Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is often recognized as one of the greatest players in NBA history, and a top 5, if not the best, big man of all time. The latter of those claims is absolutely ludicrous considering what Kareem did and didn’t do during his career, and specifically his prime years. Before we analyze each of Kareem’s regular seasons’ and playoff runs in full context, let’s look at a few of the arguments that people often use when praising Mr. Alcindor.
1. Being the Number 1 Scorer in NBA History
Using total career stats to credit any player with being the best at anything is extremely inaccurate, otherwise John Stockton would be the greatest passer ever (while Magic Johnson is in actuality), and Wilt Chamberlain would be the best rebounder ever (while Dennis Rodman was in actuality). Having the most total of any stat doesn’t indicate much except for consistency and longevity for a player, rarely having to do with quality. For example, in his last two seasons, he scored 1,913 points. If he did not play those two years, Karl Malone would be number one on the all time scoring list. Did playing those last two years of averaging 18 and 15 points per game make Kareem a better scorer than Malone? No, it just meant that Kareem wanted to play a few more seasons in his 40s. Using longevity to determine quality is a mistake that many people make, but it never should be used to choose one player over another, unless they only are great for a very small sample size (i.e Bill Walton, Penny Hardaway, Deron Williams etc.). Judging greatness should account mostly for a player’s impact during their best years, not on longevity.
Another reason that using Kareem’s all time scoring record to credit him as the greatest scorer ever is inaccurate is the difference in era’s. I’m not one of those people who believe that the 50s, 60s, and 70s were less competitive, but the stats of those eras are inflated. After the innovation of the shot clock, teams were encouraged to take more shots in order to appease fans. This resulted in a breakneck pace of the late 50s, 60s, and early 70s. For example, the slowest playing team by pace (an estimation of possessions per 48 minutes) in 1960 was the St. Louis Hawks at a pace of 120, and in 1970 it was the Detroit Pistons with a pace of 111.6, while in 2016 the fastest playing team was the Sacremento Kings at a pace of 100. Increased pace means more possessions for each team, meaning more opportunities for scoring and rebounds. This is why it is inaccurate to compare per game numbers from the 50s to early 70s to today’s stats, the numbers are inflated for the earlier era teams. It is also for this reason that comparing career totals is inaccurate. Starting in the mid 1970s, team’s paces started slowing down to more comparable figures. Mike Korzemba has a great video on the whole concept here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOS7lNTABzc
MVP awards are also not accurate at determining who a quality player is. If more MVPs meant a more quality player, Steve Nash and Karl Malone would be better than Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Moses Malone would be better than Tim Duncan, and Steph Curry would be better than Hakeem Olajuwon. Since MVP is a subjectively accredited award to begin with, using more MVPs to say one player is superior to another basically is saying that you believe this way because a panel of other people think that.
There are also multiple caveats to Kareem’s multiple MVP awards. Kareem won 3 of his MVPs on the Bucks, where he clearly was arguably not even the most valuable player on the team, even if his numbers suggested so, which is a subject that will be addressed later on in the article. He was also awarded the 1976 MVP while his team had a losing record and he failed to make the playoffs.
Another reason his MVPs cannot be used as an accurate measurement of greatness is due to the competition he went up against. The 1970s was the most star lacking decade in NBA history, as the NBA was diluted due to the ABA, who housed the sport’s most explosive superstar, Julius Erving. Kareem’s 1970s MVP competition was made up of players like Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo, Bill Walton, and Wes Unseld. Compare this to the 5 MVP awards that Jordan won in his career, his competition consisted of players such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Isiah Thomas and David Robinson, who are all basically unanimously considered superior to the candidates of the 70s. With only one real superstar of the decade in the NBA, it was only natural for the NBA to award Kareem the award so many times. The fact that Kareem was awarded the MVP in 1976, an achievement that historically goes to players on successful teams, and miss the playoffs shows the dilution of top quality superstars in the NBA during this era. Another interesting side note about the 70’s MVP competition is that it was the only decade to have an MVP not make the all time 50 Greatest Players List, a list made in 1996, thereby excluding 20 years of top 50 caliber players.
Regarding Kareem’s championships, there are also several issues with using his 6 championships as proof of his top 10 all time status. Again, championships alone cannot be used to determine greatness, or else Robert Horry would be better than Michael Jordan, and Steve Kerr would be better than Larry Bird. Clearly, pure number of championships cannot be used as a measurement of greatness. The more accurate way of determining quality of a player would be number of championships as the best player (not just in the Finals, but in the entire playoffs), and analyzation of the difficulty of obtaining said championship. Not just on if a player was a number 1 scoring option or not, but how they performed in all aspects (scoring, rebounding, defense, intangibles), and the level of competition that they went up against on the way to championships. If one uses these metrics to assess Kareem’s championships, it is clearly noticeable that Kareem’s six championships are not as impressive as Jordan’s 6, Magic’s 5, Bird/LeBron’s 3, Duncan’s 5, or, hell, even Russell’s 11. Kareem won 2 Finals MVP, one which he deserved, and one which he definitely did not, because in 1985, Magic set the record for assists per game in a Finals with 14 apg. Even with two Finals MVPs, Kareem was only the best player on one out of his six championship teams, in 1971 with the Bucks, and even that championship it was debatable on who was the more valuable piece of the team, Kareem or Oscar Roberston. Again, this is an issue that will be addressed later in the article.
