Stray Thoughts on 1962

Last weekend, I watched the greatest PG of all time sit down for an interview with LeBron James, and Magic eventually got around to asking LBJ whether he thought he could average a triple-double for an entire season, the way Oscar Robertson did in his mythical 1961-62 campaign (30.8 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 11.4 APG). The King responded by saying something like, well, of course he’d like to do that, but it seems like a record that will never be broken, and maybe it’s not even meant to be broken. Then they moved on to talking about more important things, like how much LBJ weighs.

1962, if you recall, was not only the year Oscar averaged a triple-double, but also the season Wilt Chamberlain did all sorts of ludicrous things, like scoring 100 points in a game and averaging 50.4 per. He also averaged 26 rebounds a night; Bill Russell averaged 24. The stat-stuffing that went on that year truly boggles the mind.

One time when I was a kid, my mom bought me the Official NBA Encyclopedia, and it was sort of my first formal introduction to NBA stats. Before reading it, I had a vague idea of who the best players were, based on things like my dad’s opinions and stuff I heard during games on TV: Larry Bird = Great; Magic = Great; Michael Jordan = The greatest ever?; Chamberlain = Great; Russell = Better than Chamberlain; Charles Barkley = Loudmouth… You get the idea.

But after cracking open that book, a lot changed. I suddenly had actual numbers to back up (or in some cases, refute) what I had heard my whole life. Jordan was the all-time leading PPG scorer in NBA history, so I guessed he could have been the greatest of all time… But then I went through a brief spell where I staunchly believed Wilt had to be better than anyone else, simply by virtue of the insane stats he put up during his prime — I mean, 50.4 PPG? Are you kidding me? Jordan never averaged more than 37.1. How could he have been better than The Big Dipper?

But then Jordan went on to do some pretty epic things in the Finals, culminating in a beautiful quasi-pushoff of Bryon Russell to swish what was, at the time (and honestly should have been), his Last Shot Ever. So I could rationalize that Mike’s 6 rings somehow offset Wilt’s monstrous scoring and rebounding feats. Besides, I argued, Wilt may have been ridiculously dominant, but what would you expect from a 7’1″/275 athletic freak in a league where the average player was 6’5″ and 65% of the players were white? So I also believed that Wilt dominated competition that was far weaker than what he’d see today, and the fact that a 6’9″ center was able to (some would say greatly) reduce his effectiveness was another clue that he wouldn’t put up Jordanesque numbers (much less Wilt-esque ones) in the 90s.

But that was all conjecture, as it turns out, nothing more, nothing less. What’s fact, however, is something that never occurred to me until I discovered APBRmetrics much later. Bear with me for a moment while I explain: Okay, so you’ve all seen Wilt and Oscar’s numbers from 1962… but have you ever sat down and looked at the league averages that year? In ’62, the average team took 107.7 shots per game. By comparison, this year the average team takes 80.2 FGA/G. If we use a regression to estimate turnovers & offensive rebounds, the league pace factor for 1962 was 125.5 possessions/48 minutes, whereas this year it’s 91.7. Oscar’s Royals averaged 124.7 poss/48, while Wilt’s Warriors put up a staggering 129.7 (the highest mark in the league). On the other hand, the 2009 Cavs are averaging a mere 89.2 poss/48. It turns out that the simplest explanation for the crazy statistical feats of 1961-62 (and the early sixties in general) is just that the league was playing at a much faster tempo in those days, with more possessions affording players more opportunities to amass gaudy counting statistics.

Let’s say LeBron ’09 could switch paces (note that I didn’t say “places”, which is another argument entirely) with Oscar ’62… That means we would have to scale down the Big O’s per-game numbers by multiplying them by .715, giving Robertson a far more reasonable line of 22.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG, & 8.1 APG — which are still really good numbers, to be sure, but not as crazy as they looked at the breakneck pace of ’62. By contrast, we have to multiply LBJ’s stats by a factor of 1.4 if we want to see what they would look like if he played at a 1962-style pace. The results: 40.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG, & 10.0 APG!! As you can see, those 35.5 extra possessions per game really make a huge difference when comparing the two players’ stats.

So, no, LeBron probably will never average an Oscar-esque triple-double in today’s NBA… but it’s more a consequence of the league’s pace than any failing on his part. Just like we wouldn’t say a .400 hitter in the 1894 NL (league BA: .309) was as impressive as Ted Williams hitting .406 in the 1941 AL (league BA: .266), basketball fans should keep in mind that the league’s pace factor has gone down steadily since its inception, and with those fewer possessions come fewer chances to put up monster stat totals. This isn’t meant to denigrate Oscar and Wilt in any way, but it does mean that their eye-popping stats from back then are, in reality, not quite as impressive as they appear at first glance.

