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HomeBasketballNBANBA All-Time Greats: Russell leads best from the 1960s

NBA All-Time Greats: Russell leads best from the 1960s

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The 1960s were a decade of growth for the NBA.

The League in 1960 had eight teams. Only one squad, the Los Angeles Lakers, played past the central time zone. The 1960-61 season, too, marked the Lakers first in LA, as the team moved from Minneapolis due to a major drop in attendance and to pair the basketball team with the recently-relocated Los Angeles Dodgers.

Beginning with the 1960-61 season, NBA teams played 79 regular season games, and the playoffs lasted less than a month. Six of the eight teams advanced to the playoffs, and the top two seeds earned a first-round bye.

The 60s was the decade of the Boston Celtics. Boston from 1960 to 1969 won nine championships. Boston beat LA in the NBA Finals seven times in the 1960s. The only other team to win a title in the 60s were the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers, one of the greatest teams of all time. Philly beat Boston 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals, ending the Celtics string of 18 straight playoff series wins. The 1967 NBA Finals were the first in 11 years to not feature Boston. The Celtics, though, would rebound to win the title in 1968 and 1969.

It’s amazing how intertwined things were in the League in the 60s. The Lakers, Celtics, and Sixers were the most talented teams of the decade. Those three squads also featured the best players of all time through the 60s.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve obviously never seen any of these guys live, but I’ve read and researched enough to know they were the very best basketball players of the 1960s.

Bill Russell

The anchor of those seven Celtics title wins, Bill Russell remains the greatest winner of all time, 54 seasons after his retirement. He did it all for Boston. Russell rebounded, played a level of defense only a handful of players would reach, he even led the break at 6-foot-9. Russell refused to let Boston lose, even winning two titles as a player-coach in 1968 and 1969 — his last season as a player. Ironically, Boston’s lone playoff loss of the decade came in Russell’s first season as head coach. Legendary coach Red Auerbach retired in 1966 and tapped Russell to lead the team while the center continued to play at a high level. Russell, who died last year, won four of his five league MVPs over a five-year stretch in the 60s. Russell in the 60s made all-NBA nine times, but was only named to the first team twice. Russell is so good, he’s the starting power forward on my all-time team. I only wish the fans in Boston appreciated him while Russell was at his peak.


Wilt Chamberlain

Russell’s main foe in the 60s, the two after retirement would become the best of friends. If it weren’t for Russell and his Celtics, Chamberlain may be held in greater regard. Wilt still remains one of the best five or six players of all time. Chamberlain’s 76ers dealt Russell’s Celtics their only playoff loss of the decade. In that 1967 East Final, Philly beat Boston by an average of 13.5 points per game. The Stilt in that series averaged 21.6 points, 32 rebounds, and 10 assists a game. Outside of winning titles in 1967, and 1972 with the LA Lakers, that ‘67 East Final could be the signature win of Chamberlain’s career. It’s his only win over a Russell-led team in eight playoff series meetings. The losses include the infamous 1969 Finals, when Chamberlain was benched by coach Butch Van Breda Kolff with LA down one with two minutes left. Wilt was an interesting bird, but, man was he a monster on the court. Chamberlain led the league in rebounds 11 times, including eight times in the 60s. Wilt has five of the six-highest single season per game scoring averages in league history and five came in the early to mid-1960s. Chamberlain averaged 50.3 points per game and 44.8 points per game in back-to-back seasons. In his first six seasons with the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, Wilt put up 41.5 points, 25.1 rebounds and played more than 47 minutes a game. Wilt in the 60s won three straight MVPs from 1966-68. Chamberlain earned all-league honors nine times in the decade, including seven first-team nods — all over Russell.


Jerry West

The first NBA game was played in 1946. For the league’s first 38 years, West was the best shooting guard of all time. West could do it all offensively as an off guard, exhibited by his career averages of 27 points, 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds a game. West was a master of the pull-up jumper, but could score in a variety of ways. Drafted in 1960, West earned All-NBA honors eight times in the decade, including six first-team nods. West is now an underrated defender, having earned All-League defense honors in each of the first five years the award was handed out. West, for me, is one of the 10 best players of all time. He’s the only player in the top 10 with one ring. West was snakebitten for much of his career. His temperament and thoughts on loss has become a key storyline of the HBO show, “Winning Time.” Zeke from Cabin Creek’s teams were 1-8 in the Finals, with many of those losses coming to (how’d you guess!) Russell’s Celtics. West finally got his ring in 1972, the year LA won a league-record 33 straight games. Like Chamberlain’s 67 Sixers, that 72 Lakers team is one of the best of all time. Even with the lackluster Finals record, West remains the only player from a losing team to be named Finals MVP, which came in that 1969 loss to Boston. And he’s the logo. You have to have been a beast to be made the silhouette for the NBA logo.


Elgin Baylor

Baylor, the third Laker in this group, was probably the league’s first “skywalker.” At 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, he’s the prototypical small forward. Baylor died in 2021, so he was able to see his influence in the game for a long time. Drop him off in 2023 and Baylor would be one of the very best players in the NBA. His game was that advanced. He was a supreme athlete who ran the floor and played above the rim. Baylor’s career is overshadowed by Russell, Chamberlain, and West. He’s the only one of the group to not win a title. His last season saw him play only nine games — before the Lakers went on their 33-game win streak on their way to the championship. Baylor’s teams were 0-7 in the Finals, but Elgin put up more than 26 points a game in 44 Finals games. His play did not go unnoticed. Baylor made 10 All-NBA first teams — every season from 1959 to 1969. 


Oscar Robertson

Robertson and West’s careers are closely linked. The two guards both came into the League in 1960. Robertson and West went 1-2 in the NBA Draft. Both clearly had great individual careers, and both won championships late in their careers. We talked about West finally getting a ring in 1972 with Chamberlain. Robertson’s championship came with another great big man. Robertson’s Milwaukee Bucks won the 1971 NBA title on the back of second-year center Lew Alcindor. Milwaukee swept the Baltimore Bullets in that championship series. Robertson in that 1970-71 season had to that point his lowest scoring output, at 19.4 points per game. Robertson that year also had career lows in rebounds and assists. Young Oscar, though? Young Oscar could do it all. Robertson in his first seven years never averaged less than 28.3 points per game. Oscar in that stretch topped 30 points per game six times. Robertson averaged a 30.8/12.5/11.4 triple double in 1962. For the first nine years of his career, Oscar earned first-team All-NBA honors. Robertson is known as a surly man. It’s justified when you consider how he grew up. Robertson as a student at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis won  state championships in 1955 and 1956. Crispus Attucks was the first predominantly Black school to win a state title in Indiana. That team should have been the focus of that overrated movie.

Honorable mention

Sam Jones: Jones won 10 championships with Russell as a member of the Celtics.

John Havlicek: a member of six Celtics title teams in the 60s, Havlicek earned second-team All-NBA honors four times in the decade.

Bob Pettit: Pettit played only half of the 60s, but made All-NBA each year. Pettit’s Hawks beat Russell’s Celtics in the 1958 Finals – the only time a Russell team lost in a Finals.

Coming tomorrow: the 1970s.

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