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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wilt Chamberlain: The Numbers Don't Lie

Many of the things asserted by basketball "stat gurus" offend my ears (and mind) more than the sound of long fingernails scraping a chalkboard but one piece of nonsense that particularly bothers me is when a "stat guru" attempts to "normalize" one player's numbers to supposedly determine how that player would have performed in a different era. For instance, a popular "stat guru" declaration is that Michael Jordan's 37.1 ppg average in the 1986-87 season--when "adjusted" for pace--is actually superior to Wilt Chamberlain's record-shattering 50.4 ppg average in the 1961-62 season. There are many problems with this deceptively simple comparison:

1) There is no way to accurately "adjust" for the relative competition that Chamberlain and Jordan faced; Chamberlain played in a smaller league with less players per team, so it could be argued that he played against tougher competition, the very best of the best--but Jordan played in an era with superior knowledge about nutrition and training and he faced players from a greater number of countries thanks to basketball's global expansion so perhaps Jordan played against tougher competition. A good case could be made for either side of this argument but the point is that no one knows for sure what the correct answer is. Another related issue is the question of whether the very best athletes in the world were more likely to play pro basketball (as opposed to another sport or as opposed to seeking out another occupation entirely) in the 1960s or in the 1980s; there is plenty of room for intriguing speculation about this but no way to draw definitive conclusions.

2) Regardless of whether or not 37.1 ppg scored at a slower pace is mathematically equivalent to 50.4 ppg scored at a faster pace, human beings are not machines; making extra field goals and extra free throws over the course of an 80 or 82 game season requires a tremendous expenditure of energy and increases the likelihood of fatigue and/or injury. In other words, the fact that Jordan scored 37.1 ppg at a slower pace tells us nothing about his capability to score 50.4 ppg at a faster pace, even without factoring in possible differences in competition level and definite differences in diet, nutrition, scheduling and travel arrangements.

3) The NBA has been around for six decades and during that time pace has gone up and down but no one has even come close to doing what Wilt Chamberlain did statistically--not just in scoring but also in rebounding and even in terms of passing from the center position (Chamberlain is the only center to lead the league in assists). If pace were the only factor affecting individual scoring averages then one would assume that in higher pace eras someone else would have at least come close to matching Chamberlain but, while Chamberlain exceeded 40 ppg in four different seasons, no other player has even come close to averaging 40 ppg in one season.

There is a big difference between saying that Jordan's 37.1 ppg is proportionally greater than Chamberlain's 50.4 ppg based on pace and definitively asserting that Jordan's 1986-87 scoring feat was greater than Chamberlain's--but basketball "stat gurus" have no qualms about making extraordinary claims without providing extraordinary proof, which is the very opposite of the approach that authentic scientists and researchers take; that is why physicists are still running experiments to test Einstein's Theory of Relativity--arguably the most successful and influential theory in history--while many "stat gurus" refuse to even acknowledge that basic box score data is flawed and that therefore the so-called "advanced basketball statistics" are skewed even if the "advanced" formulas are sound (which is far from a proven proposition).

In my pro basketball Pantheon I did not attempt to rank players from different eras but simply selected the 10 players who excelled when compared to the players from their own eras; how much a player dominates his own time is a significant indication of true greatness. Fran Blinebury's recent Wilt Chamberlain tribute notes that Chamberlain dominated his peers in breathtaking fashion (in reference to the first point in the passage quoted below from Blinebury's article, it is worth noting that Blinebury's larger point is correct even though he failed to mention that Elgin Baylor averaged 38.3 ppg in 48 games in 1961-62):

• Consider that after Wilt's 50.4 mark for the 1961-62 season, the second-highest scoring averaged in NBA history by a player not named Chamberlain was Michael Jordan's 37.1 in 1986-87. That makes Wilt's number 36 percent higher than Jordan.

• The highest batting average for a season in Major League Baseball over the past 70 years was George Brett's .390 in 1980. To exceed Brett by 36 percent, a batter would have to hit .530.

• The all-time single season rushing record in the NFL is 2,105 yards by Eric Dickerson in 1984. To exceed Dickerson by 36 percent a runner would have to gain 2,863 yards.

• The NHL single-season record for goals is 92 by Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82. To exceed Gretzky by Chamberlain's pace, a skater would have to pump in 125 goals.

The truth is, in American sports, only Babe Ruth transcended and transformed his sport like Chamberlain.

Pace alone is not an adequate explanation for how far Chamberlain's records are ahead of not just what any other pro basketball players have accomplished but also how much more dominant his performances are than the record-setting performances of all-time greats in other sports.

Oscar Robertson recently penned an eloquent plea urging that the NBA's great history--including the incredible 1961-62 season in which Chamberlain averaged 50.4 ppg and Robertson averaged a triple double--should be remembered and celebrated. I wholeheartedly echo Robertson's complaints and laments and I am proud of the opportunities I have had to interview Robertson and other greats of the game. Robertson is right that it is important not just that NBA history be told but that it be told by competent people; my contribution to that effort is displayed in the right hand sidebar of this website and I truly hope that someday my hard work and dedication to preserving and telling these stories will reach the widest possible audience, supplanting the gossip and nonsense that poses as journalism today at far too many magazines and websites.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:19 PM



At Wednesday, December 28, 2011 1:02:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Pretty spot on analysis.

