A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Searching for Bill Russell ~ Starring Anthony Davis (2012)

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That didn't really happen did it?

The more I learn about basketball’s history, the more impressed with Bill Russell I am. Like many, I at one point found it hard to believe that Russell could truly be a more valuable player than Wilt Chamberlain. Now, the primary reason for that was that I couldn’t imagine Russell’s more one way game matching the two way dominance of Chamberlain, and if you know me, you know that since then I’ve written fairly extensively on just how flawed Chamberlain’s offense was. There was also the matter though of me just having a false ceiling in my head for just how dominant a team can get on one side of the ball.

If you go by the estimates of offensive and defensive team efficiency given by basketball-reference.com, the curve of extremely good results seems very well behaved. Here are the best sides that side lists based on percentage edge over median:


You can see the teams here are all in the same ballpark. You might also notice that Steve Nash is on 3 of the top 5 offenses, which is quite remarkable. Most importantly though, you might notice how modern all these teams are. Nothing from earlier than 1993. Remarkable, no? Well, it is remarkable, but there is a catch: basketball-reference only provides estimates from 1974 on. What happened before that?

Bill Russell did 6 impossible things before breakfast

Well, basketball-reference’s Neil Paine provides some analysis along these lines, but he’s clearly hesitant to lend too much of his credibility to these estimates for understandable reasons: The lack of statistics from the data makes the margin of error significantly greater than in more recent years. Still, I’d say it’s worth knowing what our best estimate is, in part because Paine’s work indicates Russell’s Celtics look like unlike anything else we see in later eras. Enter ElGee over at Back Picks has provided that going back to the start of the shot clock era in the 1950s. So what does it look like if you use ElGee’s estimates with the same median-based metric to include those early years?

Well, the list of best offenses is basically unchanged. The best pre-74 offense is the ’70-71 Milwaukee Bucks led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson with a rating of  +7.05% which would put them at 10th all time. The defensive list looks very much different though.





As you can see, the Russell Celtics completely blow the door off the ceiling of what I had thought possible. Their peak is a good good 50% more extreme than what any other offense or defense has ever managed. They have the top 4 defensive performances in history. They have 6 of the top 10 defensive seasons ever, and 9 of the top 20.

No wonder why they won 11 titles in 13 years, a dynasty far greater than really anything else in major American sport history. They broke the laws of basketball, and of course the spearhead of this was Russell, who re-shaped the game in a manner reminiscent to Babe Ruth in baseball. You weren’t supposed to be able to play defense like Russell did. Leaving your feet like he did? Defensive suicide. Sure we want to block shots, but you can’t leave yourself and your team open to countermoves like that. You’re a flying foul waiting to happen!

Russell proved them wrong, but from a historical analysis that begs the question: Was Russell just a spearhead paving the way for future generations to build on what he did? or Was there something unique about him that went beyond that? I’m here to tell you it did indeed go beyond that. People of today have a tendency to look at Russell and question whether he would be too small to be truly successful today. They see the goliaths of the NBA, and think that they’ve seen the next step in evolution beyond Russell.

They are wrong

Size certainly has its benefits, but like all things, it comes with trade offs. For instance: Agility.

When people compare the defense of Russell to his rival Chamberlain, there are some who will go so far as to insist they were roughly equals, and note Chamberlain’s huge anecdotal shotblocking. More common, you’ll find people picking Russell over Chamberlain on defense, but doing so by saying something along the lines of “Russell wanted it more”, or “Russell maximized his abilities”. Those mental edges for Russell do have some truth to them, but there is also a clear physical difference between the two.

As stunningly agile as he was for his size, Chamberlain still could not compare with Russell in this regard. He had various clear advantages to Russell (strength, and likely fine motor skills come to mind), but the agility gap meant that there were simply things Russell could do than Chamberlain couldn’t. From Bill Russell: A Biography:

Bill understood that Wilt’s game was more vertical, that is, from the floor to the basket. Wilt’s game was one of strength and power…Bill’s game was built on finesse and speed, what he called a horizontal game, as he moved back and forth across the court blocking shots, running the floor, and playing team defense.

