Where Wilt ranks: Sorting out former Jayhawk Wilt Chamberlain's place among the game's all-time greats
ESPN’s recent Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” revived arguments among fans about who the greatest basketball player of all time really was.
Jordan, of course, is at the top of most lists, but there are four or five other NBA greats who routinely show up in the conversation.
One of them went to Kansas. And while Wilt Chamberlain’s college career was full of eye-popping numbers and made a larger-than-life impact on the sport, the stats Chamberlain put up in the NBA with the Philadelphia Warriors franchise and Los Angeles Lakers exceeded even those.
Numbers alone might not be enough to land The Big Dipper in the same class as Jordan and current Lakers superstar LeBron James. But they have to at least be considered when talking about the greatest players of all time.
Chamberlain finished his career with averages of 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. And during the 1967-68 season, he led the league in assists, averaging 8.6 per game to go along with 24.3 points and 23.8 rebounds.
It wasn’t until his eighth season in the NBA that Chamberlain averaged fewer than 30 points per game. That came during the 1966-67 season, when he averaged 24 points and 24 rebounds for Philadelphia.
Prior to that, Chamberlain’s season averages read more like field goal and 3-point percentages: 37.6, 38.4, 50.4, 44.8, 36.9, 34.7 and 33.5. In each of those first seven seasons, Chamberlain also averaged at least 22 rebounds per game.
In what many people consider to be his best season — his third year in the league in 1961-62 — Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 27.5 rebounds per game. But there's one statistic from that season that's even more impressive: The former Jayhawk played all 80 games without ever subbing out, averaging 48.5 minutes per game in a league that plays 48-minute games.
Blocked shots were not recorded as an official statistic until the 1973-74 season — Chamberlain’s first out of the NBA — but anyone who saw him play will tell you that the 7-foot-1, 275-pound center’s prowess as a defender extended far beyond cleaning up the defensive glass.
If Wilt wasn’t the best to ever play, he certainly has a strong case as the most dominant.
ESPN recently ranked the top 74 NBA players of all time, and Chamberlain got his due, coming in at No. 6. But for my money, the numbers alone make him a lock to be at least in the top five.
ESPN’s top five, in order, went: Jordan, James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson.
My top five, in order, would go: Jordan, James, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant.
Perhaps the biggest knock on the former Jayhawk’s professional career is that it was not filled with championships.
ESPN.com’s Tim Bontemps wrote exactly that when ranking him at No. 6 overall on the site’s list: “Chamberlain was truly ahead of his time. His numbers are mythical. The only reason he doesn’t rank higher on lists of the all-time greats is he won 'only' two NBA championships.”
Jordan won six titles and was the MVP of every NBA Finals series in which he played. Russell won a whopping 11 titles during his days with the Boston Celtics dynasty. Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, one with Milwaukee as Lew Alcindor and five more in Los Angeles. Johnson and Bryant each won five during separate runs in L.A. And James sits on three championships and is still in pursuit of adding one or two more before calling it a career.
Chamberlain, meanwhile, reached the sport’s pinnacle just twice, in 1967 and 1972, and lost in the finals four other times.
All of the players mentioned above were multi-time all stars, all-NBA picks and all-defensive team honorees. And they each own a handful of records. So it makes sense for people to search for something that separates them. It makes even more sense that championships are that something. After all, no matter what sport you play or what era you’re in, winning is the name of the game.
So much of identifying the best player of all time depends on how you define that title. Is it solely about championships and rings? Is it about numbers? Is it about influence, impact and culture? Is it some kind of combination of all of those things?
Those requirements carry different weights with different people, which is why so many players have a legitimate case at the title of best ever and also why the debate often becomes so heated.
I’ve always looked at talent as the defining trait. Numbers are nice and certainly speak to one’s greatness. But titles are often a team accomplishment. Even Jordan could not have won the six he won with the Chicago Bulls without the right supporting cast around him.
That’s why my top five includes the five players it does and why Chamberlain is firmly in it. No one was more dominant or made a bigger impact on the game. The powers that be changed the rules because of Chamberlain and his numbers — including that oh-so-famous 100-point game — certainly stand up next to his impact and dominance.
I won’t argue with those who claim James is the best we’ve ever seen, but, at the same time, I also can’t let you say he was better than Jordan. While different in their physical traits and style of play, the two were insanely skilled, crazy competitive and willing to do whatever needed to be done to win, no matter who liked it or who didn’t.
If there’s an argument for James over MJ, it’s that he can legitimately play and defend all five positions on the floor. Jordan certainly would have been willing to tackle that task, but I’m not sure he would have been as successful. Still, no one is definitively better than Jordan. He may have one or two equals, but he’ll always be at the top of the list.
As far as Abdul-Jabbar, not only are his numbers incredible — records, statistics, awards and titles — but he was dominant in his own right, with his famed “sky hook” being one of the most unstoppable shots in the history of the game.
And then there’s Bryant, a player so talented that he came to the NBA right out of high school and had the whole league talking about him for the next 20 years. Bryant’s resume, though rock solid, is not the strongest of the bunch. But I’m not sure there’s a better pure scorer in the group, and none of them reinvented themselves the way Bryant did from Phase I of his career to Phase II.
I’m OK with most people not having Bryant in their top five. But he has to be in everybody’s top 10. Just like Chamberlain should be somewhere in everybody’s top five.