Chamberlain’s Dominance Over Russell: A Head-to-Head Statistical Analysis
I am ready to make a bold claim. NBA fans, are you ready for it? Here it is: Wilt Chamberlain was a better player than Bill Russell.
There, I said it! I claim that the greatest individual talent of the 1960’s ranks higher all-time than the greatest winner of the 1960’s. This proclamation requires acknowledging that the man with 2 NBA championship rings is better than the man with 11 rings. I am ready to make this bold proclamation. It comes from research that provides proof of Chamberlain’s superior performance over Russell in head-to-head matchups.
In a never-ending player debate such as this, I’m looking for conclusive measures to help my claim. When debating two of the biggest stars in NBA history, it’s truly a contrast in style. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. He averaged 50 points per game for an entire season. The man was a singular force, a titan of the game who was far ahead of his time. Yet at the same time, Bill Russell’s team routinely defeated Wilt’s and won, and won, and won to the tune of 11 championships. So which do you prefer: the better talent or the better winner?
For years, I preferred Bill Russell’s gold standard. However, I finally decided to dive deeper into his postseason matchups with “Wilt the Stilt”. I wanted to see how these two players stacked up versus one another. I analyzed every postseason series in which they battled against one another. Russell’s Celtics won 7 of the series, with Chamberlain only persevering in 1967. However, the results of their actual play versus one another surprised me.
It’s simple: Wilt Chamberlain out-performed Bill Russell in their playoff head-to-head (H2H) matchups.
Head-to-Head Round 1: Per Game Averages
See below for a display of Chamberlain’s and Russell’s playoff H2H per game averages versus:
In 1960, Wilt outscored Bill by 10 points per game and shot 5% better from the field. In 1962, Chamberlain scored 11 more points per game while generating 1.5 fewer assists, to Russell’s credit. Then from 1964-1967, the gap widened even further between their respective box score figures.
Wilt’s advantage in combined BoxScoreTOTAL’s (PTS + REB + AST) and field goal shooting were as follows:
1960: + 9.5 Box Score, + 5% FG
1962: + 11.2 Box Score, + 7% FG
1964: + 17.8 Box Score, + 13% FG
1965: + 17.2 Box Score, +11% FG
1966: + 15.4 Box Score, + 9% FG
1967: + 22.8 Box Score, + 20% FG
1968: + 12.2 Box Score, +5% FG
1969: + 4.4 Box Score, +10% FG
In today’s NBA, we’ve seen LeBron James outplay Stephen Curry head-to-head in multiple Finals series. Despite only winning 1 of those 3 series, James is widely hailed as the superior player. They do not faceoff head-to-head, but it is plain to see that the “King” is the superior talent. Yet the Warriors simply have the better team. These can be two independent concepts: a player can be better while another wins more games. I wonder if that is the case with Chamberlain and Russell.
Let’s continue researching this by taking our analysis one step further.
Head-to-Head Round 2: Game Leader
The next comparison item is the most impressive to me. See below for Chamberlain and Russell’s playoff H2H tallies as the overall “game leader”:
To finish as the overall game leader, the player must have led BOTH teams in either points, rebounds or assists. In their 1960 series, Wilt led 2 games in scoring and 3 games in rebounds. Meanwhile, Bill led 1 game in scoring and 3 games in rebounds. Therefore, these two titans were equivalent in this statistical measure.
That gap widened drastically, however, from 1962 to 1968.
Russell was never the offensive cog of the Celtics machine, so it’s expected that he led few games in scoring. However, his rebounding and assists rarely ever exceeded that of Chamberlain’s count. Wilt’s advantage in combined GameLeadTOTAL’s was staggering:
1960: +1 Game Lead (PTS, REB and/or AST)
1962: +6 Game Leads
1964: +5 Game Leads
1965: +6 Game Leads
1966: +7 Game Leads
1967: +4 Game Leads (the only year that Chamberlain’s team defeated Russell’s)
1968: +3 Game Leads
In a direct H2H comparison, I cannot look at those results and still declare that Russell was better. At least, not simply because of his team winning. Looking at their career totals in “Game Leads”, Russell led just 1 game in points. Chamberlain did so 19 times! Bill respectably led 18 games in rebounds… yet Wilt led 30 games in boards. Despite the Celtics great being hailed as the better passer, which he probably was, “the Stilt” even led more often in assists.