Russell’s quickness, along with instincts and superb leaping ability, meant that Russell could cast a larger shadow on the defensive side of the court. He could run out to challenge perimeter shooting, and recover quickly enough that he wouldn’t let his team get burned. That ability to have more global impact, and his sense to use it wisely, made him a more valuable defensive player than Chamberlain could ever be.

Of course we should note the trade off. Aside from the obvious edge Chamberlain had on offense, if you faced a team that had a truly exception giant as its offensive focus, then there might be other defenders better suited to playing defense against that team than Russell. Russell was not perfect, and perfection is not truly attainable. However, on the whole Russell’s global impact is the most desirable ability for a defender. (I’ll note here for the gallery to ponder how rare it would be to have a giant along those lines as even with Chamberlain, Russell did superb as a defender. Other than Shaquille O’Neal, who else really fits this bill?)

Now some may ask: If Russell’s build really is ideal, shouldn’t we see more modern examples of it? Glad you asked.

There were never any good old days. They are today, they are tomorrow. 

It’s a stupid thing we say. Cursing tomorrow with sorrow. ~ Gogol Bordello

Exhibit A: Hakeem Olajuwon. Similar height and weight to Russell, and also someone who had superb all court impact. Since they began officially recording blocks and steals,  no one has racked up both like Olajuwon. His build worked more than fine in the ’90s.

Exhibit B: Kevin Garnett. I’ve written about Garnett before. Also of a similar lithe build to Russell, and when doing analysis using advanced +/- statistics, Garnett comes out as the premier defender of the ’00s. What’s fascinating about that, is that Garnett is actually not that impressive of a shotblocker. He is however a credible shotblocking threat who covers wide swaths of the half court, all while acting as the middle linebacker (read that as “quarterback of the defense” if you’re not sure what I mean by that) of his team’s consistently brilliant defense. Whereas Olajuwon could be argued to have roughly all of Russell’s physical gifts on defense, Garnett’s lacking a touch but still remains an unreal defender because of his brain. And of course, very few have the kind of brain that Russell did.

All of this has left the scientist in me dying for another case study, to better go in to making my ideal defender, and it looks like we’ve found one: Anthony Davis.

The one who can be many places at once: the Kwisatz Haderach

Davis has blown me away all season on a number of levels:

  • Incredible leaping ability – both in height and in quickness.
  • Great sense of timing.
  • Huge court coverage.
  • Doesn’t fall the offensive tricks easily, which is why he fouls so little. He’s smart, and he’s patient.
  • Salient motor. He just pops right off the screen when you watch him. He plays with energy.
  • The fact that he JUST had this amazing growth spurt, and he didn’t lose his coordination.

Perhaps most amazing to me though is just the fact that he doesn’t seem to move like a big man. He feels like an athletic swingman up until the point where he gets airborne, and then you realize, that he’s gotten so high, so quickly, that he’s just going to get that ball. Either to block it, rip it down for a rebound, or for easiest of alley oops.

Watch and Learn

Now I should make clear, in case there was any confusion – I’m no master scout by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m well aware of this. I’ve had plenty of misses in the past, I’ll have plenty more in the future, and I won’t claim certainty that I won’t miss on Davis.

What I think everyone should be doing though as they watch Davis, other than just enjoying Davis, is just watching how he moves compared to other bigs, and thinking about Russell. If you watched the national championship between Kentucky and Kansas, you saw Davis have a bad game on offense, and that it really didn’t matter very much. Davis’ dominance on the defensive side of the ball was so massive – between the rebounds, the steals, the blocks, and most importantly the shots not taken – that there wasn’t a question in anyone’s mind who the most important player was.

Remember Russell’s Celtics and their off-the-charts defensive edge. That type of impact Davis had at the college level is what it was like to face Russell back in his day. And next year, we’ll have a chance to see whether Davis can do this at the pro level. It will be exciting to see for its own sake, but more profound, it may very well shed light into the greatest defenders of the past in a way we seldom get a chance to experience.

6 Responses

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  1. Great comeback post MJ!

    I’m still a bit skeptical, if only because I’m not sure if even Russell could dominate like he did without the help of the lack of a 3pt line (thus making all good shots as around the rim) and lack of modern strategies offensively. I think it’s possible Russell’s defense is in the same category as Wilt’s statistics in that it may be be a “just not possible anymore” situation

    Although Davis is a great athlete, I’d probably put him a tier below Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Russell himself judging from his high jumper, etc. exploits in that category.