Nothing in the NBA is unstoppable. If Kareem’s skyhook was unstoppable, he would have a career 100% FG and he wouldn’t need anyone else on offense besides himself. Of course there are ways to make him miss the shot. Getting physical, contesting, sending doubles, denying the ball, making him catch the ball in the high post, etc. are all ways of stopping the skyhook. Kareem was great, but far from unstoppable, as we will see later in the article as well.
Also, using one move as proof for one’s greatness is incredibly illogical. Dirk Nowitzki’s leg kick shot has been scientifically proven to be impossible to block (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFYxLN5yvwg), but do we consider Dirk top 10 all time because of it? No, of course not. If a move is great, but production isn’t, does it matter? No, it doesn’t. Now, onto breaking down Kareem’s prime years in the 1970s and early 80s in full context.
A quick side note before I begin, whenever I bring up a ranking in offense or defense, I am going by the pace adjusted ORtg or DRtg, not ppg or opponent ppg, as teams that play at a slow pace can often make their defense look better going by opponent ppg or vice versa for offense.
I won’t criticize Kareem’s 1970 season because it was his rookie year and he likely wasn’t developed enough to fairly assess him. In 1971, however, Kareem won his first scoring title and they won the championship. The only notable change between the 1970 and 1971 Bucks was the addition of Oscar Robertson, and by no surprise, they improved tremendously. They won the championship after Kareem and the Bucks got taken out in 5 games in the EDF the previous year. Going off of pure stats, it would appear as though Kareem was the best player in this championship run, and you could make a case for that, however, as we will get to later in the article, Oscar had a strong case for being the most valuable player on those early 70s Bucks teams, not Kareem.
Stats aren’t always the best way to judge a point guard, as they have the responsibility of running the offense even if it isn’t counted for by an assist. For example, in the 3 years that he made the finals (1988-90), Isiah Thomas’ playoff averages were 20-5-8 on 44%. Compare that to the 3 best years of Rod Strickland (1994-96) whose averages were 22-5-10 on 45% in three first round exits, it is clear that stats aren’t always the best measurement of impact for a player, especially a point guard. They can help give an idea of who played well, but they don’t tell the whole story out of context. Another example, similarly to the Oscar/Kareem situation, Amar’e Stoudemire averaged 30-11 on 54%, and 25-12 on 52% in the 2005 and 2007 playoffs respectively, but Steve Nash was clearly the best and most valuable player on those D’Antoni Suns teams (the Suns made the 2006 WCF without Amar’e the entire run, and improved 23 wins with the addition from 2004 to 2005 while Amar’e was on the 2004 team).
Stats can also lie when in the context of impact, especially scoring and field goal percentage. A player scoring more could help their team win, it could also be a detriment. For example, Wilt Chamberlain won scoring titles his first 7 years in the league. The first year he didn’t win a scoring title, his team won the championship. His first 6 years in the playoffs, he averaged 32.8 ppg over that span. In 1967, when he finally won the championship, his scoring dipped to 21.7 ppg. The same goes for field goal percentage, for example, LeBron James made the finals 4 times on the Miami Heat, winning two of them. The two wins came when he shot below 48% from the field, while the two losses came when he shot above the 48% mark.
In the first round, the Bucks played the Golden State Warriors, lead by center Nate Thurmond (Rest in Peace), who they beat in 5 games. However, Kareem allowed a mainly defensive center to increase his scoring average on him (21 ppg in Regular Season vs 25 ppg against Kareem), and to outscore him after coming off of a scoring title and the best scoring season of his career (35 ppg in RS vs 23 ppg against Thurmond). Kareem getting outplayed by other great big men is a theme throughout Kareem’s career, and is one of the main reasons why Kareem is one of the most overrated players in NBA history. Fortunately for him, he was bailed out by Oscar’s facilitation of the offense for the Bucks. Oscar wasn’t able to do the same in the next round, though.