About Neil Paine

I work for I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on February 24, 2009, in History. Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.

  1. Excellent excellent stuff.

    There also seems to be a big disparity in shooting percentages and ts% between then and now. Part of that is driven by the three point shot. But players are a lot more skilled now I think. I don’t know, I was raised on stories of Bill Bradley’s amazing shooting touch. But he was only above 50% ts% once in his career. Pete Maravich was at exactly 50% ts% for his career. Which makes you realize just how good Jerry West and his 55% career number were.

    That might be an interesting thing to investigate actually, how has the the leaguewide average true shooting percentage changed over the years, especially after the three point shot.

    Also, assist rates skyrocketed after the advent of the three point shot also, whether because of generous scorekeeping or the advent of the drive and kick.

    As for Lebron, every Knick fan who knows anything about basketball statistics was watching that interview and thinking “if you want to average a triple double, there is this guy named Mike D’Antoni you should play for.”

  2. Good writeup. Is there any chance that basketball-reference will provide pace-adjusted and normalized stats sometime in the future?

  3. Josh, that will eventually happen. I think you have to be careful with how you do this, so I want to spend some time thinking about it, but hopefully it will come sooner rather than later.

  4. I’m thinking that Chris Paul would also average a triple-double if his stats were pace-adjusted the same way.

  5. Nice post. It sort of makes you appreciate what Magic did in 1981-82, almost averaging a triple double (18.6 pts, 9.6 reb, 9.5 ast) on a team that played at a pace 21 possesions per game slower than Robertson (103.1 versus 124.7).

  6. Can you provide the actual details of the regression analyses? I am wondering what varibales you used and would love to see the regression slope in graph form. I teach intro stats and this would be a great case study!

    Matt Costello

  7. Thanks for the response, Justin. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  8. If I understand the math correctly, Paul would still be very far away on the rebounding front, as he only averages 5.3 rpg. Multiply that by 1.42 (Robertson’s pace/Paul’s pace), and you still only have 7.5 rpg. He would average over 15 assists per game however.

    As for Magic, his assist and rebound totals would be absurd, but his point totals only correct to 22.5 ppg. Nice, but not quite legendary. Again, if my math is correct.

    I haven’t looked through the whole league, but no one else seems especially close. Guards don’t rebound like LeBron, forwards don’t pass like LeBron. Is there anyone still wondering who the MVP of the league is?

  9. Very interesting, but I’m not so sure you can compare the stats in linear fashion. Wouldn’t the increased pace have a fatiguing factor? Did Oscar play the same number of minutes as LeBron does? Even if so, would LeBron still perform at his current level at the increased pace? In any event, both no doubt are/were spectacular players.

  10. @9:

    You’re quite right. It’s silly to assume that this stuff can simply be extrapolated by direct scaling. I think the increased pace would definitely cause added fatigue; and that the slower pace might allow conservation of energy. You could also argue that size and athleticism have increased over the years. Would Lebron be playing against the players of 1962, or just against his current contemporaries at a 1962 pace?

  11. To the poster above, I dont think fatigue would be any sort of possible factor when talking about LBJ (this guy is in incredible shape) and thats just looking for an excuse not to give him his due. Lets be honest, weve seen what the D’antoni offense can do for a player’s numbers, can you imagine LBJ on the Knicks? He would surely average close to 40-10-10 in that type of system. Cleveland has one of the slowest offenses, very little fast break, and lbj is still contending for his second straight scoring title (with greater efficiency and a slower rate of offense than kobe). Great article.

    As a side, how can anyone still consider kobe a better player? More accomplished? sure, but not better. PPG at higher %, more boards, more assists, better off the ball and this year on the ball defender, and as proved has hit more game winners at a higher % than kobe, so the whole clutch arguement for kobe is nonsense. Lbj is not only the future he is the present. And to not give the MVP to LBJ last year when he did what one of only 3 players all time did with 30-8-7 with a horrible cast? outrageous.

  12. Great article! I’ve tried to do some similar and much simpler studies with rebounding specific numbers to see how Russell stacked up against Rodman (he didn’t unless you allow him to average his usual 45 minutes / game and keep Dennis at his usual 33 minutes / game). Would love to know how these regressions effect more recent comparisons. How much did pace help Michael in the 80s (probably not that much since Collins kept things pretty slow) or Larry or Magic?

