Who was the NBA's best--and why?
I’ve made numerous comments recently concerning who the greatest NBA player of all time was, and I’ve always maintained it was Wilt Chamberlain. It seemed fitting that I bring the discussion to my own hubs and state my case here. Most basketball fans claim the argument is between Wilt and Michael Jordan—two players of undeniable ability. I will make my case for Wilt over Jordan, once and for all.
First and foremost, I am not claiming Wilt would score 50 points per game or get 100 in a modern NBA game (although Kobe Bryant’s flirtation with big numbers suggest that Wilt could get 100 if he were around today, and I believe Chamberlain would lead the NBA in rebounding during any era); I am simply stating that Wilt Chamberlain would be the best player in the NBA, regardless of the era he competed in. Pick a decade and Chamberlain would rule it.
A typical argument against Chamberlain’s dominance of the NBA concerns size—he was so much bigger than his opponents it wasn’t fair. This would imply that Shawn Bradley, Manute Bol, and Gheorghe Muresan should have dominated the modern NBA. They were certainly much taller than other players. If the argument isn’t about size, if Wilt was simply more physically imposing than other players, why didn’t Tito Horford take over the NBA in the ‘80s? That guy was a monster and virtually no one in the league at the time was as powerful, but Horford’s 93 career points and 84 rebounds suggest there was more to Wilt’s accomplishments than can be accounted for by size alone. (Looking at pictures of Chamberlain as a young man, his physique reminds one more of David Robinson than Shaquille O’Neal, so it wasn’t bulk that gave him an edge.) If we examine this from MJ’s perspective, few would argue that Jordan was more athletically gifted than his opponents, but this rationale is never mentioned to discount his greatness. Why then do Chamberlain’s physical gifts count against him? Beats me, so let’s ignore the “Wilt was just bigger” arguments and look at other issues.
Who do you think was best?
First, we will examine Wilt as a scorer. Chamberlain scored 31,419 points over the course of 1,045 games during 14 NBA seasons for an average of 30.07 points per game. While this was an NBA record for points at the time, he has since been surpassed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Of the three, only Jordan has a higher per game average at 30.12. All three players that passed Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list played more games in their career.
It’s been said that Chamberlain was a selfish player, but his offensive production is almost identical to Michael Jordan’s throughout the course of their career. Both led the league in scoring many times, but Chamberlain was viewed as selfish while Jordan was not. Does anyone believe Michael Jordan didn’t want to lead the NBA in scoring? Would Jordan have been willing to chop ten or more points off his scoring average to defer to his teammates, as Chamberlain did later in his career? Their statistical similarities on offense should make the notion of Chamberlain’s selfishness a moot point. It neither defines nor diminishes his accomplishments when compared with Michael Jordan’s.
Wilt was the only center to ever lead the NBA in assists, and his career assists per game average was 4.4—only 0.9 assists per game less than Michael Jordan’s career average. This statistic is more remarkable if we remember Chamberlain never brought the ball upcourt. For Wilt to register an assist required someone to throw him the ball first, or for him to get the rebound. He never initiated the offense. Conversely, Michael Jordan never played with a pure point guard. Jordan and Scottie Pippen shared ball-handling duties with John Paxson, Ron Harper, Craig Hodges, B.J. Armstrong etc. In this circumstance, Jordan frequently brought the ball upcourt himself, leaving open the option of taking a quick shot. Considering Jordan’s domination of the ball from the guard position, Wilt’s assists per game compared with MJ’s should raise more questions about Jordan’s unselfishness than Chamberlain’s.
Next, let’s examine Wilt the rebounder. In this department, Chamberlain had no equal except Bill Russell, exemplified by his 23,924 rebounds and 22.9 rebounds per game average. It has been suggested that fewer rebounds are available in the modern NBA, but Chamberlain’s per game career average is more than twice as high as most of the league’s modern centers. Cut his rebounds in half and his 11.45 rebounds per game over a career exceeds the averages for Hakeem Olajuwon (11.1), Shaquille O’Neal (11.2), Patrick Ewing (9.8), Robert Parrish (9.1), David Robinson (10.6), Bill Laimbeer (9.7), Dikembe Mutombo (10.3), Kevin Garnett (11.0), Karl Malone (10.1) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (11.2). Half his average places him statistically near Moses Malone (12.2), Tim Duncan (11.7), and Charles Barkley (11.7), to name a few with higher numbers. Only Dennis Rodman (13.1) had over one rebound per game more than half Wilt’s total. This should dispel the argument that there were fewer rebounds to be had in Jordan’s NBA, because the difference was never 50%. Subtract half of Chamberlain’s rebounds and he still grabbed more each game than modern NBA centers. By discussing Chamberlain’s rebounding, we are no longer just comparing him to Michael Jordan, but to every center in the history of the NBA.