The Bucks got eliminated by the eventual champion Lakers, a team some consider to be one of the greatest teams of all time, but this is far from true. In fact, the Lakers were not even the best team of their era, as that title would go to the New York Knicks. The early 70’s Laker teams played the Knicks in the Finals 3 times, winning their only finals after Willis Reed was injured for the 1972 Finals. In the 1970 and 1973 Finals, Willis Reed played, and they won both times. On top of that, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain were aging, at 33 and 35 respectively. Kareem did have a good scoring series of 34 ppg, but the Bucks were taken down in 6 games. Oscar had a bad series of only 9 ppg, but the Bucks were the second best offensive team and best defensive, while the Lakers were the opposite. Still, this loss is understandable as the Bucks only had 2 double digit scorers outside of Kareem, while the Lakers had 5 total.
The Bucks were matched once again with the Golden State Warriors, except this time, Thurmond was a year older, Kareem was a year more experienced, and the Warriors dropped 4 wins from a good 51 in 1972 to a decent 47 in 1973 (The Bucks had dropped 3 wins also, but were still a great 60-22). So one would expect that the Bucks would dismiss the Warriors on their way to the Conference Finals, right?
In fact this was not the case, as even with another year of experience, home court advantage, and good supporting cast (Next 3 scoring options had 21, 16, and 14 ppg for the series, along with Oscar facilitating), Kareem’s Bucks still got eliminated in 6 games, and Nate Thurmond locked Kareem down once again to 23 ppg for the series after averaging 30 ppg in the RS. Thurmond also led his team to victory with an underwhelming supporting cast compared to Kareem’s Bucks (Warriors top 3 scorers had 17, 15, and 15 ppg for the series). Kareem outscored him this time, but failed to elevate his team to the win even though his team was clearly superior. The worst part about this series for Kareem was his free throw shooting. In a series where the Bucks average margin of defeat was 6.25 points, shooting 53% (after a much better 71% during the RS) from the line proved to be very costly.
Kareem played very well against the top defensive team in the league in the Chicago Bulls, putting up 35 ppg on their way to a sweep, and well against the Lakers, though this team was a shell of its former self, as Wilt and Jerry West were no longer on the team. Then they matched up against the Boston Celtics in the Finals, and lost in 7 games. Still, Kareem had a good series of 33-12 while leading his team in 4/5 categories and outscoring/rebounding Dave Cowens, though Cowens did increase his scoring average on Kareem from the regular season (19 ppg in RS vs 23 ppg in Finals vs Kareem). However, Kareem was yet again unable to beat an opponent that they should have beaten, as the Bucks had home court advantage, the best offense in the league and the second best defense, while the Celtics were not top 3 in either category (and the Bucks great offensive and defensive ranking was not due mainly to Kareem, as we will see soon). The Bucks also out rebounded the Celtics in the series, and shot 3.5% higher from the field. All of these advantages, and Kareem still couldn’t close the deal. Again, we see how numbers do not tell the whole story, and how other things can be more important in terms of impact than stuffing the stat sheet.
Up to this point, Kareem’s career has been hit and miss, but the coming seasons show major disappointments in his career.
Oscar Robertson retired in the 1974 offseason, and his presence was sorely missed on the Bucks the following season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a prime season at the age of 27, missed the playoffs, after having been one game away from a second championship the previous year. The Bucks also kept their two next best scorers in Dandridge and Allen, so it wasn’t a complete roster overhaul that resulted in the dramatic change.
The Bucks with Oscar (1974)
– Record: 59-23
– Off Rtg: 101.2 (best in the league of 17 teams)
– Def Rtg: 93.6 (2nd in the league of 17 teams)
– Team FG%: 49.2%
– Lost game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The Bucks without Oscar (1975)
– Record 38-44
– Off Rtg: 98.0 (9th in the league of 18 teams)
– Def Rtg 97.8 (8th in the league of 18 teams)
– Team FG%: 46.8%
– Did not make playoffs.
More evidence that Kareem’s individual numbers did not always equate to team success: he averaged 30-14 compared to 28-15 the year before but his team dropped 21 games in the standings. This is why I’m reluctant to call Kareem’s 1974 Finals performance great as opposed to good, his numbers don’t always reflect his impact his team had on winning. Considering the fact that the Bucks were clearly the superior team and still lost, it is evident that Kareem’s pure box score stats didn’t tell the whole story when it came to his impact. It is also for this reason that I think it is arguable who was the best player on the 1971 Championship team. Kareem had better stats, but Oscar’s impact on the Bucks went beyond the score sheet. In fact, Kareem won the only two scoring titles of his career next to Oscar, due to his running of the offense and playmaking, which was the main reason to the Bucks success, regular and postseason.
Kareem was traded to the Lakers in the 1975 offseason, to even more disappointment. Before we get into Kareem’s 1975-76 season, let’s look at the Bucks before vs. after he left.
