Russell vs. Chamberlain

The question of Russell vs. Chamberlain has been going on since they played.  I have always been firmly on Chamberlain's side until recently and he has been, and still is, my favorite player.  Likewise, Dr. J is my 2nd favorite player and in the mid 1980s, I could not say (with a clear conscience) that he was a better forward than Larry Bird.  Sometimes, there are bigger fish in the ocean.

Was Wilt a more talented ball player than Russell?  Certainly.  Wilt did things that no one before or after could dream of.  He had one weakness, but Russell was a poor free throw shooter as well -- a point that Russell fans conveniently ignore.  Similarly, in the late 1980s, Michael Jordan was doing things never seen by a guard and maybe even any player.  He could take on teams by himself and keep his team competitive when everybody knew he was going to shoot.  However, Magic Johnson was winning the MVPs and with good reason:  although, he couldn't score against double- and triple-teams the way Jordan could and he couldn't go for 60 points, he knew how to win.  In a game of 1-on-1 Jordan would kill Magic, just like Chamberlain would kill Russell, but basketball is not 1-on-1, and that is where guys like Magic and Russell had it all over guys like Chamberlain and Jordan.

When I argued in the past for Chamberlain, I always had to rationalize his shortcomings: lesser teammates, bad coaches, bad luck.  This is all true.  There was no way that Chamberlain's teams could beat Russell's from 1960-64.  In 1965 & 66, the talent was there, but Chamberlain was anchored with Dolph Schayes as coach.  In 1967, he got a high caliber coach and teammates, and put up a season for the ages.  The next 2 years, he played on better teams than Russell.  He had better teammates and better coaches (Butch Van Breda Kolff was no genius, but he was a better coach than Bill Russell coaching himself).  Yet, with the disadvantage, Russell still overcame.  He certainly had the excuse, just as Wilt had, but he did not let it stop him.

For 1968, there simply is no answer for Wilt's failure.  Billy Cunningham was injured, but the 76ers had Chet Walker starting.  Injuries are part of the game (ask Willis Reed), and even with it, the Sixers took a 3-1 lead before blowing it in one of the all-time chokes.  In the 2nd half of game 7, Chamberlain took 2 shots.  Now, if Russell could not stop him (as some claim), and Cunningham was injured, why did Chamberlain keep giving the ball up to ice-cold Chet Walker, when his team needed him most?  In 1970, with Willis Reed hobbled and playing limited minutes, why didn't Chamberlain light him up for 50 points?  He just did not come through in the big games.  He should have won the title in 1967-70, 72 and 73 and possibly in 65 and 66.  That is a minimum of 6 with a maximum of 8, rather than 2.

That, ultimately, is why Russell is better.  In the playoffs, Russell elevated his game and Chamberlain did not.  He did not complain about his role, usage, or treatment.  All he wanted to do was win, and in the win, that is why GMs trade for players and draft them.  You can rationalize Chamberlains repeated failures and Russell's repeated success, but in the end, you realize just how much whining and back-bending is needed to make the round peg fit into the square hole.

If they traded teams, Russell would not have won 11 titles in 13 years, but I do believe they would have split with St. Louis in 1957-59, and certainly won in 1967-69, and split in 1964-65.  That is about 6 titles.  Wilt was the greater force, but Russell's superior knowledge of the team game would result in more success.  Meanwhile, Russell's teammates have said they would win some titles with Wilt but not be the dynasty that they were because Wilt was too interested in his own agendas to fit into their team concept.  That point can be debated, but when you consider that Wilt only won 1 title after Russell retired, even though he played in the finals 3 times in 4 years, the Celtics players do have a point.

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