Backpicks GOAT: #9 Wilt Chamberlain

Note: This is the first profile in an historical series on the most valuable NBA careers of all-time. 

Key stats and trends

  • Overrated offensively (scoring blindness) – didn’t create and score at same time
  • Underrated defensively – anchored multiple top-tier defenses
  • Inconsistent, changed game multiple times (overly focused on stat du jour)

Scouting Report

We have limited film of Wilt, so piecing together his game is a matter of pairing the possessions we have with numerous journalistic accounts. He loved the left block, but didn’t work feverishly for deep post position like we might see from someone like Shaq at his apex. When he did establish deep position, Wilt was explosive and difficult to stop, either dunking or quickly wheeling for a finger roll. He also liked the fadeaway, demonstrating that he wasn’t merely a brute.

However, Wilt wasn’t always a fluid athlete, especially as he added muscle during his career. His footwork is the first thing that stands out on film; it was sometimes awkward and led to a number of travels or off-balance plays.

Once he started passing more, he became black-and-white with his attack – when he received the ball in the post with his back to the hoop, he would often start in a “pass mode.” Pass-mode Wilt waited for an open cutter, and if his receivers were covered, only then would he start a deliberate scoring move. Below, he surveys briefly before setting up his fadeaway:

This inability to simultaneously threaten the defense with scoring or hitting open players held him back as an offensive force in my estimation. In other words, he wasn’t a good playmaker. In 1966, Sports Illustrated alluded to this zero sum, baseball-like approach like this:

“But the tactical demands of using [Wilt] to his best advantage severely diminish his own team’s versatility and generally create morale problems among those who want the ball as much as he does.”

Wilt struggled to combine his own scoring with creation, as the best offensive players do. Additionally, his tendency to park himself on the block and remain there for the entire possession clogged driving lanes for his guards.1

As he grew older and was exposed to Alex Hannum, Wilt was a very willing passer. However the film demonstrates how teams responded to this “passing mode” differently. In 1964 (and again in 1967) Wilt was often double-teamed, and thus his passes to open cutters created a 4-on-3 power play, if properly spaced. In other words, defenses reacted to Wilt and he could create.

However, on the back nine of his career, teams didn’t seem to double this action. They just let Chamberlain stand there and hold the ball.2 Wilt was then truly making a “Rondo Pass,” where he would simply wait for the other four players to materialize an opening instead of helping them create the opening. This shrank his playmaking and minimized his overall impact.

Passes like this have some value, especially when surrounded by quality teammates, but they are more like jabs, whereas creating an open shot is a power hook. Wilt also might have been turnover prone. On my most recent film-study, I tracked 47 of his post possessions and seven were turnovers (a whopping 15 percent of the time).

That’s a super small sample, no doubt, but consistent with reports like this from Sports Illustrated during the 1973 Finals:

“Against Reed, who is taller, stronger, heavier and quicker than Lucas, Chamberlain’s attempts to back under the basket for his finger rolls and dunks yielded almost as many traveling calls, three-second violations and offensive fouls as they did goals.”

Because of this, I wouldn’t call Wilt a “high-IQ player,” although he did have a great feel for certain game dynamics, particularly when he could survey the court. (He had a nifty behind-the-back wrap-around pass that in one highlight led to a dunk and in two others clanked off a leg or sailed out of bounds.) As his career evolved, he looked to score less and less — although he still had power and spin moves in the post — and in his final seasons, he wasn’t a focal point on offense at all. Here (in 1972), he’s in position to attack, but thinks nothing of it:

Defensively, Wilt was a monster. Here he is in his later years defending Kareem brilliantly, first with active hands and then sitting on his sky hook to prevent Jabbar from comfortably wheeling to his left:

His defensive weakness was block-chasing. He tallied goaltending violations constantly in the limited film we have on him and occasionally fell out of position by chasing blocks. In the stunning clip below we can see his otherworldly athleticism combined with a propensity to rack up goaltends:

Otherwise, he generally stayed near the hoop and was an absolute terror protecting it. There’s plenty of this on film:

This led to dominant defensive rebounding and some of the most incredible blocked shots you’ll ever see. He ate up space with his 7-foot-8 wingspan and altered a number of shots from guards as they entered his domain.