The Bucks without Kareem (1976):
– Record: 38-44 (same record as with Kareem)
– Off Rtg: 97.3 (drop of .7 from ’75)
– Def. Rtg: 98.7 (drop of .9 from ’75)
– Team FG%: 46.5%
– Did not make playoffs.
So, the “greatest scorer in history”‘s team not only lost just one point per 100 possessions without him, but they had an identical record to when he was there, in a prime season no less at age 27 . Now to see how Kareem faired with his new team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 1975, the Lakers were a below average team, with a 30-52 record. Once Kareem was traded to the Lakers for the 1976 season, they improved 10 games, but again failed to make the playoffs, again in a prime season for Kareem (age 28) and this time with a HOF teammate in Gail Goodrich. He still won MVP, though, with the watered down competition of the 1970’s.
To those that will say a 10 game improvement is substantial, it really isn’t in the context of a supposed top 10 all time player. There have been several instances where teams have improved 20+ games due to the arrival of one new player. In 2001, the New Jersey Nets were 26-56, but with the addition of Jason Kidd improved to 52-30 in 2002. In the 2003-04 season, the Phoenix Suns were 29-53, but with the addition of Steve Nash went on to go 62-20 the following year. The 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers improved 20 games with the arrival of LeBron James. The 1980 Celtics improved 32 games with the only major change being a rookie Larry Bird, and the 1996 Bulls improved 25 games on an already good 47-35 record when Michael Jordan played the first full season since his first retirement (The difference could have been even greater, but Jordan played the final 17 games of the season, and went 13-4 in this time. The Bulls were on pace to go 42-40 without Jordan). The fact that the Lakers only improved 10 games with the addition of Kareem is very underwhelming when considering how much other great players impacted bad or mediocre teams in the win column.
The Lakers improved to 53-29, with the only major changes to the team being the coaching change of Bill Sharman to Jerry West for the 1977 season, and Kermit Washington’s improvement to help on the boards as well as defensively. After beating a slightly above average Warriors team in the first round, the Lakers took on Bill Walton and the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, with home court advantage as the #1 seed, and promptly got swept. Again, Kareem’s 30 ppg meant little as the Lakers failed to win even one game against the eventual champion Trail Blazers. Kareem also had good secondary offensive help as there were four other double digit scorers on the team (17, 16, 14, 10 ppg for the series), but failed to win a single game. Bill Walton, on the other hand, took a team with no other HOF players and won the championship, something we will get to later on in the article.
The Lakers faced up against the Seattle Supersonics, the champions of the next NBA season, and after Lenny Wilkens was named coach, they ended the season 42-18, which is a 57 win pace, so this team was better than their 47-35 record suggested. Still, Kareem again failed to elevate his team past the first round, despite his 27 ppg, losing to the Sonics 2-1, this time with 5 double digit scorers (17, 12, 12, 10, 10 ppg were his best teammates in the series), and a HOF teammate Jamaal Wilkes who was coming into his own at the time at age 24 (Adrian Dantley is also in the HOF, but he was 21 in this series so it is unfair to criticize Kareem for having 2 HOF teammates when one was a rookie).
In Kareem’s final season without Magic Johnson, he lead his team to a victory in the first round over David Thompson’s Nuggets, and then was again matched up with the Sonics, the eventual champions, and lost to them in 5 games. Again, Kareem had great secondary scoring help (next 3 best scorers had 19, 17, 17 ppg) but failed to lead his team past the second round, or beat an elite team. So, in Kareem’s 5 seasons without one of the 2 best point guards ever, which also should be 5 of, if not his 5 best seasons (ages 27-31) Kareem:
– Missed the playoffs twice
– Left a team that had the same exact record after he left with the same main pieces intact
– Got swept once (With home court advantage)
– Won a grand total of 2 playoff series (one of which required 2 victories to win)
– Beat 0 teams with 50+ wins (While playing alongside 3 HOF players along the way in Goodrich, Wilkes, and Dantley. Keep in mind Jordan, Kobe, Duncan, and LeBron are a combined 48-1 vs sub-50 win teams, so it is an accurate cutoff in deciding whether a team is elite or not).
– Won 2 MVPs (one of which he won without making the playoffs)
Really worthy of being the best big man ever, right?
With Magic Johnson added to the team, the Lakers improved from 47-35 to 60-22, and from a second round exit to the NBA championship (also went from having the 5th ranked offense to the best in the league). They also beat the Supersonics they lost to the year previously in 5 games, as opposed to losing in 5 in ’79. Kareem again won MVP this year, the sixth and final time he was awarded it, but clearly Magic was the most valuable player on the Lakers. While Kareem was injured in game 6 of the Finals, the Lakers still clinched the title without him, and a rookie Magic Johnson won Finals MVP.
