The Greatest Debate in NBA History: Wilt the Stilt or Bill Russell?

Matt RavidaCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2010

The Greatest Debate in NBA History: Wilt the Stilt or Bill Russell?

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    First off to start this article. For all those who do not think that this is a debate that has been very competitive and talked about for then any other debate in NBA history?

    Well even Wikipedia has a page on the Chamberlain vs. Russell rivalry.

    Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, the two best centers to ever play the game. 

    No matter who you compare the two, or who you choose, both centers have done enough in careers to make either one of them, the best center to ever play the game. 

    Whether is was Wilt, the scoring machine who could score 60 or more points with ease.

    Or, there was Russell, the rebounding magnet, and the perfect teammate. Oh yeah, he also won 11 NBA Championships in his 13-year career.

    There have been many articles on this website comparing the two, but I am hoping this article can give you a different perception on the debate between who was the better player.

    Here is a quick, no statistical bio, comparing the two different types of players we are talking about, before we compare.

    Wilt was the more talented of the two, and no one can or will deny that has played with or against the two. Russell always gave his Celtics the best chance to win a title.

    Wilt was the better player in the regular season, whereas Russell flourished in the playoffs.

    Wilt was non-existent in clutch or key situations, whereas Russell thrived in the intense situations.

    Wilt averaged 50 points a game in the 1961-62 season, that same season Russell was named the league's Most Valuable Player.

    Wilt was all about the stats, and many points or rebounds he got. Russell was simply obsessed with winning and winning titles.

    Chamberlain only cared what critics thought of him. Russell only cared what his teammates though of him.

    Wilt won two NBA titles. Russell won 11.

    As for how the list works, I will splitting it into six slides. The six slides with be the most unique and different perspectives on the two players.

    Some of these ideas have been compiled throughout the different articles and stories I have read comparing these two plays.

    Before anyone comments, "I am a Russell homer", I am not. I am the biggest Wilt Chamberlain homer there is. He is my favorite player ever since I was a young kid.

    I have memorized important dates of his accomplishments and even spent most of my money on a Wilt-autographed, game-used jersey. So I am the furthest thing from a Russell fan.

    I just am telling it how it is.

Russell Was not as Bad Offensively as He Was Claimed To Be

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    When it comes to the offensive side of the ball, Russell was never really given credit for being a great offensive player.

    He was overshadowed in this category because his main competition (Wilt), was putting up nearly 40 points a game throughout his whole career. 

    So of course, when it comes to comparing the two, Russell does seem to stand out on the offensive side.

    With that being said, there is more to offense than just scoring? Isn't there?

    Over the years, we have had three prolific passing centers. Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets, with his ability to grab rebounds and find the open outlet down the floor, or Bill Walton's un-selfish ways when playing for the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Lastly, there is Johnny Kerr, who was arguably the best passing center to ever play the game.

    But, then shortly after Kerr, came Russell.

    Once Bob Cousy retired, the whole Celtics offense went through Russell. They did not have a pure point guard, or a true scorer on the wing.

    So every possession down, Russell always touched the ball.

    Russell's Assists Averages After Cousy Retired

    1963-64: 4.7

    1964-65: 5.3

    1965-66: 4.8

    1966-67: 5.8

    1967-68: 4.6

    1968-69: 4.9 

    If you ever were able to watch Russell personally, or have the privilege to watch game film, you would see that Russell's passing abilities were second only to his defense.

    Russell was great at backing down defenders in the post and at the quick second find the open cutter trailing down the middle of the key.

    But Russ flourished in the open court game. Being able to grab rebounds or block shots and find the open guards streaking down the court.

    The great words spoken by the legendary Hondo, on behalf of his teammate. "Russell was the key to our offense, when it came to Russ, his defense was always talked about, but rather it wad his team-first mentality on the offensive side, being able to put aside the points, and become the best passer on our team".

    So why does Russell not get all the accolades for being a good offensive player? 

    Because many put points above unselfish passing.

    Or they do not know better, (Meaning never even seen Russell play once, and just go based on others when they say Russell could "only" block shots, grab rebounds, and play superb defense."

    In closing, Russell and myself, would be the first to admit that he was not the most dominating scorer, like his archrival, Wilt.

    But he will tell you that, thanks to his unselfish acts, and wanting to win more than score, his team almost always came on top against Wilt.

