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  • Grant Harville

Bill Russell Was the GOAT

This has nothing to do with music.

With ESPN desperate for programming, they've been showing a documentary about Michael Jordan and the 90s Chicago Bulls. Jordan has never really left the cultural radar, but it does seem like he's been on people's minds more lately, and by now the narrative has pretty well established itself: Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived.

And it might very well be true. But I'd like to make the case for 50s-60s Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell instead. Maybe I'll convince you, maybe I won't, but if nothing else, if you're the sort of person whose Russell knowledge consists entirely of "11 championships in 13 years" (or not even that), I hope you'll have a greater appreciation for how even that eye-popping stat understates his dominance.

Ground rules:

1. Wins matter more than stats. A lot of people have trouble accepting Russell as the best because he "only" averaged 15 points per game (to go with his 22 rebounds and 4 assists). I don't care if you lie down in the jump circle the whole game, as long as doing so (somehow) causes your team to win. (Ok, fine: If you still really, really need a stat, Russell laps the field in defensive win shares.)

2. Championships matter more than regular-season wins. Not that Russell's Celtics had bad regular-season win totals, but the goal is the title. In the Popovich era, teams seem to have understood this more, sacrificing a few mid-season games to rest important players for the postseason push (to the annoyance of the NBA higher-ups). Any Chicago fan who has a problem with this premise should examine their opinion of the 15-16 Warriors with respect to the 95-96 Bulls.

3. 5-on-5 game only. This is not an attempt to determine who would win one-on-one, though that would be an interesting thought experiment.

4. Post high school only. An already apples-to-oranges comparison becomes completely unwieldy if we try to compare HS achievements. Russell was undeniably a late bloomer who was very fortunate to even get the chance to play college ball. I'll happily concede that Jordan was the better high school player. (But even in high school, Russell managed to win two state titles despite "atrocious fundamentals." It's the story of his career: no one could quite understand how he was effective, but no one could beat him either.)

5. Russell vs. Jordan only. With apologies to Lebron, Wilt, and Kareem, I'm only looking at the Russell/Jordan comparison. The logic is transitive: if consensus GOAT Jordan is better than everyone else, and Russell is better than Jordan, than Russell is better than everyone else too. I haven't made the comparisons directly, but I feel confident that the case for Russell vs. Jordan would be equally (actually, substantially more) valid vs. any other player.

6. No what-ifs, or at least very few. Sure, Jordan might have won two more championships if he hadn't run off to play baseball. But he also could have suffered a career-ending injury. Given that even if he had won those championships he still would fall short of Russell's total (and given that Russell has what-ifs of his own), I'm comfortable sticking to reality.

7. I'm ignoring era - for now. Era really, really matters, and I'll talk about it a bit at the end. There's no doubt that Russell benefited from playing when he did - but so did Jordan.

8. On the court only. Both players have had enormous and undeniable off-the-court cultural impact. Russell's efforts on behalf of civil rights feel more noble, and were unquestionably more brave, but Jordan's ability to work the media and create a global brand may have done more to shape the world as we know it. In any case, such considerations are beyond our scope here.

So let's dive in: We'll start with the one most basketball fans already know - NBA championships:

Russell: 11 (in 13 seasons)

Jordan: 6 ( in 15 seasons)

As impressive as Jordan's accomplishments are, there's no comparison. Again, we're not dealing with what-ifs, but even if you wanted to put the best light on it by, say, taking Jordan's two Wizards years and making them into championships in 1994 and 1995, and adding two more seasons to Russell's total while assuming (for whatever reason) that he wouldn't have won championships in either, Russell's hypothetical 11-for 15 still comes out decidedly better than Jordan's (still great) 8-15.

The usual caveat brought up by those who can't believe a 15-ppg guy could be so dominant is that Russell played with great players and a great coach. And it's true, he did. But it's actually easier to make that case for Jordan than Russell:

First the teammates:

Russell championships without:

Cousy: 5

Heinsohn: 3

Sharman: 7

Ramsay: 4

KC Jones: 3

Sam Jones: 1

Sanders: 3

Havlicek: 5

Siegfried: 6

Nelson: 8

Jordan championships without:

Pippen: 0

Now the coaches:

Russell championships without Auerbach: 2 (with Russell as player-coach!)

Jordan championships without Jackson: 0

And on the flip side:

Auerbach championships without Russell: 0

Jackson championships without Jordan: 5

In other words, no matter who Russell had around him, he won championships. Neither any player nor coach was with him for all his titles, which you can't say for Jordan. I know there are a million caveats/justifications/"yeah, buts" that you can say about these comparisons. (Jackson probably doesn't win all those Lakers titles without Shaq and/or Kobe; the fact that Russell won so many titles made it less likely that any given player would be around for all of them.) But as much as it surprises people, it's easier, at least superficially, to make the case for Russell that his teammates needed him more than he did them than it is for Jordan.

And that's just one part of the equation. Let's talk college:

Russell NCAA championships (USF): 2 (out of 3 seasons - freshmen could not play varsity)

Jordan NCAA champsionships (UNC): 1 (out of 3 - left after junior year)

Again, everything points to Russell as the more dominant player. Besides just the simple fact of 2 championships to 1 (and with no disrespect intended to KC Jones), by sharing the court with James Worthy and Sam Perkins, Jordan was definitely surrounded by superior talent. (BTW, Russell averaged a 20/20 double-double for his college career.)


