Greatest player of all time, Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain
Who was the greatest NBA player of all time? Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain?
It honestly depends on your criteria. If we're talking about overall all-around talent, the answer is neither. Such a player would be Magic Johnson, who regularly played all 5 positions on the floor, and well. Magic could rebound, take the short jumpers, hit the long shots and 3's, play solid defense, run the offense from the point guard spot and elevate his game to carry the team when needed. And, needless to say, he was one of the key players, if not THE key player, on those Showtime Lakers teams that won several championships. If not for his HIV infection forcing his retirement, his career would have lasted several more years than it did.
But the criteria fans often use isn't just basketball skills. Context plays a big role, and this is where the two names above stand out, even over Magic and his all-around game.
At Wilt Chamberlain's time, the idea of a big man dunking over everybody and dominating the paint was a fairly new concept. Once you had Wilt scoring points in bunches, including his famous 100 point game in Hershey, PA, this revolutionized the pro game and opened the door for dominating big men like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. He is a big reason (pun intended) why dunking and athletic seven footers are a big part of NBA basketball today.
Wilt's biggest weakness was, ironically, emphasized by his strengths. Because he could use his size to score in bunches by leaping over people and scoring layups and dunks, his shooting skills remained unrefined, and he was a famously bad free throw shooter (career free-throw percentage was 51.1%: a competent shooter should be able to make 75-80%). Consequently, he was a poor shooter, and if he wasn't close enough to the basket, you could neutralize his strengths. Fortunately for Wilt, he was so big, athletic and powerful that few people could keep him away from the basket over his career.
Michael Jordan, at a lanky 6 foot 6, didn't have Wilt's size, but he more than made up for it with his incredible work ethic, athletic talent, competitive drive and marvelous basketball skills. Jordan was a good shooter in his prime, but he was more famous for his great vertical leap and spectacular driving dunks that have been canonized on numerous posters (players who got dunked on by Jordan were often said to have been 'posterized'), earning him several entries into the All Star Game's Slam Dunk Contest, which he made famous and won several times.
Jordan has had numerous great, high scoring games that featured game winning shots. His scoring prowess alone was greatly responsible for the Chicago Bulls' ascension from mediocrity to serious playoff contention in the 80's, and once he received strong supporting teammates like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, the Bulls became one of the NBA's great championship dynasties, winning six championships with Jordan in the 90's.
He is also famous for making big, game winning shots under pressure. One of the NBA's most famous moments was a last second outside shot Jordan made in a playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers as time expired, and featured him leaping high into the air in fist-pumping celebration (and nearly kicking Cleveland's Craig Ehlo in the face). And the 6th and final NBA championship came when Jordan shook Bryon Russell, Utah's best defender, and scored a go-ahead jump shot with 5 seconds left to seal the clinching victory in the NBA Finals. It was his last play as a Chicago Bull. These moments played a huge role in lifting Jordan from mere star to iconic NBA legend.
Jordan's only weakness could be a product not of his ability, but of his ego. Jordan made those big shots and scored all those points in large part because he wanted to take those shots and wanted the ball. Frequently. As a result, he often took too many shots in games, and towards the end of his career, he missed a lot of those shots, wasting valuable possessions for his team. Fans saw 30 point games from Jordan, but often forget that while he, say, made 9 shots, he missed 14-16, and got many of his points from getting fouled and going to the free throw line, where unlike Wilt, he was a capable shooter.
But in that lies another issue: as his star status rose, NBA refs often gave Jordan favorable foul calls, calling frivolous fouls on his opposition for minor physical contact with Jordan on many plays, and allowing him to go to the line and score easy points. Jordan was conversely allowed to frequently make rough contact with opposing players on defense and often escaped getting called on it. In fact, on the aforementioned shot over Bryon Russell, replays show Jordan clearly shoving Russell aside before taking the ball to shoot, the sort of contact that usually draws an offensive foul.
This tilted games in favor of Jordan's teams and inflated his point totals. He still ultimately made a lot of great shots and played well enough to win even if his team received no such help, but he did receive some help that Wilt never received in his era.
Also, Jordan tarnished his image following retirement after his 6th championship. Years after, he attempted an ill-advised comeback with the lowly Washington Wizards, with which Jordan had served as team president and part owner. Jordan was still a solid, talented player, but his skills were greatly diminished from rust and age, seeing him miss more shots than usual. His age (41) coupled with 30-40 extra pounds took a toll on his aging knees and led to injuries hampering his efforts. He retired for good after two relatively mediocre seasons that saw the Wizards perform no better than usual. The ill-advised comeback can only do so much to tarnish his legendary image, however, and his efforts with the Chicago Bulls still cement his legacy as one of the best ever.
It's almost unfair, given the different contexts of the league in their respective times, to try to quantify the greatness of Wilt or Jordan and declare one greater than the other. Both were legendary stars in their time, with trasncendent ability that changed the game and the culture of the game. I'm willing to let their performances in their respective eras speak for themselves, and call this debate a draw.
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