When it comes to NBA Tuesday, it is important now—in our 12th week of the series—to look at where we are in NBA history itself. We are now in an era where Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson were all playing against each other in a tiny, 8-team league. Think about that for a moment.
All the talent, so few teams, so many constant battles in the schedule. What a world it must have been to watch … anyway, read on for the 1961 season!
1961 MVP: Bill Russell (original), Wilt Chamberlain (revised)
Only three teams finished over .500 in the NBA: the Boston Celtics (57-22), the St. Louis Hawks (51-28), and the Philadelphia Warriors (46-33). Now, six teams made the postseason, meaning the Syracuse Nationals (38-41), the Los Angeles Lakers (36-43), and the Detroit Pistons (34-45) all “contended” with sub-.500 records.
The Cincinnati Royals (33-46) missed the playoffs by one game, while the New York Knicks never had a shot (21-58). This means that almost every top player is going to be a legitimate MVP candidate.
What helps every player not named Russell is that the MVP winner at the time didn’t even finish in the Top 10 for Player Efficiency Rating, while managing just a fifth-place finish in Win Shares. There’s no way that is an MVP performance, folks, as great as Russell was game in, game out.
In fact, the same four players finished atop the NBA in both WS and PER, freezing Russell out of the discussion: Philadelphia center Chamberlain (1st in WS, 2nd in PER), St. Louis power forward Bob Pettit (2nd, 4th), Lakers small forward Elgin Baylor (3rd, 1st), and the Royals rookie point guard Robertson (4th, 3rd). On the surface, the Stilt looks like the MVP again, but let’s double check to be sure.
Chamberlain led the league in scoring (38.4 points per game), rebounding (27.2 boards per game), field-goal percentage (.509), and minutes played (47.8 per game). That’s a pretty dominant stat sheet, and Baylor cannot match it, as he didn’t finish the season as a leader in any category—neither did Pettit, although Robertson outpaced all others by notching 9.7 assists per game.
It’s next to impossible to understand why Russell was voted the MVP here, unless everyone already started to take Chamberlain for granted and undervalued the team effort in Boston that helped Russell win so much. The statistical dominance by Chamberlain is unreal, in fact, and his team was good enough to make the postseason.