Updated: May 5, 2020
The last two seasons have brought on an offensive explosion in the NBA, with scoring at its highest level since 1970-71. One player in particular has drawn the attention of NBA fans around the world, the Houston Rockets’ James Harden.
Harden is currently the game’s most dynamic scorer, averaging 35.3 points per game over the past two years. His domination of the league is drawing comparisons to some of the all-time greats, but there is one great that still stands above the rest: Wilt Chamberlain.
Many younger fans only know Chamberlain from graphics that appear on their TV or computer screens, usually in relation to records Harden and other current stars are chasing. Some may know him by his mythical 100-point game in 1962, while others have heard about Wilt through his off-court successes, most notably in the bedroom. But to truly understand the dominance of Chamberlain, we need to compare him to his peers.
Chamberlain was the territorial selection of the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959 after averaging 30 points and 18 rebounds in two years at the University of Kansas, and then spending one season with the Harlem Globetrotters while waiting for his NBA eligibility. In this era, players were not allowed to play in the NBA until their graduating class finished school.
Chamberlain’s size, strength and athleticism were something the NBA had never seen before. At 7’1” and 275 pounds, he was the biggest and strongest player in the league. But Wilt was more than just muscle. His speed and agility were superior to many of the league’s perimeter players. In his autobiography, Chamberlain claimed to have beaten NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown in a footrace.
In his rookie year, Chamberlain took the league by storm, averaging 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game. He would not only win Rookie of the Year, but he would also win the league’s MVP award. His second season was equally impressive, as he averaged 38.4 points and 27.2 rebounds. NBA players clearly had no answer for Wilt.
But just when you thought he couldn’t get any better, the 1961-62 season happened. Chamberlain had a year that will likely never be duplicated. He averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. Before Wilt, no player had even averaged 30 points per game. Breaking down his scoring even further shows just how phenomenal his season was. Chamberlain scored 50 or more points 45 times, and never had less than 26 in a game. By comparison, Harden’s 2018-19 season produced nine 50-point games, and he has scored less than 26 points 11 times.
The crowning achievement of the greatest scoring season in NBA history happened on March 2, 1962 in Hershey, Pennsylvania against the New York Knicks. Chamberlain hit 36 of 63 field goals and 28 of 32 free throws for a mind-blowing 100 points. The closest anyone has come to this total was Kobe Bryant’s 81 points in 2006. Amazingly, three of the top four single game scoring performances in NBA history were by Chamberlain in the 1961-62 season.
The success would continue for Wilt, as he would go on to lead the NBA in scoring his first seven seasons. But Chamberlain’s greatness cannot be solely defined by scoring. He led the NBA in rebounding 11 times, and in the 1967-68 season became the only center to lead the league in assists.
His career numbers are phenomenal. Over 14 seasons, Chamberlain averaged 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds. His 118 50-point games are 87 more than Michael Jordan’s second place total of 31. Perhaps most incredible of all was the fact that Wilt never had less than 10 rebounds in 1,045 career games. All of these numbers point toward Chamberlain being the greatest player of all-time.
The one argument some critics have made against Chamberlain being the G.O.A.T. is that he has less NBA championships than some of the other all-time greats. But it needs to be remembered that basketball is a team sport, and that championships are team accomplishments. The only fair way to judge an individual player then is how well he performs in a championship setting, not solely by team wins and losses. In the case of Wilt, his postseason performance was outstanding.
In his first six years in the postseason, Chamberlain averaged 32.8 points and 26.3 rebounds. You can’t ask for much more, especially going up against the likes of Bill Russell. The difference was Russell had a better supporting cast.
In 1966-67, Chamberlain won his first NBA title with the Philadelphia 76ers. In 15 playoff games, he averaged 21.7 points, 29.1 rebounds and 9.0 assists. He also had seven triple doubles, including two in the first two games of the Finals.
Chamberlain won his second NBA title in 1971-72 with the Los Angeles Lakers. His scoring wasn’t needed as much as in years past, but Wilt was still a dominant force. He led all postseason players with 21 rebounds per game, and shot 60 percent from the field. In the clinching game of the Finals, he had 24 points on 10 of 14 shooting, 29 rebounds and four assists. But as great as Wilt was in his new role with the 1970s Lakers, he will always be remembered for his historic scoring exploits.
That brings us back to the present. As scoring continues to rise, we will see some impressive numbers by superstars like Harden, but it’s safe to say we will never see anyone dominate the game like Wilt Chamberlain.