Wilt Chamberlain may have been the last star player to face a higher degree of difficulty than LeBron James to win an NBA title.
In 1962, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game, and came within two seconds of beating six Celtics Hall of Famers: Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones. Critics labeled him a “loser” for most of his career and he strangely did not win the MVP that year.
Chamberlain was the only player to ever score 100 points a game that year. Like James he exhibited incredible passing skills for a front line player, later becoming the only center to ever lead the NBA in assists. However, Chamberlain happened to arrive in the league during the greatest dynasty in the history of professional sports.
In his first 10 seasons in the league the Celtics won the title nine times, with Chamberlain’s first title coming when he finally got a little help in 1967. His Philadelphia 76ers won the title against his old Warriors team, which had moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco and would later become the Golden State Warriors competing this year for the title. But make no mistake, the big series was the Eastern Conference championships, when Chamberlain outscored Bill Russell an average of 21 points to 11 in the playoffs.
Due to finally having some strong teammates, the championship year was the first time Chamberlain averaged fewer than 30 points a game. But he was much more efficient. The previous season he had led the league by shooting 54% from the floor. But in 1967 he elevated it to a then unheard of 68% from the floor.
When a 22-year-old James took the 2007 Cavs to the Finals he did it all himself and defenses held him to less than 51% effective Field Goal Percentage. His four Finals years with teammates on the Heat he hit 54%, 55%, 60%, and 61% in that order. This season he was back down to 54%, and has dropped to 44% in the playoffs as he has had to carry an incredible load with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love watching from the sideline for most of the games.
Chamberlain enjoyed some great Los Angeles Lakers teammates for the final few years of his career, and at 35 received his second title. In those playoffs he was just asked to score 14 points a game in the playoffs, but did it on 56% shooting and grabbed 21 rebounds a game as he still towered over opponents.
Golden State is not as good as the Celtics dynasty. But the Cleveland Cavaliers team that was put on the floor at the beginning of the fourth quarter when James finally needed a couple of minutes rest is even worse than the earlier Warriors and 76ers teams that Chamberlain carried on his back through the 1960s. The gap between the Cavs without James vs. Golden State and the Philadelphia teams without Chamberlain against the Celtics would have been in blowout proportions.
How much will LeBron need to do to carry this Cavs team to the title?
Chamberlain led the league in scoring for seven straight seasons before taking the title and he added at least 22 rebounds per game. In those playoffs, Chamberlain averaged nine assists a game and Hal Greer and Chet Walker joined him in averaging over 20 points a game. While James is one of the greatest passers the game has ever seen, Irving and Love are not there to pass to.
Jeff Van Gundy said before Game 4 that if James somehow pulled the Cavs to a win in Game 4 it would be the greatest accomplishment he had seen in his 25 years associated with the NBA (yes, that includes the Michael Jordan titles).
If the naysayers would not give Chamberlain an MVP or credit for scoring 50.4 points a game, grabbing 25.7 rebounds a game, and falling two points short going up against six Hall of Famers, then they are not going to give James credit for one of the most incredible playoff performances we’ve seen, even if he single-handedly forces a Game 7 and falls short.
But those who know basketball know they watch greatness.