The Great Debate: Russell vs. Chamberlain

As you know, I am currently reading The Book of Basketball.  If you’re an NBA fan, its a fun book, filled with basketball information and provocative arguments, along with a buttload of cultural references. (note: What’s with Simmons obsession with the movie Boogie Nights?  There are — and I’m not exaggerating — at least a dozen references to the movie or its central character in the book.)

Russell or Chamberlain?

One of the early chapters in the book raises the greatest argument of all among NBA fans:  who was better, Boston Celtics C Bill Russell or Phi/SF/LA C Wilt Chamberlain?  In the book, Simmons argues that Bill Russell was better.  In a prior post I criticized the nonsensical way Simmons put together his argument, but remained agnostic regarding his conclusion.  Today I am prepared to say that while the evidence is close, I agree that Russell was the better “win force” than Chamberlain. (I take no position on who had more “basketball skill”.  That is an impossible question to answer).

Applying  Historic Marginal Win Score (MWS48)

I reached my conclusion after painstakingly constructing Career Win Resumes for each player using a version of the Marginal Win Score metric (explained in a separate Page on this blog) I call “Historic Marginal Win Score”.

I will write another Page explaining Historic Marginal Win Score, but for now I’ll just say that it is the same as MWS48 except it relies on inductive reasoning and historical precedent to fill in the statistical gaps that one encounters in every NBA season prior to 1977-78.  For the main bit of missing information, Opposition Win Score, it works kind of like this. If I know I have a “2” (Team Win Score) and I know the final answer is around “5” (Pythagorean Wins), I can conclude that the missing number is probably around “3”.  That’s way more simplistic, but its the gist.  (The process also relies on “defensive position placement” that’s usually arduous but in this case is actually easy because I know both of these players spent all of their minutes at center.  I’ll explain the process of placement when I do the Page).

The Results

Here are the Career Win Resumes I came up with for both players:

Click Here for Bill Russell

Click Here for Wilt Chamberlain

MWS48: Russell was the larger “win force”

As you can see from the two resumes, Bill Russell — according to Marginal Win Score — was the slightly larger “win force” (if you will).  Meaning, throughout his career, and on a per minute basis, Russell outproduced his contemporary opponent centers by a bit more than Wilt Chamberlain in the categories that correlate with wins.

In a “typical” season for Bill Russell (for all the following numbers and terms, please refer to the “How to Read Win Charts” page in the blog column), the big man posted a Marginal Win Score per 48 of +6.10, he produced 20.2 wins for his team and (-7.2) losses, he was responsible for 13.7 wins above .500% (meaning if you added him to a 41-41 team, he would typically make that team a 55-27 team… absolutely Ruthian impact), and his Win Contribution Index would be +1.010.   In Chamberlain’s “typical” season, he posted a Marginal Win Score of +5.08, he produced 20.6 wins and (-5.4) losses, he was responsible for +13.0 wins above .500%, and his Win Contribution Index would be +0.932.

So while Chamberlain produced slightly more wins in a typical season, he needed nearly 400 more minutes per season to do so.  Thus in my opinion — while the decision was a close one — Russell was nevertheless the more valuable player.  Russell was more efficient with his marginal production, and Chamberlain’s extra minutes, while valuable, could not overcome that fact.  (Please also note that part of the reason for Chamberlain’s win advantage was that in Russell’s first three seasons the NBA played only a 75 game schedule).

Russell also gets the advantage because he was more consistent.  Up until his last two seasons, he produced MWS48s of +5.00 or better every single season, with most seasons being +6.00.  To get a feel for how awesome that kind of production is, check out the Win Chart from last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

As you can see, last season’s NBA MVP, LeBron James, had an MWS48 of +6.00, remarkable production.  By my estimates, Bill Russell averaged better than that for his career.  Repeat, he outproduced his opponents, on average, at a rate slightly better than LeBron James did in his spectacular 2008-09 MVP season.  Absorb that.  (Also, don’t get the idea in your head that Russell produced such awesome numbers only because he had some astronomical physical or athletic advantage over the 1960s competition.  Not so.  Go on Youtube and search “NBA 1965″ and watch some of the Celtic games that pop up.  Russell doesn’t even really stand out in physical terms.  And he played most of his career against high caliber centers the likes of Chamberlain, Zelmo Beatty, Wayne Embry, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, and Jerry Lucas.  In other words, he was not picking low hanging fruit.  He couldn’t shoot well, but he produced points, assists, and Rodman-like rebound numbers by playing with phenomenal passion and intelligence).

