.5 and fourth in free throw attempts with 1627.

Looking at the numbers in his 14 seasons, they definitely were impressive, but most people aren't happy with just numbers. 

In fact, there's a comment I ran across today regarding Chamberlain: "You can't base Wilt's dominance on statistics because there was no competition in his era."

The problem with that statement is that Chamberlain had competition: Bill Russell, Walt Bellamy, Dolph Schayes, Nate Thurmond, Jerry Lucas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Petit, Elvin Hayes, Willis Reed, and the list could go on and on for big men of that era. 

It wasn't exactly the lack of big men in the era that puts Chamberlain a step below Jordan; in actuality, it was the guard play.

There's no question that guards could score in Chamberlain's era, but they were not efficient scorers and assist numbers from point guards weren't impressive either. 

Looking at Chamberlain's rebounding numbers, they were tremendous, but it doesn't take long to figure out that there were other big men putting up big-time numbers as well.

Take a look at Walt Bellamy's rookie season in 1961-1962. Bellamy averaged 31.6 points, 19 rebounds and 2.7 assists, on 51.9 percent shooting - which led the NBA - and he shot 64.4 percent from the free throw line. 


In Chamberlain's era, the lower field goal percentages explain why you see guys like Bellamy, Bill Russell, Chamberlain and others put up big rebounding numbers.

Having a center in that era shoot better than 50 percent from the field was a major accomplishment. 

Here's a list of how many players shot better than 50 percent throughout the years that Chamberlain was in the NBA: 

1959-1960: 0

1960-1961: 1

1961-1962: 2

1962-1963: 5

1963-1964: 3

1964-1965: 2

1965-1966: 4

1966-1967: 3

1967-1968: 6

1968-1969: 7

1970-1971: 8

1971-1972: 10

1972-1973: 11

On average, only four players a season would shoot better than 50 percent during Chamberlain's career.


Let's take a look at some of the guards from that era to put that stat into context. Bob Cousy, a Hall of Famer from the Boston Celtics, had a field goal percentage of 38.4 percent during Chamberlain's time in the league.

Guy Rodgers, a teammate of Chamberlain's, shot 37.7 percent from the field, McCoy McLemore shot 39.4 percent, Nate Thurmond 41.2 percent, Fred Hetzel 42.1 percent and Paul Arizin 42 percent.

There's many more players who didn't shoot the basketball very well at that time, but it's also interesting to see the team shooting percentages.

In 1959-1960, the Philadelphia Warriors shot 40.9 percent, Detroit Pistons 39.7 percent, Minneapolis Lakers 38.6 percent, Cincinnati Royals 41.2 percent, Syracuse Nationals 41.4 percent, Boston Celtics 41.7 percent, St. Louis Hawks 41.9 percent and the New York Knicks 42.1 percent. 

1960-1961: Celtics 39.8 percent, Lakers 40.3 percent, Knicks 41 percent, Hawks 41.1 percent, Pistons 41.7 percent, Nationals 41.8 percent, Warriors 42.4 percent and Royals 43.8 percent. 

1961-1962: Chicago Packers 41.2 percent, Pistons 41.5 percent, Knicks 41.8 percent, Nationals 41.8 percent, Celtics 42.3 percent, Lakers 42.7 percent, Hawks 43 percent, Warriors 43.9 percent and Royals 45.2 percent. 

1962-1963: Celtics 42.7 percent, Knicks 42.9 percent, Hawks 43.1 percent, Pistons 43.2 percent, Lakers 44.1 percent, Nationals 44.5 percent, Warriors 45 percent, Chicago Zephyrs 45.3 percent and Royals 45.9 percent. 


1963-1964: Celtics 41.3 percent, Philadelphia 76ers 41.8 percent, Pistons 42.1 percent, Hawks 43 percent, Warriors 43.8 percent, Lakers 44 percent, Baltimore Bullets 44 percent, Knicks 44.5 percent and Royals 45.3 percent.

