In what will become a daily entry over the course of the next month, Waiver Wire writers Greg Kaplan and Vinny Ginardi will release a list of the the 25 players who they believe to be the best in NBA history. Players were judged on their careers as a whole rather than short stretches of dominance (for example, Bill Walton didn’t make the list due to injuries cutting his career short).
Vinny Ginardi: You can make the case for Russell being higher or lower than number three, so I’ll do each.
Why he should be ranked higher
Bill Russell is the ultimate winner. What else can you say about someone who led his team to 11 championships in 13 years? The man knew what to do to lead, make his teammates better, and capture championships. While Wilt Chamberlain was collecting individual accomplishments for his offensive dominance (and selfishness), Russell was collecting championships
Russell’s defensive abilities are among the best the game has ever seen. It’s a shame that the Defensive Player of the Year award, Finals MVP award. and the All-Defensive teams weren’t handed out during his time, because if they were his resume would be even more impressive. Along the same lines, blocks were not yet created, so it is difficult to measure Russell’s ability to protect the rim, but it is widely assumed that he would have been a league leader in the category throughout his career. Advanced statistics show that Russell led the league in defensive win shares in 11 of his 13 seasons and ranks first all-time in this category. While these numbers weren’t available during his time, Russell’s play did not go unnoticed. He earned five MVP awards throughout his career and was named to 11 All-NBA teams.
Why he should be ranked lower
While Russell is perhaps the best defensive player ever, he wasn’t nearly as much of a threat offensively as the other great centers in NBA history. Russell never averaged more than 19 points per game for an entire season and had a career field goal percentage of just 44 percent. While Russell wasn’t inept on the offensive end of the floor, is it justifiable to rank a player this high when he wasn’t as offensively dominant as most NBA greats?
There is nothing wrong with having him ranked third, and on my personal list, I had him ranked second. Even though Russell didn’t put him astounding offensive numbers, he knew his role and that’s why his teams were as successful as they were. Instead of trying to do too much offensively, Russell got his teammates involved, averaging 4.3 assists per game for his career. Pretty impressive for a center. Other players, like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, weren’t elite defensively, yet we consider them to be some of the all-time greats. If we didn’t penalize them, then we shouldn’t penalize Russell for being elite on one end of the floor either.
Greg Kaplan: Vinny covered, well, just about everything there is to cover when talking about Bill Russell. So, I’m just going to add the emphasis that you can’t judge an NBA player by statistics alone. So much more goes into the fundamental framework of making a great player and that player making his teammates better. Bill Russell has more rings than he does fingers, that has to count for so much more than what he averaged as far as points per game or rebounds per game. He was a bona fide winner. Maybe the best that has every played any sport in the United States.
Remember, if anyone ever doubts the type of leadership and guidance Bill Russell had with his teammates, quickly point out that he is the very last player-coach to win an NBA championship. End of discussion. Wilt Chamberlain had better statistics. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a longer prime. But, nobody won like Bill Russell. He has the Finals trophy named after him.
He’s one of the three greatest players to ever take the court in an NBA game. That’s just a fact.