What are some other relevant numbers in Chamberlain’s resume? He played 48.5 minutes per game during the 1962 season, sitting out only 8 minutes of one game when he was ejected. (Overtime periods account for averaging in excess of an entire 48 game.) Wilt averaged 43.2 minutes in his final season as a pro, and was on the court an amazing 45.8 minutes per game for his entire career. Much has been made of Jordan’s participation in playoff games while suffering from the flu. My friends, Chamberlain played the entire 1972 playoffs with a broken bone in his hand, and he still was voted MVP!
Chamberlain never fouled out of a basketball game in his career. It has been suggested that Wilt quit playing defense when he got into foul trouble, but there is no way to substantiate such a claim. I will assert that it is more difficult for a center to play with fouls than a guard—a center protects the basket from drives and post-up moves, blocks shots and rebounds. It is more physical inside than on the perimeter, and Wilt was always in the game battling.
Blocked shots were never tabulated as an official statistic until Chamberlain left the NBA, so there is no official evidence of Wilt’s dominance in this area. Former NBA coaches and officials claimed Chamberlain likely averaged six blocks per game throughout his career, which would be enough to shatter the current record.
Jordan fans point to nine selections to the NBA All-Defensive team as a gauge of his superiority on defense, but two issues cloud this. The introduction of the All-Defensive team was in 1969, after Wilt had already played 10 years in the league. Jordan also played with teammates who were multiple first and second team selections. Jordan might conceivably have been only the third best defender on his team, behind Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. He got a lot of steals and blocked shots for a guard, but who was doing the grunt work of shutting down the other team’s best shooter, MJ or Pippen (or even Rodman)? I’m not disputing Jordan’s defensive ability—I’m only saying traditional indicators don’t tell the whole story.
If winning championships is the sign of greatness, the greatest player in the modern era must have been Robert Horry. Horry won two titles with Houston, three with the Lakers and two with San Antonio. This Fresh Prince lookalike has one more title than Jordan and the amazing thing is, Horry never played on a team with MJ! The idea that Horry is better than Jordan is preposterous, of course. While Jordan’s six NBA titles are hardly meaningless, there is more to greatness than the number of rings on your fingers.
For example, Wilt’s two titles equals or surpasses the championships won by outstanding players such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Walton, David Robinson, Isiah Thomas, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Patrick Ewing, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Rick Barry, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Karl Malone, and John Stockton. For the sake of historical perspective I’ve not included any current NBA player on this list, allowing for the opportunity to surpass Wilt’s two titles if anyone can. Chamberlain’s team also beat Bill Russell’s Celtics once, and that’s more than anyone else beat them.
Wilt’s 1967 title team had a record of 68-14, unmatched in the history of the league until his 1972 title team bested it with a record of 69-13 while winning 33 games in a row (a feat unequaled in North American professional team sports). Jordan’s Bulls posted a 72-10 record one season, but expansion watered down the NBA to the extent that it could not be considered a bigger accomplishment. Why not, you ask?
It’s been said that Jordan played in an era of better competition, but of the NBA’s Top 50 players, Wilt played against more of them than Jordan. The Top 50 players who played part or all of their career in Chamberlain’s era are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Archibald, Paul Arizin, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Bob Cousy, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Hal Greer, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes, Sam Jones, Jerry Lucas, Pete Maravich, Earl Monroe, Bob Pettit, Willis Reed, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Jerry West, and Lenny Wilkens. That’s 27 players. Jordan and Pippen joined 20 others in the Top 50 from his era. It is usually believed that the smaller NBA of Wilt’s time meant the league was weaker, but there was more talent on each team than in Jordan’s day. Jordan never played against more than two NBA top 50 players in an NBA Finals and in 1996, the Sonics had no players make the NBA’s Top 50 list. Chamberlain played against five at once while facing the New York Knicks in 1972 and 1973. The caliber of team Chamberlain faced in the playoffs was stronger and deeper than those Jordan encountered. Expansion didn’t strengthen the talent of each NBA team, it diluted it. Fewer teams in Wilt’s day never meant weaker teams.