Though Kareem was 33 years old in this season, he was coming off of a championship where he had a great Finals, and won MVP of the RS. However, in the first round, Kareem got completely outplayed by Moses Malone, yet again not being able to win against teams with great big men. Moses outscored and outrebounded Kareem for the series, and allowed him to increase his scoring average from 28 ppg during the regular season, to 31 ppg in the series against Kareem. The worst part was the fact that the Rockets were an average 40-42 team, while the Lakers just won the championship and had multiple Hall of Famers, yet Kareem still couldn’t lead his team to a victory. Moses Malone is an incredibly underrated all time great, and was superior at leading teams to Kareem, as we will get to later.
The Lakers won the NBA championship, and Magic was again named MVP of the Finals in their win over the Sixers. Kareem had a below average playoffs for his standards as he put up 20-9 for the entire playoffs, but it is hard to criticize him when his team won the championship (though Magic was clearly the best player on the Lakers for the entire playoffs).
Kareem played well in the first two rounds, but in the Finals against a legitimate big man in Moses Malone, the Lakers got swept, and Kareem again got thoroughly outplayed, as Moses outscored the “greatest scorer of all time” and grabbed more than twice as many rebounds as him. Kareem averaged a mediocre 7.5 rpg for the series, while Moses killed him on the glass, averaging a staggering 18 rpg. Again, we see Kareem getting outplayed by another great big man. Kareem was 35 years of age at this point, but Kareem is sometimes called the greatest Laker of all time due to his multiple rings while in LA, something I wholeheartedly disagree with. You can’t give credit to someone for performing at an old age, and then turn around and use old age as an excuse for him playing poorly (or not at an all time great level, which Kareem often did not past the 1983 season). Also, how can one call Kareem the greatest Laker ever when he was never the best player on his team for an entire title run? In fact, the Lakers increased 7 wins after Kareem retired in 1989, and went on to make another Finals run without him in 1991, while averaging 20-10 (ppg-apg). Clearly, it was Magic’s passing that resulted in Kareem’s scoring output, not Kareem’s dominant scoring leading to easy assists for Magic.
With that being said, I feel that it is unfair to criticize Kareem with an all time great standard past this point. I understand that he was still a big piece on the Lakers for the remainder of the 80’s, but he was no longer at a superstar level, as he averaged under 20 ppg for the remainder of his playoff career. I may think Kareem is overrated, but I’m not going to simply berate him for not performing extremely well past his prime. Now, let’s get into some big men who were superior to Kareem, either at their peak or from a career perspective.
Shaq excelled in many areas Kareem did not. While Kareem’s biggest issues with being considered a top 5 all time big man are his inability to lead a team as the best player, and perform against other great big men, Shaq was able to do both of these things, at an all time great level. Shaq also never missed the playoffs in his prime like Kareem did.
Unlike Kareem, whose 6 championships came when he was not the most valuable player on the team, Shaq won a championship as the clear leader in 2000, and as a co-leader in 2002. In 2001, Kobe was the better performer throughout the playoffs, though Shaq did win Finals MVP, and in 2006, Shaq played well, but Dwyane Wade was the clear leader of the team, as Shaq was past his prime at this time. Shaq’s impact on a team was also much more noticeable that Kareem’s, as the 1996 Lakers were a 53 win team, and after gaining Shaq were on pace to win 61 games before his injury. Without Shaq, they went 18-13, a 48 win pace. It would be interesting to see Shaq’s impact on the Lakers after he signed with Miami, but it would not be accurate to assume any changes were mainly due to O’Neal’s departure, as the 2005 Lakers had several roster changes from the 2004 team, injury problems, as well as a coaching change.
Shaq also outplayed a bevy of great big men in his playoff runs, including:
Chris Webber (2000, 2001, 2002)
Rasheed Wallace (2000, 2001, 2004)
Tim Duncan (2001)
Kevin Garnett (2003)
Dikembe Mutumbo (2001)
Ben Wallace (2004)
While Kareem constantly got outplayed by great big men, or failed to elevate good teams to deep playoff runs, Shaq did both. Shaq is often criticized for winning championships with other great players. This is a terrible reason to discredit O’Neal, for a couple of reasons. First off, in his 3 peat with the Lakers, he was the best player twice in the playoffs and all three times in the Finals. Second, Kareem played with the two greatest point guards ever, and couldn’t do much without them. Shaq led his team to the finals as the best player in 1995, and never missed the playoffs in his prime, even while without another all time great by his side, as Kobe was still very young and inexperienced. Shaq did have Kobe in the 2000 Championship run, but Kobe was a clear second option this year, as opposed to the rest of their years together where they were options 1a and 1b. Third, championships without multiple Hall of Fame players are very rare. Dirk in 2011, Walton in 1977, Barry in 1975, and Hakeem in 1994. Any other championship season has another HOF on the team, so to discredit any player for needing another great player to win a championship is illogical. The problem was that Kareem was given several HOF players and still could not make a deep playoff run without one of the two best point guards of all time. While Shaq was ages 27-29, he won 3 championships, 3 FMVP, and a regular season MVP. When Kareem was ages 27-29, he won a total of one series, and made the playoffs only once. Case closed.