Without a Doubt, Wilt Destroyed Russell Statistically

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    To start off this comparison, there is no point in comparing Russell and Wilt when it comes to stats. Simply, because....its NO comparison. 

    Wilt's first nine seasons, were like no one else's ever!

    Chamberlain's Point and Rebound Averages for the First Nine Seasons

    1959-60: Points: 37.6 Rebounds: 27.6  (Rookie Season, Won ROY and MVP)

    1960-61: Points: 38.4 Rebounds: 27.2

    1961-62: Points: 50.4 Rebounds: 25.7

    1963-64: Points: 44.8 Rebounds: 24.3

    1964-65: Points: 36.9 Rebounds: 22.3

    1965-66: Points: 34.7 Rebounds: 22.9 (MVP)

    1966-67: Points: 33.5 Rebounds: 24.6 (MVP)

    1967-68: Points: 24.3 Rebounds: 23.8 (MVP and Led the League in Assists with 8.6)

    Russell's peak season came in 1960 when he averaged 18.2 points and 24.0 rebounds.

    So, the comparison of the two, is to the extreme that is no reason to place Russell's stats next to Wilt's. 

    But, Russell does own Wilt in some statistics that many may think is more important that scoring a lot of points, and grabbing a ton of rebounds. 

    Career Averages

    Chamberlain: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists

    Russell: 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists.

    Wilt 1 - Russell 0

    Head-to-Head Against One Another in 142 Games

    Chamberlain: 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds

    Russell: 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds

    Wilt 2 - Russell 0

    The Overall Record Between Each Other

    Chamberlain: 58-84

    Russell: 84-58

    Wilt 2 - Russell 1

    Playoff Career Averages

    Chamberlain: 22.5 points, 24.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 52% FG and 47% FT

    Russell: 16.2 points, 24.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 43% FG, 60% FT

    Chamberlain's numbers do drop a lot compared to his season averages, where as Russell is able to stay afloat at the same numbers. It is a tough decision to decided who wins.

    Wilt 3 - Russell 1

    Record in Conference and NBA Finals

    Chamberlain: 48-44

    Russell: 90-53

    Obvious winner here!

    Wilt 3 - Russell 2

    Record in the Decisive Game Seven Games

    Chamberlain: 4-5

    Russell: 10-0

    Russell always came to play when it mattered most. He always found a way to shut down Chamberlain when it came down to crunch time.

    Wilt 3 - Russell 3 

    Records When Facing Elimination

    Chamberlain: 10-11

    Russell: 16-2

    Wilt 3 - Russell 4

    NBA Rings

    I think this one is a bit too overwhelming. 

    Wilt: 2

    Russell: 11

    Wilt 3 - Russell 5 

    Statistically, Wilt was the greatest offensive beast to ever play the game. No on will argue that. If you do, you are a but delusional to say the least. No one could stop this guy.

    Well in the regular season. The words spoken from none other than Russell himself. 

    Saying that Wilt was the greatest regular-season player this game has eve seen, and himself (Russell) was the greatest post-season player. And he always knew how to beat Wilt and shut him down when it mattered most.

    To some, this comparison may mean nothing. But it is looking at all different aspects of the game. It just proves that Chamberlain was the better statistic player when it comes to scoring and grabbing rebounds.

    Whereas Russell killed Chamberlain in the winning games and championship categories. 

    It is simple, if you want a scoring machine that can put up 40 points and 20 rebounds a game with ease. Then Wilt is your guy.

    But if you want the ultimate team player, the guy will give up those same stats, just to win. Then Russell is clearly your guy.

Did Russell's Supporting Cast Blow Wilt's Out of the Water?

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    When it comes to the game of basketball, we always think of the best players to play the game, but we never give credit to those around the best players, or the teams involved. 

    Every year, history again proves itself, we always give the team with the best player the best chances to win a ring, hence LeBron James and the Cavaliers. But it was not even the Cavs that represented the East in the finals.

    It is just a known fact that we think the team with the best player(s) is the team that is always going to win.

    Take the '93 Suns. They were better than the Bulls, but Jordan played out of this world. And recently the '04 Pistons defeated the obviously more talented Lakers.

    With that being said, everyone thinks that Russell played with Hall of Famers only, and Wilt played with fat old bench players.

