Why Wilt Chamberlain Is Better Than Bill Russell

Gabriel TaylorAnalyst IMay 21, 2009

7 Feb 1997: Wilt Chamberlain gets interviewed during Media Day for the All-Star Game at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio.

Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? A pretty good debate, but not quite as good as the debate between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Wilt Chamberlain is the best player in NBA history not named Michael Jordan.

Bill Russell is the greatest winner in American sports with 11 championships in 13 seasons ('57, '59-66, '68,'69). 

Did I mention Russell came to the NBA having won the last two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal? That's 13 championships in 15 years. All this man did was win.

But those who say Russell, the ultimate team player, was a better player than Chamberlain are sadly mistaken.

Which teams won more championships: Chamberlain's teams or Russell's teams?

The answer is obvious: Russell's.

Russell's teams were loaded. His college and Olympic teams featured fellow Hall of Famer K.C. Jones. His Celtics teams featured seven future Hall of Famers.

While Russell, along with fellow Boston Celtics rookie and Hall of Famer Tom Heinsohn, joined a Celtics team that had a winning record and already featured three Hall of Famers—Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy and Frank Ramsey—Chamberlain joined a Philadelphia Warriors squad that had a losing record and one Hall of Famer, Paul Arizin.

Russell came into the league in 1956 and Heinsohn, his teammate, was named Rookie of the Year and another Celtic, Bob Cousy was named MVP.

Chamberlain came into the league in 1959 and was named MVP and Rookie of the Year.

Though many feel Chamberlain wasn't a team player, he won two championships.

After leading the league in scoring his first seven seasons, Chamberlain adjusted his style for the 1966-67 season. He averaged a career-high 7.8 assists per game while winning his eighth consecutive rebounding title.

His Philadelphia 76ers team—which featured two other Hall of Famers, Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer—set an NBA record with 68 wins and only 13 losses in the regular season before defeating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals on its way to capturing the 1967 NBA championship.

Chamberlain's 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers team won an American professional sports record 33 games in a row and broke the 76ers' NBA record for wins, finishing 69-13 in the regular season.

It's no coincidence that Chamberlain played on two different teams that broke the NBA records for wins.

But the ultimate challenge in comparing individual players in team sports is whether to include the number of wins and championships. 

By this logic, Russell would be the greatest basketball player ever (and many think that he is).

Yet, if we compare individual stats, Chamberlain beats Russell hands down.

Wilt Chamberlain was the most dominant player in NBA history.

In head-to-head matchups vs. Russell, Chamberlain scored more points, grabbed more rebounds, passed for more assists...and lost more games.

The 1961-62 season encapsulates their rivalry.

In typical fashion the Celtics won their fifth consecutive champioship but Chamberlain had one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history.

A regulation NBA game lasts 48 minutes. Chamberlain averaged NBA-record 48.5 minutes per game in 1961-62.

He...AVERAGED...50...points...a...game in 1961-62.

The same year he scored NBA-record 100 points in a single game (Russell averaged a career-best 18.9 points/game in '61-'62), led the league with 25.7 rebounds per game and he converted a career-high 61.3 percent of his free throws. 

However, in the playoffs Russell's Celtics defeated Chamberlain's Warriors in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals before winning another grueling seven-game series against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Most likely many of Chamberlain's indivual records are as unattainable as Russell's team achievements.

He led the league in minutes per game nine times. He still holds the record at 45.8 mpg for his career.

His 50.4 ppg in 1961-62 is an NBA record along with his 27.2 rpg game in 1960-61.

Chamberlain never fouled out of a game.

He won 11 rebounding titles, seven scoring titles and played for two record-setting NBA championship teams.

A 7'1" center, Chamberlain led the league in total assists in 1967-68, averaging 8.6 assists a game (2nd place). Chamberlain is the only center to lead the league in assists (Russell's career-best average was 5.3 assists/game in 1964-65).

Sounds like a team player to me.

Bill Russell was no slouch and his leadership and championship mentality are unmatched. He was a great defender and won five rebounding titles, averaging 22.5 rpg for his career (second to Chamberlain).

Chamberlain was a better all-around player, offensive force, rebounder and defender. 

Wins, championships...those are TEAM achievements.

Points, rebounds, assists, minutes played and field goal percentage are measurable, individual statistics.

For years, no team could beat the Celtics. But that doesn't mean Chamberlain wasn't better than Russell.

It only means that the Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s were as dominant a team as Chamberlain was a player.


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