A Brief Introduction:
He put up statistics that no one else has ever come close to matching and dominated the league in a way that no one else ever will, yet he often fails to receive the respect that he greatly deserves.
In conversations about the greatest of all time, he is often relegated to a lower spot on the list, as his detractors claim that he dominated poor opposition, put up statistics at the expense of his team, and was a bad teammate on and off the court and a loser who could never carry his team to victory. Furthermore, they say he wouldn’t be as great if he played in today’s NBA.
In this article, I will focus largely on the last claim, although along the way, I will discount some of the others I mentioned as well.
Before I begin, let me make my mission statement crystal clear: I intend to show that Wilt Chamberlain possessed the ability to play at an All-Time level in any NBA era.
First, let’s take a look at Wilt’s career and see just how great he was.
When Wilt entered the league in 1959, he immediately dominated.
In his first season, he averaged 37.6 points and an absurd 27 rebounds per game, leading the league in both categories. Wilt’s most impressive performances in his rookie season included a 41-40 game (in just the third game of his career), a 44-45 game, a 43-rebound game, a 44-42 game against Bill Russell and a 58-42 game, as well as numerous other high-scoring games.
(For comparison, only two people besides Wilt and Russell ever grabbed 40 or more rebounds in a game and only Wilt ever notched a 40-40.)
For the next six years, Wilt controlled his opponents in similar fashion–his averages for the first half of his career are 39.5 points per game and 24.9 rebounds per game, including a 50.4 PPG season and a 27.2 RPG season, both NBA records.
However, despite his individual performance, Wilt’s teams never managed to win an NBA Finals, and Wilt gained a reputation of a loser whose first concern was individual statistics rather than team achievements, and a notoriously poor teammate both on and off the court.
In 1966, however, things changed for Wilt.
The ‘76ers hired Alex Hannum, who convinced Wilt to focus on winning a championship through good teamwork, rather than by trying to score all of his team’s points. Wilt’s scoring dropped sharply (over the second half of his career, he averaged only 20.7 PPG), but this was because he lowered his field goals attempted per game from an absurd 31.4 to 13.6.
Furthermore, Wilt both increased his accuracy (62.1% from the floor, up from 51.1%) and became a superb passer, utilizing his dominant presence in the paint to get his teammates open shots–in Wilt’s ninth season, he even led the NBA in assists.
This new attitude quickly paid off, and in the 1966-67 season, Wilt’s first with his new mindset, the Sixers won 68 games and beat the stacked Celtics behind a tremendous series from Wilt, which included a monster quadruple-double (24 points, 32 rebounds, 13 assists, 12 blocks), a 41-rebound game, and great defense against Russell.
In the next series, they beat the Warriors in six games and Wilt claimed his first championship.
In 1968, Wilt requested a trade to the Lakers, which he received.
He became the starting center of a team that included Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, but Wilt didn’t win his second title until 1972, when he played on a team with West, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillian, and Happy Hairston.
Wilt led the Lakers to a 69-13 record (including 33 straight victories), then bested Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his Bucks in the playoffs to take LA back to the Finals, where they beat the Knicks in five games. Wilt won the Finals MVP award despite playing with a broken hand for part of the series.
After that, Wilt played one more series with an injured team, led the league in rebounding for the eleventh time, set an NBA record for field goal percentage that has never been so much as approached (72.7%) and retired.
Throughout his career, Wilt put up incredibly gaudy statistics in many diverse categories.
He led the league in scoring seven times (consecutively) and no doubt could have continued to do so if he desired. (Along with the record for points in a game, he holds the record for points and PPG in a season, and it isn’t close.)
He led the league in rebounds eleven times, including the first four and last three seasons of his career. (He holds the record for rebounds and RPG in a season and holds the career rebounding title.)
He led the league in free throws attempted nine times (and made free throws twice), in field goals and field goals attempted seven times, in minutes eight times, and in field-goal percentage nine times (he holds the first- and second-highest field goal percentages in a season).
He is the only player to put up a double-triple-double (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists) or a quadruple double-double (40+ points and rebounds, which he did five times), and he has the record for consecutive triple-doubles with nine.
He even won the assists crown once, an astounding - an unmatched - feat for a center.
Despite playing enormous minutes, Wilt led the league in PER eight times, and earned more win shares than anyone else eight times as well.
Some people take this magnitude of statistical dominance to show that Wilt played mostly against 6’6" white centers, but this is false. During his career, Wilt played against at least twenty-five players who stood at 6’10 or taller.
