The NBA Finals has seen many storylines come to the forefront of the discussion; Warriors Superteam v LeBron James, competitive balance and league’s first ever trilogy.
However, there is another that we want to dive into. LeBron continues to climb the all-time rankings as he chases the ghost of Michael Jordan. But is MJ really the greatest of all time? Is there somebody missing in the ‘GOAT’ conversation?
Kareem Abdul Jabbar (aka Lew Alcindor)
20x NBA seasons (Tied 2nd all time)
18x Playoffs Played (2nd)
10x Finals Played (3rd: 6-4 record)
6x NBA champion (Tied 5th)
2x Finals MVP* (Tied 3rd)
6x Season MVP (1st)
10x All-NBA First Team (Tied 2nd)
15x All-NBA Team (Tied 1st)
5x All-Defensive First Team (Tied 5th)
11x All-Defensive Team (4th)
19x All-Star (1st)
1st All-Time Scoring leader (38,387)
3rd All-Time Rebounds Leader (17,440)
3rd All-Time Blocks Leader (3,189)
Many remember Lew/Kareem for his signature go-to move, and rightly so. It is the most unstoppable move in the history of professional sports, and was the staple of two NBA offences for the total of 20 seasons. Teams would have to scheme against the move itself and teammates would benefit greatly from it’s prowess.
It was a thing of beauty. Every Skyhook would be in the same motion. Kareem would shield his defenders with the off arm, swing the right over his head, reached as high as he could and elegantly flicked his wrist. It couldn’t be blocked.
For one, Magic Johnson definitely benefitted his assist tally by playing with this bucket machine. Kareem was able to finish inside or find the open man out of the double.
The Skyhook was the notable asset, but he also boasted the counter moves – the drop-step and the turnaround. He was always aware of his surroundings on offence and could read whatever the defence threw at him. If the double came from the middle, he was able to quickly get off the turnaround or find the open cutter/shooter. There’s a reason why he averaged 3.6 assists per game.
On the defensive end, there weren’t the advanced stats or metrics to accurately quantify his impact on this side of the ball. There isn’t even enough now. But Kareem was able to disrupt shots, protect the rim and block shots. As the strong or weak-side defender. Guards/forwards could feel safe knowing Kareem was their second-line defence. The only statistics that quantified defence back then were steals and blocks. And at various points during his career, Kareem would average 4-5 blocks a game!
If you are able to attain any footage, you will see how many points Kareem saved the Bucks/Lakers just with his length and activity. His rim deterrent rate would be at an elite benchmark. If Kareem didn’t save you any points, he’d certainly make life difficult by reducing the percentages. This side of the ball is certainly an aspect that gets overlooked when evaluating any player – especially Kareem.
The Skyhook in combination with Kareem’s ability to anchor the defence was the reason he had an incredible 20 season shelf life. That is where his case begins – he fact that he was able to produce for such a long stretch (not even including his UCLA dominance). The league met Lew in 1969, and he immediately took it by storm. Averaged 29-15 where he took the Bucks to their first ever playoffs and also won rookie of the year. Oh, he also averaged 35-17 in the postseason (blocks were not tallied until 1973-74).
In his sophomore year, he took the Bucks to the NBA championship. Won the regular season and finals MVP without much support. Besides over-the-hill Oscar Robertson, who else did Lew have? What about the rest of his Bucks days? From ’73 to ’79, he didn’t play with any other all-stars.
1971 finals is also unprecedented territory in terms of finals statistics. Lew was 27-19-3 on 61% FG when they swept the Baltimore Bullets.
The fact that Kareem was able to have an All-NBA lifespan from 1969 to 1986 (never lower than 21.8ppg on 51% FG minimum) is absolutely phenomenal. His teams averaged 56 wins (0.683) and were above .600 SIXTEEN times. 15 seasons as a top-10 player including 10 as a top-5, and the best and most important player on 4 champions (’71 Bucks, ’80 Lakers, ’82 Lakers and ’85 Lakers).