    (I am not sitting here saying that Russell's teammates were not better, I am saying that if Wilt was that much better than Russell, he along with these players should have done better.)

    I will break it down by seasons.

    Remember, everyone back in this era had great players because there were only 10 teams until 1967!

    1960: Boston beats Philly in six games, en route to a title. Russell played alongside Cousy, Heinsohn, both Jones, and Bill Sherman.

    Wilt, in his rookie season, just became the only player in history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP all in the same season. He played with ten straight all-star Paul Arizin, five straight all-star Tom Gola, and Guy Rodgers who made four all stars himself. 

    Sure the Celtics had more firepower than the Warriors. But on paper it was not blown out of the water.

    1961: Boston wins title number four, and Philly gets swept by a much weaker Syracuse Nationals team in the first round.

    1962: Boston beats Wilt in seven games on the way to another title.

    1963: Boston yet again wins another ring, Wilt's Warriors miss the playoffs. Even with Rodgers, Tom Meschery, Al Attles, and Wille Naulls. Wilt still did average 44.8 points a game though!

    1964: Cousy retires. But the Celtics still get by a star-studded Royals team. Led by Oscar Robertson and Rookie of the Year Jerry Lucas. Then they beat Wilt's Warriors, even with Nate Thurmond on the team.

    1965: Wilt gets traded to the 76ers mid way through the season, where his team matched the Celtics powerhouse, and forced the Celtics into seven games.

    Wilt's 76ers consisted of Hal Greer, Lucious Jackson, Chet Walker and Larry Costello. All players were all-stars, and Jackson finished in the top 10 in rebounding. 

    1966: This was Wilt's season to shine. The Celtics lost Heinsohn, KC Jones, was simply not the same, and they had to play role players the whole year.

    The 76ers had by far the better team in paper, but like always, the Celtics always found a way to beat the 76ers when it mattered most. Beating them in five games.

    1967: The year Wilt won his first title. Chamberlain along with superstar rookie, Billy Cunningham. The 76ers won 68 games, beat the Celtics in five games, and then beat the Warriors in six.

    1968: Wilt's team finished with a better record by eight games over the Celtics and held a 3-1 series lead. But the Celts climbed their way back and advanced to the finals, where Russell won his 10th title.

    Wilt was then shipped out to the Lakers.

    1969: The Celtics were picked to do nothing this season, but surprised everyone when the marched their way into the finals. Where they faced an impossible task, trying to knock off arguably the best trio to ever play the game: Baylor, West and Chamberlain. The Lakers had a 3-1 series lead. But as always, Russell and the Celtics came back to win Russell's 11th NBA Title.

    Over the ten years that both Russell and Wilt played against each other, Russell's team were far more talented in '61, '62, '63, and '64. As well as Wilt's rookie season in 1960.

    The '65 season was a tie. So that leaves from '66 to '69 when Wilt's teams were more talented than Russell's team.

    Leaving us with a score of 5-4-1 in Russell's favor.

    So to say that Russell's teams were always more talented than the Wilt's, never analyzed every season. If you really wanted to pin point what Russell had over Wilt, it was a coach by the name of Red Auerbach.

    Whereas Wilt went into every season with a different coach, because he always felt that the reason for the team's lackluster performances in the playoffs, was because of the coaching.

Wilt Was the Better Human Being, While Russell Was Focusing On Winning

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    Wilt was by far not only the nicest and most approachable man in the NBA, but rather all of professional sports.

    He was the nicest person to go up and ask an autograph for, no matter how old you were. 

    Wilt was always open to talk to magazines or interviews after the games. Without a question he would do any of this.

    You could call or write to Wilt and ask for an autograph or even money. And it would be on the first flight out the next morning. That is how much he cared for others outside of the court.

    So what does this have to do with basketball?

    Well for someone that was so unselfish, open minded, and caring off the court. Whereas he had a selfish, only cared for himself attitude on the court attitude.

    Wilt could simply on not grasp the concept that basketball was a team game, and that over the years it was not one player that won rings. But Wilt did not care what others said to him about winning. He only cared about scoring and racking up all those stats.

    For one season he did grasp the concept for creating for others and making assists. But he became so obsessed with racking up assists. That he never would shoot the open shot, even if he was five feet away from the basket.

