Now that Stephen Curry’s blowing up the NBA and old-timers are grousing (Sit down, shut up, and enjoy the show!) I decided to revisit a number of past greats. I was watching a video from the Wilt Chamberlin archive comparing Wilt to Kareem Abdul Jabbar. One of the comparisons was based upon production and Wilt was downgraded a bit because he played so many minutes. This is entirely backwards and indicated how we often don’t use reason to evaluate comparisons between players, contemporaneous or from different eras.
So, the comparison said that Wilt played more minutes, so he had more opportunities to score, so he should be marked down regarding that. WTF? Wilt had attributes that made him, without doubt, the greatest center to ever have played professional basketball. Yes, Bill Russell (my #2) had way more championships, but in case you haven’t noticed, basketball is a team sport and Bill played for much better teams. So, should Wilt’s “production” be downgraded since he played more minutes per game in a comparison? No, that is idiotic.
It is true that one of the reasons Wilt had a career average of more than 20 rebounds per game was he was in the game to make rebounds. One year he averaged over 50 points per game in scoring! No one else has averaged as many as 40 per game. (Actually Wilt did and if you look at the highest per game scoring averages in a season in the NBA, you will find Wilt in third and fourth place, too.) One year Wilt averaged over 48 minutes of play per game. Since a game is only 48 minutes you might wonder at that but Wilt played every minute of every game in that season … including overtimes.
The only fair way to evaluate such a comparison is to switch conditions. Estimate what Wilt would have done had he had 10 minutes of rest each game. Then estimate how Kareem would have done had he played every minute of every game. This is where Wilt wins in any such comparison. If any other player were required to play every minute of every game, their production, minimally, would have fallen off and most likely they would have broken down and gotten injured. They would not have been able to go “all out” knowing they could “take a blow” for a few minutes when they needed to and they would flat out get tired and more tired game after game and pretty soon they would be ineffective.
And, I can imagine Wilt coming back off the bench in the second half of game, refreshed, and ready to break some wrists at the rim. You must realize that many of his opponents physically feared Wilt and for good reason. There wasn’t a one of them he couldn’t have picked up and slammed to the floor. Even Arnold Swartzenegger tells tales of Wilt’s immense strength in the gym and Arnold only knew a somewhat over-the-hill Wilt.
Wilt was immensely strong, immensely durable, immensely fast, and had immense stamina. Consequently he is one of the only players in NBA history to have consistently played whole games. And for those who think that those “old guys” in the NBA weren’t worked as strenuously as today’s players, look again. What was considered a foul then was basically blood was drawn. Things that would be considered a Flagrant-2 foul now might not have even been whistled back then. Wilt made the bulk of his baskets with two or more guys hanging on him. And Wilt never fouled out of a game. (Yes, superstars were protected then as they are now, but still.)
Just because scoring and rebounds can be considered on a “per minute played” basis does not mean it is fair to do so. The only fair comparison is to consider what would have happened had each played the other’s game.