The peak of a player performance is often looked at as a measuring stick – MJ’s 3-peats an example. Kareem may not have the magnitude of winning in a period such as MJ, but he was very productive for the duration equivalent of MJ’s career. Sure, you can mention Kareem’s prime may have been in his second and third season (31-16 and 34-16 respectively), but to judge him for that would be unfair. He never averaged lower than 24-10 for the first 12 seasons – including a monstrous 30-16-5 average on 54% FG in his first 7. MADNESS!
He managed to stretch out his All-NBA productivity until he was 38, while squeezing every last drop of his effective capacity until he was 41! Towards the end, the Lakers could still use his magical Skyhook while the keys belonged to Magic Johnson. Remember when the Lakers drew up big time plays for Kareem when he was 40? Game 4 ’87 Finals and Game 6 ’88 Finals (do-or-die). If you wanted to decide where his ‘true prime’ started and ended, you’d be doing him a disservice in his evaluation.
Kareem’s ability to survive the grind and remain so potent for so long deserves a great deal of respect. There is something sensational about year in, year out being able to play a high volume of quality games (including deep playoff runs), and then being able to replicate that over and over and over again until he was in his early 40s. You may be able to produce 3-5 HOF-caliber seasons in a row, but who else in history can say they had this length of sustained success? Who else can say they had so much pressure on their body, yet still deliver time and time again?
1,797 games, 66,297 minutes over 20 years straight. You’d think that would break Kareem a lot earlier, but that’s what makes him special.
Many NBA fans will say that Kareem won most of his titles playing the second fiddle behind Magic, but in fact they have it in reverse. Until the 86-87 season, it was still Kareem’s team. Their offence ran through him, and he was the defensive anchor that helped them through deep playoff runs – a total of 5 championships.
Kareem: 25-11-5-3b on 60.4% FG, 63.9% TS
Magic: 18-8-7-2s on 53% FG, 60.2% TS
Kareem: 24-9-3-3 on 58% FG, 60.8% TS
Magic: 19-9-9-2 on 53.7% FG, 59% TS
Kareem: 22-8-3-2 on 59.9% FG, 62.8% TS
Magic: 18-6-12 on 56.1% FG, 63.7% TS
(Keys relinquished to Magic)
Kareem: 18-7-3-1 on 56.4% FG, 59.7% TS
Magic: 24-6-12 on 52.2% FG, 60.2% TS
Kareem: 15-6-2-1 on 53.2% FG, 57% TS
Magic: 20-6-12 on 49.2%, 58.1% TS
1 finals MVP for Kareem (’85), 3 for Magic (’80*, ’82, ’87) and 1 for James Worthy (’88). Putting Kareem down for a total of 2 and Magic with 3. Winning titles as the teams best and most important player is very highly regarded amongst the NBA community in terms of all-time rankings. This means you contributed the most in terms of net points, leadership, etc which in turn results into games won, playoff series won and therefore championships.
Although Kareem held the torch until around 1986, he only received one of three finals MVPs. 1982 was well deserved by Magic. He put in a better finals performance although Kareem was more integral in the regular season and the first 3 rounds. The one (that I keep asterisking and) that is very controversial is the 1980 NBA finals. Without a doubt, Kareem was the better regular season and playoff player. He won the regular season MVP and was meant to take the finals MVP. Until…
Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer came forward with the revelation that he’d been pressured that year to change his vote and that he wanted to get the incident off his journalist’s conscience. He publicly confessed that he and others changed votes to deny Kareem the award because CBS did not want to present to an “empty chair”. He was 1 of 7 chosen to vote for ’80 Finals MVP. After game 6 the tally had Kareem as the winner. CBS didn’t want to present to an absent Kareem, so voters were pressured & coerced to change votes in favour for the charismatic Magic.
On Kareem’s farewell tour Bill Livingston confessed “enough of us saps changed our votes to deny Kareem the award by 4-3 count.”
