We all know the names of the best players from the 1960s, giants of the game who broke trails for the rest of the league. From Bob Cousy, the original fastbreak point guard to Elgin Baylor, the prototype for the slashing wing, the game we know took form under their guidance. Film is sparse, and those of us too young to have listened to Johnny Most rely heavily on the stories of people who were there to provide profiles of who these players were on the court.
Statistical reference is useful but difficult to interpret. The game was played at a breakneck pace, and per game stats were very high while shooting percentages were woefully low. To that end I’ve undertaken a brutal (for me) endeavor to modernize the box score stats of the very best players from 1960-69 by factoring pace, effective field goal percentage differential, and rebound rate.
Please examine this modernized stat sheet for the 6 absolute statistical titans of their day:
Wilt Chamberlain – Wilt suffered the most extreme drop off because in addition to the pace adjustment, I had to adjust his minutes from over 46 per game to a more realistic (in modern terms) 40 per game. Nevertheless, his stats are still phenomenal. His 2003-12 paced stats come to 27 Pts on 58.8% shooting, 12 Rbds, and 4 Blks far better than any actual center playing today.
Bill Russell – Russell also had a minute correction to accompany his pace reduction. Overall he fell to 12 Pts on 48.8% shooting, 12 Rbds, 2 Stls, and 4 Blks. DPoY numbers but probably not on the MVP list. Obviously stats can’t capture all the intangibles that an 11 time champion who never lost a game 7 brings to the table, so we’ll just let this one go.
Oscar Robertson – Big O was the biggest surprise for me in this exercise. Russell came out a dominant defensive big man. Wilt is right on par with a young Shaquille. The pace adjustment brought Oscar’s rebounds and assists down pretty harshly, and he transformed from a point guard to a scoring wing with a great all-around game. His closest comparison turned out to be high usage, high assist rate wing Dwyane Wade.
Elgin Baylor – Elgin was another that surprised me. The volume of available rebounds in the ’60s was dramatically higher than it is today. Elgin’s actual rebounds were on par with Charles Barkley, and that’s who I expected to use as the primary comparison. After the pace adjustment, Baylor’s best comparisons were actually Dominique Wilkins and Dr. J. Not necessarily worse but different than Charles.
Bob Pettit – I actually called the comparison on Pettit before I even looked. Part of the reason was that Pettit’s age range was shorter than the others, and I knew who I would have to work with in the 27-32 years old range. Patrick Ewing is the guy. A moderately efficient high scoring big man who didn’t pass much and rebounded well but not at an absolutely elite Russell / Wilt level. Defensively I went with the more mobile but less block-happy Kevin McHale.
Jerry West – Here’s another guard whose rebounds and assists were nerfed pretty badly in the era conversion. Since this pre-dates the ’70s when West became the primary distributor for his team, that brought the assists down to pure shooting guard levels. Because his adjusted effective shooting percentage is so high, Jerry’s best comparables are three point specialist guards. Ray Allen in particular matches pretty well at the same ages. Because of West’s reputation as a great defender, I minute adjusted Manu Ginobili, whose defensive stat rate playing on the Spurs are tremendous.
I was able to calculate adjusted assists, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, total rebounds, and modernized effective field goal percentage using the available box score data. Defensive stats, offensive rebounds, and turnovers I calculated based on the rates of similar players from more modern times (I used Shaq’s offensive rebounds and turnovers and David Robinson’s blocks and steals rates in estimating Wilt’s numbers).
I could not fabricate three point field goals made and attempted, three point shooting percentage, or adjusted field goal percentage. There’s just not any data to go on. I could have estimated based on similar players from today, but unlike blocks and steals which we can guess from size / athleticism / reputation, we just don’t know how a player like West or Oscar would adjust his game to factor in the three point shot. Players did in fact steal the ball and block shots. They did not shoot three pointers strategically. The additional benefit did not yet exist.
As always, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
If people enjoy these era adjusted figures and comparisons please let me know, and I’ll work on the top 6 players from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Or let me know who you’d like to see updated, and I’ll do a group of requested players for our 2.5 readers.
For a more comprehensive approach to era adjustment that accounts better for league assist and rebound rates, check out this great rantland post.