    One thing I would stress is that stats were not necessarily kept the same way back then. By all reports stat-keepers were far more stingy at awarding assists. Also of course several rules have changed including the no hand check, 3 point shot, circle under the basket, and zone defense legalization, so it’s definitely not an apples to apples comparison, but it is very interesting.

  13. @6: Sure. The sample was every NBA team from 1974 (the first year they tracked team ORb and TO) to 2008, and the estimates were:

    For offensive rebounds-
    Intercept 0
    MP -0.037291011
    FG 0.061928475
    FGA 0.233132706
    FT -0.292867682
    FTA 0.439719097
    TRB 0.12723905
    AST 0.009423172
    PF 0.04523078
    PTS -0.119978201
    oppPts -0.003096705

    For defensive rebounds-
    Intercept 0
    MP 0.010508228
    FG 0.97245828
    FGA -0.269678258
    FT 0.103965618
    FTA 0.128301446
    TRB 0.382785458
    AST 0.005834343
    PF 0.297623133
    PTS -0.4709459
    oppPts 0.1713109

    The standard error for ORb was 78.5, and 103.9 for TO.

  14. I don’t think it fair to denigrate Wilt’s accomplishments like that. He averaged 48.5 minutes per game that season (played every minute except 8). So he was pretty much playing the whole game at a crazy speed without TV timeouts to rest (I don’t think they had them then). That makes his feats more impressive.

  15. A faster pace is LESS physically demanding; a slower pace means more contact, which is more tiring than just running up and down. Consider how we call them “grind-it-out” games.
    Just look at the inflated numbers that players on D’antoni’s teams (or Don Nelson’s) put up. I mean, is Steve Nash really a better player than say, Mark Price? LBJ’s stats would be ridiculous in a run-n’-gun system.

    But when you take Wilt out of the equation, the elite scorers of the 60’s weren’t much more prolific than the top scorers of today; the best scoring seasons of the 60’s(sans Wilt):
    35.6 ppg, Rick Barry
    34.8 ppg, Elgin Baylor
    34.0 ppg, Baylor
    31.6 ppg, Walt Bellamy
    31.4 ppg, Oscar

    Those stats aren’t any better than the best years of MJ, Kobe, AI, T-Mac and LBJ. My point is that a super-fast pace probably helps the supporting cast much more (proportionately) than it helps the star scorer; Wilt had 5 teammates averaging double-figures, including one over 20ppg, in 62. You can’t assume that LBJ’s stats would rise that much if the Cavs played at a 60’s pace.

  16. Great stuff. I completely agree with the posts above.

  17. Right. I wasn’t around in the ’60s and haven’t seen enough film of games from that time, but it makes some sense that if teams are running down and chucking up the first available shot, the scoring will likely be more balanced. A slower team in a halfcourt set seems more likely to take the time to get the ball to their best scorer. Just a theory though.

  18. @11 – I was beside myself today after I got in an argument with two CAVS FANS over the LeBron/Kobe clutchness factor. I explained that LeBron has hit more game winning shots the last 5 years, at a higher percentage, has more assists, and less turnovers, and that in the last 5 minutes or less (‘clutch’) or the last 2 minutes or less (‘superclutch’) LeBron stats were superior to Kobe’s. I reminded them of LeBron’s game 5 against the Pistons, and game 7 against the Celtics and asked them to remember Kobe’s last CLUTCH playoff game. They couldn’t remember. I asked them if they remembered when Kobe refused to shoot in the 2nd half of a game 7 or when Kobe’s team got blown out by almost 50 against Boston – they remembered both of those.

    The media created this gigantic comet of inertia for Kobe in this realm of “clutchness”. Even today, ask any national media analyst who is the best in the waning minutes and they say Kobe. Even the players say Kobe. Yet, there is ZERO EVIDENCE to support Kobe over LeBron in this regard.

  19. Neilster,
    Your regression coefficients are shown for estimated Team OReb and TO, right? They seem to work pretty well as such, on this season’s data. But you labeled the TO numbers ‘defensive rebounds’.

    Are your TO-estimate errors larger in the ’70s (when TO were more plentiful)?

    What can you guys come up with to estimate Opponent Rebounds before 1971? I tried this without distinguishing between O- and D-Reb; but maybe that’s the way to go.

    It seems that to estimate LeBron’s 1962 Reb, you’d have to estimate his Reb%. For that, you’d have to have a guess at Opp-Reb.