    Also one thing not mentioned in your post is that Russell may have just been a once in history genius defensively. Everything I read written by him personally screams someone who’s just seeing the game analytically in a way nobody else at his time approaches, and his strategy of beating players psychologically and manipulating them towards his team’s strengths is unreal.

    The guy I’d guess Davis becomes on the defensive end is Duncan. Davis’ ability to look so smart and under control and his personality is Duncan esque. There’s a chance Duncan is as good as Russell defensively anyways, we don’t really know what would happen in the modern era. I think Davis’ defense has a chance to be special as much because of how he reads the game defensively as much as anything else he does


    April 7, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    • Thanks Julien.

      I’m with you on the change caused by the 3 point line.

      Olajuwon, Robinson, and Russell are pretty clearly the most agile big men in history, so he may indeed end up below them. I think highly enough about him though that I won’t say that’s clear cut to me at this point.

      Your point about the genius of Russell is key. And I think Garnett has that too with to some extent, plus an incredible intense charisma. I do think Davis has shown excellent basketball instinct, but I don’t know if he’ll be on that level.

      But yeah, can he lead like Duncan? Seems pretty realistic.

      Matt Johnson

      April 7, 2012 at 8:07 pm

  2. No wonder why they won 11 titles in 13 years, a dynasty far greater than really anything else in major American sport history.

    A minor point, but I strongly disagree that what the Celtics accomplished was far greater than what the Yankees accomplished from 1949-62 (9 WS and 12 Pennats in 14 years) for several reasons:

    1. MLB in the relevant era was a much larger league than the NBA. There were only 8-12 teams when Russell was running off with titles, with most of those titles occurring in 8 teams leagues. There were 8 teams in each league in MLB which makes it harder to run off titles.

    2. It was significantly harder to make the PS in MLB than in the NBA. In those years you had to finish 1st out of eight teams to play in the World Series. The Celtics under those rules would have missed the PS three times in their championship years when they only had 5 team in their conference.

    3. The NBA when Russell had their monster dynasty was still a league on the up and coming which wasn’t nearly as big in popularity as it is now. MLB was at the peak of its relative popularity, at a level similar to were the NFL is now.

    4. Baseball is a sport that has a much larger element of luck in it than basketball. As a result upsets are far more common in MLB PS than in the NBA. I think you had a post on this yourself. As such when you’re comparing dynasties between MLB in the NBA you have to consider that the element of luck will result in more upsets in which a team loses not because it played poorly but literally due to seeing eye singles. To use an example, in the 60 WS the Yanks lost to the Pirates they outscored Pittsburgh by 28 runs which is just a brutal blowout by run differential. That’s like losing an NBA PS when you outscore the other team by an average of 15 points per game.

    So overall when you consider the Yankees nearly match them in titles despite (i) playing in THE professional league, (ii) more teams to compete against, (iii) harder rules for making the PS, (iv) and a greater element of luck, I have a hard time saying the Celtics were greater.


    April 7, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    • Very good points sp6r.You’re right that it’s reasonable to factor in more than just literal dominance when comparing success between sports.

      Matt Johnson

      April 7, 2012 at 7:49 pm

  3. Anthony Davis is and will be great but he doesn’t have the coordination of a Olajuwon or a Robinson. His biggest positive is his great timing. It seems uncanny really. At best I see him as better than Dwight but not quite on KG/Duncan/Wallace level. Maybe I just doubt his size but even in college his size seems like an issue. Maybe his size won’t be an issue and your thought was right but it seems highly unlikely to me (he’ll probably gain weight anyway like KG did and get up to 245).


    April 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    • We’ll see. I wouldn’t really ever be so bold as to say a prospect has a better than 50% chance of being better than some of the guys you mention. There’s just too much uncertainty. Davis will have to get a bit bigger, and he’ll have to get better.

      To me though timing and coordination go hand in hand. I recognize that there’s a fine motor skill involved in the type of touch great offensive bigs have that Davis hasn’t shown yet, but he’s already shown an impressive touch on the defensive end far beyond his peers, and I’d say his explosiveness is pretty clear.

      Matt Johnson

      April 7, 2012 at 8:00 pm

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