Kobe Bryant revealed his all-time starting five, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was strangely not on it. When LeBron James pronounced his Mount Rushmore, Abdul-Jabbar was not on it, though, he did call out James for not having Bill Russell on his.
Shaquille O’Neal offered his: Bill Russell, Karl Malone, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
Tracy McGrady gave his version: Magic, Jordan, LeBron James, Hakeem Olajuwon and O’Neal.
Kevin Durant said it was Magic, Kobe Bryant, Jordan, Tim Duncan and Shaq.
And through countless radio shows, podcasts, ESPN spots and social media takes, it’s shocking how large a number of people don’t include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their top five. It’s shocking because if anyone can challenge Jordan for the No. 1 spot, it’s Kareem. And if he’s not in your top five, you’re just not trying hard enough.
Consider this: There are four factors most people consider in their rankings: individual success, team success, prime performance and longevity. In each of these areas, Kareem is arguably the best of all time.
We’ll get to his career stats and peak stats later, but consider what he accomplished from an award level in his career.
He won two Finals MVPs, six regular-season MVPs (most of anyone in history), he won a rebounding championship, two scoring titles and led the league in blocks four times. He and David Robinson are the only two to achieve that triple crown.
He went to 19 All-Star Games (most in NBA history), was All-NBA First Team 10 times and Second Team five times (the combined total of 15 tied for most all-time). He was named to six All-Defensive teams.
And for those who want the “eye test,” his “Sky Hook” was probably the most unguardable shot in NBA history.
And he had the single greatest cameo appearance by an athlete in the history of a comedy movie. But that’s an aside:
The most All-Star Games, most MVPs and most All-NBA selections? That’s certainly a resume that qualifies as the most-decorated individual player in the history of the NBA, even over Jordan.
Many times these debates come down to individual vs. team success, i.e. Wilt Chamberlain’s monster numbers vs. Bill Russell’s championship legacy, or more recently, Kobe Bryant’s five rings vs. LeBron’s greater productivity with fewer championships.
We won’t get into the merits of the whole “which means more” argument here because there are basically two players who dominated both statistically and in terms of hauling in titles: Kareem and Jordan. Kareem is a six-time NBA champion and two-time Finals MVP.
He’s also the only player ever to win the award with two different teams, which certainly makes for an argument that he was one of — if not the — principle reasons his teams won.
He’s the second all-time leading playoff scorer with 5,762 points, and he’s fifth all-time in playoff rebounds with 2,481. Only Tim Duncan has more blocks than Kareem’s 476. And stunningly, Kareem is 24th all-time with 767 postseason dimes.
And in 56 Finals games, he averaged 23.5 points. His total of 1,317 points in the Finals remains the most by any player in NBA history. His 502 Finals rebounds are fourth-most in history, and most of any player since the lanes were widened. His 116 blocks in the series are 35 more than Duncan, who’s a distant second.
When it comes to team success, he’s right there with Jordan and only behind Russell (and even that needs to be qualified). And Kareem had more than a lot to do with all that team success.
When you look at Kareem’s career averages, they’re impressive but not as impressive as they should be. Because he played so long, his overall numbers tailed off near the end.
But when you look at what he accomplished in the early part of his career, it’s mind blowing. Only Wilt Chamberlain had more Win Shares by 30, and he barely did in spite of having the advantage of playing a part of that time in narrower lanes.
Over that span, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 29.2 points, 15.1 boards, 3.4 blocks, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals. He did that for almost a decade!
Here’s how he stacks up in the five major statistical categories, per 36 minutes, since the NBA started tracking blocks and steals:
It was also during that span he had three of the six best seasons in NBA history based on Win Shares. His 1971-72 season can be argued to be the best single-season in history. He averaged 34.8 points, 16.6 boards, 4.6 assists and shot 57.4 percent from the field. His 25.4 Win Shares are a standing record. His 1970-71 season is fifth and his 1972-73 season is sixth.
Over those three years, he averaged 32.3 points, 16.2 boards and 4.3 dimes and won two MVPs. He led a team which had only one other eventual Hall of Famer on it, Oscar Robertson on the tail end of his career, to be one of the most dominant single-season teams in history.
Peak Kareem was every bit as dominant as peak Jordan or LeBron. His career averages just tailed off because of his longevity.
All that said, his incredible longevity and the numbers he stocked up over time are his most enduring legacy. The sheer volume of his stats are mind-blowing.
Consider that not only is he second in Win Shares accrued before age 30, he’s also second in them after the age of 30. Only Karl Malone had more.
Kareem is first in points as a 30-something guy, third in rebounds and 15th in assists. So while his post-30 numbers take down his averages, don’t take that to mean he stopped being a special player after 30. In fact, when he was 38, he averaged 23.8 points on 56.4 percent effective field goal percentage and 6.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 31 minutes per contest. The only player in the NBA with numbers like that this year is the 27-year-old Kevin Durant.
Abdul-Jabbar is the all-time leading scorer. The only active player that has even a remote chance of catching him is LeBron James. And even for him, that would mean playing another six years averaging over 25 points per game without an injury.
Kareem is also third all-time in rebounds, and he’s even 40th in assists — ahead of Chauncey Billups and Michael Jordan, and just 35 fewer than Larry Bird.
He’s the founding — and to date, only — member of the 30,000-point, 15,000-rebound, 5,000-assist club. There’s not another player, not even Jordan, whose cumulative career numbers hold up against Kareem’s.
I don’t know why it is that Abdul-Jabbar’s career has been diminished by the modern player and the modern age, but it has been. It’s time to give the greatest center ever and second-greatest player in NBA history his due. When you consider each of the four primary factors, he’s easily top five in each of them, so there’s simply no good reason for leaving him off any list.