Impact Evaluation

In Thinking Basketball, Wilt is the case study for Global Offense. He produced unrivaled individual scoring numbers, but they did’t move the needle much for his team. It’s only when his game shifted away from volume-scoring that his team’s offenses flourished. He’s perhaps the ultimate illustration that individual offense does not automatically equate to successful team offense.

The simplest way to see this is to look at the correlations between his offensive outputs (the x-axis) and his team’s offensive efficiencies (the y-axis):

There’s a massive negative correlation (-0.76) between Wilt’s scoring attempts and his team’s offensive rating. So, the less Wilt shot, the better and better his team’s offenses performed. I won’t rehash what’s outlined in detail in the book, but needless to say, Wilt’s skill set described in the scouting report contributed to this phenomenon; not creating for teammates is extremely limiting.

Most volume scorers will taper down on good offenses, but Wilt is unique in that he completely shifts his style of play away from scoring on all of his successful offensive clubs. In some ways, Wilt was the original “Black Hole” – when the ball went in to him, it wasn’t coming out.3

To put this into perspective, we can look at his ratio of true shot attempts (TSA) to assists.4 Historically, Jordan’s ’87 scoring spree comes in at 7.2:1 and Kobe’s ’06 barrage at 7.0:1. Those are the two highest scoring seasons per possession in NBA history. Wilt’s ’61 and ’62 seasons had ratios just under 20:1, good for sixth and seventh all-time, behind such legendary offensive forces as Howard Porter (1974) and Charlie Villenueva (2015). Even 1982 Moses Malone was around 15:1, and his favorite pass was off the backboard to himself. Here are Wilt’s outlier seasons visually:

So we know that early Chamberlain shot the ball a lot, didn’t create much, and (predictably) his team’s offenses weren’t very good. Can we infer how much he was actually moving the needle for those teams?

When Wilt joined the Warriors in 1960, the offense improved by about a single point per 100 possessions.5 That offense was still 2.4 points below league average (relative offensive rating, or rORtg), the first major signal that Wilt’s volume scoring didn’t automatically equate to great offense.

This was inline with his lack of creation; Chamberlain scored at 21.5 points per 75 possessions that year on efficiency 3.0 percent better than league average (relative True Shooting, or rTS). For comparison, 2017 Kevin Love was 22.7 at +2.0 percent. It would counter every trend in NBA history for this kind of isolation scoring or finishing (from offensive rebounds or off-ball scoring) to automatically generate quality team offense. If we plug in turnovers for Wilt — from low percentage to high percentage — his averages during those volume scoring years were 24 points per 75, +5.0 percent rTS and about a 3 percent creation rate (3 shots created per 100), closest historically to 1981 Robert Parish, 2007 Carlos Boozer, 1981 Moses Malone and 1996 Alonzo Mourning.

The 1960 Warriors also had improved roster continuity, and as a result two of their better players logged more time (Guy Rodgers and the NBA’s first “Mr. Everything” Tom Gola). All-Star Paul Arizin was a year older at 31 and coming off an All-NBA season. Otherwise, they returned the same core from 1959.

However, on defense, the Warriors showed massive improvement, jumping nearly 3.5 points relative to league average. This is a trend that would repeat itself throughout Wilt’s career. Here’s his entire timeline with the Warriors:

In 1962, with Frank Maguire taking over as coach and a second-year Al Attles in the rotation, Wilt averaged 50 points a night and the Warriors jumped to a 55-win pace. However, (again) the team offense budged only slightly, sitting 1.7 points above league average, the highest of any of his first seven seasons.

