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Bill Russell, Overlooked Again

What LeBron James has done is simply amazing, and he deserves comparisons to the greatest players ever. But what's wrong with this passage by Jason Reid of the Washington Post?

“I would have him [James] right behind Jordan and Chamberlain,” a smart Western Conference general manager told me Monday. “If you had a time machine, and were starting a franchise right now, I would challenge anyone to find someone they would take over those three.”

It would be fun to try. Elgin Baylor, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird — there have been other transcendent figures in hoops history. Never, however, has a player at 6 feet 8 and more than 250 pounds played as effectively — and gracefully — as James. For me, Jordan remains the greatest. But James has closed the gap.

Why is that when people talk about the greatest players of all time, they never seem to mention Bill Russell? You can't measure him by conventional stats, at least partly because not all them were kept. Blocked shots were not recorded during his career. No one has a clue how many shots Russell deflected (and note that he didn't throw them into the tenth row but rather tried to catch them and then to start a fast break) although you can measure his scoring and rebounding: he averaged 15.1 ppg and, by today's standards, an astounding 22.5 rpg.

Chamberlain averaged 30.1 ppg and 22.9 rpg, slightly better than Russell's. His assists were slightly better as well (4.4 to 4.3 for their respective careers).

Jordan matched Chamberlain's career scoring average precisely but didn't rebound as well, not being a big man (6.2 rpg). He was a better assist man than either of the earlier legends (5.3 apg).

And James? To date, James has averaged 27.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg and  6.9 apg.

Of these players, James obviously is the only one still able to improve his resume, and we'll have to see where he ends up.

But consider the ultimate stat, championships:

  • James - 1
  • Chamberlain - 2
  • Jordan - 6
  • Russell - 11

Caveat: Jordan would've won more if he hadn't taken a mid-career break to play baseball and mourn his father's murder. If he had eight NBA titles, you could start to make different arguments, like the different nature of NBA eras and so forth.

And you can make different arguments about which of the four is the best athlete; Russell will lose that almost every time.

Here, though, is the argument for Russell, and it's very simple: other than his second year, 1957, when he was injured and out, and 1967, when Chamberlain's '76ers were the superior team, Russell never lost the last game of the season.

He won back-to-back titles with San Francisco, won Olympic gold, and then 11 NBA titles, the last two while also coaching the team.

If you're counting, that's 14 championships and 16 rings.

Jordan had superior teammates in college yet only made the Final Four once. Chamberlain and Kansas lost to an athletically inferior UNC team which was coming off a triple-overtime game and got into another one with the Jayhawks.

Russell, from his junior year on, failed only once.

There's no question that James is a stunning basketball player; even Russell says he admires what he does, and he doesn't give praise to many people.

We aren't overlooking Coach K's extravagant praise, either; we can't remember him calling many athletes brilliant.

As of now, though, to us he's still the junior member in this club, even as we see him doing things no one has ever done on a basketball court.

Fifty+ years on and we've never seen a talent like Chamberlain's, even though it didn't get him many titles.

We've seen (or for many of us read about) Russell's insanely competitive nature and most of us know that Jordan was called pathologically competitive.

We don't know yet where James is on that scale.  It's worth noting that before last year's title, James's heart was questioned quite often.

Chamberlain is the most dominant talent in the history of the game; Jordan is just behind on talent and is his superior as a competitor.

But basically, Bill Russell only lost one series. Ever. You can't top that with stats. The man has rings enough for a toe, almost enough for a whole foot if you count college and the Olympics.

And that's what sets him apart, even from Jordan and certainly from Chamberlain and, at least for now, from James.