Moses also was superior at carrying teams to Kareem. His most impressive feat in his career was carrying a mediocre Rockets team in 1981 to the NBA Finals, past the defending champion Lakers. Let’s take a look at this series in depth:
- The Lakers were the defending champions, with 4 HOF players, the 7th best offense and the 6th best defense.
- The Rockets were 40-42, with the 9th best offense and the 16th best defense in the league, with 1 HOF player (that one being Moses).
With the Lakers being the considerably better team, and in between two championship seasons, one would expect for Kareem to easily win this series over Moses and the ill-equipped Rockets. However, it was Moses who came out on top, not only outrebounding, but also outscoring the “greatest scorer ever” while carrying his team past Kareem’s. Even with the help of 3 other HOF teammates, Kareem still couldn’t get it done, coming off of a season where he won MVP and his team won the championship. Kareem has never carried his team to this degree, even in his 5 seasons without Oscar or Magic, he could’ve proved he had the ability to do what Moses did, but couldn’t, even with 2 other HOF teammates.
Moses also carried his team past a good Spurs team with George Gervin leading the way, and went 6 games with Larry Bird’s Celtics. Moses shot poorly in the finals, but he had a huge 16 rpg, while only having two other double digit scoring teammates. Even when Kareem had 4 other double digit scorers against an inferior team (1977), he couldn’t even win a single game, while Moses took a clearly better them 6 games.
While the first time Kareem lost to and got outplayed by Moses, it was only 2-1 in the first round, Moses proved it wasn’t a fluke by doing it again in 1983.
In 1982, the Sixers faced off against the Lakers in the Finals without Moses on the team, and lost to LA 4-2. In 1983, they played each other again, and with Moses being the only notable addition to the team, the Sixers swept the Lakers, while completely outplayed Kareem. Moses outscored Kareem 26 to 24 ppg for the series, and grabbed more than twice as many rebounds as Kareem, outrebounding him 18 to 8 rpg for the series, which certainly made a huge difference in a series where 3/4 games were decided by 10 or less points. It’s not like the Sixers were significantly better either, as the Lakers won the championship the year prior, and had the best offense in the league, along with 6 HOF players on the roster, along with a top 5 all time coach in Pat Riley. For Kareem to get outplayed so badly and have a great supporting cast and not win a single game in the series is inexcusable.
The only problem with Moses Malone’s career was inconsistency. He had several first round exits and blunders in the playoffs as well, but he did show the ability to carry an inferior team to the finals without any HOF players on the team, and never missed the playoffs in his prime. That’s more than can be said for Kareem.
3. Bill Russell
Some people may be surprised to see Bill Russell here instead of Wilt Chamberlain, but Bill Russell may be one of the most underappreciated players in NBA history. Bill Russell has the most championships of any player to ever play. While people may take this information with a grain of salt, the fact of the matter was that the 50s/60s Celtics were nearly unbeatable with Bill Russell, but without him, they were very vulnerable. Bill Russell was by far the best player on each of his championship teams, which makes his ring count that much more impressive. I might end up writing an article on Russell down the road, but for now, let’s go through a quick rundown of why Bill Russell was far superior to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
a. Bill Russell’s team was not the same without him
While Kareem’s Bucks had the very same record without him that they did with him, and clinched the 1980 championship while Kareem did not play, Bill Russell’s Celtics suffered one of only two playoff eliminations while Bill Russell was injured. The Celtics lost in the NBA Finals against the St. Louis Hawks in 1958, as Russell did not play after game 4 (while the series was tied at 2 games a piece). The three other times that the Hawks played the Celtics in the Russell era while Russell was healthy, they lost every series (1957, 1960, 1961). The Celtics also won the last championship of the Russell era in 1969, but after Russell’s retirement (along with Sam Jones’) that summer, the Celtics did not even make the playoffs in 1970, even with multiple HOF players remaining on the team. Meanwhile, when Kareem left the Bucks, they had the same record the year after, and when he was in injured in the 1980 Finals, the Lakers clinched the title without him.
b. Bill Russell was arguably the greatest defender of all time
The Russell era Celtics were known for their high intensity and pace, along with their fast break. Therefore, their defense in terms of opposition ppg was not always great. However, from 1957-1969, the Celtics had the best defense by DRtg every single year, with the only exception coming in 1968, when they had the second best defense. In 1956, the year before Russell was drafted to the Celtics, they had the 6th ranked defense in the league out of 8 teams, despite having multiple HOF’s. Frank Ramsey and Bill Sharman did not play in 1956 and returned in 1957 (Russell’s rookie year), but in 1955 when both of them did play, the Celtic’s defense was the worst in the league, so it was clear that Russell made the difference.
