Backpicks GOAT: #4 Bill Russell

Key Stats and Trends

  • Spearheaded the most dominant defensive dynasty in NBA history
  • Shut down the best centers of the time based on available box scores
  • Mediocre scorer but vision and rebounding made his offense passable

Scouting Report

In many ways, Bill Russell was the first athletic “freak” in NBA history. He was an Olympic-level leaper, standing 6-foot-11 in shoes and playing in the 230s.1 Yet he was fast and agile, able to lead the break as a center:

His defining athletic attribute was explosive leaping, reaching shot-blocking altitudes in the blink of an eye. Here’s a 35-year old Russell, in one of the last sequences of his career, inhaling an overmatched Mel Counts drive.

His defensive IQ was probably his most valuable asset. In his biography, he recalls practicing different pick-and-roll coverages with dance partner KC Jones, rehearsing the all-important pas de deux long before the league popularized coverages like “ice.” He also grasped efficiency decades before Dean Oliver formalized it, (correctly) claiming that his team would benefit mightily if Wilt scored a lot but was forced to eat up extra possessions to do so. Russell was aware of how disruptive he could be without even blocking a shot, describing his psychological warfare like this once:

“The thing I got to do is make my man think I’m gonna block every shot he takes…Say I block a shot on you. The next time you’re gonna shoot, I know I can’t block it, but I act exactly the same way as before, I make exactly the same moves. I’m confident. I’m not thinking any more but I got you thinking…I don’t even have to try to block it.”

In the clip below, Russell’s mere presence forces Oscar Robertson — one of the greatest offensive players in history — into an off-balance flip shot:

In the limited film we have of Russell, he demonstrated an intuitive feel for when to help, and how to roam and recover (something he dubbed his “horizontal game”):

These were modern, efficiency-crushing actions, similar to what Kevin Garnett excelled at decades later. However, without a 3-point line to worry about, Russell was content to let marginal shooters fire away from midrange. If he had a defensive blemish, it was resting off these players too frequently, waiting for them to make one or two jumpers before extending his coverage:

Conservation of energy was a strategic play then — Russ logged nearly 45 minutes a night — so these occasional hiccups traded quality for quantity. On most possessions, he engaged, and his timing made him nightmarishly effective. Here he is inviting a player into the lane so he can blast off at the last second for a block:

And his quick leaping regularly led to plays like the ones below:

These challenges were hyper-efficient, rarely drawing free throws or surrendering points. (Russell posted some of the lowest per-possession fouling rates in NBA history.) In perhaps the prototypical Russ play, he stays near his own man as long as need be before springing to help at the last second, controlling the block and starting the Celtics’ break:

Here’s what former teammate Bill Sharman said about him in the 1967 documentary “Year to Remember:”

“Russell, who is a little quicker than [Wilt Chamberlain or Nate Thurmond], will go to the corners, block a shot or get back underneath and get the big rebound or again pick up the cutter.”

He could cover just about any opponent in front of him; here he is switching on to Oscar and then West, completely disrupting both:

Oh, and in case you were wondering what his man defense was like on the block, there’s the occasional logic-defying play like this:

In the publicly available games, the number of blocked shots is staggering. Based on about 100 unofficial box scores (journalists would sometimes track them), Russell tallied around 8 blocks per game during his career, and was closer to 9 per contest during his peak seasons. Adjusting for pace, this yields about 5.5-6.0 blocks per 100 possessions, which would fall between the 30th and 60th-best seasons on record.2

Whatever the number was, it’s clear that his combination of awareness and athleticism was like a cheat code for the era, introducing verticality into a previously grounded game.3 His rebounding was also top-notch, and the best estimates of his glasswork put him on the edge of the top-100 seasons historically, with rebounding rates around 20 percent. He wasn’t into powerful box outs, instead, counting on timing and a nose for the ball to snatch it off the rim:

On the other end, Russell’s half-court attack was fairly straightforward, consisting of a little face-up shot from midrange, right and left-handed hooks and the occasional drive. Here’s a sample:

These shots weren’t too accurate, as evidenced by his slightly above-average field goal percentage — between 43 and 47 percent for the heart of his career.4 He often served as a passing hub, looking for cutters or open men to hit from the post. These would lead to a number of “Rondo Assists” — more vanilla passes that find basic openings — instead of warping the defense with his threat to score. The play below is a typical Russell post-up that ends in a marginal shot:

Sometimes, he would turn that into a hook or shot attempt, but he was often surveying for slashers and rarely ate up possessions trying to force his own scoring. Overall, he looks like a good, but not great passer, and could occasionally play-make for teammates. In the clip below, he senses a double-team and slips it out to the open shooter:

He also completed nifty passes off his own shot action — the dishes below hint at vision and awareness that were good enough to throw high-level dimes. In the second clip, despite briefly dropping his head to secure his handle, Russell is still able to map the court and find the backdoor.