Chamberlain had the best single season

If you notice, while Russell has the better career average MWS48, in 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain turned in the best single season when he somehow recorded an MWS48 of +8.11 and produced 28.7 wins for a 76er team that many rank among the greatest teams of all time.  I have not calculated the Win Credits or MWS48s for more than a handful of seasons, but I would venture to say that Chamberlain’s 1966-67 season was hands down the greatest single season of all time.

A close runner-up, however, was Bill Russell’s 1964-65 season when he recorded an MWS48 of +7.75 and produced 26.0 wins for that outstanding Celtic championship team.  Another great season, obviously.  If you want to see the Win Credits I calculated for the entire ’65 Celtics, click here.

Chamberlain’s apparent inconsistency

Chamberlain’s Win Resume shows that he did not become the mega dominator that we remember him to be until he left his initial team, the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors.  Why that is, I have no idea.  The Warrior teams that featured Chamberlain were very sometimes poor defensive teams, especially considering they had a 7’1” force in the middle.  Chamberlain must take some of the blame for that, and MWS48 gives it to him.

Once Chamberlain left the Warriors, it was mostly all uphill.  He had three of the most dominant seasons in NBA history when he wore the “Phila” jersey of the 76ers, and he continued at a high level when he moved his act to Los Angeles.

In fact, the curious thing about both Chamberlain and Russell’s careers are they both retired while performing at a level that could be deemed “elite”.  Unlike Kareem (and Shaq for that matter), who sort of hung on until there was nothing left of his productive capacity, Chamberlain and Russell seem to have either believed that one shouldn’t play past a certain age, or that they did not want to play anymore if they could not play at least close to the stratospheric levels they played at in their primes.  (Click here for an interesting post on the aging of NBA stars)

Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares disagree

This summer the Basketball-Reference.com blog did a similar “fill in the blanks” calculation of wins produced by players prior to 1977-78 which they call “Historical Win Shares”.

Their results strongly disagree with mine.  According to their calculations, Wilt Chamberlain was the far superior win producer.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that Historical Win Shares considers Bill Russell to be just a “very good” player, not a great one.

A comparison of the numbers bears this out.  While MWS48 estimates Russell produced 263 wins, Historical Win Shares estimates that Russell only produced 163 wins — obviously, a huge difference.

If you make the logical assumption that a player is responsible for 1/5th of a game every 48 minutes of action, and if you make the further assumption that a player is either producing wins or he is producing losses, then you can easily translate the results into wins and losses produced.

Bill Russell’s Career Wins Produced

Win Shares: 163.5 wins and 6.1 losses; .964% winning percentage

MWS48: 263.1 wins and (-93.5) losses; 1.551% winning percentage

Less than Tim Duncan?

Let’s put Russell’s numbers in perspective by comparing Russell’s winning percentages under the two systems to a similar contemporary player. Compare his winning percentage to Tim Duncan’s career winning percentage under Win Shares:

Tim Duncan’s career wins produced

Win Shares: 156.0 wins and (-14.3) losses; 1.100% winning percentage

MWS48 (roughestimate): 149.7 wins and (-8.0) losses; 1.056%

Those numbers show Win Shares regards Tim Duncan as a greater win force in his era than Russell was in the 1960s.   While MWS48 basically agrees with Win Shares on Duncan’s win impact, you can see that MWS48 believes that Russell’s career production and win impact far exceeded Duncan’s.

Which win credit system is right?

That’s an easy question to answer.  Neither.  There is no “right” in this case.  There are only ideas and estimates based on those ideas.  The rest is conversation.

We will never settle the debate.

That said, I am more than happy to argue for a calculation that concludes that Bill Russell was a better than “very good” win producer.

When Bill Russell joined the Boston Celtics in 1956-57 they were a decidedly average team (1955-56 Pythagorean: 38-34).  Immediately upon his arrival the team won its first championship.  During his career the team went on to win 10 more championships in 12 seasons.  Immediately following his retirement the same roster minus him slumped under .500%, and the Celtics did not win another championship for six seasons.

How much of that was due to Russell?  MWS48 would argue that quite a bit of it was due to Russell, but that’s for you to decide.

The “With and Without Youtest

Another unscientific test I like to use to judge how accurate MWS48 is at describing a player’s win impact is to look at the player’s team the season before and the season after his arrival.

