“I was a better offensive player” - Bill Russell never believed that he was merely a defensive stalwart

“i was a better offensive player” - bill russell never believed that he was merely a defensive stalwart

bill-russell

Bill Russell’s modest scoring average of 15.1 points per game throughout his 13-year NBA career, with a single-season high of 18.9 points per game, made many believe that it was his rim-protection and rebounding dominance, as evidenced by his 22.5 rebounds per game, were the catalysts behind him being an all-time great and leading the Boston Celtics to 11 championships.

However, when asked about his most valuable contribution, the five-time MVP claimed that he had a more significant presence on the offensive end rather than on defense, a sentiment that was echoed by his teammates as well.

How important was Bill Russell to the Celtics offense?

In contrast to modern-day big men who average 18-20 field goal attempts per game, Russell attempted just over 13 shots from the field per game. This highlights how his primary role in the late ‘50s and ‘60s Celtics team was not to score layups and dunks at every opportunity but rather to create scoring chances for players like Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, and John Havlicek throughout his 42.3 minutes on the court. This point is further underscored by the fact that Wilt Chamberlain, who revolutionized scoring, attempted 22.5 field goals per game.

Russell’s offensive prowess was evident from his time at the University of San Francisco, where he averaged a much better scoring average of 20.7 points per game on 51.6% shooting from the field while attempting 15.3 field goals. However, with the Celtics, already boasting 19-20-point scorers like Cousy and Sharman at the time Bill arrived, a different approach was needed to win the silverware, which is why Russ was advised to operate as a selective shooter. Yet in his early years, he regularly ranked among the NBA’s top-five in field goal percentage, with his .475 mark in the 1958-59 season being the second-best in the league.

While Bill’s numbers on the offensive end might pale in comparison to Chamberlain or modern-day NBA centers, one should keep in mind that he took care of multiple roles on the hardwood - from scoring points to creating fast break opportunities, getting timely stops, and generating second-chance opportunities for his teammates.

Put simply, for players like Havlicek, who witnessed the Celtics go from a 48-34 record to 34-48 after 'Whiskers' retired, it was the latter’s presence on the offensive that most eased the team's situation.

"To me, I was a better offensive player than a defensive player. By the end of my first year, I always put the offense in motion. After a year or two almost all the plays went through me," Russell said. "In fact, Havlicek said after I left, he missed me more on offense than defense."

Bill Russell on his greatest strength

While the common perception was that players like Cousy and Sharman shouldered the scoring load for the Celtics, with Bill primarily serving as a defensive stalwart, this portrayal is misleading.

The fast-paced nature of the game in the ‘60s required a more transition-based offense than in today’s game, and Russell played a pivotal role in initiating many of Boston's fast breaks. By grabbing rebounds or throwing outlet passes, he was instrumental in kickstarting the Celtics’ offense.

Furthermore, Russell not only held his own on the scoring end with valiant contributions but also created numerous scoring opportunities for a team whose offensive rating was consistently subpar. This is evidenced by the fact that since the 1961-62 season, Russell was among the top two players in assists per game, which only highlights his offensive impact beyond merely scoring or rebounding.

"My ability was unique because I could make the passes from any position, which not many people have ever been able to do," he added. "Oscar could, Micahel could, Magic could."

Bill’s sentiments were echoed by NBA insider - Zachariah Blott, who also acknowledged that without the 6’10” center, the Celtics would not have been able to sustain their offensive efforts.

"Factoring in his unique place on Boston's defense-to-offense transition game, it's not a stretch to say he was the most important offensive player for many of these nine seasons," Blott wrote.

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