Kareem on the other hand, allowed big men like Moses, Thurmond, Cowens, and Walton increase their scoring averages on him, and after he left the Bucks in 1976, their DRtg only dropped by .9, while after Russell retired in 1969, the teams DRtg dropped by a whopping 9.8. Russell also kept the great big men of his era much below what they did in the regular season, such as Jerry Lucas and Wilt Chamberlain (who’s scoring average decreased each of the 8 times he played Russell’s Celtics) on multiple occasions.
c. Bill Russell was the clear best player on all 11 of his championship teams
It is debatable who was the best player on the 1971 Bucks championship, Oscar or Kareem. Oscar was clearly more valuable to the team as a whole, while Kareem put up huge numbers throughout the playoffs. In all of his Laker championships, Kareem was not the best player for a single one, it was always Magic. Russell on the other hand, was clearly the defensive anchor, and the one who made the Celtics the dynasty they were.
Hakeem is another big man who is very underappreciated, when in reality, he has done things in the NBA that no other players have done. Hakeem arguably has a case for being the GOAT, but Jordan still takes that spot in my opinion.
First off, Hakeem was a much more versatile player than Kareem could ever wish to be. He is top 15 all time in 4 out of the 5 major statistical statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks), and led his team in 4/5 categories for 9 seasons out of his 12 healthy seasons with the Rockets. Kareem has never led his team in 4/5 categories once.
Hakeem was also a lock down defender, possibly the greatest defensive big man ever (though him or Russell have a case). Out of Hakeem’s 12 healthy seasons with the Rockets, 8 of those seasons his team was a top 5 defense. This is incredibly impressive when you consider the very little defensive help he was given on the perimeter. He also took on some of the most difficult one on one matchups for a big man in history, and succeeded in most of them, such as Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, and David Robinson, some multiple times. The only times he failed to lock down quality big men were both in 1986, when he was in just his sophomore year, against Kevin McHale, and yes, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (who he also outscored and outrebounded, but Kareem increased his scoring average significantly against him), and even then it was with Magic Johnson averaging an absurd 16 apg, setting up Kareem on multiple occasions.
Finally, Hakeem was able to do much more with much less than Kareem did even in his prime. In 1994, Hakeem led a team with 0 HOF’s to an NBA championship, while also leading the team in every statistical category, against 3 50+ win teams and facing quality big men in every round and outplaying all of them (Cliff Robinson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing). Kareem never eliminated a 50+ win team without Oscar or Magic, even with 3 HOF teammates, and never got past the second round even with quality second options.
5. Tim Duncan
While Kareem missed the playoffs twice in his prime, Tim Duncan not only never missed the playoffs in his career, his teams never had less than 50 wins in any season. Even in the 1999 lockout season, he won 37 games, which is a 61 win pace for an 82 game schedule. Though he had HOF teammates in Robinson, Parker, and Ginobili, he still achieved this from 2000-2003 while Robinson was 34+ years of age and Parker and Ginobili were either not playing or rookies. In other words, Duncan had 4 seasons of achieving 50 wins without a HOF caliber teammate, while Kareem couldn’t even get 50 wins with a HOF teammate in Gail Goodrich in 1976 (who was 32, but still played well, averaging 20 ppg for the season).
Duncan’s defensive impact was also much greater than Kareem’s. Besides his tough 1 on 1 matchups which we will address later, he, like Russell also lead teams with great defenses. From 1998-2007, the Spurs were either first or second defensively, and in 2008 and 2009, they were top 5. Even though he had a great defensive backcourt partner in David Robinson, remember that not only was Robinson well past his prime for most of his time with Duncan, but when Robinson was alone on the Spurs in the 90’s, they had multiple years of not being a top 5 defense. Furthermore, the Spurs defense was equally as good after Robinson retired in 2003, so it’s impossible to say that the Spurs defensive prowess with Duncan was due to having Robinson in the backcourt with him. Conversely, Kareem’s Bucks were elite defensively, but this was mainly due to Oscar Robertson’s impact. In Kareem’s two years on the Bucks without Oscar, the team’s defense’s were 6th in 1970 and 8th in 1975. His best years on the Lakers (1976-1983) never resulted in the Lakers having a top 5 defense in the league.
