Re-Opening Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s GOAT Case

With 10 Finals appearances, six rings, the all-time record for points scored, the second-most games (behind Robert Parish) and most minutes, 6 MVP awards, 19 All-Star games, only one season in his entire career where he was in the top ten in turnovers, tops in history in both offensive and overall Win Shares, an icon for two different franchises, and all of it capped off by the one of the most slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Fame inductions you’re likely to see?

Are we sure Kareem Abdul-Jabbar isn’t still the greatest of all time?

After all, when Kareem finally retired in 1989, it was awfully hard to argue with, and only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have made convincing arguments since then (sit down, Kobe Bryant stans. Sit down and shut up.)

This goes double when you consider the playoffs; Kareem and MJ have the same number of rings, but Kareem’s four Finals in which he was on the losing end involved the Celtics (twice, in ’74 and ’84), the 76ers (Julius Erving‘s ultimate team in ’83), and the Bad Boys Pistons (’89.) And sure, Kareem wasn’t dragging a bunch of nobodies to the Finals the way LeBron has done with the 2007, ’17, and ’18 Cleveland Cavaliers, but when you lose to three of the greatest teams of all time and a fourth (the ’74 Celtics) that went on to win another title two years later, you get a lot less shade for losing four times in ten tries.

Plus, you want to talk durability? Let’s remind ourselves that Kareem came into the NBA after a full day’s supply of Vitamin College after playing at UCLA. He was 22 when he made his debut.

LeBron, bolstered as he was by coming straight out of high school, is in Year 16 of his career, but he is still only 33 years old and doesn’t turn 34 until December 30.

And sure, Jordan inadvertently helps his case by having his career cut down a bit by baseball, but Jordan’s age-38 season (22.9 points a game along with 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists) stands at best level with Kareem’s age-38 season (23.4 points, 6.1 boards, 3.5 assists as a big man with a curious tendency in which the ’85-86 Lakers divided rebounding duties so thoroughly that their leading rebounder, Maurice Lucas, wasn’t even a starter (he had 7.4 boards a game) and Kurt Rambis led the starters with 7.0 rebounds. The whole thing is reminiscent of how recent Warriors teams have divvied the assists.

Kareem was just a constant workhorse. He never scored more than 55 in a game and didn’t crack 50 even once in a Lakers uniform over 14 seasons, yet he scored 38,387 points overall.

His last year leading the league in VORP was 1979-80, which was Magic’s rookie year; as time went on, Kareem, aging through his 30s, became the second- or even the third-best player (behind Magic and Worthy) on those Lakers teams.

Yet he just kept chugging.

What’s curious is how Kareem’s resume falls apart a bit in the playoffs.

Sure, there were fewer rounds in Kareem’s glory days, so he only got to play in 237 playoff games, but he averaged 24.3 points, 10.5 boards, and 3.2 assists, shooting 53.3 percent as a center.

LeBron? Yikes. 28.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 49.1 percent shooting and a .528 eFG% as a small forward, over a thousand more points scored in roughly the same number (239) of games.

And MJ? His Airness played in only 179 playoff games, but he averaged 33.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per, scoring more points in his total games than Kareem did in his.

And I think that’s where it turns ultimately into a two-horse race. The playoffs say a lot about a team. They’re a crucible.

And there was only one year where Kareem was indisputably the star of his playoff team; it was in ’74.

The case could be made that Oscar Robertson was the Bucks’ real star in ’71, a young Kareem, still known as Lew Alcindor at the time, not ready for his eventual accolades.

Another case could be made that Magic stole the torch that rightfully belonged to Kareem in 1980 when Game 6 of the Finals happened.

And in the other 7 Finals years we’ve not yet discussed? All of them were “Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers”, from ’82 against the Sixers to ’89 against Detroit (and, in a hell of a twist, with only the ’86 Rockets to break up the unbroken line), featuring Kareem and sometimes even “featuring Worthy with guest star Kareem.”

All the same, as long as there’s that 38,387-point carrot dangling in front of the rest of the NBA, there will always be a case for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his 38,387 points, six rings, 10 Finals appearances (the most ever by a non-Celtic), and that beautiful sky hook.

(big tip of the hat on this one to Pace and Space writer emeritus Zach d’Arbeloff, whose tweet on Sunday inspired this piece. He’s got MJ as his GOAT, I’ve got LeBron as mine, but Kareem’s case deserved a fair evaluation.)