The Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain debate has almost certainly been settled. As basketball's intelligentsia has come to better understand and analyze defense, Russell's incredible impact on the sport has come into clearer focus. This does nothing to diminish the incredible feats of Wilt -- he had a 20-20-20 game and once averaged 50 and 25 for a season! He was the most unstoppable scorer in the NBA and one of its best rebounders for the better part of a decade.
Wilt's infamous failure to win as frequently as Russell has a solid excuse: his supporting casts were almost never as good as the ones Russell had in Boston. When they were good -- like in 1967 in Philadelphia (with Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham) and 1972 in Los Angeles (Jerry West, Gail Goodrich) -- they were incredible. Both teams won the title, and each set the record for most wins in a season. The '72 Lakers' record wouldn't be beaten until the 1996 Bulls, and hasn't been topped other than that one time. As it stands, Wilt's two best seasons are among the top five of all-time in terms of wins. Russell's teams gobbled up all the gold they could find, but never won more than 62 games in the regular season.
This is all meant as a defense of the common attacks against Wilt. He was really freaking good, one of the five most important players ever and the second best player of the 1960s. But Russell topped him. He was the star and leader of nine of the decade's championship teams. He was an All-Star every season of the decade, a good scorer, a rather adept passer and an incredible rebounder. He raised his game even higher in the playoffs where he averaged 20-20 in the postseason twice and was one rebound away from averaging 30 boards per game in the '61 postseason. (Tommy Gun Heinsohn couldn't fire up one more brick for Russell? Come on, man!)
But most importantly, Russell completely revolutionized the art and science of defense in the NBA. There had been good defenders before, including George Mikan, but Russell advanced the craft by so heavy a measure that pre-Russell defense almost looks like a different sport. Russell studied the game intently -- there's a great bit about Russell and KC Jones studying the geometry of caroms off of the rim and backboard while student-athletes at the University of San Francisco in Russell's autobiography Second Wind -- and found new ways to do important things. He was a phenomenal athlete. As we've learned from generations that followed, physical gifts matched with mental acumen is a killer combo. Russell was really the vanguard of that type of superstar (with Mikan as a rough prototype). Bill wasn't just really tall or speedy, or just really smart. He was all of it. And he used those attributes to thoroughly dominate where most of superstars didn't, on the defensive side of the court.
In many ways, Russell turned a playground game into a thinking man's sport. He advanced basketball on a four-arrow fast-forward in his 13 seasons in the NBA and helped mold future generations of big men. We all love watching acrobatic layups, crushing dunks, deep-shot barrages and impossible passes. But defense is half the game, and Russell both dominated and advanced it more than anyone in league history. That's the story of the 1960s in the NBA.
And now, a quick note on the ABA. The ABA's debut season was 1967-68, so there were only two years of overlap between the rogue league and this decade. As such, no prominent early ABA stars made the cut. But next week we will be incorporating the ABA's best into our NBA All-1970s list. We also have a really dope Paul Flannery essay on the ABA cooked up. Stay tuned for that.
Without further adieu, here's the NBA All-1960s team.
See above. Top three greatest players ever.
Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. An incomparably creative and dominant stud. He came fractions away from averaging 35-20-5 one season. 35-20-5!
Fun story: George Steinbrenner was a team owner in the rival American Basketball League and lured Lucas to Cleveland with a crazy contract offer. The NBA was stunned and decided to recruit Steinbrenner to bring the Pipers to their league. When he agreed to do so, they basically sabotaged him with entry fees to the point that the team and the ABL collapsed. Lucas ended up in the NBA a year later and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
My personal favorite player ever. The Big O famously averaged a triple-double for a season. Magic nor LeBron -- the closest facsimiles -- have never come particularly close to that feat. Part of that is generational improvement and a gross reduction of available rebounds (due to pace and shooting percentage trends). But it still speaks to just how much better Oscar was than the vast majority of his contemporaries.
West was in many ways the first modern shooting guard in that he was pretty focused on shooting. Imagine how good he'd have been in the three-point era given his work ethic and skill set.
See above. Top-five player ever, history-making megalith.
Professor Flannery discusses Hondo below. Note that Havlicek will be back in our next installment next week.
The newest generation of League Pass addicts knows Tommy Gun as the insufferably adorable Celtics homer. Opponents in the '60s knew him as one of Russell's nightmare teammates.
Greer was Wilt's best sidekick in Philadelphia, and the stud guard might have been the Sixers' best postseason performer when they won the '67 title. He also shot jumpers on free throw attempts. That is some unbelievable swag.
Prof Flanns has Sam Jones ahead of Guerin here, and as a big Sam Jones fan I will allow that this is highly debatable. I feel as though Guerin was a superior individual player while Jones was a better fit guy, and that while Jones fit in exceedingly well with Boston en route to nine '60s championships, Guerin would have been even better there. To me, Jones is the Tony Parker to Guerin's Russell Westbrook. (Is that sacrilege?)
Bob Pettit: He was awesome in the '50s, and he was still awesome in the '60s.
Jack Twyman: Robertson's best teammate in more than one way. He also quietly joined Wilt as the first players to average 30 per game in 1960. Dude could get buckets.
Bailey Howell: Howell was more of a journeyman instead of a player associated strongly with one or two franchises. But he was a six-time All-Star in the decade and a major contributor at the end of the Russell dynasty.
Sam Jones: See above and below. I like Sam Jones a lot.
Lenny Wilkens: He was Pettit's co-star in St. Louis early in the decade, then came into his own with the Hawks and the Sonics before the '70s arrived. One of the most cerebral point guards ever, and one who was not afraid to MF any opponent.
Walt Bellamy (it killed me not to include him), Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond, Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Dick Barnett.
PROFESSOR FLANNERY CHIMES IN
There are two spots where I disagreed intensely with my esteemed colleague. I had John Havlicek (over Jerry Lucas) on the first team and Sam Jones (over Richie Guerin) on the second. These are ultimately semantic debates, but the degree to which the Celtics controlled the decade cannot be overstated. Jones, especially, is the NBA's forgotten superstar. A great shooter for his time, he was even better in the postseason where he earned a rep as a big-shot maker. The Celtics won because of Russell first and foremost, but they were dominant because of the supporting cast.
The Celtics' incomparable accomplishments as a team have had the odd effect of actually underrating their individual contributions. They didn't just win because they had better camaraderie. They won because they had better talent that knew how to play together, and most importantly, how to win together. Jones could have scored more, Havlicek could have chafed at coming off the bench, but they didn't and both players thrived. The other role players like K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders were phenomenally suited to their respective positions.
That supporting cast is particularly important to the Russell-Wilt debate. I've spent most of my post-college life in Philadelphia and Boston, and I've heard this argued passionately from both sides. (You haven't lived until you've heard the great Sonny Hill hold forth on the subject.) The argument boils down to the idea that Russell had better teams, but Wilt was the better individual player. The counter, of course, is that Russell simply got the better of Chamberlain so many times that any objection is invalid. It's the ultimate stats vs. rings debate, only the rings need more than two hands to count.
My own feelings on the matter would largely echo what Ziller has written and I argued passionately for Russell's greatness in a Boston magazine piece back in 2010. What is undeniably true is that their rivalry set the template for the modern game and put the league on firmer footing in the sports landscape. They walk together through history and rankings are merely ornaments of a grand age.