For most of basketball history, people have almost unanimously agreed to the fact that Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time, even though he may not be the winningest person in the history of the league.
Jordan completely changed the way the game was played, he made it global, he did so much for it that he just deserves all of the praise he could get, but once again, silverware is something that always comes to mind when we’re debating who the GOAT may be.
While some fans argue that Jordan cannot be the greatest because of the fact that he’s not the player with the most Championships, some older basketball fans always try to make a case for Bill Russell.
Russell won 11 NBA Championships and sits at the top of the silverware mountain, as 11 rings make Michael’s 6 look like a child play. Even so, Jordan’s greatness cannot be measured just by his jewelry, as he was by far a superior player than Russell ever was, and we’re going to discuss just why.
While Bill Russell won 11 Championships, he was playing on a league with 8-14 teams, most of them full of below the average athletes, while the Celtics were stacked with future Hall of Famers including John Havlicek, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, KC Jones, and Bill Sharman. throughout his entire tenure.
John Jones had an interesting point:
When Bill Russell, whom I greatly respect, was playing in the NBA, there were between 8–14 teams. The Boston Celtics got the lion’s share of the talent and Russell played with more fellow hall of famers than any other player of his caliber at the time. Also, the average height of NBA players was just a couple inches over 6 feet. That, coupled with the fact that there was a tacit agreement that teams during Russell’s era would play no more than two African-Americans on one team at a time, hindered the overall quality of league competition. In addition, the NBA in Jordan’s era had a longer season, more international talent, and had become so lucrative that players had long begun their training much earlier than those of Russell’s era because there were far more enticements in the way of money, fame, and status.
Also, the Boston Celtics in Bill Russell’ era had only to win two rounds (8 times) or three rounds (3 times) to win the NBA Championship.
In addition to having fewer teams, there were fewer playoff rounds and the top teams (like the Celtics) often got first-round byes. Whereas Jordan and Magic had to win 15 playoff games to win a title (and often play upwards of 20 games or more), Russell played between 10 and 14 games to win each of his first eight championships.
By playing fewer postseason games, combined with shorter NBA seasons, this gave Russell a distinct advantage in durability over Jordan and Magic in accumulating wear and tear.
It is also arguable that it would be impossible for a team to win eight titles in a row today. This is due to longer seasons, more travel requirements, longer playoff rounds, and rule changes that make it nearly impossible to acquire the talent disparity enjoyed by Russell’s Celtics teams.
Even though Bill Russell remains one of the greatest winners, to put his winning automatically ahead of legends like Jordan and Magic may be a naïve comparison.
Michael Jordan, on the other hand, had to fight Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, and many other NBA legends.
Even though Bill Russell won almost twice as many NBA Championships than Jordan did, the Black Cat still gets the nod when we talk about personal milestones and silverware on a way more competitive league.
Jordan has the same number of MVPs (5) as Russell while having 10 more scoring titles. He was Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, led the league in steals three times, he is the league’s all-time leader in points per game, and we could go on and on here.
Just check this.
Michael Jordan’ Awards:
6× NBA champion (1991–1993, 1996–1998)
6× NBA Finals MVP (1991–1993, 1996–1998)
5× NBA Most Valuable Player (1988, 1991, 1992, 1996, 1998)
14× NBA All-Star (1985–1993, 1996–1998, 2002, 2003)
3× NBA All-Star Game MVP (1988, 1996, 1998)
10× All-NBA First Team (1987–1993, 1996–1998)
All-NBA Second Team (1985)
NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1988)
9× NBA All-Defensive First Team (1988–1993, 1996–1998)
NBA Rookie of the Year (1985)
10× NBA scoring champion (1987–1993, 1996–1998)
3× NBA steals leader (1988, 1990, 1993)
2× NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion (1987, 1988)
Bill Russell’ Awards:
11× NBA champion (1957, 1959–1966, 1968, 1969)
5× NBA Most Valuable Player (1958, 1961–1963, 1965)
12× NBA All-Star (1958–1969)
NBA All-Star Game MVP (1963)
3× All-NBA First Team (1959, 1963, 1965)
8× All-NBA Second Team (1958, 1960–1962, 1964, 1966–1968)
NBA All-Defensive First Team (1969)
4× NBA rebounding champion (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965)
Michael Jordan went a perfect 6-6 in the Finals and even though he “only” played with 2 Hall of Famers (in his prime, as George Gervin and Robert Parish were kind of old at the time), he was never taken to a game 7 in basketball’s ultimate stage, unlike Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics.
Bill Russell had more Hall of Famers as teammates than Jordan had All-Stars. Still, and even despite the league’s shortage of talent, Russell was taken to a lot of game 7s and even lost a Championship.
Don’t forget that Bill Russell never won NBA Finals MVP Award, while Michael Jordan had 6 Awards. Yeah, I know that Finals MVP Award is since 1968-69, but Russell wasn’t always the best players for the Boston Celtics.
PER And Win Shares
Michael Jordan is the league’s All-Time leader in player efficiency rating with 27.9 (or well, at least he was until Boban Marjanovic surpassed him a couple of weeks ago, but there’s no way we’re counting him).
On the other hand, Bill Russell had a career PER of 19.4. When it comes to the playoffs, Jordan is still the leader with 28.6 compared to Russ’ 19.6. Also, Jordan has 214 win shares compared to Bill’s 163.5.
Michael Jordan was the most dominant offensive player of his time with 30.1 points per game. He could pull up, take you all the way to the rim, finish through contact, lay it up and then just dunk it in your face with his tongue out.
Bill Russell’s offense was limited at best with a career average of 15.1 points on a time where he was one of the tallest players in the league, something that would give him a huge advantage back then.
Even though we agree Bill Russell was a dominant defender and a great shot blocker, he did most of his damage by mastering positioning and just being way bigger and athletic than most of his opposition.
Ethan S explained about Bill Russell’ defense:
Finally, let’s ponder over Russell’s defense and how it would translate into today’s NBA game. Unfortunately, blocked shots were not recorded during Russell’s career. While Russell was a menace towards opposing teams with his blocking ability, his 6-9, 220 pound frame would likely mean he would be a power forward today.
While Russell today could have bulked up and played a similar role as Ben Wallace as an undersized but strong center, it’s hard to see other teams fearing him more than Big Ben or other top centers of the past few decades, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, Dwight Howard, and Dikembe Mutombo. In addition, each of these centers had between one and four inches on Russell.
Jordan, on the other hand, could guard multiple spots and played lockdown defense against some of the best players in the history of the game. Yes, Pippen handled the best scorer in the team for most of the time, but Jordan led the league in steals thrice and was the league’s DPOY.