Friday was the 10th anniversary of one of the most impressive feats in the history of professional basketball, and arguably in all of sports. On that day in 2005, Kobe Bryant scored an unbelievable 81 points in a game against the Toronto Raptors. This point total has only been surpassed once in the history of professional basketball when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks back in 1962.
Does the fact that Chamberlain had more points in his game make his performance the better one? If you only look at sheer number of points, you might be inclined to say yes. But if you dig a little deeper into the statistics, and the context of those statistics, I think you'll find that Kobe Bryant holds the title of “Most impressive game in NBA history.” Let's take a look at what makes Kobe's game an all-around better game than Wilt's.
The first thing we need to look at when evaluating which game was the better performance is minutes played. Wilt Chamberlain needed the full 48 minutes to achieve his NBA-record 100 points, whereas Kobe Bryant played in only 42 minutes during the game against the Raptors. Had Kobe been on the floor for those other 6 minutes, who's to say that he couldn't have reached, or even surpassed the 100 that Wilt put up?
The second stat in Kobe's favor is overall offensive efficiency. During Kobe's performance, he made 28 shots on only 46 attempts, achieving a 61% field goal percentage. In comparison, Wilt Chamberlain needed 63 field goal attempts, making 36 of them, to put up 100. Wilt's field goal percentage for that game was only 57%.
While the percentages may not seem like a large difference, I think it's a major factor in Kobe's favor. Not only did Wilt Chamberlain need 17 more attempts to reach 100 points, but he shot a lower percentage, as a center, than Kobe did as a guard who is taking a significant number of his shots from the perimeter.
Along with this, it also bears mentioning that, contrary to popular belief, the game was much more up-tempo in the days of Chamberlain than it is now. The average team in 1965 shot about 600 more shots than a team in 1985 and about 1400 more shots than a team in 2005. Average that out over 82 games, and that’s just over 17 shots per game, which is conveniently exactly how many more shots Chamberlain took in that game. If you'd like to learn more, you should read the Wikipedia article on the Run and Gun style of basketball.
“But Chris, Wilt Chamberlain played in the days before the 3-point line. That extra point makes a difference, doesn't it?” That is a valid question to ask, but I would argue that it's actually, in a way, making my point for me. Tell me which one is easier, making a shot from 5 feet, or draining one from 20 feet with a hand in your face? Sure, having the extra point thrown in there is a bonus, but I think it's more impressive to be able to drain a shot than it is to be tall.
While we’re on the subject of physical attributes, it should be pointed out that there is a very significant difference in athleticism that comes into play here, as well. I’m not talking the difference in athleticism between Bryant and Chamberlain though that certainly is something to be noted. No, I’m talking the sheer difference in athleticism each faced.
Back when Wilt Chamberlain played, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the NBA had not seen a player of his talent. Compared to the rest of the league, Chamberlain was head-and-shoulders above just about every other player, and not just in height. Compare that to the league Kobe was (and still is) in, where he’s, athletically, a middle-of-the-road player. It’s far easier to dominate the league when you have the clear advantage in physical tools, but when you have to face superior athleticism night in and night out to dominate, that’s a whole different level of impressive.
All of this together might be enough for me to put Kobe's performance ahead of Wilt's, but what seals it for me is how Kobe put his team on his back that night and carried them to victory. What's often overlooked about that night in Toronto is that the Lakers were down as much as 18 points in that game. Kobe single-handedly put the team on his back and willed them to victory. Kobe's performance didn't come in a blow-out where he was just padding his stats to make himself look better or to make a run for the record books. Every one of Kobe's points was needed that night, and he delivered in a big way.
None of this should be taken as a slight towards Wilt or his accomplishment. Scoring 100 points in a single game is an outstanding feat, one that we will likely never see duplicated. The point of this article isn’t to diminish what Wilt did, but rather to demonstrate the idea that numbers don’t necessarily tell the full story.
When we, as fans, are having discussions about what single-game feat is better, or which player had the better career, sometimes we need to look beyond pure stats and put them into context. There are factors beyond the particular stat you’re comparing that contribute to that stat that should be accounted for.
It is my hope that, in reading this, perhaps I’ve opened you up to the possibility that may, just maybe, an 80-point game is, at the very least, on par with a 100-point game when you take the additional factors into account.
Welcome! My name is Chris Spooner. I am an overly-passionate Dolphins fan who has many opinions about his team, and the sports landscape as a whole. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy voicing them.