Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rebounding: Wilt v. Rodman

With all due respect to Bill Russell, Moses Malone, or anybody else, I've always considered Wilt Chamberlain and Dennis Rodman the two greatest rebounders in NBA history. Who is the best?

Wilt has superior numbers (he edges Russell for the career rebounds per game record, he's got the three best and six of the best seven rebounding per game seasons, and he has the record with 55 rebounds in a single game, which he achieved against Russell), but then, he played in a different era: all statistics from the 1960s are inflated due to rule differences, style of play, etc. According to Wikipedia, Rodman's '95 "rebound rate" was the best of all-time, but rebound rate data doesn't go back to Wilt's prime. It is hard, then, to compare how different eras reflect the different numbers for Wilt and Rodman.

Wilt did lead the NBA in rebounds per game a record 11 times, while Rodman is second with 7 rebounding titles. Wilt carried his dominance on longer, which is worth something.

Wilt faced competition as the greatest rebounder in the league from Bill Russell--Russell led the league in rebounds per game during two of Wilt's years, and was often a close second. Nobody was really close to Rodman: In his prime, Rodman was far superior at rebounding to the next best in the league. But let's not just hold it against Wilt that he played in the same era as Russell. Let's look at each year that Wilt and Rodman won rebounding titles, and compare the % over the #2 and #5 rebounder each year. Then we will see who dominated his particular era more.

Wilt's rebounding titles
1960: 12.5% over #2, 90% over #5
Wilt: 27 rpg
#2 (Bill Russell): 24 rpg
#5 (Willy Nauls)" 14.2 rpg

1961: 13.8% over #2, 88.8% over #5
Wilt: 27.2
#2 (Bill Russell): 23.9
#5 (Bailey Howell): 14.4

1962: 8.8% over #2, 74.8% over #5
Wilt: 25.7
#2 (Bill Russell): 23.6
#5 (Red Kerr): 14.7

1963: 2.9% over #2, 69.9% over #5
Wilt: 24.3
#2 (Bill Russell): 23.6
#5 (Elgin Baylor): 14.3

1966: 7.9% over #2, 56.7% over #5
Wilt: 24.6
#2 (Bill Russell): 22.8
#5 (Walt Bellamy): 15.7

1967: 15.2% over #2, 65.7% over #5
Wilt: 24.2
#2 (Bill Russell): 21.0
#5 (Willis Reed): 14.6

1968: 25.3% over #2, 73.7% over #5
Wilt: 23.8
#2 (Jerry Lucas): 19.0
#5 (Ray Scott): 13.7

1969: 7.1% over #2, 15.9% over #5
Wilt: 21.1
#2 (Nate Thurmond): 19.7
#5 (Wes Unseld): 18.2

1971: 7.7% over #2, 15.2% over #5
Wilt: 18.2
#2 (Wes Unseld): 16.9
#5 (Jerry Lucas): 15.8

1972: 9% over #2, 26.3 over #5
Wilt: 19.2
#2 (Wes Unseld): 17.6
#5 (Dave Cowens): 15.2

1973: 8.8% over #2, 17% over #5
Wilt: 18.6
#2 (Nate Thurmond): 17.1
#5 (Wes Unseld): 15.9

Rodman's Rebounding Titles
1992: 20.6% over #2, 50.4% over #5
Worm: 18.7
#2 (Kevin Willis): 15.5
#5 (Hakeem Olajuwon): 12.1

1993: 31.7% over #2, 41.9% over #5
Worm: 18.3
#2 (Shaquille O'Neal): 13.9
#5 (Kevin Willis): 12.9

1994: 31% over #2, 45.4% over #5
Worm: 17.3
#2 (Shaquille O'Neal): 13.2
#5 (Olden Polynice): 11.9

1995: 34.4% over #2, 54.1% over #5
Worm: 16.8
#2 (Dikembe Mutombo): 12.5
#5 (Tyrone Hill): 10.9

1996: 22.1% over #2, 30.7% over #5
Worm: 14.9
#2 (David Robinson): 12.2
#5 (Shawn Kemp): 11.4

1997: 38.9% over #2, 50.5% over #5
Worm: 16.1
#2 (Dikembe Mutombo): 11.6
#5 (Patrick Ewing): 10.7

1998: 10.3% over #2, 41.5% over #5
Worm: 15.0
#2 (Jayson Williams): 13.6
#5 (David Robinson): 10.6

What do we see? At his best, Wilt Chamberlain was 25.3% better than the next best rebounder in the league. At Rodman's best, he was 38.9% better than the next best rebounder. In fact, Rodman had four seasons in which he was at least 31% better than the next best rebounder.

Again, though, can we hold it against Wilt that he played with Russell during his prime? That's why I somewhat arbitrarily decided to compare each with the 5th best rebounder in the league. Forget the next best--how do Wilt and Rodman compare to rebounders a bit further behind?

At his best, Will was a stunning 90% better than the fifth best rebounder. In another season he was 88.8% better. He also has two other seasons at 70% better than the fifth best rebounder, two other seasons over 60% better than the fifth best rebounder, and another season at over 50% better than the fifth best. There were two seasons in which three players averaged better than 20 rebounds per game ('61 and '66), but usually Wilt and Russell were far above everybody else. Meanwhile, the best Rodman ever did over the fifth best rebounder in the league was 54%.

I always thought Rodman was more superior to his contemporaries than Wilt was to his contemporaries. But when you look beyond Bill Russell's stunning numbers, Wilt was much, much better than everybody else in his era. Rodman had no #2 to compete with him at all; however, beyond the #2, Rodman was never so superior above the rest of the league as Wilt was.

I'm convinced: Wilt Chamberlain is the best rebounder ever to play basketball. Dennis Rodman is the second most dominant rebounder, but looking at the numbers, I'm not even sure I'm comfortable saying he's better than Russell. Wilt and Russell are far above everybody else in career rebounds per game (Wilt at 22.89 and Russell at 22.45), and together they have the best 19 rebounding seasons ever. We may have to accept the fact that the best and second best rebounders ever happened to play against each other, and the third best rebounder came along later.

(I'm no statistician or mathemetician: I'm sure brighter mathematical minds than mine can pick apart this "study." I'm not trying to give a statistically comprehensive conclusion; I'm merely looking at particular numbers and presenting them as circumstantial).


  1. Do you think the overall size of the league, and size of the players being compared, deserves mention when considering best rebounder?

    Would scoring records and assists records reflect the same wide gap between 1 & 5 in the '60's and 1 & 5 in the '90's?

  2. Anonymous8:48 PM

    Phil got it right... there's no accurate way to do such a comparison by comparing percentage differences. If you compare Worm/Wilt to the second place rebounder, you penalize Wilt for playing with Russell. But if you compare them to the #5 guy, you penalize Rodman even more for the size of his league.

    Let's say that only starting centers and power forwards are top 5 rebounders, which is more or less historically accurate. For most of Wilt's career, there were 8 to 14 teams in the league, meaning 15 to 27 realistic competitors for the rebounding title. So comparing Wilt to the #5 guy means comparing him to someone in the 69th to 83rd percentiles in the league.

    Meanwhile, Rodman competed in a league with 27 to 29 teams, meaning 53 to 57 realistic competitors. Thus, the 5th best rebounder in Rodman's day was still in the 91st percentile in the league. That's a sizable difference that explains a lot of why Wilt's "#5 dominance" is so impressive.

    I don't think there is any foolproof, non-subjective way to compare the two, so let the debate continue!

  3. You could use the expanded league against Rodman. When Wilt came into the league, I believe there 8 teams in the league; 10 times a year Wilt had to go head-to-head with Russell. The great rebounders were more concentrated, meaning every night the competition was, theoretically, more fierce. When Rodman dominated, any supremely talented rebounders were spread out, and a lot of mediocre centers and fowards were leading their teams in rebounding by default. Rodman didn't have to face the #2 rebounder in the league 10 times a year; at most, he had to face him 4 times. That makes a difference.

  4. That's if the pool of talent the teams draw from is equal.

    Given the superior, modern athlete, and the global pool of talent in the league, how many starters from the '60's would even make a team in the '90's?

  5. Anonymous6:14 PM

    Phil, you're right that the pool of talent is deeper in today's NBA. To take another example, when Wilt scored 100 against the Knicks in 1962, the Knicks' starting CENTER was 6'5". Wilt had a huge advantage in size and athletic ability against his competition, as would many forwards and centers today.

    Even if Wilt and Russell balanced each other out in rebounding ability, the mediocre teams Wilt played would more than make up for any lack in his numbers versus the C's.

    PV, I love your work - I first read your stuff on the FO threads. Keep it up!

  6. Anonymous5:04 AM

    I say the talent pool coming from the NCAA would be around equal regardless of era. And if the 60's players receive the same cumulative basketball knowledge and benefits that modern players have today like weight training and modern nutrition, i say that they would be on par with today's athletes. I remember reading somewhere that Red Auerbach severely limits the water intake of his Celtic players because he believes its detrimental to his player's performance . . . and the man runs a fast breaking basketball team! Jesus, if he only knew!

    Guys like Chamberlain and Russell are said to have 48inch vert leaps and Russell, despite of his height, has in addition a 7'4 arm span; these are the type of physical characteristics that are the envy of any rebounder.

  7. Anonymous1:42 PM

    How can you classify Rodman as being in the top 5 rebounder in NBA history. Rodman could not score so his only job was to rebound and defend. If Wilt, Russell, Elvin Hayes, Moses only job was to rebound and defend their rebounding average would be much greater. These players had to score, rebound, defend and block shots and they are in the top 10 in NBA history in rebounding. Rodman is not in the same class as these players.

  8. @ anonymous

    Dennis chose not to score. He was a fundamentaly sound player. Maybe not as Wilt or Russel, but we'll never know because they never got to face eachother. I guess we'll have to wait for the invention of the time machine. My brain says Wilt and Russel (and Hayes and Moses Malone and Thurmond and Bob Petit) but my gut says Rodman. In my heart of hearts I really can imagine the Rodman of the Pistons/Spurs/Bulls era scrapping it out with the best of them there in the 50s and 60s, with those stupidly short shorts...

    1. Rodamn wouldn't have been able to even get close to the glass against any of the guys you mentioned, and one you didn't; Bill Walton

  9. Anonymous1:21 PM

    Rodman is much better, not even close:


  10. Rodman wouldn't have even been allowed in tha paint with the Big Dipper in the game; Let us not forget, the NBA didn't even COUNT blocked shots or offensive rebounds until after Wilt had retired. Not even close....

  11. wow I think that your comparison is a little ambitious, I, for example, could not compare Wilt Chamberlain and Dennis Rodman ever!! they are two great and basketball stars

  12. Anonymous2:46 PM

    Trb% wasn't a stat before 70-71 season

  13. Anonymous10:28 PM

    Stats of the 60s inflated? Seriously? When Wilt entered the NBA everybody cried "NO FAIR" so the NBA responded with rules designed to stop Wilt. They did not succeed. The only people I know who take Rodman over Wilt are people who never saw Wilt. Wilt was huge, had cat quick moves and could score at will. Nobody could stop Wilt, NOBODY! The game when Rodman and Jordan arrived to play in was one that was saved by eliminating all the rules designed to stop Wilt and making what was traveling in Wilts day legal. This is why they call big men great ball handlers in todays game. Under the old rules these guys would not fly. Another thing to make my case for Wilt is that teams were actively recruiting him when he was 50 years old. Would any NBA team try to sign Rodman or Jordan at 50 years of age? No way. They are too beat up. Even with the diluted talent of the huge NBA of today do they want these old stars. One more thing to make a point about Wilt on the boards, he never fouled out of a game. Don't beleive me? Look it up. Rodman anf Jordan would have been great players in any era but don't disrespect the old timers. They kicked ass.