NBA Era Translations

Wilt’s 100-point Game, Perspective Please

Wilt scored 100 points, but Kobe's 81 might have been the more impressive feat.

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.

Era Translations: Oscar Robertson and Lebron James

When people try to compare players across eras in the NBA, they inevitably run up against the reality that the game has changed in fundamental ways. At the most basic level, teams shoot a lot less — but at a better percentage than they did in the 1960s.

In 1961-62, Wilt Chamberlain famously averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds for an entire season, but in a league that averaged 8619 field goal attempts per team. Last season, the league averaged 6660 FGA per team — about 23% fewer shot attempts. In 61-62, the league shot 42.9% from the floor. In 10-11, the league shot 45.9%.

That means an extra 600+ missed shots available for rebound in Wilt’s era. Another 600+ assist opportunities (although assists were awarded less liberally back then).

So, do we just give up? Do we trot out the old, “You just can’t compare eras…” trope?

No.

Definitely no. 

Positively no.

Decidedly no.

Nuh-uh.

Inspired by a question from my son, I dusted off my era translator spreadsheet and took a look at Oscar Robertson and Lebron James. My method is simple (at least I think so). It looks at a player’s share of his own team’s production and then applies that share to a hypothetical team’s production — in a different era. I swear it’s simpler than it sounds.

Let’s take Oscar Robertson’s monster 1961-62 season. This is the year the Big O averaged a triple-double for the year — 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. Another way of looking at those numbers is to say that Robertson scored 25% of his team’s points, grabbed 17% of his team’s rebounds, and dealt 42% of his team’s assists.

Apply those percentages to the average team in the 2011-12 NBA, and we get per game averages of 24.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists. Not a triple-double, but still a monster player — a Lebron James-esque figure in today’s NBA.

So, what happens if we go the other direction and translate Lebron’s stats to Oscar Robertson’s team in 1961-62?

This year for Miami, Lebron has scored 26% of the points, grabbed 18% of the rebounds, and delivered 31% of the assists. Translation: 32.7 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists in Oscar’s era.

And there you have it — players compared across eras. Not by comparing skills or imagining what Lebron would be like if he was transported via time machine back to 1961, or what Robertson would be like if he’d been born in 1984 like Lebron. Instead, look at each player’s relative contributions to his own team and compare their relative dominance over the players of each player’s own era. Those impacts can be compared.

And in that comparison we can see that Lebron has an Oscar-like impact on today’s game. Kinda cool if you ask me.