    Nice work, for a beginner :)

  20. These pointless articles about what ifs. Lebron will never finish a season avg a triple double. No1 ever will again because the competition is not mediocre like it was in the 60s. There were a limited amount of dominant players on teams. The other bums on the teams wouldnt even be considered for the college game now let alone the NBA. You cant compare the eras and say Bron would do this if bla bla bla. The league is filled with to much athleticism, speed, size, and strenght now. IT is impossible for any1 to avg triple double. Plus look at how many teams there were then and now. Also look at the amount of games that are played now. I think you should just enjoy the greatness that you are watching when Kobe & Lebron take the floor. Stop trying to make Lebron better when he clearly has limits to what he can do on the floor. Kobe has no limits and adds new tricks to his trait every year. Kobe is the best better than MJ and far better than Lebron. Just face it. Let Lebron prove his so-called King status and earn his credit like Kobe has done since he was a boy at age og 20 winning chips and proving he has been the best player in the NBA since 2000

  21. How would Jordan’s ’88 season where he averaged 35, 8 and 8 stack up??

  22. Fantastic Article! To me it would be interesting to see you guys break it down with the pace adjusted stats but it may step on the toes of some of the pioneers of the game in the process. The more intriguing question to me is, what are the major causes for the change in pace?

    I like to believe that because of the invention of the 3pt line in the NBA in ’79, the mid-range and pull-up game that all players had virtually mastered in the 1960’s to late 80’s eras has been sacrificed as a result. What use to appear to the average player as a good open look is now a high risk attempt for many players. It’s the mentality of all or nothing. Only dunks, layups or treys are deemed acceptable by the majority of current era players and in some cases the coaches, who are themselves scrutinized and pressured into attempting to get the most out of a unit by eliminating risk and going only for the high percentage. If the coaches don’t produce effective results in a timely fashion, they’ll be out in months… Also, we all remember when Barkley would hold the ball for 18 seconds waiting for the double team then kick it out- that offensive positioning was the beginning of the end of fast paced basketball. The Detroit Pistons and NY Knick teams in the late 80’s and 90’s respectively, also influenced a downturn in offensive production. Preparation and information have also come a long way allowing the 8 coaches and staff to fully prepare for an opponent when back in 1962, only 1 coach sat on the bench with no internet breaking down every players performance in real-time.

    Hard to say what factors have deteriorated the pace the most, but it is simple to say LeBron, with one of the most physically imposing body types that the NBA has every seen, coupled with otherworldly athleticism, and energy would have fared quite well.

    On a side note it’s hilarious to see people interject the Kobe comments. Why is it necessary to hate on LeBron to prove your love to your guy Kobe? Kobe has been a stellar NBA talent. However, his career trajectory really isn’t comparable to James’. Only Robertson, Jordan and Chamberlains have been.Also, Kobe’s in his 13th season. How many players are at their best in their 13th year? His offensive rating is 20. Gasol’s is #1. Bron’s is 7. Kobe’s defensive rating is not in the top 20. Bron is 4th. LeBron is on pace to have the highest PER EVER! Over 32 whereas MJ had a 31.4 once. Kobe is 6th on the PER list. Kobe fans-please recognize… there are at least 4 players having superior individual seasons in comparison to #24. I love Kobe myself, but please let’s be realistic. Lebron, DWade, CPaul, and DHoward are playing unbelievable basketball this year, and Tim Duncan and Brandon Roy aren’t far behind Kobe, if at all. Why can’t we just enjoy the greatness of all of these players, and respect when history is being made?

  23. Awesome article. I’d also like to see how Jordan’s stats from ’87-’93 stack up this way. Where is the data on average possessions in the league during his years?

  24. Two players who surely would average a Triple Double over certain parts of their career if you adjust for these things are Grant Hill and Jason Kidd.

    Grant Hill in ’96-’97 Adjusted by from a pace slower than LBJ would average:
    31.5 PPG
    10.7 Assists
    and 13.2 Rebounds

    Probably similar numbers for the next 2 or 3 seasons also.

  25. Interesting, but even reduced, Wilt’s numbers are still sick – something like 35 and 18.

    PS – I know its fashionable to diss Wilt, but I never heard Bill Russell called “a 6’9″ center” before – isn’t he supposed to be the best center ever? So the best center ever “limited” the “athletic freak” to 50 and 26? Who in the 90’s would have limited him from posting “jordanesque” numbers like that?

    I’m just sayin

  26. I think you’re ignoring the fact that Oscar was head and shoulders above the rest of the swingmen in his era, too, when considering those three stats. Surely, there is a lot more to correct for than pace. You’re just cherry-picking the adjustment that hurts the older players the most.

    Here’s how it works: young guys grow up hearing from their fathers that historical player X was the greatest; young guys want to tear down their fathers; they conspire to prove that no one historical was as good as the people playing today.