In 1963, yet another coach entered the picture and the Warriors lost Arizin to retirement. Wilt still had a monster scoring year, boasting an rTS of +5.8 percent for the second straight season, but the offense sunk to below-average. Sports Illustrated described the year like this: “The whole dull show was Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 44.8 points a game while the rest of his team forgot to score.”

In 1964, one of the great coaches in NBA history, Alex Hannum, entered the picture (along with rookie and future Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond). SI wrote this at the end of the preseason:

“Hannum’s teams move constantly, and everybody works for shots. Could Chamberlain, who sometimes seems an immovable object, fit into the new style? The answer appears to be yes. The new Wilt is moving. He is passing, playing alert defense, running and rebounding, but not scoring nearly as much. He is getting some help from rookie Nate Thurmond (6 feet 11), who will be Wilt’s first relief man in his four seasons as a pro. Thurmond, who could start at center for many NBA teams, is also working as a forward, where he will back up Tom Meschery and Wayne Hightower, both of whom look much better this year…Wilt is the Warriors. They cannot win without him. Hannum feels they might win with him if he is really changing his technique.”

They returned to a 53-win pace in ’64…but it was with a devastatingly good defense (5.9 points better than average). Wilt still scored at volume and the offense waned. Again.

1965 was one of the stranger results in NBA history. The Warriors played at a 28-win pace with Chamberlain. His scoring went back up, his assists declined, and San Francisco finished with the worst offense in the league (-5.9 rORtg). Wilt was traded midway through the year for 40 cents on the dollar (for a 27 and 17 minute-per-game player) and the Warriors were only slightly worse without him. Meanwhile, Philadelphia picked up Chamberlain and improved from a 40-win pace to a 48-win pace.

1966 was Wilt’s final year volume-scoring, although he began to reincorporate passing more. And in 1967, when Hannum reunited with Chamberlain, he successfully sold him on a more global approach. SI wrote this before the year:

“[Jack Ramsay and Alex Hannum] are two of the finest brains, unprotected or otherwise, in basketball. It is doubtful that any franchise ever improved its top management so spectacularly as the 76ers did this year. The team was already excellent…Philly gets Larry Costello back, and the 76ers are younger than Boston and have a full-time coach. Besides, Hannum handled Wilt Chamberlain, at San Francisco, better than any man ever did. Who else but Hannum could say that he plans to use Luke Jackson in the pivot for up to 10 minutes a game and add, ‘Wilt will be agreeable if it’s right for the team.’ This is not psychological skirmishing, either; Wilt and Alex respect each other. Chamberlain did not enhance the relationship by reporting late, but Ramsay promptly fined him $1,050, and all the special considerations that Wilt had been given last year—private suites, travel arrangements—seemed far away indeed.”

The results spoke for themselves, as the 76ers started the season 37-4 and never looked back, posting the highest offensive rating in history at the time. Wilt’s assists spiked to nearly 8 per game en route to the title.

In 1968 Philadelphia’s offense regressed slightly. At the same time, Chamberlain became fixated on leading the league in assists. (He did.) However, based on film and reports, it seemed he was letting defenses off the hook by looking to pass too much – this took pressure off the opponent and essentially turned more of his passes into low-leverage “Rondo Assists,” as illustrated above in the scouting report. Based on the footage, I think a reasonable interpretation for the team’s offensive dip is that opponents stopped doubling Wilt as much as he looked to pass more and more.6

There’s also evidence that the late 1960s 76ers were absolutely loaded. Chet Walker had a smooth offensive game, good outside shot and the ability to create his own scoring (he made seven All-Star teams). Hal Greer made seven straight all-league teams. Billy Cunningham would rise to MVP prominence when given the reigns in the following seasons. Without Wilt, and before Luke Jackson’s season-ending injury in 1969, the 76ers were playing like a 60-win team.