Before concluding my point, I have one more stat metric to present.
Head-to-Head Round 3: Game Max Output
Previously I stated each player’s series average box score figures. Now I will present their playoff H2H game high outputs:
For this measure, I analyzed each H2H playoff game and recorded their series high in PTS, REB and AST. These did not have to occur in the same game. Rather, I wanted to see their fully-realized maximum box score output from each series.
Bill Russell grades out better here than in the two prior stat comparisons. Even then, however, he still cannot surpass the eye-popping performance of Chamberlain. In their 1960 series, Wilt posted a 50-point game. Bill’s highest-scoring game in that series was roughly half of that – 26 points. Now to give credit, Russell had a 39-rebound game which surpassed Wilt’s game-high of 35 rebounds. In the assists department, “Stilt” came out just one ahead. Yet if you combine these game high outputs into one sum, Chamberlain’s 91 GameMaxTOTAL far exceeds Russell’s 70 GameMaxTOTAL.
This trend continued from 1962 to 1968. Russell only produced greater combined game high’s than Chamberlain in 1969. See below for Wilt’s advantage in H2H playoff GameMaxTOTAL’s:
1960: +21 Game Max
1962: +16 Game Max
1964: +22 Game Max
1965: +19 Game Max
1966: +27 Game Max
1967: +16 Game Max
1968: +15 Game Max
1969: -5 Game Max
In points, Wilt recorded the higher output in all eight series (100% frequency). In rebounds, Chamberlain recorded the higher output seven times (87.5% frequency). In assists, he was indeed surpassed by Russell and only recorded the higher output three times (37.5% frequency).
Conclusion: Hail Chamberlain!
Basketball fans tend to look at NBA championships in a vacuum. They are a simple and easy way to compare players. When one player has more title rings than another, that does indicate something significant. It tells us that Player A (more rings) played on teams that won more championships than Player B. Typically, the superior team wins titles more often than the superior individual player. Of course it takes special players to win a championship! Of that, there is no doubt. Bill Russell clearly had a championship pedigree unmatched by any player in basketball history. He deserves to be called the greatest winner of all-time. If blocks and steals were recorded in his day, we would have an even better picture of his full dominance over his peers.
However, we are left with the most basic box score statistics to compare he and his bitter rival: points, rebounds and assists. When playing versus one another, in the playoffs, Chamberlain won his matchup of these titans. Yet his team only defeated Russell’s Celtics in one out of their eight playoff matchups. On the surface, this is dominance. Dig down further and you’ll find a very fine line between winning and losing:
- 1962 series (7 games): BOS won Game 7 by two points
- 1965 series (7 games): BOS won Game 7 by one point
- 1968 series (7 games): BOS won Game 7 by four points
- 1969 series (7 games): BOS won Game 7 by two points
- Combined margin of defeat (4 games) for Wilt’s teams: 9 points
Look at how close those games were! We are nine points away from Chamberlain likely winning 2-3 more championships and completely re-defining his legacy. If Wilt finished his career with 4 or 5 titles, he’d likely be considered as the GOAT (“greatest of all-time”) along with Michael Jordan. Meanwhile, Bill Russell would still have a staggering 7 NBA championships. However, that would be much closer in line to other superstars and would weaken his ranking on the all-time list. Granted, Russell and his Celtics deserve credit for winning these games.
As I looked through each game in this rivalry, Boston frequently recorded higher team assists numbers than that of Wilt’s teammates. They were full of Hall-of-Fame players and collectively were superior to their competition more than any other NBA dynasty. These teams were as close to unbeatable as you will find.
I just do not believe that Russell’s better team directly leads to the conclusion that he was the better player over Chamberlain. What if Durant, Curry and the Golden State Warriors win another 3-4 NBA championships in LeBron’s twilight years? Will those players be hailed as greater than James, even if he continues fighting heroically and posting staggering Finals stats? Or will history look back and just remember the Warriors as the better team, the one that even the league’s best player could only defeat one time?
That is exactly what appeared to happen between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Based on what I have presented above, I now believe that Wilt was the superior all-time player over Bill.
See the page below where I rank these two players among the 50 best from NBA history!
What are your thoughts on this topic? Have these results changed your opinion either way on these players? If so, let me know! Contact me via Twitter @NBAStatsLab or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading!