This has been an age old debate since the 1960s. Honestly it’s one I tend to go back and forth on – just like with Oscar Robertson vs Jerry West, the other big debate of the era.
The short story is that Wilt was the more talented player, obviously the better offensive player and the better regular season player. Russell was the more clutch player, the better team player and a smarter defender (Wilt was a great defender too but Russell had better defensive IQ), which led to Russell winning more. Kareem had the best of both though – he had the offensive talent AND he was a great team player who helped his teams win a lot, so I would put Kareem ahead of both.
While I used to have Wilt as one of my GOATs, we actually have a lot of evidence that Russell was actually in fact, the better player.
First of all like I said, Russell was the smarter player and had better basketball IQ. For example, when Russell blocked a shot he would often use it to start a fast break and keep the ball in bounds. When Wilt blocked it, he swatted it out of the arena much like Dwight Howard would and then it would have to be inbounded in play, which increases the chance of a turnover.
In addition to this, while both were great passers for their position, Wilt, just like with his scoring and rebounding, tended to chase the numbers too much. When he was on his way to achieve the assist title (the only center to do so), he would sometimes pad his assists out by purposely passing the ball to a teammate even when he had an open shot at the basket. Russell on the other hand, would bring the ball up the court and run the offense as their main playmaker after Cousy retired. The Celtics didn’t have a star PG after Cousy and while KC Jones was their PG on paper, Russell was the one who actually did a lot of playmaking on the team.
When it comes to scoring, yes Wilt was the better scorer and had more offensive talent. That cannot be denied. However Russell never had to work on that aspect of the game very much because he trusted his teammates to do that job. Russell knew his role was the anchor the defense and be the playmaker on offense sometimes. However Russell could score if the team needed him to.
For example in a pivotal Game 7 in 1962 vs the Lakers, Russell puts up 30 PTS and 40 RBDs to win the championship. He could score if he had to.
When it comes to rebounding – both were all time rebounders – I will point to the fact that while Wilt has the higher regular season RPG of 23.9 RPG, Russell has the higher playoffs RPG with 24.9 RPG. That’s right, in the playoffs Russell never disappointed. In the 1959 playoffs he peaked at 27.7 RPG. Think about that.. he averaged 27 RPG through an entire championship run in the playoffs, against tougher opponents than the regular season.
And of course the clutch ability cannot be denied. Russell was 10–0 in Game 7s. When the game was on the line, Russell would show up and Wilt would.. well wilt away. Wilt had a problem in clutch situations. He would often shy away from the ball when he knew he might be fouled out. He just didn’t have the killer instinct inside him that Russell did. And many players have Wilt syndrome. Great regular season players only to underperform in the playoffs. David Robinson. Tracy McGrady. Karl Malone. James Harden. All these guys were all time great in the reg season only to choke or be outplayed in the playoffs. On the other hand we have guys that raise their game up a level in the playoffs. Lebron James. Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant. Jerry West. Rick Barry. Jimmy Butler. Rajon Rondo. These guys push their games up a level in the playoffs when it matters. Bill Russell was one of these guys. One of the most clutch players of all time, although he had Sam Jones and John Havlicek, two other very clutch players on his team as well.
So lets talk about teammates..
Yes Bill Russell did have an all time great coach in Red Auerbach and had Hall of Famer teammates like Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, Bailey Howell. Yes all those guys were very good.
But then.. Wilt also had nice supporting casts as well. He had Hall of Fame coach Alex Hannum and Bill Sharman, he had Hall of Famer teammates Paul Arizin, Guy Rodgers, Tom Gola early in his career with the Philly Warriors, then he had Nate Thurmond on the San Francisco Warriors, then he had Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham on the 76ers, then he had Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich on the LA Lakers.
So.. I don’t buy the whole ‘Russell had better teammates/coach than Wilt’ thing.. Wilt had HoF coaches and teammates too. More than Russell, actually.
So for these reasons, I actually believe that Bill Russell was overall the better player because he simply cared more about winning and made his teammates better than Wilt did, hence why his all star cast seems better than Wilt’s all star cast. But let’s be honest, Jerry West is better than John Havlicek. Hal Greer is better than Sam Jones. Elgin Baylor and Billy Cunningham are better than Tom Heinsohn and Bailey Howell. Chet Walker is better than Satch Sanders. Gail Goodrich is better than KC Jones. Paul Arizin has a slight edge over Bill Sharman. and ok Cousy, has the edge over Rodgers. But still.. on paper, Wilt had the better teammates. and yet still only had 2 rings to Russell’s 11.