Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bill Russell Versus Wilt Chamberlain: A Rivalry of Friends

Here's an interesting article by a friend of mine, Seif-Eldeine, whose blog can be found at

Even after decades of NBA play, these two cannot be separated.
Luke Ewalt's "The Greatness Equation" (an objective statistical analysis of the best players of all-time) puts Russell at number 3, Wilt at number 5. puts Wilt at 3 and Russell at 5. puts Wilt at 3 and Russell at 6. And puts Wilt at 4 and Russell at 6. And this list could go on and on and on with people who still rank Russell and Wilt so close after so many decades.
What makes this discussion so interesting is the eternal question Luke tried to answer in his "Greatness Equation." How do we define greatness? Is there an objective view (as Luke provides) to greatness? Is there a subjective view on which we can count?
Here are some of the traditional methods (Luke goes over more, be sure to read his "Greatness Equation at of determining the better player.
MVPS: Sports writers do the best every year to vote on which player is "the Most Valuable" each year.
Until 1979-80, the players determined who was the best player in the league.
But how do we even determine who is MVP?
Is it the person who is most statistically dominant? Is it the one who whose team would suffer the most if he left? Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the best defensive player, the best offensive player or the player that is the best combination of both? Is it a combination of all these factors? Or is it an "it" factor that cannot even be put in words?
The results of Russell versus Wilt came in at Russell 5 and Wilt 4. It could have just as easily been Russell 9 and Wilt 0 or Russell 0 and Wilt 9.
Championships: The results of this one was not even close: Russell 11, Wilt 2.
A lot of emphasis is put on championships in every sport in determining the best players.
Is this really fair?
A player does not win a championship, a team wins a championship. At most, a player in basketball is 1/5 his team, less when you consider all the substitutes. This does not include the coach, the general manager, the owner and the whole culture of an organization. Even players like Russell and Wilt, who were as big a part of their teams short of anyone not named Michael, Kareem, Magic or Larry, do not win a championship by themselves.
Is it the better offensive player?
No question, this category belongs to Wilt.
Wilt was a better passer, scorer, rebounder and all-around offensive player. I doubt Russell ever scored 40 points in a game. Wilt scored over 50 a gameduring a season!
Chamberlain's first game against Russell provided a microcosm of their battles throughout their career.
Chamberlain won the individual battle 30 points to Russell's 22 points. Russell's Celtics beat Chamberlain's Warriors 115-106.
Is it the better defensive player?
Russell clearly takes the cake here.
Wilt is the best offensive player outside Jordan in NBA history, Russell is the best defensive player in NBA history.
However, when you listen to Russell talk about his matchups with Chamberlain, it is clear he never thought he had "defeated" Wilt.
"I had to discipline myself never get in a numbers game with him, than I would be playing his game and not my game. And 'my game' consisted of making my teammates more effective."
Is it the best combination of both?
Saying how to define which player is the better combination of offensive and defensive skills is impossible.
Wilt was infinitely better at offense and Russell was infinitely better at defense. The two friends are foils for the basketball ages. Other than their rebounding skills (which Wilt has an advantage in), no two players' skill sets could be more diametrically opposed.
Determing which is a "better combination" comes down to what you value most. My opinion is the old adage "defense wins championships" is true. Which is partly why Russell won more championships than Wilt and why I believe he is the better play.
How What You Value Creates the "It" Factor
Subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) what we value in a basketball player more in terms of skill sets decides who we think is the better player. I value Russell's skill sets (especially on the defensive end) more than Wilt's. This has always been the case, even before I was able to put this in words.
We can argue for the rest of time who was the better player. The truth is they were BOTH the better players. The advantage each one had in certain skills over other skills makes it impossible to say with certainty who is the better player.
The amazing part about this is Luke's "The Greatness Equation" has found a way to formulate a statistically objective ranking system which will resemble closely just about anyone's ranking system. As an example, I will show you Luke's top 25 rankings compared to mine.
The Greatness Equation Top 25
25. Dolph Schayes (I know, I know, who?!?! I looked this guy up before determining my Top 25.)
24. John Stockton
23. Bob Cousy
22. Scottie Pippen
21. Elgin Baylor
20. Julius Erving
19. Kevin Garnett
18. Charles Barkley
17. David Robinson
16. Moses Malone
15. Bob Pettit
14. John Havlicek
13. Hakeem Olajuwan
12. Oscar Robertson
11. Jerry West
10. Kobe Bryant
9. Karl Malone
8. Larry Bird
7. Tim Duncan
6. Shaquille O'Neal
5. Wilt Chamberlain
4. Magic Johnson
3. Bill Russell
2. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
1. Michael Jordan
My Rankings Using "It" Factor
25. Bob Pettit
24. Scottie Pippen
23. Elgin Baylor
22. Charles Barkley
21. Pete Maravich
20. Bob Cousy
19. Julius Erving
18. John Havlicek
17. David Robinson
16. Kevin Garnett
15. Moses Malone
14. Karl Malone
13. Jerry West
12. Hakeem Olajuwan
11. Kobe Bryant (likely to get to number 4, 50/50 at number 2 and VERY outside chance at number 1 before it's all done.)
10. John Stockton (this is where the "It" Factor comes into play, Stockton and Robertson were ranked lower in Luke's equation because I believe most MVP voters undervalue assists and steals, or more basically, the Point Guard position)
9. Oscar Robertson
8. Tim Duncan
7. Shaquille O'Neal
6. Larry Bird
5. Kareem Abdul Jabbar
4. Wilt Chamberlain
3. Magic Johnson
2. Bill Russell
1. Michael Jordan

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