My intention was never to dispute Michael Jordan’s greatness. He was a fabulous player, and I tremendously enjoyed watching him play basketball. He is likely the second-best basketball player ever. However, IN MY OPINION—Wilt was better.
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inefekt on May 31, 2014:
The pace of the game, which is well quantified on the basketballreference website, was MUCH higher in Wilt's day than it was in Jordan's. Take both Wilt's and MJ's most productive seasons in terms of scoring - 61/62 for Wilt when he dropped 50 per game and 86/87 for MJ when he dropped 37 per game. Wilt's Warriors team had a pace rating of 131.1 compared to the Bulls rating of 95.8. That's a whopping 36.8% difference. If we use that number to normalize the playing field then Wilt's scoring average drops to 36.8ppg if he were playing in 86/87, or conversely MJ's goes up to 50.8ppg if he were strutting his stuff in 61/62.
Julio E Olmo Sr from Florida, USA on May 23, 2014:
Is just that time generation gap argument we grew up watching Michael Jordan, Bird, Magic etc...but it's awesome just reading about Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points per game and scoring 100 in one...whew!!!
Richard on October 21, 2013:
One other thing as we know basketball is a team sport. How interesting when Wilt is finally on a great team not only does he win a championship, but he does so setting the NBA record for most consecutive wins with 33 straight wins. Not even the STACKED Miami Heat team has done this yet though they came CLOSE last season!!
Richard on October 21, 2013:
I loved reading the comments and would like to add about the passing debate that Wilt led the league in passing in 67-68 with a league high 702 assists which means he ONCE LED THE LEAGUE IN ASSISTS!!!
Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on October 05, 2012:
Wilt_Casanova, thanks for stopping by. I have noticed that this argument takes place on several hubs, and I have refrained from joining in them because I would rather contribute to the dialogue on my own page. I'm not sure if I've seen you on the other sites, but I have always appreciated your willingness to offer your insights here. Thanks again, my friend.
Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on October 05, 2012:
Eric, Wilt_Casanova said it all. Yes, Wilt was a lousy free throw shooter. He was also a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. As W_C notes, MJ's game against the Blazers was an aberration; even Jordan shrugged his shoulders during the game as if he couldn't believe it himself. That one game has been often used to suggest that Jordan was a good three point shooter when, in fact, he was not. So, to repeat myself, it is extremely possible to be a bad free throw shooter and still be a better player than MJ.
blazedb on October 04, 2012:
a guy who averages 22+ rebounds per game and had a 50+ point season.. there's just not much to say after that. oh wait, there is.. he has so many other stats to mention.
I have a different question. Has there been any other athlete to so completely dominate their sport?
Wilt_Casanova on September 17, 2012:
Nobody's denying that Wilt was a bad free throw shooter; he certainly had a weakness -- but so did M.J.
Do you even know that M.J. was a lousy 3-pt shooter? In his first four seasons, his 3-pt field goal shooting was under 20% in each season. Had the NBA not moved in the 3-pt line in 1994-97, (which btw, was the league's attempt to HELP players score more, and a rule from which Jordan greatly benefitted) Jordan would have shot around 29% from the 3-pt line for his career -- that is terrible. His career average of 33% is nothing to brag about either, as there were many perimeter shooters throughout league history who shot much better than that.
And don't talk to me about Jordan's seven 3-pters against the Blazers, as I could talk about Wilt making 28 of 32 free throws in his 100 point game.
Eric on September 17, 2012:
Dude, do u even know that Wilt was one of the worst FT shooters ever???? He does not belong in the top 5, let alone be compared to Mike. People like u is the reaon I never tried crack.
Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on August 24, 2012:
djwc6, thanks for your comments. I confess that it seems amazing to me that some who have commented here are so certain their opinions are indisputable, including many who never saw Wilt (or even Bird or Magic) play a game. I also must admit that in their certainty, several folks have been downright rude in presenting their arguments. Wilt's dominance is easy to defend, however, and I have so far not needed to respond in kind. With the help of folks like you and a few others here who have taken the time to point out the fallacy in some arguments presented in Jordan's defense, it has been an enjoyable debate over time. I agree with you-- folks like Willis Reed, Walter Dukes and others were not measured as players are today, and the league is not as significantly taller as some are led to believe. This argument is also based on the idea that Wilt was good only because he was tall, which is simply not the case. He had his hands full playing against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because Jabbar was ten years younger, but still did fine in contests between the Lakers and the Bucks. If both players were the same age, I would suspect that a young Lew Alcindor would have been the one with all he could handle.
I have sometimes wondered to myself if the second greatest player of all time might have been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and not Jordan (as the title of this article would suggest I believe). Kareem had some brilliant years in his career, and probably has not been given his due.
I might have to pursue this angle someday....
Anyway, thanks again for your comments. They are greatly appreciated.
djwc6 on August 22, 2012:
I don't know what I admire most,your writing or your patience with young nba fans many of whom where not even born when magic and larry entered the league.Someone can point out the fact that shaq "only" measured 6'11.75" in his bare feet but since players are now measured with their shoes on there is a misconception that todays players are taller.If Swede Halbrook,Red Kerr and Dolph Schayes where listed with todays shoes on they would probably list as 7'5",6'11"and 6'9",thats an imposing front line.If walter bell and Willis Reed where listed as today they would be 7'1" and 7'.0. Walter Dukes 7'1" or 7'2",Ray Felix 7"1''.Of course Wilt himself would measure 7'3" and come into a league that allows offensive players,like shaq,to bump there way closer to the basket,where defenders have to leave the paint after 3 seconds and with a landing zone for dunkers where no one could take a charge.Wilt would come into a league where none of its superstars can average 40 mpg.No Wilt would probably not average fifty,at least not every season.
Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on July 26, 2012:
I agree completely. I believe the only thing that would limit Wilt's minutes in today's NBA would be the notion that Wilt probably wouldn't play in blowouts, which would be the only logical scenario I can think of. With more attention paid to health, nutrition and training than ever before, there is no reason to believe Wilt would not benefit from these advances and actually be more durable, if such a thing is possible.
Another thought: If you put Wilt into today's NBA as it is now, there is such a shortage of quality big men that it would in fact be foolish to take him out unless he wasn't needed. Who would you send in? If Tyson Chandler can be the defensive player of the year and an Olympian, who is out there that could steal minutes from Wilt? Perhaps that isn't a valid argument because it asserts that current NBA big men are awful more than it speaks to Chamberlain's abilities.
Thanks for stopping by, always a pleasure to hear from you!
Wilt_Casanova on July 26, 2012:
Quick question. Of course, you and I both know that Wilt had the durability and stamina to play an exorbitant amount of minutes, but it has been said by some critics that coaches today wouldn't allow Wilt to play as many minutes as he did then. Do you necessarily believe this?
Personally, I think it would be foolish for any coach, with knowledge of Wilt's ability to play at an extremely high level, while playing so many minutes, to NOT entertain the thought of playing him a ton of minutes.
Mike Lickteig (author) from Lawrence KS USA on July 26, 2012:
Michael, thanks for your comments. To answer your last question first, he didn't beat Boston the next year because several key players on the 76ers were injured in 68, including Luke Jackson and Billy Cunningham. They had the better team but injuries took them down.
Wilt didn't just play against Russell and Thurmond. He was also playing against Willis Reed, Dave Cowens, Walt Bellamy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Bob Lanier, Jerry Lucas, etc. This was toward the end of his career with the Lakers, and he still won a title and played in the finals multiple times. And, turning the defensive spotlight on Jordan, well--guys like Jeff Hornacek, John Stockton, John Starks or Reggie Miller weren't going to stop him. Except for Stockton and Gary Payton, there were very few outstanding guards in Jordan's era. When Jordan played against great guards earlier in his career, he didn't win.