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May 20, 2020

All-time Sixers one-on-one tournament final: Julius Erving vs. Wilt Chamberlain

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Philadelphia 76ers center Wilt Chamberlain does a finger roll over the outstretched arms of nemesis Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics.

Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving are the two avatars of excellence in Sixers history, so it's fitting that fans have decided they will be the two men to do battle in the championship round of our all-time Sixers one-on-one tournament.

Both men have cruised rather comfortably past elite competitors, shrugging off names as big as Allen Iverson to make it to the final round. Our Final Four shook out as follows: 

Sixers-Bracket-Final_052020

(If you want to view the original bracket, you can check that out here. And you can see how each region played out by checking out our region final posts: Wilt | Barkley | Dr. J | Iverson)

A refresher for anyone new to this — these weren't the "best" 64 players, necessarily, but 64 players from an assortment of eras and categories that I initially was going to divide by playstyles (playmakers, scorers, finishers, and potpourri), before realizing you could put four or five of the greatest players in franchise history into the "scorer" category. I tried to account for some combination of impact, longevity, peak value, etc., with the first goal to split up the players I would consider to be the Sixers' version of Mt. Rushmore — Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Allen Iverson, and Charles Barkley. Critically, the players were not strictly seeded based on how good they would be in a one-on-one setting.

Here is a refresher on the rules:

  1. Players are being judged strictly for who they were/what their game was when they were a member of the 76ers. So in the case of someone like Chris Webber, you get the guy with bad knees, not the athletic force. In the case of Markelle Fultz, you get the player whose jump shot went missing, rather than the resurgent version with the Orlando Magic. 
  2. Games are to 11, scored by ones and twos, and you must win by two. 
  3. Make-it, take-it is in effect.
  4. There are no rebounds on missed shots, which count as a turnover. All changes of possession require players to check the ball at the top of the arc.
  5. Players can take a maximum of four dribbles per possession, to avoid gratuitous post-ups or smaller guards dribbling circles around bigs.
  6. Calling fouls is the responsibility of the defense. You are encouraged to factor in player personality and willingness to bend the rules when considering the impact of this rule.

I must stress Rules No. 3, 4, and 5 above all others. This is not a game where big dudes can just pound people through the rim and live on the offensive glass, or a tournament where little guys can dribble circles around immobile bigs. Skill in isolation matters. You can vote however you want, but good basketball players tend to play a different style of one-on-one than the average person.

So here are the results of our Final Four matchups, where the fans left little doubt as to who should move on.

1. JULIUS ERVING (62%) over 1. Allen Iverson
1. WILT CHAMBERLAIN (79%) over 2. Joel Embiid 

Erving's margin of victory over Iverson was a small surprise to me, as was the margin of victory for Chamberlain over the current franchise center. This is not to say they were the wrong choices, only that I overestimated the enthusiasm of the youth vote and the power of recency bias. Perhaps I should have paid attention to, well, any voting on anything ever before banking too hard on youth turnout to drive results here.

So here we are, left with two men whose best individual years came for different franchises but who nonetheless are two of the most memorable athletes in Philly sports history. Let's break it down.

1. Wilt Chamberlain vs. 1. Julius Erving

Tale of the tape

Chamberlain: 30.1 points/22.9 rebounds/4.4 assists on 54/0/51.1 shooting splits. 4x NBA MVP, 13x All-Star, 10x All-NBA, 2x All-Defense, Rookie of the Year, 2x NBA champion in 14 seasons. Member of the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.

Erving: 22.0 points/6.7 rebounds/3.9 assists on 50.7/26.1/77.7 shooting splits. 1x NBA MVP, 11x All-Star, 7x All-NBA, 1x NBA champion in 11 NBA seasons. Member of the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.

The case for Wilt Chamberlain

From the moment the tournament began (which seems like years ago in quarantine time), the commenters have been adamant that the Big Dipper was meant to take home this title, and that it was all a pointless exercise. There's a bit of truth to that — Chamberlain is the most dominant player to ever wear a Sixers uniform, and one of the most dominant athletes in the history of American sports. There are numbers he compiled and seasons he put together that may never be matched.

As we've discussed in previous write-ups from this series, the biggest mark against Chamberlain (not winning more/not performing better against Celtics rival Bill Russell) is a bunch of nonsense. Against a stacked team that dominated the era, Chamberlain nonetheless put up video game numbers against a guy who many believe to be one of the greatest defenders of all-time.

A fun video that has circulated recently with The Last Dance airing on ESPN is an interview Chamberlain gave many years ago about the debate over the GOAT in basketball. Chamberlain's beef was the dismissal of past greats in the conversation, including Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, and his rival Russell. Within that same interview, Chamberlain drops a gem on his mentality during the season where he scored 50 points per game:

"I used to think during the season that if I go out here tonight and score 39 points, I will have let my team down," he said. "I'm 11 points below whatever, they expect this from me, this is what I have to go out there and do."

He did so, it's worth noting, while shooting over 50 percent from the field, roughly eight percent higher than league average at the time. That is one of the most impressive things about Chamberlain's career — teams knew he was Plan A, B, and C for every team he played for, and still couldn't stop him from scoring efficiently on absurd volume. He wore teams down, went over and around guys, and basically mastered scoring as much as one can (though he only became a champion once he weaponized the defensive attention and focused more on passing).

Think he was just an athletic marvel dominating slower, smaller players? Think again.

 

This is to say that Chamberlain scoring in a one-on-one setting is basically a lock. Without the benefit of extra help to send in his direction, you can forget stopping him. So what of the other side of the ball?

