The fans have spoken, and we are down to the championship round for basketball’s greatest of all time.
In the Final Four, Michael Jordan toppled 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain took the crown away from King James as LeBron fell.
That puts us into the final with Air Jordan versus Wilt the Stilt, two of the most remarkable athletes of their generations who also developed the skills to go with that God-given ability.
I didn’t give you guys enough credit for recognizing the greatness of Wilt and Kareem. I figured the Final Four would more likely come down to Jordan, LeBron, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Sure, I had Wilt and Kareem in my top four seeds, but there are a lot of Bird and Magic zealots out there, and I figured that would come into play.
I had saved back one fancy stat for the championship round, figuring it was one sure-fire way to get folks’ attention about Jordan’s dominance in his era. The problem is, the metric is based on all the stats one can rack up in the box score, and too many of those weren’t kept in Wilt’s day.
For example, those who saw Wilt play know that he blocked a lot of shots, but the NBA didn’t start tracking blocks until the start of the 1973-74 season. Wilt had just retired a few months earlier.
Announcers used to talk about how Kareem’s sky hook was the most indefensible shot in basketball, but I have watched old footage where a young Kareem took on Wilt in his 30s, and the old guy jumped so high he blocked a sky hook at the top of its arch.
Remember, Wilt was a three-time all-conference high jump champion at the University of Kansas.
Steals are another stat that weren’t kept until just after Wilt retired. Rebounds were only tracked as a total number, not broken down by offensive and defensive.
Turnovers weren’t tracked either, so maybe that part was a good thing.
So we can’t talk about this one advanced metric with Wilt, but we can look at Jordan.
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John Hollinger created a mathematical formula for looking at stats on a per-game basis. It is similar to PER (player efficiency rating).
A “game score” of 10 is average, 20 is good, 30 is very good, and 40 is outstanding.
Only 23 times in the regular season and just once in the playoffs has a player reached a score of 50 in a game.
Jordan has four of those and just missed for a fifth (49.70).
In fact, Jordan has 10 of the top 51 regular-season game score figures to go with nine of the top 51 game scores in the playoffs.
Overall he has 17 of the top 100 in the regular season and 13 of the top 100 in the postseason.
He is the only player with two of the top five performances in both the regular season and the playoffs.
In 1988 the Pistons were three games ahead of the Bulls late in the regular season (and would make it to the NBA Finals).
Jordan did all he could to beat the Piston, going off for a whopping 59 points on 21-27 shooting (77.8%) and 17-19 at the line (89.5%). He had 6 assists, 4 boards, 2 steals and 2 blocks, against just 1 turnover. And this was just the fifth-best game score on record.
In 1990 a Cleveland newspaper made the mistake of saying that Craig Ehlo did a reasonable job of slowing down Jordan just before the Bulls played the Cavaliers. This was all Jordan needed for motivation.
He scored a career-high 69 points on 23-37 shooting to go with a monster 18 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 1 block.
This resulted in a game score of 64.60, the highest on record.
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Of course, on March 2, 1962, against the New York Knicks, Chamberlain scored 100 points on 36-63 shooting, 28-32 foul shots, 25 rebounds and 2 assists (and who knows how many blocks) while never coming out of the game a single time for a breather.
That season Wilt averaged 48.5 minutes in a 48-minute game (playing five overtime games). He averaged 50.4 points for the season. He averaged more points that many superstars have ever scored in their best game.
Also, remember me saying Kareem didn’t come into the league until Wilt was in his 30s?
In his first five seasons, Kareem tore through the league, adding up stats at a remarkable rate.
When he went against Wilt, Kareem took a ton of shots, but he wasn’t hitting them very well.
Kareem took a whopping 30 shots a game in 17 head-to-head matchups, but only made 46.3% in those games, while Wilt made 56.0%, got fouled more and grabbed more rebounds.
In fact, in his last season, Wilt’s final game against Kareem, the 36-year-old didn’t take a single shot from the field in 46 minutes, focusing on defense to harass Kareem into a terrible 12-31 shooting night.
The only reason Kareem’s team won then was that future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson had a great night, while Wilt’s teammates Jerry West and Gail Goodrich had bad nights.
Jordan routinely outplayed the best shooting guards in the league. Wilt outplayed the best big men in his day, including Bill Russell, who had Hall of Fame teammates to help him in Boston.
So who is the best player ever? It’s your choice.
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Remember, casting a ballot in the final round is another chance to enter the drawing for the $100 prize.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.