1964-1965: Warriors 40.3 percent, Celtics 41.4 percent, Pistons 41.8 percent, 76ers 42.2 percent, Hawks 42.4 percent, Knicks 42.6 percent, Lakers 43.7 percent, Bullets 44.2 percent and Royals 44.7 percent.

1965-1966: Pistons 40.9 percent, Celtic 41.7 percent, Warriors 41.8 percent, Hawks 43.1 percent, Bullets 43.8 percent, Royals 44.4 percent, Lakers 44.4 percent, 76ers 44.6 percent and Knicks 45 percent.

1966-1967: Pistons 41.2 percent, Chicago Bulls 41.9 percent, Bullets 42.7 percent, Warriors 43.3 percent, Hawks 44.3 percent, Celtics 44.7 percent, Lakers 44.7 percent, Royals 44.9 percent, Knicks 45.3 percent and 76ers 48.3 percent.

1967-1968: San Diego Rockets 41.7 percent, Warriors 42.3 percent, Bulls 42.9 percent, Bullets 43.8 percent, Seattle Supersonics 43.9 percent, Celtics 44 percent, Pistons 44.8 percent, Hawks 45.1 percent, Knicks 45.6 percent, Royals 46.8 percent, 76ers 47.1 percent and Lakers 47.7 percent. 

1968-1969: Warriors 41.5 percent, Bulls 41.8 percent, Milwaukee Bucks 42.8 percent, Rockets 42.8 percent, Phoenix Suns 43 percent, Celtics 43.1 percent, Supersonics 43.5 percent, Bullets 44 percent, Pistons 45.1 percent, 76ers 45.4 percent, Knicks 45.9 percent, Hawks 46 percent, Royals 46 percent and Lakers 46.9 percent. 


1969-1970: Warriors 43.2 percent, Rockets 43.6 percent, Celtics 44.3 percent, Bulls 44.4 percent, Royals 45.5 percent, Bullets 45.8 percent, Lakers 46.1 percent, Supersonics 46.2 percent, Pistons 46.6 percent, Suns 46.8 percent, 76ers 46.9 percent, Knicks 47.7 percent, Hawks 48.3 percent and Bucks 48.8 percent. 

1970-1971: Rockets 42.1 percent, Cleveland Cavaliers 42.4 percent, Portland Trail Blazers 43.5 percent, Buffalo Braves 43.6 percent, Suns 43.7 percent, Bullets 44.2 percent, Celtics 44.2 percent, Warriors 44.8 percent, Pistons 44.9 percent, Knicks 45 percent, 76ers 45 percent, Bulls 45.2 percent, Royals 45.4 percent, Supersonics 45.6 percent, Hawks 46.5 percent, Lakers 47.6 percent and Bucks 50.9 percent. 

1971-1972: Cavaliers 42.8 percent, Rockets 43.4 percent, Warriors 43.9 percent, Trail Blazers 44.2 percent, 76ers 44.4 percent, Bullets 45 percent, Braves 45.1 percent, Bulls 45.1 percent, Celtics 45.3 percent, Pistons 45.4 percent, Suns 45.7 percent, Knicks 45.9 percent, Royals 45.9 percent, Hawks 46 percent, Supersonics 46.4 percent, Lakers 49 percent and Bucks 49.8 percent. 

1972-1973: 76ers 42 percent, Cavaliers 43.5 percent, Bulls 44.4 percent, Celtics 44.8 percent, Braves 44.9 percent, Supersonics 44.9 percent, Warriors 45.5 percent, Suns 45.5 percent, Rockets 45.7 percent, Trail Blazers 45.8 percent, Hawks 46.1 percent, Pistons 46.3 percent, Bullets 46.4 percent, Knicks 46.7 percent, Kansas City-Omaha Kings 47.8 percent, Lakers 47.8 percent and Bucks 48.1 percent. 


According to these numbers, only one team in the 14 years that Chamberlain was in the NBA shot better than 50 percent, and that was the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970-1971. 

Now field goal percentage isn't the only thing that keeps Chamberlain from being the greatest of all time. Chamberlain has two championship rings and in seven Finals appearances, his teams went 2-5.

There's no question that Chamberlain was a dominating force in the regular season, and the NBA will never again see a player average 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds in a season. Also, the NBA will struggle to find a center among the leaders in assists with Chamberlain accomplishing that feat a total of four times, including leading the league in total assists (702) and coming in second in assists per game (8.6) once.

It also wasn't like Chamberlain didn't have help either. As a Warrior, he played with Hall of Famers Tom Gola, Paul Arizin and Nate Thurmond. When he was with the 76ers, he played with Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham. Finally, with the Lakers he had Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. 

So, in total, he played with eight Hall of Famers.

He faced three teams in the Finals, the Boston Celtics, San Francisco Warriors and the New York Knicks. 


Those teams had players like Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond, Bailey Howell, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Earl Monroe. 

Chamberlain definitely had competition in the Finals when he got there, but there's something to be said about dominating in the regular season and then dominating in the playoffs. 

Speaking of that, now it's time to take a look at why Jordan just edges out Chamberlain. Since there were no All-NBA Defensive Team selections during a majority of Chamberlain's career, I'm going to leave those out. 

Jordan ranks first all time in points per game with an average of 30.1, third in points with 32,292 points, third in field goal attempts, fourth in field goals, fourth in free throws and ninth in free throws attempted. 

Accolades include a Rookie of the Year award like Chamberlain, five Most Valuable Player awards, and going further and showing his dominance - six Finals Most Valuable Player awards. 

For the playoffs, Jordan is tops all time in points per game at 33.4, first in points, first in field goals attempted, first in free throws, second in free throw attempts, second in field goals and seventh in assists. 

As for competition, Jordan had to play not only against some of the greatest big men in NBA history, but some of the best guards as well. These names include Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Gary Payton, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin McHale, Dominique Wilkins, Chris Webber, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, David Robinson and plenty more. 


In Jordan's era, players were far more efficient scoring the basketball and point guards put up impressive assist numbers. 

What about the field goal percentages of players? Did they differ from Chamberlain's time? Well, 50 percent shooting wasn't a big deal anymore as players got more fundamentally sound and shot the ball increasingly well. 

To give you a hint, in 1984-1985, Jordan's rookie season, every player who made the Top 20 in field goal percentage shot better than 50 percent from the field. 

What's even more impressive is the number of teams that shot better than 50 percent for the season. Here's a look at those teams throughout Jordan's career. 

1984-1985: 7

1985-1986: 5

1986-1987: 3

1987-1988: 2

1988-1989: 2

1989-1990: 1

1990-1991: 2

1991-1992: 2

1992-1993: 0

1994-1995: 2

1995-1996: 0


1996-1997: 1

1997-1998: 0

2001-2002: 0

2002-2003: 0

If you recall, only one team in Chamberlain's career shot better than 50 percent in a season and that was the Royals. In Jordan's time in the league, 27 teams shot better than 50 percent from the field in a season. 

That's one of the reasons why in Jordan's era, and in the NBA today, there will not be a player who averages 20 rebounds a night. It's also a reason why grabbing 20 rebounds in a game today is a significant accomplishment because shooting the basketball has come such a long way from when Chamberlain was playing. 

Before Chamberlain came into the league, look at any year and at any team: shooting better than 40 percent was difficult. For example, look at the 1956-1957 NBA Champion Boston Celtics — only two players shot better than 40 percent. 

So, what NBA fans have seen is how the level of competition has gotten better throughout the years. 

And it's not just about field goal percentage, as Jordan dominated the Finals unlike Chamberlain. Jordan appeared in six NBA Finals and the Bulls came out on top every time. 

As I mentioned before, Chamberlain played with eight Hall of Famers during his career, but what about Jordan? Jordan had just one other Hall of Fame teammate, Scottie Pippen.


What about the teams that the Bulls beat? What Hall of Fame players did Jordan go up against? James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and Karl Malone. 

Chamberlain went up against more Hall of Famers in the Finals, but he also had more help than Jordan.

Ultimately, the determination of the greatest player in NBA history is very difficult.

Jordan beats Chamberlain out because of the six rings, the domination in the playoffs and his superior competition.


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