Like most basketball fans, I’m an admirer of Wilt Chamberlain. He was a dominant figure — no question one of the all-time greats. When I get around to posting my “Rushmore” lists, he’ll make several of them. For those who don’t know, today is the 50th anniversary of the day Wilt scored 100 points in an NBA game — highest individual scoring game ever.
This morning, in inimitable ESPN full-hype style, Mike & Mike celebrated Wilt’s achievement by wondering if it’s the greatest individual performance in sports history. As is normally the case when discussing basketball, the radio conversation was long on cliches and meaningless hype, and short on meaningful analysis. Not a single person mentioned “pace,” for example.
I was left wondering not whether Wilt’s 100 points was the greatest individual performance in sports history, but whether it was even the single greatest scoring performance in NBA history.
So, I’ve dusted of my era translator and taken a look. What I’ve done is take the top scoring games since the 1985-86 season (which is when Basketball Reference’s box score database begins) and translated those games to Wilt’s phenomenal game.
In that 100-point game, Wilt shot 36-63 from the floor and 28-32 from the free throw line. His 100 points accounted for 59% of his team’s 169 points that game.
Compare with Kobe’s 81-point game against Toronto 1/22/06. Kobe shot 28-46 from the floor, 18-20 from the line and accounted for a stunning 66% of the Lakers 122 points. Kobe’s 81 points translated to the game where Wilt scored 100 — 112 points.
Here’s a list of the NBA’s top scoring games since 85-86, resorted by translated points to Wilt’s 100-point game.
What we see is an illustration of how much the game has changed. NBA teams shoot far less frequently in today’s game than they did in Wilt’s. This simple fact reduces opportunities for players to compile the gargantuan numbers Wilt (and other players of that era) posted.
However, viewed through the lens of a player’s “share” of his team’s production, we see similarities between players today and players of yesteryore. Lebron James is like Oscar Robertson. Maybe Shaq is like Wilt. Maybe Dwight Howard is like Bill Russell. This doesn’t diminish the mythical players that came before — it puts them in a context that’s familiar and gives insight into what we’re seeing today.
So, back to Mike & Mike for a second, Wilt’s 100-point game was a great performance, but arguably not the greatest scoring performance in league history. These translations suggest Kobe’s 81-point night might have been the best ever scoring game, followed by David Robinson’s 71, then a tie between Wilt’s 100 and Jordan’s 69.
Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of Wilt’s great game. But let’s keep it in proper context and let’s do it with perspective.