When comparing players in the NBA, LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain are not necessarily the two comparisons we immediately think of when debating greatness. With that said, James is entering a similar situation as Chamberlain. Back in the day, Chamberlain was a scoring and rebounding sensation for the Warriors and 76ers. Chamberlain helped Philadelphia capture a championship as well. Chamberlain’s backend of his career featured the purple and gold, where he played for five seasons.
James is entering his fifth season with the Lakers, and he recently signed a two-year extension, so we could expect him to play seven seasons in total. When looking at the career of each player playing for the Lakers brings up an interesting question. Should the Lakers retire LeBron’s number?
After all, Chamberlain’s number is retired by the Lakers. Both players have legacies that they deem in the conversation for being the best players ever. However, we are just looking at their accomplishments with the Lakers only. Chamberlain’s number was retired and features a Lakers career that resembles a resume that should lead to LeBron’s number being retired.
Let’s take a look at each player’s resume with the Lakers and make that final call.
Wilt Chamberlain: 5 (1968-1973)
LeBron James: 5 (2018-Present)
Technically, James has played four seasons with the Lakers, but he will be entering his fifth with the team, so we are going to call this a tie. When Chamberlain joined the Lakers, he was 32 years old. He was coming off of a season with the 76ers where he led the NBA in triple-doubles. He was starting to change his game to where he could use his passing skills. While his scoring and rebounding stayed elite, he became an all-around great when he started using his passing. With that said, he remained an elite rebounder as he led the league in rebounds four of the five seasons.
James joined the Lakers when he was 34 years old. Chamberlain played 14 seasons in the NBA. James is entering his 20th season in the league. By the time he joined the Lakers, James had played in the NBA longer than Chamberlain's entire career. Despite this, James led the league in assists per game as a point forward. He then led the Lakers to the NBA Finals and won a Finals MVP Award. While Chamberlain has some leverage over James in playoff production and individual stats, you have to remember that James did what he did with legs that had more miles than Chamberlain's entire career.
Wilt Chamberlain: 1 (1972)
LeBron James: 1 (2020)
The Lakers won the 1972 NBA Finals, which was the third appearance in the Finals at the time for Chamberlain with Los Angeles. The team had made the Finals' in previous seasons by losing to the Celtics and Knicks. This time, the Lakers swept the Bulls in the first round. Then, the team beat the Bucks in six games. After losing the first game to the Knicks, the Lakers stormed back to win the next four games to give Chamberlain his second overall championship ring.
James dealt with a ton of adversity when he won a title in 2020. The Lakers were coming off a season where they missed the playoffs. There were questions surrounding James’ durability because he was hurt that year. The NBA family mourned the passing of Kobe Bryant. The world battled COVID-19, the pandemic, and the NBA bubble. Despite everything, James helped lead the Lakers to a six-game finish over his previous team, the Miami Heat, to win the Lakers' first title since Bryant in 2010.
Wilt Chamberlain: 4 (1969, 1970, 1972, 1973)
LeBron James: 1 (2020)
Chamberlain played in four NBA Finals with the Lakers. That included losses to the Celtics in 1969 and the Knicks in 1970 and 1973. The Lakers ran the table back in the day. From 1962 to 1973, the Lakers made the NBA Finals nine times. When Chamberlain joined the Lakers, the team had come off of an NBA Finals appearance against the Celtics. The team nearly took down Bill Russell, and the Celtics in 1969 as the team held a 3-2 advantage but eventually lost in seven games.
As for James, he has made the NBA Finals one time. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs in 2019. After winning the Finals in 2020, the team dealt with injuries and settled with losing in the first round of the playoffs. Last year was a dismal season as the Russell Westbrook trade failed, and the team won just 33 games. The Lakers missed the playoffs, making it one season that James has led the Lakers past the first round.
Advantage: Wilt Chamberlain
Finals MVP Awards
Wilt Chamberlain: 1
LeBron James: 1
Both players delivered the city a championship and were both the best player. In 1972, Chamberlain remained a force. In Game 2, he put Jerry Lucas in foul trouble to help the team win by 14 points. Game 3 featured Chamberlain scoring 26 points and 20 rebounds. In Game 4, Chamberlain played with five fouls late in the game and avoided fouling out despite playing aggressive defense. In that game, he fell on his right hand and broke it. Despite the injury, he played through Game 5 and recorded 24 points, 29 rebounds, eight assists, and eight blocked shots.
James does not have a story like this for his Finals MVP trophy. He can say that he won his fourth award with a third team, though. James had his best performance in Game 5 when he scored 40 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists in a memorable game against Jimmy Butler. The Lakers won the series in six games. James averaged 29.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 8.5 assists for the series. At 35 years and 287 days, he became the second-oldest player to win Finals MVP.
Wilt Chamberlain: 0
LeBron James: 0
Neither player ever won an MVP Award while playing with the Lakers. During the 1971-72 season, Chamberlain finished third in the voting. He averaged 14.8 points, 19.2 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. The following season he finished fourth in the voting.
LeBron James received one vote during his injury-plagued first season with the Lakers. He was second in 2020 to Giannis Antetokounmpo after averaging 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 10.2 assists per game. In the last two years, James has received one vote in the voting as well.
