Bill Russell is an all-time great, but his “greatest” feat is the most overrated feat in basketball. While his 11 rings are significant, it’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds. That’s because winning rings, and winning them consistently, weren’t quite the same thing then as they are now.
There are primarily two reasons for that:
- The league was smaller.
- The league was much more stable, especially at the top.
The first thing to consider is the size of the league, which for the bulk of Russell’s career was just eight teams. Statistically speaking, that’s a huge advantage. Even if we’re speaking just randomly, the difference is massive.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that each year, each team has an exactly equal chance of winning the title (which isn’t true, but we’ll get to that later). The odds of winning a title one year would be 1-in-8 or .125). The odds of winning it two years in a row would be 1-in-8^2 or 1-in-64 or .016. Three in a row would be 1-in-8^3 and so on down the line.
So, the odds of completely random winning 11 titles would be 1.55E-10 which while still tiny, are nothing compared to what such a feat would be today. Because now the league is 30 teams, so a random chance of winning one year in a row is 1-in-30, or .33. Two years in a row it’s 1-in-900 or .001. And to win 11 years in a row would be 5.65E-17—or roughly 2.7 MILLION (!!!!) times has hard as it was in Russell’s day.
In fact, winning 11 rings in Russell’s era is much closer in terms of statistical achievement to winning six rings in the current age (1.37E-09).
But that’s only if we’re talking about things being random. And they aren’t. The league is significantly more stable at present than it was when Russell was dominating the league. Russell played in an era when there was no such thing as free agency. The only way players swapped teams was if they were either cut or traded.
As a result, teams were more stable—particularly if they were successful. And the Celtics were definitely successful.
There is a proven correlation between winning and team continuity. Basketball-Reference has measured continuity over the years based on what percentage of minutes played by a team in a given season were by players on the preceding season’s roster. They have the continuity for every team, ever here.
Now, a big part of what is amazing about Russell’s career is what a constant he had during the entire scope of it. After his rookie season, the Celtics’ lowest continuity ever fell during Russell’s career was 80 percent. And that was in the 1966-67 season, the year he didn’t win the title.
The graphic below shows every team’s continuity from every season. The black circle engulfs an era in which Boston had a continuity of 80 percent or higher 14 times in 15 years. The green shape shows the span of Russell’s career, minus his rookie season (because his addition was the bulk of the reason for the change in continuity).
And it’s not like that team was a bunch of scrubs. He played with 16 unique Hall of Fame players for an aggregate of 83 individual seasons. That’s an average of six Hall of Fame teammates per season!!! He never had fewer than three Hall of Fame teammates in a season, and in 1962-63 he had seven teammates who would go on to be so honored.
Imagine in this age if you had a rotation of eight players who were future Hall of Famers!
So, not only was it just statistically easier for Russell to win 11 titles, he was also playing with a stacked team that seldom changed. They grew to know one another and trust one another. Certainly these are arguments for the 60s Celtics being a great dynasty but as far as Russell winning 11 rings, that has a lot to do with him being drafted at the right time.
He happened to be the player that spanned a gap of what would essentially, slowly transition over time. Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Andy Phillip, Frank Ramsey and Arnie Risen became John Havlicek, Bailey Howell, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones. And while that transition is impressive, it’s not that different from what the present day San Antonio Spurs have done in a league where it’s far more challenging to do it.
Russell was a great player, and the Celtics were a great dynasty, but comparing his rings or their title run with the current NBA is just specious. It’s statistically much more difficult today, and more importantly, it’s logistically close to impossible to keep that much talent together.