While everyone’s familiar with Michael Jordan’s star status, true basketball fans know all about Bill Russell. During his time with the Boston Celtics, the big man established himself as one of basketball’s true legends; if you assess a player’s greatness by the number of championships they’ve won, it’s hard to overlook Russell’s 11 NBA championships.
Although Bill Russell could do it all, the Boston Celtics legend is still renowned for his impeccable defense and considered one of the greatest defenders in NBA history. In reality, though, he might have an even stronger case for the title than you’d imagine.
Bill Russell is one of the greatest winners in sports history
Since Bill Russell’s playing career ended in 1969, most modern NBA fans barely saw him play. The big man’s legacy, however, continues to live on thanks to his impeccable resume.
Russell’s winning ways, however, didn’t start in the pros. The center played his college ball at the University of San Francisco; while the Dons might not be a major program today, Russell led them to back-to-back national titles. On a personal level, he also averaged 20.7 points per game during his three seasons on the varsity squad.
After graduation, Russell declined an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters and entered into the 1956 NBA draft. Red Auerback identified the big man as the missing piece of his Celtics roster; thanks to a bit of quick thinking and some draft-day deals, he managed to bring Bill to Boston.
Auerbach’s intuition proved to be spot-on. Russell played 13 seasons for the Celtics, claiming an eye-popping 11 titles. He proved to be a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game for his career, earning five NBA MVP awards in the process.
Staking his claim as basketball’s greatest defender
In the world of basketball, slam dunks feats of incredible athleticism tend to grab the headlines. Bill Russell, however, did plenty of work on the defensive end of the floor.
As explained in his NBA.com legends profile, Russell literally changed the way basketball players defended. “His ability to leave his man and slide over to cover an opponent driving to the hoop was startling,” the website explained. “He was unmatched at swooping across the lane like a big bird to block and alter shots. The rest of the Celtics defenders began to funnel their men toward Russell and become more daring with their perimeter defense, knowing that he was looming behind.”
While our knowledge of Russell’s defense is limited—blocks weren’t an official stat until 1973, and the league didn’t distinguish between offensive and defensive rebounds during his career —we know he made a massive impact. According to Basketball-Reference, the big man posted a 133.4 defensive win share for his career; that means that Russell’s defensive abilities accounted for more than 133 wins during his time with the Celtics. Unsurprisingly, he’s sitting comfortably in first place on the all-time list.
Bill Russell might be an even greater defender than we think
Even if you prefer modern basketball, Bill Russell has a legitimate case to be called the greatest defender in NBA history. The Celtics legend, though, might have been even better than you think.
As mentioned above, the NBA didn’t track blocks, steals, or defensive rebounds during Russell’s career; that leaves a bit of a hole in our understanding of his game. While we know that the center was an intimidating shot blocker, no one can tell you exactly how many shots the Celtics star rejected.
According to J.D. Anderson Celtics24/7, Russell probably averaged between seven and nine blocks per game for his career; we know that he averaged 22.5 rebounds per outing, too, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least half of those came on the defensive end of the floor. If you assume he also recorded a few steals per night—if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s Bill Russell—you have an even fuller picture of a legitimate defensive star.
For the most part, there isn’t much debate about Bill Russell’s status as the greatest defender in basketball history. If we had the benefit of modern statistics, though, the Celtics big man may have looked even more impressive.