In 1955-56, the Boston Celtics recorded 37.6 pythagorean wins and they were last in the NBA in opponent points per game.  In Bill Russell’s first season, with virtually the same roster plus Russell, the team improved its Pyth wins  total to 48.6, plus 9 wins.   Win Shares credits Russell with producing 6.2 wins that season, MWS48 credits Russell with 11.4 wins.  About equally off, with one shooting too high, the other two low.

In 1968-69, the Boston Celtics  recorded 55.2 pythagorean wins, with Win Shares giving Russell 10.2 and MWS48 giving Russell 17.1.  The very next season, with basically the same roster sans Russell, the Celtics recorded only 36.4 ptyh wins — (-18.8).  MWS48 seems to capture the impact better.

Chamberlain’s career is less helpful because Win Shares and MWS48 agree most of the time.  In Chamberlain’s first season the Warriors improved by 14.4 pyth wins.  Win Shares credits him with 17.0 wins, MWS credits him wit 16.5 wins.  Both are in the ballpark.

In Chamberlain’s first partial season with the 76ers the team improved by +10.1 pyth wins.  Win Shares gives Chamberlain 7.6 wins with the Sixers, MWS48 gives him 9.0 wins.

In Chamberlain’s first full season with Philly the team recorded 21.6 more pyth, and Win Shares seems right on the mark, crediting Wilt with 21.4 wins that season while MWS48 gives him 24.6 wins.

What happened to the Warriors in his absence?  In his final full season with the team, Win Shares credits Chamberlain with producing 25.0 wins, while MWS48 credits him with 22.3 wins.  In their first full season without the Dipper, the Warriors recorded only 33.7 pythagorean wins, compared to 53.1 in his last full season with the team (-19.4 wins).

Finally, in Chamberlain’s last season with the Lakers, the team recorded 18.4 more pyth wins than they would record in their first season without him.   In this case Win Shares seems dead on the money, giving Wilt 18.2 wins in his last season with LA while MWS48 is not far off, giving him 20.1 wins.

The results are not decisive, but it buoys me that MWS48 is, in every instance, right in the ballpark. (I’ve tested elsewhere in history — for instance, the Blazers last season with Bill Walton and first without — and gotten similarly encouraging results.  Not decisive… encouraging.)

Conclusion

The long and short of it is that Historic Marginal Win Score finds that Bill Simmons argument that he made in his Book of Basketball, namely that Bill Russell was the more valuable player than Wilt Chamberlain, was accurate.  MWS48 thinks it was close, but that the nod goes to Russell.

But not everyone agrees.  Other metrics, namely Basketball-Reference.com’s Win Shares, believe Wilt Chamberlain was the far more valuable player.  Win Shares believes that although the Celtics won 11 world championships during Russell’s tenure, and although their roster turned over at least three times in that span, Bill Russell was not even as valuable to the Boston franchise as Tim Duncan has been to the San Antonio franchise. (You like the Straw Man I built?)

Which “win credit” system comes closer to the truth?  That’s for you, the jury, to decide.

However, if you ask me whether I am comfortable resting the validity of the MWS48 system on the argument that Boston’s Bill Russell was the greatest win producer in NBA history, my answer to you would be a resounding “yes”.

Footnote:  If you are interested in seeing Historic Marginal Win Score applied to an entire season from the Chamberlain-Russell Era, click here.

PS — if you ever wondered how you could construct a team that included two of the absolute greatest players of all time and yet never even sniff an NBA title, go to the above link and click on the Cincinnati Royals.

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9 Responses to “The Great Debate: Russell vs. Chamberlain”

  1. brgulker Says:

    Glad to have rediscovered your blog. I had your old MVN RSS feed in Google Reader, and one day I realized that I wasn’t getting updates.

    I went to mvn, saw that it closed, and did some google searching.

    Very interesting article.

    I also noticed that you made a comment over at Detroit Bad Boys on the CV piece there — are you at all interested in posting a counter argument to Mike Payne’s?

    • tywill33 Says:

      Thanks buddy!

      Good to hear from you again. It looks as though I was dead wrong about Charlie Villanueva. He seems to be playing well in Detroit.

      Just add that to the scroll length list of other things I’ve been off on this season.

      Ty

  2. ptw Says:

    Thank-you for looking at this age-old, yet still-fascinating topic of debate.

    I think it is very, very difficult to make objective comparisons of these two players simply because they affected games in different ways. Russell was more of an enabler. Chamberlain did most of the production himself (until late in his career). Who is more valuable: the guy who does it, or the guy who makes it possible for others to do it? There is no clear answer to this.

