I wrote several articles for Basketball Digest looking at great rivalries such as Larry Bird-Julius Erving, Walt Frazier-Earl Monroe and Indiana Pacers-Kentucky Colonels.
Last month I wrote a “Classic Confrontation” article about the Dave DeBusschere-Gus Johnson rivalry. My most recent offering in this genre looks at a “Classic Confrontation” that never took place on the court but has fascinated people for years: what would happen if Wilt Chamberlain in his prime played against Shaquille O'Neal in his prime?
Dolph Schayes, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Oscar Robertson, Spencer Haywood and Warren Jabali share their thoughts on this hypothetical clash of the titans:
Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes earned selection to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List and played against Wilt Chamberlain for several years before coaching him with the Philadelphia 76ers. Who would he take first in a hypothetical draft—Wilt Chamberlain at his best or Shaquille O’Neal at his best?
Schayes replies, “The Wilt Chamberlain of the latter years is who I would pick, merely because he was an unstoppable inside player—a much better rebounder than Shaq, a better shot blocker than Shaq and I think he was a better team guy with the guys on the team than Shaq. It was the Wilt who was the all-around player, the passing Wilt. They are both haunted by their poor foul shooting. In Shaq’s case—if he and Wilt had to play against each other—one of Wilt’s great records would have been broken and that record is never having fouled out of a game. I think that if Wilt had to play Shaq—the physical Shaq going to the basket and all that and Wilt accepting the challenge of trying to stop him—Wilt would have fouled out of games. Wilt never fouled out against the Celtics because Russell was not the offensive threat that Shaq is. As far as Shaq is concerned, there is a good Shaq and a bad Shaq. There is a Shaq that I think sometimes doesn’t compete 100% as he should—that’s the bad Shaq. The good Shaq that competes 100% would have given Wilt a lot of trouble offensively. Shaq, when he wants to be an offensive weapon, is one of the greatest in the history of the game and would dominate and would force even Wilt into foul trouble. So who’s the better of the two? In my opinion I would say Wilt.”
Schayes adds, “The early Wilt I would not take (over Shaq). He took a lot of fadeaway jump shots, which was a very poor selection. I think he did that because Wilt, being a very proud person, a very egotistical person—nobody becomes great unless they have a big ego—felt that he wasn’t a complete basketball player unless he had more of a game than just dunking and being around the basket. He was constantly criticized for not being a complete player—’All you do is dunk.’ So he said to himself, ‘I’m going to prove that I can shoot as well as anybody.’ That’s why he took those stupid, foolish, idiotic fadeaway jump shots—to prove to somebody, mostly himself, that he could play besides just being a big guy. When he took that shot I would tear my hair out (as his coach) and say, ‘Oh my God,’ because it put him off balance, he couldn’t rebound his own shot and his man was able to take off and get layups because he was off balance.”
Schayes’ fellow Hall of Famer and Top 50 selection Oscar Robertson also prefers Wilt to Shaq: “You have to take Wilt. He once averaged 50 points a game and he averaged 24-plus rebounds per game and he (had seasons in which he) averaged 5-7 assists. As dominant as Shaq is with the players he is playing against, Wilt was just awesome. Shaq is an aggressive player who uses his weight and strength to overpower people. Wilt had power but he also had the finger roll and the bank shot—Wilt had a more complete game in the pivot.”
Dr. Jack Ramsay was the General Manager of Chamberlain’s 1967 Philadelphia 76ers team that set an NBA record for wins in a season and ended Boston’s eight year stranglehold on the NBA title. So he would choose Wilt, right? As Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friend.
Ramsay offers this scouting report: “Wilt was an amazing player. I would say it’s hard to predict how they would fare against each other. Wilt was a little taller, rangier, a great shot blocker—much more of a shot blocker than Shaq.”
Why was Wilt a better shot blocker? Ramsay explains, “His length. Longer than Shaq, long arms. Great timing for the ball. They didn’t keep stats at that time for blocked shots. I was writing a piece about defense in general and I wanted to find out how many shots Chamberlain and Russell blocked—Russell was even better. So I called Boston and they said they didn’t have any clips and they didn’t keep any stats of that. I called Harvey (Pollack) and Harvey said, ‘We don’t have anything for a whole season, but every so often I would have one of our stat guys keep blocks. I know for a fact that there were a couple games when Wilt had 25 blocks.”
Keep in mind that the NBA has only officially recorded blocked shots since 1973-74 and the official NBA record is 17, set by Elmore Smith.
Ramsay notes that Chamberlain was ahead of his time with his emphasis on strength training. Was Chamberlain stronger than Shaq in terms of basketball, not necessarily bench press strength, but in terms of holding his position, backing somebody down, using the strength in a basketball sense?
Ramsay said, “I think probably Shaq (is stronger), because of his body mass. He is so wide and thick—and very quick footed, has great command of his feet. You’ll see every so often, some of his spin moves—they’re lightning quick. I don’t think Wilt had that. Wilt was more methodical, worked the ball and the finger roll, back into the basket. It’s hard to say how it would’ve come out, but it would’ve been a great matchup.”
I asked Ramsay point blank who he would take between ‘young Wilt’ or ‘young Shaq’ if he were building a team around one guy rather than trying to fit him in with the personnel on a given team.
Ramsay says, “Very difficult. I really think that Shaq is more of a team player. Wilt was a stats collector. He would decide before the season in what stats he wanted to lead the league. He led the league in assists one year.”