Woolpert (USF coach) championships without Russell: 0 (though he did make another Final Four)

Dean Smith (UNC coach) championships without Jordan: 1 (alongside truckloads of other Final Fours and other achievements)

Finally, let's take a look at Russell's and Jordan's respective Olympic basketball careers:

Russell (1956): Undefeated, Gold Medal

Jordan (1984): Undefeated, Gold Medal

Jordan (1992): Undefeated, Gold Medal

There's not much to see here at first glance: both won every game they had the opportunity to play, and all three of these Olympic tournaments were played under such different circumstances that fair comparison is probably impossible. (Who was better: Angola in 1992, or Thailand in 1956?) But there are a couple stats that every self-respecting basketball fan needs to know:

Per-game Point Differential, 1992 USA Men's Basketball (the "Dream Team"): 44

Per-game Point Differential, 1956 USA Men's Basketball: 53.5

In other words, Jordan, surrounded by the best basketball players on Earth, could not more thoroughly trounce the international competition than Russell did with a bunch of college kids in 1956.

So to summarize:

Jordan, total titles, professional/college/Olympic: 9 (out of 20)

Russell, total titles, professional/college/Olympic: 14 (out of 17)

No matter how you slice it, winning 14 championships in 17 opportunities is just absurd. Any three-year chunk of Russell's career is by itself a historic accomplishment. It's actually easier to account for Russell's failures to win titles than his successes: first year on the varsity college team, second year in the NBA (when he was injured in the playoffs and couldn't play), and first year as Celtics player-coach. In only two situations did a healthy Bill Russell fail to win a title, and both were years that saw major transitions in his basketball life. Eventually, the caveats have to fall away. No matter what the circumstances, Russell showing up meant winning a title - it's (almost) as simple as that. With Jordan, it was "only" a 50-50 proposition.

So let's talk era. I can hear all the objections from here: there were fewer teams and narrower lanes, what we call goaltending was legal, black talent was underrecognized. And it's absolutely true that Russell benefited from playing when he did. Nate Silver says that Russell "should" have won only 3-4 NBA titles, based on the smaller league of the time. I certainly trust his math more than mine, but such logic begs the question: If it was so easy to win titles back then, why couldn't anyone else do it? If nothing else, Russell had to win those titles at the same time Wilt Chamberlain was putting up numbers that were galaxies removed from everyone else.

And it's worth remembering that things fell into place pretty nicely for Jordan too. One rule change that definitely worked in his favor was the shortened three-point line between 1994 and 1997. Historically, Jordan had been a pretty mediocre three-point shooter, doing most of his scoring at the hoop and mid-range. (His three-point percentage in his first four seasons looks downright putrid by today's standards.) But when the NBA brought in the line, his percentage reached a consistency that it never had before, notwithstanding a spike in the 89-90 season. Though his overall scoring numbers didn't change much, he became a more versatile threat, which opened up the game for his teammates. Jordan didn't play a full season in 94-95, but he did in 95-96 and 96-97: As it happens, those were the two years that the Bulls put up what were at the time the two best regular-season records in NBA history.

(Jordan's near-sociopathic competitiveness would have made him effective in any era, but one wonders if he would be quite so dominant in today's 3-happy NBA. At the very least, he would have had to adjust his skill set.)

Perhaps more importantly, the NBA added six teams from 1988 to 1995, which arguably diluted the overall talent pool and disrupted the ability of existing franchises to build season to season. We all remember the way Jordan owned the league in the 90s, but he played six years in the 80s, and he spent those years putting up gaudy stats against Bird and Magic and the Bad Boys Pistons - and losing. If Jordan enters the NBA five years earlier, maybe his six championships end up only being three. We're so used to Jordan's dominance that it's easy to forget that he had to wait for those 80s dynasties to clear the way before he could become a champion. Russell didn't need to wait for anyone.

Still not convinced? That's fine - as I said up front, this is more about Russell appreciation than proving who's best, as if that were possible. But let me make one final appeal:

One of the reasons that Jordan is the current consensus GOAT is that many of us alive today had the chance to witness his dominance. There was a feeling you got watching Jordan play, where you just couldn't imagine him losing. And if you've had that feeling, Jordan's GOAT status stops being something you justify with stats and evidence. Jordan was the best because of course he was; somebody - anybody - beating him became unthinkable.

Hardly anyone alive (including me) can remember having that feeling with Russell. We can look back at all the titles and imagine what it must have been like, but the inevitability of his victories has never been a felt reality. But maybe there's a way to approximate it.

NBA fans of the early 2000s will remember the brief but spectacular 3-season Detroit Pistons run from 2003-2006, especially their dismantling of the Lakers in the 2004 finals and their sprint out of the gate in 04-05. They'll remember those Pistons as a team that took over games on the defensive end, and if they had two eyes, they'll also remember that center Ben Wallace was the engine that made that team go. Wallace didn't stuff the stat sheet: about 9 ppg during those years, along with 12 rebounds and under 2 assists. But his contribution to the Pistons' success was obvious to everyone: he finished 7th in the 2004 MVP race, while no one else on the team got a vote.

So if you can remember the way Ben Wallace took over games for those Pistons teams, perhaps you can envision a player who played the same way, while averaging almost twice as many rebounds, half again as many points, and almost three times as many assists. In other words, take Ben Wallace in his prime and make him twice as good for his entire career - that's Bill Russell. If you can imagine what it would be like to play against that kind of monstrosity, than perhaps you can understand how Russell - not his coach, not his teammates, but Russell himself - came to own the sport of basketball for 15 years.

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