    If Russell had not won so many championships and come out ahead of Chamberlain (victory-wise, not in production) in their head-to-head meetings, would we even be having this debate now? I doubt it. This of course points the finger squarely at their supporting casts. On paper, it looks like Russell had better teammates. But is that because they were better, or because Russell’s play allowed them to be better? Again, we don’t know.

    What would have happened if you swapped Russell and Chamberlain to each other’s teams? I suspect Wilt would have won a lot more rings. Maybe his points go down a bit because he has more teammates who can score, and Russell’s go up a bit because he’d have to take on a bigger share himself, but I also think there would not be much argument going on. Wilt would have been better statistically head-to-head, would have won more of those head-to-head matchups, and would have the championships on his resume.

    My feeling is that Chamberlain was the greater player. Russell-as great as he was–needed more specific circumstances to achieve the success he did. Surround him with mediocre teams and coaches and how far would he get? Chamberlain could have done his monster performances anywhere with almost any set of teammates as long as he wasn’t specifically restricted by his coach.

    • tywill33 Says:

      Thank you for the nice comments!

      I think you’re right. If Chamberlain had played on the Celtics, those teams would have won probably just as many championships, and Russell almost certainly could not have lifted those early Warrior teams to championship heights.

      Here’s an historical oddity I’d like your opinion on. The 1971-72 Laker team was one of the most dominant in NBA history. But essentially it was the EXACT SAME team that won only, I think, 47 games the season before.

      WTF? You rarely see those kinds of win jumps without the addition of, say, a Dennis Rodman or Larry Bird. Why were the Lakers mediocre in 1971 and gangbusters in 1972? I know they switched coaches… were they tanking on the 1971 coach?

      I did a Win Chart on each team, but I lost the 1972 team. But from memory it wasn’t Chamberlain, his play was constant. Nor was it West. It was McMillan and I think Happy Hairston whose play made such a stunning leap.

      Theory?

  3. Badstep Says:

    PTW,

    I couldn’t agree more. The kicker to me is that Russell couldn’t do anything to slow Wilt down in their head-to-head matchups so put him with Russells supporting cast and he still dominates Russell and wins more rings.

    Russells 14.5 production head-to-head doesn’t change, but does change against everyone else. Actually, this is what happened.

    Wilt’s production never changed against anyone. How can you argue the simple fact that Russells best effort against Wilt never broke the 40 point mark, while Wilt scored more than 50 on him 7 times?

    Red Aurbach was a great coach because he even knew that he couldn’t stop Wilt, but he did know that the other 4 starters, most of which were Hall of Famers, would beat their counterparts on the other team.

    So, Russell was not the first option only when they played Wilt.

    If you have to change your winning strategy for one player, it’s usually because that one player is better than ALL your players.

  4. Geo Says:

    Wilt was 4 inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier than Bill Russell.
    (Wilt put on weight during his playing career while Russell’s pretty much stayed the same)Is it any surprise that Wilt outscored Russell? Wilt won the points battle Russell won the rings battle. Russell was just about even with Wilt in career rebound average per game 22.9 for Wilt, 22.5 for Bill Russell and they played against the same opponents.
    Wilt’s production changed when he smartened up and listened to his coach and concentrated his talents on playing defense and passing and not worry about his points scored. Chamberlain had a perfect record his teams NEVER beat the Celtics in an NBA FINALS SERIES when Bill Russell was playing.

    Bill Russell was injured in the 1958 NBA finals and that cost the Celtics the 1958 NBA Championship. In game 3 the series’ decisive play occurred. Bill Russell jumped to block a shot by Bob Pettit, landed on his right ankle and collapsed in a heap on the floor with a severe sprain. Russell was through for almost the rest of the playoffs and, as a result the Celtics lost those finals. The 1967 Philly team was a complete powerhouse and had a smart coach (Alex Hannum) nobody was going to beat that team.

  5. Geo Says:

    If,If,If…..Bill Russell was 6’9″ around 220 lbs for most of his playing career,Wilt was 7’1″ and much heavier. It’s amazing that Bill Russell played as well as he did against Chamberlain. Bill Russell Olympic gold,2 championships at USF,11 NBA championshis with the Celtics (2 of those he was player-coach). It’s called the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award for a reason.

  6. Lingo Says:

    Dumbest analysis on basketball I ever read in my life.

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