Is Wilt Chamberlain the greatest of all time?

Chamberlin basketball
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When trying to decide which basketball player should claim the title of greatest of all time, or GOAT, a few names come to mind easily, depending on what you value in your player rankings. If championship wins are the most important stat to you, your GOAT is probably Bill Russell. If your GOAT ranking is more about longevity and well-rounded ability, you’d probably choose LeBron James. If your GOAT is the complete package — championships, stats, accolades, etc. — then you would choose either Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. All these big-name GOAT options seem like obvious choices. What about the less obvious choice — Wilt Chamberlain?

Here’s why you need to give Chamberlain a fair consideration for the GOAT title.

For starters, he was probably the most athletic player in NBA history. Along with playing for the basketball team, Chamberlain ran track and field at the University of Kansas, winning the high jump event at the Big Eight track and field championships three years in a row. This background made him one of the fastest players in the league.

Chamberlain wasn’t just the fastest player; he was also arguably the strongest player the NBA has ever seen. At his prime, he could bench more than 500 pounds and would do tricep extensions at 180 pounds. On top of his speed and strength, you can’t forget about his stamina. Throughout his career, he played an average of 45.8 minutes per game, even though a regulation game is only 48 minutes long.

Speed, strength and stamina aside, the hands-down most important skill to have in basketball is the ability to score. Scoring is the goal of the entire game, and nobody was better at scoring than Chamberlain.

Chamberlain is one of two players in NBA history with a career average of more than 30 points per game. The other is Michael Jordan. 

Chamberlain has won seven scoring titles — second to MJ — and owns five of the top six scoring seasons in NBA history, including all of the top four. All this without even mentioning he has the highest-scoring game ever, dropping 100 points on the New York Knicks in just his third season in the NBA.

Sometimes people try to discredit Chamberlain by saying his playoff points per game goes down from 33.2 (when he started in 1960) to a 22.5 career average, and then proceed to call him a “choker.” Let’s look at this myth and pretend for a moment it has some basis in fact. Yes, Chamberlain’s career playoff points per game is 22.5, which is much lower than it was when he started, but that’s because he changed his style of play multiple times throughout his career.

For his first seven seasons in the NBA, he averaged 39.6 points per game in the regular season. This was over a period of 543 games — 52% of his career, as he played 1,045 total games. In the playoffs, he has 160 career games played and only 52 of them in his highest-scoring days. This means only 33% of his playoff games were during his prolific scoring years, compared to 52% in the regular season. In those 52 playoff games, Chamberlain averaged 32.8 points per game, which, if sustained throughout his whole postseason career, would rank second of all time.

Chamberlain’s scoring average in the playoffs decreased not because he “choked,” but because he sacrificed his stats to help his team win. Before, Chamberlain was mostly on lower-ranked teams that required him to score as much as possible to win. But from the 1967 season and onward, he was able to score less to still compete. To drive my point home even further that Chamberlain is the GOAT, he is the only center in NBA history to lead the league in total assists.

One of Chamberlain’s nicknames is “the record book,” a perfect nickname for a player that holds 68 records by himself (an NBA record in and of itself). Many of these records come not just from his scoring prowess, but also because he is the greatest rebounder. I’ll prove it to you: He has the most total rebounds and rebounds per game of all time.

Even though I’ve made it sound like he was, Chamberlain was way more than just a stat sheet, and this should be taken into consideration when awarding him GOAT status. His accolades are up there with the best of them.

Considering all the records he holds, the accolades he has accumulated and the fact that he is arguably the greatest scorer and rebounder of all time, there is no reason Chamberlain should be disregarded from the GOAT discussion, despite what many people will try to say. The NBA began in 1946, not 1980. Make sure to think of Chamberlain when you think of other NBA greats such as LeBron and MJ. His record speaks for itself, and his skill on the court was unmatched.

Tom Aizenberg covers women’s swim and dive. Contact him at [email protected].