Wilt Chamberlain: The Numbers Don't LieMany 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:19 PM