What about Wilt’s performance for the 1967 76ers? Ramsay says, “That was his best year. That might have been his best year ever, that one season. We had a new coach, Alex Hannum. He put in a game plan where the ball went through Wilt consistently. He only averaged 24 points a game, which is not chopped liver, but here is a guy who averaged 50. He didn’t shoot. He really was patient. He looked for cutters. He made himself a good passer. That was his best season. That year Philly beat Boston four out of five in the Eastern Finals and then beat the Warriors in six games. Wilt was terrific. I thought that if he had played his career like that he’d have been regarded as a different player.”
Ramsay acknowledges that Wilt played for several different teams and coaches, and that this instability surrounding Wilt is part of the reason that Wilt did not play that way for his entire career but still insists, “I think Shaq is more dedicated to the team winning and less concerned about his stats.”
Warren Jabali was an ABA All-Star as Wilt’s NBA career wound down.
He says, “There’s no comparison. Chamberlain is head and shoulders above Shaquille O’Neal. Who I like to compare Shaquille O’Neal with is Darryl Dawkins. What happens with Shaquille O’Neal is he is able to push people out of the way, step on them and dunk the ball. If Darryl Dawkins had been able to do what Shaquille O’Neal is able to do on the low post, Darryl Dawkins would have been unstoppable. Not only could he dunk as hard and forcefully as Shaquille O’Neal can, he had a 15 foot jump shot to go with all of that. He probably fouled out more than anybody in the history of the NBA. They did not allow Darryl Dawkins to play basketball. They controlled his game so much that when he went out on the court it was like he was walking on egg shells. In order for us to even include Shaquille O’Neal in the conversation (about Wilt), you would have to imagine Shaquille O’Neal not being able to just knock people down and dunk the basketball. That means that he would have to have the ability to consistently make a five or ten foot jump shot or hook. If that was what he had to do, then he would not be as dominant as he has been by playing the other way. So he could not compare to Chamberlain because Chamberlain had the strength to play that way but he didn’t do it that way. He had a little fadeaway 10 foot jump shot, finger rolls and all that kind of stuff.”
Spencer Haywood played against Chamberlain but he tosses a curveball when asked who he would take between Wilt and Shaq: “I’d take Kareem.”
Haywood explains, “He could do more. He could score, he had that skyhook. You’ve got to have a dominant weapon that doesn’t interfere with the whole flow of the game. So, with Wilt, in his latter years he changed over and had all that stuff going on (a complete game), but in his earlier years the ball had to go through him. You could play around Kareem and then at the last second drop it in to him and he’d shoot a skyhook. He just had a lot of stuff going on—he ran the floor very well… I think that guys are doing Shaq a disservice by putting him in that category until it’s all over with. Everybody says that it’s Shaq and Wilt, but I don’t see it like that. Shaq’s career is not complete, but he’s no Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain changed his game and made adjustments. Shaq doesn’t seem to want to do that. His game is always based on running you over.”
Pressed to select either Wilt or Shaq, Haywood chooses Wilt and adds that Shaq would not be his next choice after Wilt.
Here is the statistical tale of the tape for Wilt versus Shaq:
Wilt, regular season: 30.1 ppg, 22.9 rpg, .540 FG%, .511 FT%, 4.4 apg, Rookie of the Year, 4 MVPs, 7 All-NBA First Team selections. Led the league in scoring seven times, in rebounding 11 times, in field goal percentage nine times; blocked shots not officially recorded during his career.
Shaq, regular season: 26.3 ppg, 11.8 rpg, .580 FG%, .528 FT%, 2.8 apg, Rookie of the Year, 1 MVP, 7 All-NBA First Team selections. Led the league in scoring two times, in field goal percentage nine times; has never led the league in blocked shots.
Wilt, playoffs: 22.5 ppg, 24.5 rpg, .522 FG%, .465 FT%, 4.2 apg, 1 Finals MVP, 2 championships.
Shaq, playoffs: 26.3 ppg, 12.4 rpg, .562 FG%, .512 FT%, 3.0 apg, 3 Finals MVPs, 3 championships.As I pointed out in a Basketball Digest article a few years ago, the most accurate way to look at Wilt’s scoring is to divide his career in two: after the 1965-66 season (his seventh in a 14 year career), Wilt was averaging 39.6 ppg in the regular season (21,486 points in 543 games) and 32.8 ppg in the playoffs; in the remaining six years of Wilt’s career he averaged 19.8 ppg in the regular season (9933 points in 502 games) and 17.6 ppg in the playoffs (1899 points in 108 games). So, in the first part of Wilt’s career he scored at a very high rate in the regular season and in the playoffs; in the second part of his career he averaged less than 20 ppg but won two championships with two of the most dominant single season squads in NBA history. In general, most players average fewer points in the playoffs than in the regular season because of tougher competition and a slower paced game.
Shooting percentages were lower in Wilt’s era and shot attempts were higher; this explains some of the disparity in their numbers in rebounding and field goal percentage. Wilt and Shaq are tied for the league record by winning nine field goal percentage titles. As for rebounding, while Wilt was probably not literally twice the rebounder that Shaq is, it is telling that Wilt won 11 rebounding titles while playing at the same time as Bill Russell and Shaq has never won even one rebounding title. It should also be noted that the NBA did not select a Finals MVP until 1969, two years after Wilt won his first NBA championship.