I have been battling many detractors of Wilt for a long time, both here and In Real Life, and their common criticisms are the following:
Wilt played against short white stiffs. (easily debunked when the fact that the average height is pretty consistent over 40 years is demonstrated, that Wilt played better competition at the center spot nightly)
Wilt played in a fast paced era. (easily debunked with the fact that only he dominated to that extent, notwithstanding Oscar's five years of triple doubles, or Baylor's unreal 38 and 19)
He only won two titles. (despite the fact he was the greatest opponent of the greatest dynasty in NBA history, that he performed great in Game Sevens, and came within a few points of winning more titles).
He sucked on the free throw line. (can't deny that)

Your point about pace factor easily refutes Eliot Kalb's contentious claim that Shaquille Oneal is the greatest of all-time. There were many other factors (style of play, no 3 point line, fewer anally retentive coaches who call plays every possession, etc, etc)

At Thursday, December 29, 2011 1:25:00 PM, Anonymous Basketball Training said...

I'd like to see the data that shows the average center height in Wilt's era, as I believe it was much shorter than it is now (the white stiffs argument).

I know this is a statistical fueled article, but there are other factors at play beyond stats. For instance, the fact that most people believed Wilt to be a bit of a jerk and a pain to manage.

Comparing players of different generations is always going to be a difficult thing to do. A lot of today's basketball fans are also swayed by the fact they watched Jordan play frequently, and haven't spent a lot of time watching Wilt.

It was a different game at that point...so many factors...knowledge of training/nutrition, defense schemes & rotations, the abilities/height/desire of the average athlete, living conditions, creative double teams, etc...

At Thursday, December 29, 2011 4:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Basketball Training:

This article is not about personalities but rather about the flawed attempt to use "advanced basketball statistics" to allegedly "prove" that 37.1 ppg is in fact a greater accomplishment than 50.4 ppg. However, if we are going to talk about personalities/coachability it should be noted that Chamberlain was coachable enough to be the dominant player on the two greatest single season teams in the first five decades of the NBA's existence (1967 76ers--voted the greatest team of all-time in 1981--and 1972 Lakers). Michael Jordan often clashed with coaches/teammates and when Tex Winter--trying to convince Jordan about the value of the Triangle Offense, which Jordan initially mocked as an equal opportunity system--said that there is no "I" in team Jordan replied that there is an "I" in win. Jordan's personality can either be viewed as exceptionally competitive or as difficult to coach (the same thing is true of Kobe Bryant, which is why it is so fascinating that the rough edges of Jordan's personality are incessantly praised while Bryant is criticized for having very similar personality traits).

I agree that because of the factors you mentioned--most of which I mentioned in my article--it is difficult to make objective and fair comparisons of players from different generations.

At Thursday, December 29, 2011 5:20:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

In a critique of ESPN's ranking of Lebron James as the best player in the league, Bill Reiter from Fox Sports wrote this : "If this logic held, Wilt Chamberlain would be the Michael Jordan of the NBA. No one ever has, or will, compete with Wilt on the statistical plane. Yet there’s a reason serious basketball people look at Jordan, Magic, Kareem, Russell and a slew of others with a higher level of respect."

I swear I don't make this stuff up.

At Thursday, December 29, 2011 6:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I spoke with several former players/coaches and Dolph Schayes, Oscar Robertson and Warren Jabali are among those who would take Wilt Chamberlain over Shaquille O'Neal. I guess those guys are not "serious basketball people" in Bill Reiter's eyes.

At Friday, December 30, 2011 11:45:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Also, Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994, which he fails to recognize. I'm not sure why people overlook that season for Gwynn. It was a strike-shortened season, but he played in 110 games, which is a greater pct. of games played than baylor's 48 game 38.3ppg season. Also, Brett only played in 117 games in his .390ba season, with only 40 more PAs than gwynn had in 1994.

That's an interesting point about Jordan. He probably was extremely hard to coach, though any coach would certainly take him. I am also perpetually mystified but how Kobe usually is bashed for the same qualities/personalities than jordan gets praised for.

It sounds like normalizing wilt's 50.4ppg season to jordan's is another attempt to elevate Jordan to some type of supernatural power, asserting that nobody ever is anywhere near as good as jordan was. I don't quite understand this.

At Monday, January 02, 2012 6:32:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...


Example: The height of the 2006 Miami Heat was indistinguishable from that of the 1972 Lakers.

Fact: in the 60's and 70's players' height were taken barefoot, contra to today.

I will look up the average height later.

At Tuesday, January 03, 2012 1:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep it up, David. Your work is truly excellent, and it never fails to add much needed perspective to any NBA discussion. My only wish is that you also wrote about the NFL.



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