    These arguments tend to You just go in the opposite direction. Contrarianism, in sports as in everywhere else, is the enemy of rationality.

  27. One other thing in comparing stats over time is that how the stats are credited has changed. My dad played against Russell in college and says in those days, a rebound was credited to whomever first had possession of the ball after a shot, regardless if they went up and fought for it or if it just bounced into their hands. Also, “possession” was sort of a loose concept; tapping it back towards the basket was a rebound, even if the player wasn’t really in control of it. So rebounds were given to the guy who picked up the ball after the last miss of the quarter as well as on each volleyball tap around the basket (remember, this was a time when the game was not played above the rim). Regardless of the pace, there were simply more events called “rebounds” then there are now. The opposite holds true with the concept of assists: back in the day, an assist was only credited when the scorekeeper determined that a pass led directly to a basket, not like today, where it is apparently the last pass before the basket. Robertson wouldn’t get credit for an assist when he passed to Lucas on the block if Lucas faked his man one way, then went the opposite way. Nash gets assists when he hits Stoudamire on a break-away (even after Stoudamire takes 3 dribbles) or when he passes it to Barbosa who throws up a 3.

  28. Thanks, Freddie. And good luck with your upcoming book, “Sigmund Freud, James Naismith, and You”…

  29. I think everyone should REALLY consider Kobe scored 81. Wilt scored 100 with many many more opportunities.

  30. 81 x 1.4 = 113.4. Does that mean Kobe could have had 113 points if he had the same number of opportunities as they had in 1962?

  31. Jeez thats a crapload of points

  32. Hey if ur going to put Lebron back in the 60’s and Wilt today you left out something. Wilt would probably be an inch taller and much stronger. Also you need to shrink Lebron about 1.5 inches and maybe 60 lbs. He would have virtually no nutrition/workout regimen while Wilt would have a personal trainer, cook, strength coach…state of the art equipment..ect. Lebron would not have grown up watching MJ or patterning himself after modern players whereas Wilt would. And lastly Leborn wouldnt have been in the NBA he would be a defensive end…lol

  33. Kobe played eight years with Shaq and got three rings(look at those finals, Kobe’s playing second banana to Shaq). Does anybody here think if Lebron was playing with Dwight Howard they couldn’t get three in eight years? Anybody here think Cleveland minus Lebron is better than Los Angeles minus Kobe? Lebron has had such unreal expectations heaped on him since he was in high school. The amazing thing is he’s surpassed them (minus the rings). I think Lebron’s the best player on planet earth right now. But anybody think Kobe was better than Lebron at age 18? 19? 20? etc. No of course not.

  34. Before 1964 the lane was only 12ft wide. I suppose the extra 2 feet of post position would have inflated The Big Aristotle’s numbers.

  35. Id love to get an estimate on walt fraziers steals numbers

  36. Вопрос к автору , а вот у вас время у каждой статьи и в комментах пишется… Это какое? Московское? Заранее благодарю за ответ.

  37. You also have to take in mpg. Lebron gets 41 a game and Oscar had 42.2 career, 45-46 in his triple double years, while Magic only averaged 36.7 a game career. Magic’s efficiency would have far exceeded everyone also when you imagine he even shot better than Jordan, Lebron, Wilt, and Oscar from the field and the line (52%/85%). His assists alone would be astronomical along with Stockton’s and when you figure an assist=1 FG=2 points, there is no debate left, Magic is by far the most productive and greatest player ever after you factor in his success (Bird is mentionable too/while Kobe is not at all). Not to forget, Wilt was 4 inches taller than everyone else in the league for 11 of his 14 years. So much for the Jordan argument, it’s all NBA PR media-corporate hype because he’s the most marketable! I’m so glad there are intelligent fans out there creating websites like this. Thank you for spreading the knowledge and debunking-Sports Illustrated, ESPN, TNT, ABC/NBA, FOX Sports, etc….

  38. Fred. You fucking idiot.

  39. Тутнекоторые посетители задают такие вопросы, что охринеть можно. Не тем интересуетесь

  40. Всем привет, смотрю что тут все такие подхалимы, что не коммент , то лесть полная….

  41. Success isn’t permanent, and failure isn’t fatal.

  42. Another majorly overlooked factor is the Offensive interference violation, which did not exist in the sixties. This allowed Chamberlain that was always the tallest guy around, to gobble up offensive rebounds and extra points that would probably not be valid today.

  43. I’ve been searching for content like this for my school project I’m working on. Thanks very much.

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