Wilt Chamberlain: 1 (1 All-NBA Second Team)
LeBron James: 3 (1 All-NBA First Team, 1 All-NBA Second Team, 1 All-NBA Third Team)
Chamberlain made the All-NBA Second Team during the 1971-72 season. Despite being 35 years old, Chamberlain was still a force to be reckoned with. He could still score inside, but he put more focus on rebounding and passing. The team had more lethal weapons, so he produced more for the team.
James has made the All-NBA Team in each of the last three seasons with the Lakers. His first-team selection came when he led the league in assists. He was also the MVP runner-up. The following season, he made the Second Team by averaging 25.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.2 assists. Last year, James played 56 games but averaged 30.3 points per game. Had he qualified, he would have been in consideration for the scoring title.
Advantage: LeBron James
Wilt Chamberlain: 4
LeBron James: 4
Chamberlain has technically played in more seasons than James. He missed the All-Star Game in 1970. Chamberlain qualified for the All-Star Game in his other seasons in LA. It’s an incredible achievement, given that he was in his mid-30s. Players were not as durable as they were in today’s league, except for a few exceptions. Chamberlain was still a force rebounding and flirted, averaging 20.0 per game.
As for James, he has made the All-Star Game every season from 2005 to 2022. Assuming that James can stay healthy, he should make a bid for making it an NBA-record 19 consecutive times. James has always been an All-Star candidate when he is healthy. His Lakers stats back up that he deserves to be there. For now, this results in a tie, but James could hold this advantage after this season.
Wilt Chamberlain: 2 (2 All-Defensive Second Team)
LeBron James: 0
When Chamberlain played his final seasons with the Lakers, he was an instrumental piece in the team winning a championship. Instead of focusing on scoring 50 points a night, he rebounded, passed, and played defense. Granted, the All-Defensive Award came out later in his career, but he still took advantage of winning it in his mid-30s because he changed the way he played the game.
As for James, he has not made the All-Defensive Team since 2013. James should be noted that he can guard every position. At one point last season, he was playing center and guarding the opposing team’s big man. Because James has such a full plate of other responsibilities, being a top-10 defender is not something that he likely stresses about.
Advantage: Wilt Chamberlain
Wilt Chamberlain: 63.6
LeBron James: 30.2
When Chamberlain played for the 76ers, he was one of the top-rated players in the league. He led the league in winning shares three times. That included his final year with the team before joining the Lakers. Chamberlain never led the league in winning shares in Los Angeles. In four seasons, Chamberlain’s win shares total doubles that of James. In his final season in the league, he finished with 18.2 win shares.
James led the league in win shares five consecutive seasons with the Cavaliers and Heat. However, that has since cooled off. James has never finished with double-digit win shares while wearing a Lakers uniform. His best was 9.8 from the 2019-20 season. In four seasons with the Heat, James owned 65.3 win shares.
Advantage: Wilt Chamberlain
Player Efficiency Rating
Wilt Chamberlain: 20.2
LeBron James: 25.5
When we are talking about efficiency, James has proven through the years that he is just that. First, let’s talk about Chamberlain, who was also equally efficient. Chamberlain led the league in PER eight times, including the season before he joined the Lakers. For three seasons, that number ranked right around 20.0. In his last two seasons, he just missed it by finishing with 18.5 and 19.1
James led the league in PER six times between the Cavaliers and Heat. With the Lakers, he owns a PER under 25.0 just one time. Given that James is used nearly one-third of the time on offense and is this efficient should speak volumes. Had he not gotten hurt and missed time last year, he would have likely contended for the scoring title. At 37 years old, it is simply incredible.
Advantage: LeBron James
Wilt Chamberlain vs. LeBron James 3-2
The list of retired Lakers numbers includes Kobe Bryant, Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, James Worthy, Jerry West, and Jamaal Wilkes. What all of these players have in common is that they were a part of championship-winning teams. While James owns just one title with the Lakers, something must be said about what James has done to get to this point.
Let’s take a look at the stats first. Chamberlain averaged 17.7 PPG, 19.2 RPG, and 4.3 APG with the Lakers. Chamberlain was the league’s top rebounder four times but his scoring took a hit when he began to play more of a facilitator’s role to help the overall offense succeed. Chamberlain’s best passing years came when he played with the Lakers as well. Chamberlain once averaged 50.4 points per game when he was younger. With the Lakers, they didn’t need him to score 50 points a game because there was talent around him.
With the Lakers, James averaged 27.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 8.2 APG, 1.2 SPG, and 0.7 BPG When the Lakers won the NBA championship, James led the league in assists per game. James has helped the NBA evolve in positionless basketball. He can play point guard. He can play center and lockdown opposing defenders. In the end, James is flirting with averaging a triple-double in a Lakers uniform.
James owns similar stat lines through regular and advanced stats to prove that they had compatible resumes while playing with the Lakers. Chamberlain owns more appearances in the Finals, but the two have the same amount of titles. James won his title during a season that was equivalent to Chamberlain leaving the league for good. On top of that, James won a Finals MVP Award, something Chamberlain also did when he won with the Lakers.
In the end, LeBron’s stat line could be debated but his line with the Lakers is better than Chamberlain’s. James was also more efficient and owns just as many titles. Something also needs to be said about how that was won during a pandemic, playing in a bubble away from families, and through the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. When looking at the career of Lakers legends, LeBron will always be considered one of the greatest. The Lakers were not a good team before he showed up and the team won a title in his second season. In the end, James owns numerous ties with Chamberlain, who has his jersey retired. When James is ultimately done, he should join the elite company as well.