    Wilt would opt to pass to his teammates and force them to shoot. And if they passed it away, Wilt would either get mad or demand the ball back again to pass it back out and force his other teammates to shoot.

    He feuded with coaches, teammates, and even opposing players. He would blame them both for losses and even drove three coaches (Frank McGuire, Alex Hannum and the legendary Dolph Schayes), out of jobs because he was unpleasant. 

    It was all about Wilt, ever since he became a stud back in high school. He flew to games by himself, he was treated differently by Warriors coach Eddie Gottlieb, because he was afraid Wilt would run to another team if things were otherwise.

    Wilt felt that fans only came to watch him play, that coaches and teammates had to embrace that and always give him the ball and let him be that star.

    So, honestly speaking. How can such a caring and lovable person off the court, be such a selfish jackass on the court? (Saying that with love Wilt).

    Do not believe me? Back in 1965 when the Warriors were shopping Wilt. The Lakers put their names in and owner Bob Short let the players decide.

    They voted nine to two....against!

    So how could this perennial All-Star, League MVP, Multiple Scoring Champ, and Future Hall of Famer not be wanted on a Lakers team who had an act of losing to Boston over the years?

    Simply, because Wilt was not a team player.

    Then there was Russell.

    Russell was not the media's favorite player to speak with. He was not as open and nice as Russell.

    Why was this you ask?

    Well Russell never really said himself because it was near impossible to get an interview with this guy when he was playing.

    But my reason, is that he was focused on winning, and had no desire to talk to some crappy media asking the same old questions. Kind of like what Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods are of today.

    Russell unlike Wilt was all about winning. He did whatever it took for the Celtics to win championship after championship.

    As we all know, he did do a pretty damn good job! Winning 11 rings in his 13 year NBA career.

    Russell may have not been the true and deep-hearted person off the court like Wilt was. But he was the man behind all the Celtics success in the '60s.

Was Wilt Just a Few Games Away From Winning As Many Titles As Russell?

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    Wilt played every single game as if he had to prove to the average basketball fan that he was something. That he could play.

    He thought that his statistical play was what everyone would judge him on. But for most people, including those on this website.

    You all know that there is more to basketball than scoring 40 points and notching 20 rebounds.

    You need to be able to produce in the important games. Something that Chamberlain was never able to do, and Russell was always able to do. 

    So let's compare both Wilt and Russell when it comes to clutch performances and games. Not that Wilt really has that many to be honest.

    Wilt's Defining Moments

    Game 7, 1965 East Finals: Against the Celtics, Wilt scored 30 points and grabbed 32 rebounds.

    Game 7, 1967 East Finals: Against the Celtics as well, he tore Boston apart with a triple-double. He scored 29 points, grabbed and amazing 36 rebounds, and dished out 13 assists. 

    Game 5, 1972: Against the Knicks, Chamberlain has himself a complete game. Scoring 24 points, grabbing 29 rebounds, 9 assists, and blocking 8 shots. On his way to his second NBA Title with the Lakers.

    Russell's Defining Moments

    Game 7, 1957 Finals: Russell scores 19 points and grabs 32 rebounds. To help carry his Celtics to a Championship in his first rookie season.

    Game 7, 1960 Finals: Russell scores 22 points and rebounds 35 in a win for the Hawks.

    Game 7, 1962 Eastern Finals: Wilt averaged 50 points this season. Russell stopped him from getting anywhere near that. Wilt finished with 22, Russell scored 19 and the Celtics won the game.

    Game 7, 1962 Finals: Russell scores 30 points, grabs a 44 rebounds in an overtime win over the Lakers.

    Game 7, 1965 Eastern Finals: Russell scores 15 points, grabs 29 rebounds, and dishes out 9 assists.

    Game 7, 1966 Finals: Celtics beat the Lakers in a nail biter. Russell scored 25 points and 32 rebounds.

    Game 7, 1968 Eastern Finals: Russell scores 12 points, but holds the arch rival, Wilt to only 14 points in the same game!

    So, Wilt had five chances to beat Russell. Either it was in the finals. Or in the Eastern Finals on their way to the Finals.

    He had two game sevens on home soil, yet was not able to put up a good enough performance to beat Russell and the Celtics.

