As surprising as it might sound, Wilt Chamberlain is one of the most underrated players in NBA history. While his height was certainly an advantage, his athleticism is often overlooked. Whether fair or not, professional basketball players are remembered most for winning championships and Wilt only won two titles while his biggest rival, Bill Russell, won eleven. The following post highlights some of Chamberlain’s individual records, but focuses more on the rule changes which were inspired by him. Jordan may be the greatest basketball player ever, but Chamberlain changed the game more than anyone else.
Oscar Robertson arguably was one of the top five or ten players in NBA history with extraordinary talent as a scorer, rebounder and passer. As an indication of his all-around ability, he is the only player to have averaged a triple double for an entire season. Less well known, but perhaps even more impressive, was his achievement of averaging double digit points, rebounds and assists over the first five years of his career. As an aside for stat junkies, he was 0.05 rebounds per game away from doing it through his first six seasons. For as incredible as Robertson’s “triple-double season” was, however, it might be overrated. To start, the infrequency of triple doubles today (on average, one occurs every 36 games) skews our perspective of it. Furthermore, the concept didn’t exist until five years after his retirement so the accomplishment was the product of retroactive data mining. If the NBA had recognized the stat in the 1960s, who knows how many triple doubles Robertson would have recorded. Then again, who knows how many other players (e.g. Wilt Chamberlain) would have had as well.
Like it or not, the nerds have changed how we look at sports. Thanks to sabermetricians, statistics like OPS and WAR are as recognizable as HR and RBI. Similar to WAR (wins above replacement) for baseball, WiSh (win shares) is an all-encompassing statistic for basketball. Ranked by WiSh, the Top 5 players in NBA history are: 1) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; 2) Wilt Chamberlain; 3) Karl Malone; 4) Michael Jordan; and 5) John Stockton. Without a doubt, each one of those players is a legend of the game. As an all-time NBA ranking, however, it’s just doesn’t work.
Alternatively, the Top 5 players ranked by total MVPs are: 1) Michael Jordan; 2) Bill Russell; 3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; 4) LeBron James; and 5) Wilt Chamberlain. Aaahhh, much better. Arguably, MVP awards provide a better proxy for all-time greatness than win shares. Regardless, WiSh still can be useful to establish a threshold above which a superstar can be defined. Similarly, it can determine a threshold below which a bust can be defined.