Meanwhile, in 1968, the Lakers were working on their own Super Team. Coach Butch Van Breda Kolff implemented a system based on the Princeton offense and his collection of guards flourished. With Jerry West, they played at a 62-win pace, with an offense to challenge the record-setting 76ers from the year before. However, without West they were pedestrian, and the result went largely unnoticed in NBA history.

Despite success in Philadelphia, Wilt wanted to move to the glamour of Hollywood. SI wrote this before the ’68 season:

“Now that Wilt Chamberlain has decided not to acquire the Los Angeles franchise in the ABA or become a split end for the Jets or the heavyweight champion of the world but instead to play basketball for a salary approaching $250,000, the 76ers must be favored to win again.”

So at the end of the year, long before the Heatles, Wilt forced a trade to LA and joined superstars Elgin Baylor and West. However, Wilt’s prodding offensive game didn’t exactly fit into Van Breda Kolff’s Princeton schemes that emphasized space and open lanes, and the Lakers regressed with the addition of Chamberlain.

They were still quite good when healthy – a 57-win pace.7 Still, they were better the year before Wilt arrived. The Laker offense, spearheaded by West, still finished a quality 3.0 points above league average, but it’s clear that Wilt’s low and mid-post game didn’t enhance what LA had previously synthesized. Van Breda Koff was infamously ousted at the end of the year.

In 1970 Wilt missed most of the season with injury and returned for the playoffs. There are only small-sampled lineups to compare (shown above), but they are similar with and without Chamberlain. His final three years were likely his least effective offensively, as his free throw rates dropped severely and his scoring rates were close to Tyson Chandler levels.

It’s not a problem, per se, to combine the packages of Chandler and Rondo; such passing can still be additive when surrounded by offensive weapons like West and Gail Goodrich. Additionally, Wilt’s offensive rebounding helped too. But he became fixated on setting the field goal percentage record and at the end of the 1973 season would pass up easy shots to preserve his shooting numbers.

“March 28, 1973, Chamberlain didn’t attempt a shot or take a single free throw while playing 46 minutes in an 85-84 loss to Milwaukee. Coach Bill Sharman, when asked why Wilt didn’t shoot, said, ‘I don’t know why. You will have to ask him. That really hurt, him not shooting’ -St. Petersburg Times, March 29, 1973

“Wilt Chamberlain, who entered the game with 24 successful field goal attempts in a row, kept the streak alive in an unconventional fashion. He took no shots at all” – The Milwaukee Journal, March 28, 1973”

By all accounts, his last few years were some of his best defensively. He was built like a tank at that point – he claimed over 300 pounds – and anchored the second and third-best defense in the league in his final two seasons.

When we regress lineup data from that period (WOWYR) Wilt still shows strong impact. This is because of all the excellent teams that he was a major figurehead on – ’62, ’64, ’67, ’68, ’72 and ’73. All told, Wilt’s four best teams, by far, come from his non volume-scoring years, and the last two come from his “Tyson Chandler” vintage. This arc makes sense if you remember the scouting report – he wasn’t creating easy shots for his teammates, and his propensity to park in the lane helped muck up spacing that was already mucked. (After all, he was described by SI as “an immovable object.”)

Meanwhile, his willingness to pass (even those Rondo Passes) helped skilled teams, as did his occasional post move and presence as an offensive rebounder. But the major contributions came on the defensive end. There, he’s one of the greatest defenders ever, only overshadowed in his time by the greatest defender ever, Bill Russell. From the film of these seasons and from the data, we see Wilt’s tremendous impact and ability to block and alter shots while inhaling defensive boards.

Finally, there’s this tidbit to drive home these trends: Most relative defenses in the postseason are slightly worse. But Wilt’s improved by 1.9 points, far more than any other all-timer. On the other hand, most relative offenses improve in the playoffs, but Wilt’s teams declined by a point…more than any other all-timer. So while a “scoring blindness” drastically overstates his offensive impact, it also masks his tremendous defensive results.

He’s great, just not in the ways that the original box score predicts.