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March 2, 2012
Wilt, In Context
100 and 50.4, 50 Years Later

by Kevin Pelton

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Fifty years ago today, Wilt Chamberlain set one of the most impressive records in sports by scoring 100 points in a Philadelphia Warriors win over the New York Knicks. In the half-century since then, only Kobe Bryant has come within 25 points of matching Chamberlain's round number. The 100-point game was the highlight of a season during which Chamberlain set a record by scoring points per game.

The NBA of 1962 was very different than the league we know today, both on and off the court. Not coincidentally, 1961-62 also marked the high-water mark for NBA scoring at 118.8 points per game. Because steals, blocks and turnovers were not yet tracked (and would not be for a decade and a half more), we don't have a complete picture. What we can tell from field goal attempts and free throw attempts shows a fast-paced, inefficient game that most closely resembles the Paul Westhead Nuggets of anything from the last quarter-century.

In 1961-62, the average team took 107.7 shots and 37.1 free throws per game. That's 124.0 shooting plays per game. Chamberlain's Warriors played even faster, averaging 129.3. Since the ABA-NBA merger, only Westhead's 1990-91 team has averaged more than 113.4 shooting plays per game, at 120.3. (The top seven post-merger spots all belong to Denver squads, most of them coached by Doug Moe.) So the high scoring averages seen in 1961-62 were much more about volume than efficiency. The average True Shooting Percentage in 1961-62 was .479; the worst of the last three decades was .511, in the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season. (This year it's .522.) Though we don't have exact turnover numbers, the history of turnover rates declining sharply as soon as the stat was tracked at the individual level suggests many more plays ended in turnovers a half-century ago than now.

Accounting for pace takes much of the air out of Chamberlain's numbers from 1961-62. Converting his points per game to an environment with more than a quarter fewer plays takes his scoring average from 50.4 to 35.9--still higher than any achieved since the merger, but barely better than the 35.4 points per game Bryant averaged in 2005-06. If we move the opposite direction, here's how this year's leaderboard would look, converted to Chamberlain's 1961-62 pace:

Player                Tm     PPG
--------------------------------
Kobe Bryant          LAL    41.2
Kevin Durant         OKC    39.9
LeBron James         MIA    39.1
Andrea Bargnani      TOR    34.7
Kevin Love           MIN    34.2
Russell Westbrook    OKC    33.7
Deron Williams       NJN    32.0
Dwyane Wade          MIA    32.0
Derrick Rose         CHI    31.6
Monta Ellis          GSW    31.5

Wouldn't the three-way scoring race between Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James be a whole lot more fun if all three players were pushing 40 points a night? Converting to 1961-62 pace also indicates that no fewer than 69 players would average at least 20 points per game, including such luminaries as Gerald Henderson and Jarrett Jack.

But wait, there's more! The most remarkable aspect of Chamberlain's 1961-62, to me, is the 48.5 minutes he averaged. Chamberlain missed just eight possible minutes all season. Seen one way, it's a testament to his superhuman ability that Chamberlain could play so effectively with so little rest. (He also had to avoid foul trouble, one of his legendary strengths throughout his career.) At the same time, Chamberlain's prodigious minute totals certainly made it a lot easier for him to pile up points. If we push everyone's average to 48.5 minutes per game, suddenly the modern league features a handful of Wilts.

Player                Tm     PPG
--------------------------------
Kobe Bryant          LAL    52.5
LeBron James         MIA    51.6
Kevin Durant         OKC    50.9
Dwyane Wade          MIA    48.0
Andrea Bargnani      TOR    46.6
Russell Westbrook    OKC    46.5
Derrick Rose         CHI    43.3
Carmelo Anthony      NYK    43.0
Kevin Love           MIN    41.9
Deron Williams       NJN    41.7

I don't know about anyone else, but I love the concept of a league where James and Dwyane Wade average a combined 99.6 points per game. However, we're no longer being fair to The Dipper. Part of the reason current players like better from this perspective is they enjoy the benefit of greater efficiency for a variety of reasons, including the three-point shot (a weapon for each of the top 10 scorers) and the same slower pace for which we've previously accounted. So what if we improve Wilt's efficiency by the difference between the two leagues? Suddenly Chamberlain's improved average of 55.0 points per game is tops again, albeit by a narrow margin.

Applying the same adjustments to Chamberlain's 100 point night shows the modern equivalent is about 77 points. So maybe Bryant's 81-point effort on January 22, 2006 was in fact no less impressive, but no one else has reached such heights. Even if Chamberlain's feat was aided by the league context in which he played, it still stands the test of time.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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