Kareem was 33-14-3-5b in 5 games while Magic 22-11-8 in 6 games. Everyone will remember Magic’s historic game 6 which ended the series with a 42-15-7 outing. Despite that, Kareem was still the MVP from the Lakers perspective in the first 5 games prior to the ankle injury. He sprained his ankle in the 3rd quarter of game 5. Left. Came back in the 4th and made clutch bucket after clutch bucket. He finished with 40-15-4b on 66.7% FG. He was deemed unable to travel to Philadelphia and hence the “empty chair” controversy. Let’s say if the Lakers lost game 6, do the 76ers beat the Lakers in LA with Kareem? Unlikely. Does Kareem then get the finals MVP? Likely.
In my eyes, Kareem has 3 (2 in the Lakers era) and Magic has 2. And throughout 3/5 of those Lakers’ titles, he was the most important player regardless of finals MVP recognition. Magic and Head Coach Pat Riley have been quoted agreeing with this. Isaiah Thomas (of the Bad Boys Pistons) recently came out acknowledging that he believes Kareem is the Greatest of All Time. He noted that Kareem’s prolonged production was the key. The aspect that he (and his teammates) would find unbelievable is that they still had to double team and scheme against Kareem when he was 40!
This leads us into the final point. Championships. The VERY CLEAR barrier between being considered a top 10 player and maybe a top 20-25 player. Ask Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. They have the statistics and achievements that make their resume look pristine, but the lack of any titles leaves a bad taste in their mouths (especially Mailman).
In comparison with MJ and LeBron:
Best player on 4 of them
Best player on 6 of them
Best player on 3 of them
Obviously championships aren’t everything, but their weight on the ‘GOAT criteria’ is quite substantial. Finals MVPs are often heavily weighted too which makes sense. The ability to adapt and shine at the biggest and brightest stage definitely matters. But at the same time, the award is based on a 4-7 game span where you get critiqued and doesn’t represent the contributions of the other 97-ish games that season. An example, Magic in ’82 had a better 6 games in the NBA finals but Kareem was more valuable for the season prior to that round.
Finals appearances do hold major significance as well. Kareem made it on 10 occasions. Won in ’71, ’80, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’88 and lost in ’74, ’83, ’84, ’89. Making an NBA finals is still a feat that doesn’t seem to have enough substance nowadays. 7 of the current NBA franchises have never even made one. Would a fanbase rather make an NBA finals and lose or get bounced earlier? Or not even make the playoffs at all? I know as a Blazers fan (a franchise that’s made 3 in total), I would prefer to make it and lose rather than not make it at all.
Winning an NBA championship takes more than just one player – despite what social media seems to believe. It takes a multitude of different variables to click into place to work. The suitable personalities and chemistry – whilst combating the “disease of me”. The ideal coaching staff. The talent, and a bit of luck. Whether it’s in terms of injuries, form or even a lucky roll. Who would’ve known that Magic would lay a complete egg in game 7 of the ’84 finals (16-5-15, 35.7% FG, SEVEN turnovers including 2 down the stretch)?
If he doesn’t, does Kareem win finals MVP and another title averaging 27-8-4-2 with a 29-6-4-2 game 7 effort? Probably!
Clearing the Fog
Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was not have been the most welcoming personality in the game. An introverted, efficient, lanky robot with goggles was not what the NBA media had in mind as their face. Kareem didn’t want the attention, and he made it clear. Did this affect the perception of his play? Of course.
People thought his migraines and trade demands were excuses because he couldn’t elevate his (seriously marginal) teammates. Fans even thought he mailed in games and didn’t care! He might’ve played one season too long and yes, he did slow down the ‘Showtime Lakers’ towards the end. This tarnished his reputation a little extra when the league started booming behind Magic and Larry Bird.
But it gets to a point where the body of work speaks for itself. In terms of the ‘GOAT’ discussion, many throw MJ, LeBron, Bill Russell and Magic into the mix. Although I believe that it does comes down to era perception and subjectivity, it is a strong belief from NBA greats that Kareem does not get mentioned enough. This article alone may not persuade you totally, but if it just inserts his name into the rightful conversation, then this has served it’s purpose.
To My Greatest of All Time.