Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Chamberlain Effect

Occasionally there is an athlete who is so superior to his competition that he puts up statistics that are overwhelming in their nature. They are in fact, so overwhelming, that fans cannot truly appreciate them and in effect start to devaluate the statistics. This is what I call the Chamberlain Effect, after the legendary Big Dipper Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s 1961-62 season is legendary: 50.6 points per game, 25.7 rebounds per game, a total of 4029 points, including a 100 point effort against the New York Knicks. These numbers are so large, that I believe fans start to rationalize he couldn’t have been that good, and therefore they disregard the numbers entirely, or at least rationalize them away until they are trivial in their minds.

It’s one of the arguments that fans make when comparing Bill Russell to Chamberlain. The argument is that Russell was a better player because his teams won more championships; Russell ‘sacrificed’ his statistics so that his team would be better, and most would contend Russell was a better rebounder.

First of all, Russell played with a bevy of Hall of Fame teammates: Tommy Heinsom, Satch Sanders, KC Jones, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, Clyde Lovelette and Bill Sharman. Chamberlain, in the same comparable time period, would play with a handful: Tom Gola, Paul Arizin, Nate Thurmond (1 year), Hal Greer, and Billy Cunningham. He’d later join up with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, when all three were venerable veterans. So, it’s rather clear that Russell had a lot of talent around him on the court, and that played some part in all those championships. Russell absolutely was a key factor, if not the key factor for the Celtic dynasty, but it wasn’t a one man show. Unless one wants to argue that all those Celtics made the Hall of Fame riding on the coattails of Russell’s success (I would suggest that is hogwash).

Second, many fans will say that Russell didn’t score because he did not have to, and he could have scored comparable to Chamberlain if he wanted. Well, there’s no evidence that could ever have been true. You must assume, that if Russell were the intelligent player he is credited with being (and I do assume this to be true), that he would defer to his teammates when he was in a low percentage situation, and he would take the shot when he was in a high percentage situation. Given that, consider that Russell’s best season from the floor, he shot .467 (1959-1960). If he were to take significantly more shots, you would have to expect that number to go down, not up due to the need to take more low percentage shots, and general fatigue.

Chamberlain, on the other hand, taking all the shots, never shot below .461 from the floor in his career; and that was his rookie season. His next lowest season was .499, and he shot over 50% from the floor every other season of his career. The fact was that he could score, he could score big, and he could score with more ease than any other player on the court.

Third is the knock that Russell was a better rebounder. I guess he must have looked like a better rebounder, because somehow Chamberlain pulled down more rebounds each year, and for his career than Russell. Russell may have had better form, but the Stilt still got more. The NBA record for rebounds in a game is 55 by Wilt Chamberlain; and he did it against Bill Russell and his Celtics.

Russell was definitely a better defensive player, one of the best in league history, if not the best and an unparalled shot blocker. However, Chamberlain was a very good defender himself, and an effective shot blocker. Russell’s defensive edge over Chamberlain isn’t close to the offensive edge that Chamberlain had.

That’s not knocking Russell. Russell was a great NBA player, one of the greatest ever. He won all the championships, he was admired by the fans and the sportswriters, and an outstanding center. He was also on a team that allowed him to focus on what he did best (defense), and didn’t require him to be a strong offensive presence…which was good because it seems apparent he would never have been a dominant offensive threat.

Ask yourself this question about Chamberlain. If you put him on the Celtics, surrounded by all those Hall of Famers, coached by Red Auerbach, and you put Bill Russell on the Warriors with Paul Arizin and Tom Gola. Which team would have won the NBA titles? Chamberlain probably wouldn’t have had his 50 points per game; there wouldn’t have been the need, and Auerbach would’ve had him focused more on defense. He probably would have had a mere 35 – 38 points a game that magical 1961-62 season; he probably would’ve increased his shooting percentage from a lowly .504 to .550/.580 range.

The Chamberlain Effect occurs across sports. I believe Babe Ruth is a victim of this effect to some extent, and was Ted Williams. Perhaps 20 years from now fans will look retrospectively and apply the Chamberlain Effect to Barry Bonds (whose stretch from 2001 to 2004 was unbelievable).

Jim Brown suffers from the Chamberlain Effect from many fans (though I think he and Ted Williams both receive extreme respect from today’s athletes; it seems the athletes understand how significant these accomplishments were, more than some fans). Brown led the league in rushing 8 times in his 9 seasons, and led in scoring touchdowns 5 times. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry for his career. Again, the numbers seem too impressive, and so fans say “well, but…” or “compared to today…”.

There are times when statistics are misleading, and they must be evaluated in their correct context. All the greatest hitters in baseball didn't live in the 1930's and 1990's, and all the greatest pitchers didn't live in the 1910's and 1960's. Players in the 1960's weren't better rebounders across the board than players in the 2000's. Guys scoring 25 points for the Denver Nuggets in the 1980's weren't as impressive as guys scoring 20 points for the Detroit Pistons in the 1990's. But, sometimes (often), statistics point out the greatness they were intended to measure.

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