His assist rates were regularly at the top of the league among big men, and in his final five years he finished in the 60th percentile or better among all players in each season.

That generational athleticism also opened up transition opportunities and offensive rebounding chances. It made him a solid finisher as well; here he is with a modern-looking attack as the roll man in the pick-and-roll:

But pick-and-roll action like that wasn’t used as frequently in those days. Instead, Russell tallied a decent share of second-chance points, like this:

And he was extremely nimble running the floor. Here he is demonstrating that speed on the break:

In the latter stages of his career, he played more “point center” and looked for his own offense even less. He was a quick outlet passer, and, as shown above, could grab boards and even run the break himself. In his final few years, his assists increased to around 4 per 75 possessions while his scoring declined from a peak of 12 points per 75 at +3 percent efficiency — slightly below Draymond Green levels — to just under 10 per 75. This kind of low-usage approach won’t lift teams short on scoring, but it would complement perimeter-based offenses.

Russell was durable throughout his career, even gutting through a broken bone in his foot for the final two months of the 1966 season.5 He was slowed slightly by arthritic knees down the stretch of his career before retiring in 1969.

Impact Evaluation

There’s a lack of granular data on Russell, which makes it hard to ballpark his defensive impact. Was it worth 5 points a game (MVP-worthy) or something unheard of like 7 points (GOAT-season worthy)? It was clearly immense, and combined with his passable offense, left a considerable impact footprint.

He didn’t miss much time in his career, so WOWY numbers are hard to come by. Journalists and teammates always claimed that the Celtics fell apart without him; Boston was a 35-win team (-1.9 SRS) in 28 games he missed from 1958-69, and for the other 915 games of his career they played at a 59-win pace (6.4 SRS). This is a tiny piece of evidence – the years are spread out, teams change, and so on — but it echoes the same story as Russell’s other value signals.

For instance, when his teammates missed time, Boston rarely missed a beat. In 1958, Bob Cousy sat for seven games and the Celtics played far better without him. In ’59 and ’60, Sharman, Cousy and Tom Heinsohn missed a few games each, and the machine kept on ticking. In ’61, Sharman missed 18 games and the Celtics were (again) better without him. In ’62, Cousy missed five and, yes, the Celtics were better without him (portending his retirement years).6

But Russell missed four games in 1962 and Boston’s differential fell by 22 points. Four games is infinitesimally small, but all of these stories point in the same direction. It was only when Russell was hampered by injury (in the 1958 Finals) that the Celtics fell short of a title — the single time a Russell team failed to win in a 12-year span dating back to college.7

This trend would hold throughout most of Russell’s career. In ’66, Sam Jones missed eight games and Boston’s performance didn’t budge. Jones missed 11 more contests in ’69 and the team was about 2 points worse without him. All told, as the roster cycled around Russell, his impact seemed to remain. A more detailed calculation of his game-level value has Russell at the top of the impact-heap in his era, while similar studies have him behind only Jerry West and Oscar Robertson (who both had the fortune of playing on dominant teams during the most watered-down years in NBA history).

At the height of their dynasty, the Celtics were comically dominant. From 1962-65, their average margin-of-victory (MOV) was over 8 points per game. During the same time span, only two other teams even eclipsed 4 points per game – the ’64 Royals and the ’64 Warriors. And all of Boston’s separation was created by its historic defense, anchored by Russell:

Russell didn’t join the team until partway through his rookie season, and before hopping aboard, Boston looked like an improved club (playing at a 58-win pace for 19 full-strength games). Still, what transpired in the ensuing years cannot be attributed to teammates or a defense-first strategy.

Boston platooned different players around Russell while he anchored the greatest defensive dynasty in NBA history. At its height (1960-1966), Russell played 43 to 45 minutes per game while only Sam Jones topped 35 per game (once, in 1965). During the 1963 season, no other Celtic played over 31 minutes per contest. To put Boston’s defensive dominance into perspective, let’s zoom out and revisit the above graph, but this time using all defensive seasons since 1955:

As defensive stoppers ramped up their minutes in the ’60s and Russell evolved, Boston lapped the league. 1964 and ’65 were the two best defensive teams ever by this measure. (Amazingly, in Second Wind, Russell calls out the 1964 team as the best defensive team of his time without knowing any of the efficiency metrics.) He captained four of the top-five and five of the top-10 relative defensive seasons in history.

Despite a smattering of famous names, the offenses were never anything to write home about. In ’55 and ’56, Cousy, the sharp-shooting Sharman and the hyper-efficient Easy Ed Macauley powered attacks that were 2 to 3 points ahead of the league. With Russell in for Macauley in ’57, Boston’s offense dipped to around average, where it would hover until 1960.8 In ’61, Sharman trailed off in his final season, Cousy slowed further and defensive notables like KC Jones and Tom Sanders saw more time. During the heart of the ’60s, the Celtics finished about 3 points worse than the league in offensive efficiency based on our best estimations.

