Bill Russell gets named among the very best centers ever to play the game because he could defend and rebound as well or better than anyone in his generation. He gets mentioned because he’s got 11 championship rings and anchored a dominant Celtics team.
But he was better on offense than you think.
In a great post at Behind the Basket, Zachariah Blott breaks down the numbers from the Celtics of that era and shows that Russell was a key part of the offense, it wasn’t all Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman.
He starts with this point — those Celtics liked to run a lot and many of those breaks started with Russell grabbing the rebound and throwing the outlet pass, or maybe a Russell block. Which is to say, he wasn’t the guy who easily got out for the easy baskets.
The other point is that these Celtics were built as a passing team that shared the scoring load. When you look at it in that context, you see that Russell was a guy creating a lot of offense plus getting his share of points (he averaged 15.1 points per game for his career, and had a high of 18.9, with always one of the highest shooting percentages on the team).
No rational person can look at his stats within the context of his team, which was often one of the top-scoring clubs in the league, and not think Russell was a pretty good offensive player. Factoring in his unique place on Boston’s defense-to-offense transition game (teammates often didn’t play great defense knowing Russell would neutralize the threat as it got closer to the hoop and so that they could already be sprinting down the court by the time Russell grabbed the board or block), it’s not a stretch to say he was the most important offensive player for many of these nine seasons.
Russell’s defense and rebounding were the cornerstone of a Celtics team that dominated a decade like no other. But don’t think he was a one-dimensional player — he is one of the greatest centers ever for a reason.