    He was roughly two or three monster performances a away from winning two or three rings!

The Greatest Center. According to Players and Coaches of Their Generation

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    This slide is strictly on what opposing players, teammates or coaches have quoted about either Russell or Wilt. 

    Most of these players are Hall of Famers. So I am pretty sure their words are the ones we can base the greatest debate on.

    Here are a few quotes taken from many different books, discussing the two different styles of Russell and Chamberlain.

    Butch van Breda Kolff 

    "The difference between Russell and Wilt was this: Russell would ask, 'What do I need to do to make my teammates better?' Then he'd do it. Wilt honestly thought the best way for his team to win was for him to be in the best possible setting. He'd ask, 'What's the best situation for me?' "

    Jerry West

    "I don't want to rap Wilt because I believe only Russell was better, and I really respect what Wilt did. But I have to say he wouldn't adjust to you, you had to adjust to him."

    Jack Kiser

    "Russell pulled the con job of the century on Chamberlain. He welcomed Wilt to the league. He played father-figure. He told him, man, you're going to better all my records, but you have things to learn and I'm going to teach you because I admire you. He made friends with him.

    "He got Wilt to the point where Wilt worried about making him look bad. Wilt hated to lose, but he liked Bill so much that he didn't like losing to him. Wilt could destroy Russell when he was inspired. But he held back enough to get beat.

    "He tried to win over Russell, but he wasn't driven like he was against guys he disliked. I might point out Russell never said a bad word about Wilt until the night he retired, and he hasn't stopped rapping him since."

    Jerry Lucas

    "Wilt was consumed with records: being the first to lead the league in assists, or to set a record for field goal percentage. He'd accomplish one goal, then go on to another. Russell only asked one question: 'What can I do to make us win?"

    Bill Russell

    "It did seem to me that Wilt was often ambivalent about what he wanted to get out of basketball. Anyone who changes the character and style of his play several times over a career is bound to be uncertain about which of the many potential accomplishments he wants to pursue.

    "It's perfectly possible for a player not to make victory his first priority against all the others (money, records, personal fame, and an undivided claim to his achievements), and I often felt Wilt made some deliberate choices in his ambitions."

    Wilt Chamberlain

    " To Bill, every game-every championship game-was a challenge, a test to his manhood. He took the game so seriously that he threw up in the locker room before almost every game.

    "But I tend to look at basketball as a game, not a life-or-death struggle. I don't need scoring titles or NBA Championships to prove that girls, friends, the beach, freedom-to get emotionally wrapped up in basketball.

    "I think Bill knew I felt that way, and I think he both envied and resented my attitude. On the one hand, I think he wished he could learn to take things easier, too; on the other hand, I think he may have felt that with my natural ability and willingness to work hard, my teams could have won an NBA Championship every year if I was as totally committed to victory as he was.

    "I wish I had won all those Championships, but I really think I grew as a man in defeat that Russell did in victory."

So Who is the Best Center of All-Time?

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    Dubbed the greatest rivalry in sports history.

    Both Russell and Chamberlain have a surplus of reasons to make their case for the best center of All-Time, and Chamberlain making his case for best player.

    You can not go wrong with either Wilt or Russell.

    Wilt was the bigger, stronger, just as good defensive skills and speed. But a more superb and far extensive offensive game. Without a question, the most dominating offensive player to ever play the game. 

    Russell was known as the defensive stopper and rebounding machine. He blocked shots with the best of them, and unlike Wilt and many others, he was able to keep the ball in play and not wast possessions.

    He was a rebounding magnet, and was always in great position near the basket when a shot was taken.

    Both rebounding like mad men, the comparison here is the same.

    Chamberlain would break almost every NBA record that has ever lived and won two rings.

    Russell does not have as many awards, (Actually not even close to as many as Wilt), but he does have 11 rings.

    Wilt was selfish.

    Russell possessed the team first mentality.

    Wilt outplayed Russell when it came to head-to-head battles and games.

    Whereas Russell always seemed to come out on top.

    Do you get the point yet?

    You could do not wrong picking one of these players.

    If you want to scoring machine, and the unstoppable force down low, and your willing to give him the ball all the time. Then Wilt is your guy.

    If you want to team player, who does not care about stats, and does whatever it takes to win the game. Russell is simply your guy.

    So. Who is your choice?