Yet Boston was viewed as a squad of offensive stars because they played at a high pace and scored a lot of points at a time when raw scoring was emphasized. Russell was certainly flanked by some offensive talent in the early years (Cousy and Sharman) and in the later years (Sam Jones and John Havlicek). Even his own offense was relevant; for instance, in 1962, he led the team in postseason scoring and efficiency and finished second in assists. But Boston wasn’t out of the ordinary for having a few good attackers, nor were they winning with their offense.9

Tom Sanders, KC Jones and John Havlicek made up an excellent supporting cast of defenders, although Boston lacked a second big man to play next to Russell. When he retired in 1969, along with Sam Jones — who was down to 26 minutes per game by then — the Celtics dropped a whopping 8 points in SRS (from a 59-win full-strength pace to a 36-win one) despite returning the rest of their eight-man rotation.10 So while Boston fielded a strong team around Big Bill, there’s nothing indicating that they could sniff the same heights without him.

In the postseason, the defensive domination rolled on. Below, I’ve compared Russell’s playoff defenses to those of other all-time big men. The gray bubbles in Russell’s column are the Celtics individual performance in each year. Note that Boston never had a subpar defensive postseason with Russell, and that its worst playoff runs were clustered at the end of his career as a he slowed down:

When pundits wax about old-timers dominating, these are the kinds of outlying result we should see from an ahead-of-his-time star. Boston’s best five-year defensive rating (1961-65) was 9.2 points better than league average. No other team in history has been 7 points better than the league over a five-year stretch. Even this understates the Celtics’ defensive dominance because the league average was pulled down by Boston’s presence.11

Finally, there’s Russell’s total lockdown of other All-Star centers. He was so complete as a defender that he was likely the best team and man defender of his era. Here’s what he did to All-Star pivots during his career:12

All of these players declined in efficiency, and only Thurmond improved his scoring (although on dreadful accuracy). Willis Reed and Zelmo Beaty were vaporized by Russell. The numbers are particularly compelling because, unlike today, Russell played most of the game and Boston did not double-team frequently.

Of course, his most notable conquest was Wilt. While one might think that Chamberlain’s line against Russell was exceptional — he averaged 33 point per game on +4 percent efficiency — adjusting for pace yields a scoring profile comparable to ’89 Roy Tarpley or ’10 David Lee. The sample above comes from Wilt’s volume scoring years only, but even in 1967, arguably Chamberlain’s most revered season, Russell slowed him down significantly. Against the league, Wilt averaged 24.6 points per 36 minutes on 64.9 percent true shooting (TS). But in nine games against Russell, his scoring dropped 4.3 points and his efficiency plummeted 10.8 percentage points.

In Wilt’s 1962 50-point season, he faced Russell 17 times and the rest of the league 75 times (he played Boston twice without Russell). Chamberlain averaged 50.9 points and 53.6 percent true shooting against the league, but 37.2 points on 50.1 percent true shooting against Russell (with 4.3 fewer free throw attempts per game). Russell shaved 14 points per game off Wilt’s average and his drop in efficiency — from 1.07 points per attempt to 1 point per attempt — is the full-game equivalent of a GOAT-level offense regressing to average.

So, we can safely crown Russell as defensive royalty. His offense pales in comparison to other greats, but he was not a poor offensive player – in many ways, he was above average for his day, although it’s unlikely his contributions moved the needle much. Between 1959 and 1965, he finished in the top half of centers in points per 36 twice (’60 and ’62), while falling between the 61st and 71st percentile in true shooting (efficiency) in both years. His scoring regularly improved in the playoffs before trailing off in his last four seasons.

The impact studies we have for that era suggest he’s, at worst, a player with MVP-level lift, and at best, view him as one of the most valuable players of all time. The noisiness of that data and Russell’s outlying status as a defender make it difficult to confidently pin down his value. But, the restrictive dribbling rules, poor spacing and sheer volume of possessions played make it likely that his pre-3 point impact was well ahead of today’s best defensive scores.13

His portability was superb – any team at the time would have exploded defensively by adding him, and his passing and finishing would provide bonus value for any competent offense. He has excellent era longevity, and I consider his peak among the better ones in NBA history. Shaving my valuation of his defense by 5 percent per season — a plausible but conservative estimation — would drop him a spot or two in these rankings while keeping his per possession impact in line with the modern defensive juggernauts.

On the other hand, there’s a viable argument that he was even better than I give him credit for. Like Jordan and LeBron today, his prime was an onslaught of MVP-level seasons and, relative to his era, he might have been the most valuable player ever. Yet for this exercise, his ambiguity leaves enough doubt that he lands at No. 4, narrowly edged out by the man in front of him.

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.