Defensively, this is an easier matchup/assignment for Chamberlain than I think others could have been. Erving's erratic shooting from deep would allow Chamberlain to sag off of the smaller, sleeker player a bit, and that plays to the strengths of the bigger man, who can spend most of his energy walling off the paint. Assuming Erving tries to get to some of his favored spots in the mid-post or low-post, he would also find it difficult to get shots off at pretty much every favored spot on the floor, with Chamberlain boasting an insane reach and high-jump point.

Though Erving has a superior career to point to compared to someone like Joel Embiid, I think a guy like Embiid would have a better chance to give Chamberlain trouble simply because he could get into Chamberlain more from the perimeter and try to turn it into a jump-shooting contest, whereas Erving doesn't have the muscle to stop or slow Chamberlain from getting where he wants.

The case for Chamberlain is the case for not overthinking things, which is typically a good way to make your decisions. 

The case for Julius Erving

How does one build a case for Erving in this matchup? His career arc betrays the idea that he's the go-to guy to believe in to win a one-on-one tournament. It wasn't until Moses Malone arrived and turned in another MVP season that the Sixers were finally able to get over the hump and win a title.

But that framing sells Erving short. From the moment he turned professional, Erving was not just one of the best basketball players on the planet, he was one of the most consistent. He raised the floor and the ceiling of the Sixers for about a decade straight, immediately catapulting them into contention in the mid-1970s and sustaining that run even as they cycled through odd-fitting pieces and dealt with team-altering injuries. He was always there, always productive, and until Malone showed up in 1982, the undisputed best player on an elite team.

To get by without a reliable outside shot, Erving had to compensate by mastering the game from 15 feet and in. The smaller player in this matchup is the guy more prepared to initiate and score when starting from the perimeter. Though Erving often had someone tossing him the ball from the perimeter so he could set up in spots Chamberlain also liked, he had a lot more experience starting possessions from the perimeter, which is no small detail.

Chamberlain's size seems like something that would bother Erving's drives, but Erving managed just fine while dealing with great bigs of his era (Kareem-Abdul Jabbar at his apex, Bill Walton before foot injuries robbed him of his career) trying to prevent him from scoring at the rim. Erving's giant hands and elite hangtime allowed him to come up with buckets when other players would have had to abandon the attempt and reset to the perimeter. These moments, in fact, became his most iconic plays.


Just as Chamberlain's failures to win a title were not his to wear alone, Erving's unsuccessful championship runs can hardly be pinned on him. The 1977 outfit that blew a 2-0 lead to Portland was an odd mix of egos and skill sets, and Erving was dominant in the final two games of the series to no avail. In 1980, when they lost to a rookie Magic Johnson who played all five positions with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the shelf, Erving scored 11 of their final 13 points in a narrow Game 5 defeat and 27-7-3 in the Game 6 loss. Hell, in the final game of their six-game defeat in 1982, Erving led all scorers with 30 points on the road in L.A., but the Sixers simply didn't have the firepower to run with those Lakers.

But how would Erving defend Chamberlain? Last week, we discussed Erving's issues as a defender, and they remain no less true here. His volume numbers were often very good, but they overstate his impact because they reflect his off-ball and weakside defense (read: gambling) more than they do his ability to shut anyone down. Foot speed and attentiveness were issues guarding straight up, and one negative of Erving's desire to get out and run was a tendency to completely ignore box-out responsibilities, leaving the Sixers susceptible on the defensive glass.


The leak-out issue isn't relevant here, though, and the biggest thing in Erving's favor is an unknown I have been hammering home the entire tournament: what happens when you force Chamberlain to start offensive possessions from beyond the three-point line? 

In a halfcourt setting, it's something he would have never been asked to do during his time in the NBA, and though it isn't necessarily his fault, it's a major point of consideration. Chamberlain was able to dribble the ball well enough for a big man in transition, but most clips from that era you can find show him eventually dumping the ball off for someone else to set up a score, and that's against a defense organizing on the fly. Setting yourself up with a quick dribble move around the rim is considerably different than creating separation from 24 feet out. 

Erving is the only guy we know who can do that with certainty in this matchup. Does the change open a window for Erving to get his hands on some balls and create steals? Even if the format forces Chamberlain to turn his back sooner and take deeper fadeaway jumpers, that's a win for Dr. J, who would almost certainly prefer for Wilt to beat him with touch rather than bullying him at the rim.

We can only judge these matchups based on what these guys can and did do, not what they might be able to do with modern training and focus. Chamberlain being one of the best to ever do it doesn't mean he gets the benefit of the doubt for skills he would never have worked on in his life. In a battle between two all-time greats, the man who doesn't have to adapt much is king.

The final word

At the end of the day, a matchup between these two Sixers greats feels like a fitting end to this tournament. They are basketball royalty, with each having left an indelible mark on the NBA in their own way — Chamberlain's dominance was so complete that they changed the rules around his game, and Erving's blend of style and substance was the model many NBA greats would end up following in the decades to come.

Forcing people to choose between them and effectively tear down one to elevate the other feels a bit wrong, and my hope is that I've done as thorough a job as I could explaining what makes each of the players highlighted in this series so special. The Sixers, disjointed and screwed up though they have been at times, have a rich history worth celebrating. Football will always be king in Philadelphia, but it's a town that knows and loves hoops because of the greats (and not so greats) we've discussed at length throughout quarantine.

If you're asking me to handicap this one, I'll go with the man I think will be the people's choice, the pride of Overbrook High School. More importantly, I hope this has been a fun momentary distraction during a time where we all need those, and vote below to help decide the fate of a battle for the ages.


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