Bill Russell: The Greatest Shot Blocker of All Time

Richard JTContributor IIIAugust 6, 2010

"The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot."

The quote speaks for itself.

Speaking about shot blocking, almost all of you will know Hakeem Olajuwon's name, since he holds the records for most blocked shots of all time.

Well, sorry to break it to Olajuwon fans, but keep in mind that blocked shots (and steals) weren't an official NBA stat during the careers of Russell and Chamberlain—otherwise, they'd be No. One and Two (or Two and One) in that category.

While blocks were not an official stat, newspaper accounts of games involving Wilt and Russell would often mention how many shots they blocked—it was not unusual for them to block six to eight shots in a typical game.

I'm not saying that's what they averaged. I'm just mentioning that it was common for them to have numbers like that. Both players and referees confirmed those numbers in subsequent interviews over the years.

Both official scorers and sportswriters would frequently count the number of blocks that Chamberlain and Russell had during their games for reporting purposes, even though the NBA did not officially recognize blocked shots as an official stat until the 1973-74 season (the year after Wilt retired).

A number of players and writers said that Wilt actually blocked more shots than Russell because Wilt would go after almost everything, while Russell would pick his spots.

Wilt liked the spectacle of knocking a shot into the bleachers, while Russell would often let his man get off shots during most of the game, and then "decided" to block those same shots in the fourth quarter.

In his first NBA game against the Knicks, Wilt scored 43 points, had 28 rebounds, and according to press reports, blocked 17 shots.

Referees who officiated a lot of Chamberlain's and Russell's games said that both of them probably averaged at least six to eight blocks per game over their careers, which would put both of them ahead of the "official" all-time leaders by a comfortable margin. 

Six blocks a game is certainly reasonable, given hundreds of press reports on their games during their careers that address that very topic.

Six would be a good minimum estimate. I'm sure there were streaks when they'd average 10-12 per game for a while—I just don't know that they did that for their entire careers, as some have suggested, including many people who followed their careers.

Plus, after a while, opponents would avoid the Chamberlain/Russell patrolled areas near the basket precisely because of the shot-blocking threat.

Such evasive maneuvers can often limit the number of shots they actually blocked during certain stretches of their games.

Eight to ten would not be unreasonable. One other reason I say that is because both of these guys were on the court all the time. Wilt averaged 46 minutes per game over his entire career, while Russell averaged 42 mpg (about 44 to 45 in his prime).

So Wilt would only sit out about one minute in each half, while Russell would sit about two minutes per half. They were out there ALL THE TIME. So three to four blocks per half is not unreasonable at all.

Russell perfected the art of shot-blocking in such a way as to avoid all three possible pitfalls of shot-blocking (i.e. (1) fouling the shooter, (2) knocking the ball out of bounds so the other team retains possession, and (3) goaltending.)

Although Russell perfected the art of shot blocking, I think Wilt probably had more blocks over his career. The thing about Russell is, once he established himself as a defensive force, he tended to pick his spots to block his opponent's shots.

Wilt tended to go after everything. And he had enough of them to make me think he probably did block more shots than Russell.

Russ, however, often beats Wilt in the QUALITY of his blocks. Wilt has the habit of sending the ball out of bounds when blocking a shot. Crowd pleasing, sure, but it's not smart to give your opponent another go at the basket. 

In contrast, Russell applies a light touch to his blocked shots—tapping it towards a teammate or tapping it upwards to transform the block into a rebounding opportunity.  It's no exaggeration to say that when Russell blocks a shot, it virtually becomes a four point swing in favor of his Celtic team.

When Wilt joined the Lakers in 1968, he would still sometimes swat a shot into the stands. I believe he did that in order to maximize the intimidation factor.

His coach, Butch van Breda Kolff, complained to Wilt that knocking the ball out of bounds allows the opponent to retain possession of the ball. Kolff pointed out that Russell kept the ball in play when he blocked shots.

Wilt snapped back that "Boston players are COACHED to retrieve Russell's blocked shots," implying that van Breda Kolff didn't coach Laker players to play that way—therefore what's the use of keeping the ball in play?

But every book I've read on the subject (e.g. "Tall Tales" by Terry Pluto) would indicate that the men who were involved in the NBA during the '60s pretty much all agreed that Wilt probably blocked more shots than Russell.

Consider the Lakers' 33 game win streak in 1972. Wilt was past his prime by then (back in the 69-70 season, he'd had knee surgery that would have ended the careers of most players) and was not as mobile as he once had been, though he was still in great shape.

Click this (The source)

So in that context, a player like Hakeem Olajuwon would be no better than fourth on the all-time blocked shot list, had the stat been kept by the NBA from day one. He might even be No. 5; I think Nate Thurmond probably would have blocked more shots in his prime than Olajuwon.

Both Russell and Wilt would also be high up on the steals list (for a center) had that been an official stat as well during their careers.