Clearly, none of them were good enough to stand up against him (including the great Bill Russell, whom Wilt regularly dominated), but that doesn’t mean they were undersized or terrible. Furthermore, even if they were, to argue that Wilt couldn’t succeed today because he played against relatively weaker opposition is an abomination to logic. It is my contention that Wilt had everything he would need to be a powerful force in the game during any era, including the modern NBA.
Physically, Wilt was singularly gifted. He stood at 7’1" and weighed between 250 and 300 pounds at various points in his career. He had incredibly long arms and could nearly reach the basket standing flat-footed.
However, unlike many centers, he was also unbelievably athletic; he was a track and field star in college, and reportedly possessed a 48-inch vertical (although it was probably lower, it’s very likely that it was still greater than 40 inches, an unbelievable number for a 7-footer).
Wilt was always in tremendous shape and his conditioning was outstanding, as the fast pace of the 1960s required players to constantly race up and down the floor and Wilt never averaged fewer than 42 minutes per game; once, he even averaged an obscene 48.5 MPG, 30 seconds per game longer than regulation.
Wilt also possessed absurd strength, because there are stories of him bench-pressing 500 pounds, or picking up and throwing large teammates (or opponents) with ease.
Legend has it that Wilt was considered one of the strongest men in the world during his prime, which is made even more amazing by his height, which usually would preclude such feats.
There were also several aspects of Wilt’s game that are frequently forgotten.
First, although he could dunk over anyone, he also was a good shooter, and possessed a deadly fade-away jumper and finger-roll.
Second, beyond being the greatest scorer and rebounder the game has ever seen, Wilt was also a fantastic passer, and his league-leading 8.6 assist-per-game season tops the best season ever submitted by (to name a fairly random cross-section of guards and forwards) Derek Fisher (4.4 APG), Tony Parker (6.9 APG), Michael Jordan (8.0 APG), Larry Bird (7.6 APG), Penny Hardaway (7.2 APG), or Derrick Rose (7.8 APG), all of whom are generally considered to be better passers. Wilt is almost indisputably the best passing center ever and the combination of his dominance inside and his passing abilities made him a fantastic teammate to have on the floor.
Third, Wilt was an amazing defender. This is often forgotten, since many NBA fans see the two best players of the 1960s thus: Wilt was a tremendous scorer, Russell was a tremendous defender, and both were tremendous rebounders.
This perfunctory analysis fails to recognize that, while Russell really was a mediocre scorer, Wilt was, in fact, a dominant defender, and there are legendary tales of his shot-blocking prowess.
So How Does Wilt Match Up?
Let’s compare Wilt to the best center in the league today, Dwight Howard.
Dwight is a fantastic specimen: he stands 6’11" tall, weighs 265 pounds, and possesses outstanding strength and athleticism, especially for a player his height; his vertical is estimated to be close to 40 inches. Howard is a tremendous defender–he has won two consecutive Defensive Players of the Year award, and there is a good chance he will win his third this year, yet he is only 25 years old.
When he retires, Howard will go down in the record books as a rebounder and shot blocker and would likely present a challenging matchup for any historical center.
What about Wilt? Wilt has two inches and around 25 pounds on Dwight and his vertical may be as much as eight inches greater. Dwight is very strong, but Wilt was likely stronger.
Wilt has greater size, greater athleticism and greater strength.
I have frequently made the argument that players in earlier periods usually tended to be worse than players in the modern era, but there are certainly exceptions, of which Wilt and Russell are two–there is no reason to assume that Wilt was inherently worse than Dwight because he played in an earlier era.
One might argue that Dwight has a superior array of post moves, which is true, but that is entirely a product of his time.
I have no doubt that if Wilt had been born in 1982, he would have a fantastic repertoire of fakes and spins, but in the 1960's, he simply didn’t need them to dominate his opponents. Wilt also has a superior shot away from the basket, as his fade-away and finger-roll are much more accurate than Dwight’s.
Defensively, Wilt would likely be a tremendous shot blocker because of his great size and athleticism. He has all the requisite tools to dominate the current NBA, albeit not to the extent to which he dominated in the ‘60's.
There have been some rule changes since Wilt’s heyday, but he’s so physically gifted that he would probably be able to adapt to them with little trouble.
Wilt Chamberlain was an amazing player.
He was huge, incredibly athletic, and incomparably dominant. His individual accomplishments have never been so much as approached.
He set all-time records in scoring, rebounding, accuracy, durability and versatility.
He was amazingly multi-talented and somehow transformed his style of play halfway through his career from an unstoppable individual to a selfless teammate.
Wilt’s talents were so transcendent that he would have been a fantastic, Hall of Fame-caliber player in any era.