Duncan also had a Hakeem-like run to a championship in 2003, though it wasn’t quite as impressive. For the entire 2003 run, he led his team in 4/5 categories, while playing elite defense the entire way, and had a near quadruple double to clinch the championship (8 blocks vs NJ game 6). The competition he faced was also very good, a young Suns team, the defending champion Lakers, Dirk’s Mavericks (#1 offense in the league), and Kidd’s Nets (#1 defense in the league). Though some will bring up that Dirk was injured for the final 3 games of the WCF, Duncan completely outplayed the German superstar in the first 3 games, putting up an incredible 35-18-6-1-3 on 62% through the first three games, while Dirk had only 25-11 on 43%, and the Spurs took a 2-1 series lead, so the Spurs would have likely won even if Nowitzki had played the rest of the series. This championship run was outstanding, and even more impressive when you consider that the Spurs 2nd-5th options all shot under 42% from the field and had under 15 ppg. Kareem has never come close to carrying a team to this extent, and has failed against inferior opponents with better offensive help than Duncan.
Finally, Duncan also outplayed several great big men in his playoff runs. Such as Shaq in 1999, 2002 (Duncan locked him down this series, as Shaq shot 44.7% FG, the lowest of his entire prime) and 2003, Rasheed Wallace in 1999, future DPOY Marcus Camby in 1999, Nowitzki and Garnett in 2001, Nowitzki and Mutumbo (though he was age 36 was only 2 years removed from winning DPOY and being All NBA Second team) in 2003, and both Rasheed and Ben Wallace in 2005 (Duncan averaged 14.1 rpg for the series while Rasheed and Ben had a combined 15.9 rpg). Duncan has done things in his career that Kareem could never dream of accomplishing.
6. Dirk Nowitzki
Yes, Dirk Nowitzki was better than Kareem-Abdul Jabbar. Similar to Duncan, he had a stretch of never going below 50 wins in a season, except Dirk’s was only in his prime (2002-2011). Even when the Mavericks lost players like Nash and Finley, Dirk was able to keep his team elite and in position to have home court advantage for a playoff series. This, of course means that Dirk never missed the playoffs in his prime, even with several seasons of having no HOF level talent (Kareem missed the playoffs in 1976 with HOF player Gail Goodrich on the team). However, Dirk’s success goes beyond the regular season.
Though Dirk is often criticized for having multiple playoff failures (mainly from 2007-2010), he has also had a lot of playoff success. While he is rightfully looked negatively at because of his 2006 Finals, there are a few things to keep in mind when discussing this. First off, he carried a team with no Hall of Famers to the Finals, which very few players have done to begin with, and Second, he eventually did lead a team to a championship as the best player, and won Finals MVP, so it wasn’t as if he wasn’t capable of doing well on the NBA’s biggest stage. His 2006 playoff run as a whole had his Mavericks eliminating 2 50+ win teams (they were close to eliminating 3 as they also beat the Grizzlies with 49 wins) and carrying his team to the Finals without another HOF player. Two of those teams were the Spurs who won the championship in 2005 and 2007, and the Suns, with the league MVP Steve Nash. Even in 5 prime years to showcase his ability without Magic or Oscar, Kareem was never able to eliminate ONE 50+ win team, let alone multiple in one playoff run, and had HOF teammates in Dantley, Wilkes, and Goodrich along the way.
Then, in 2011, Dirk Nowitzki did something Kareem could never come close to doing. Without a prime HOF teammate, (though Jason Kidd will be in the HOF, he was 38 during the playoff run) Dirk was able to win a championship, while eliminating 3 50+ win teams along the way (they beat the Trail Blazers in the first round who went 48-34). Finally, Dirk was also able to outplay a bevy of great big men in playoff victories, such as Duncan in 2006, Gasol in 2011, Garnett in 2002, Webber in 2004, and Rasheed Wallace in 2003.
7. Bill Walton
Bill Walton is another big man that people might be perplexed about to see on this list. I will not go on the record saying that Bill Walton was superior to Kareem career-wise, as Walton only had 3 healthy seasons and 2 healthy post seasons, but prime for prime, Walton was superior. Walton’s 1977 title run alone was greater than any playoff run Kareem had in his entire career. Before analyzing the entire playoff run in context, it must be noted that Bill Walton was the only HOF player on the team, and he was not even given a HOF coach like Nowitzki was in his title run.
In the first round, the Trail Blazers went up against the best defensive team in the league, the Chicago Bulls, who the Blazers took down in 3 games. This was the only team in the run with less than 50 wins, and instead they had the best defense in the league, so this was a good team for a first round exit. Walton’s Blazers went on to beat the 50-32 Nuggets, led by David Thompson, in the second round. Then, of course, the Blazers played Kareem and the first seeded Lakers in the Conference Finals, and swept them. Kareem outscored Walton over the series, but with a far superior cast and home court advantage couldn’t even win a single game against the Trail Blazers. Now, one might look at the box score and think that Walton had good scoring help with Lionel Hollins, Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, and Dave Twardzik, as they all averaged above 15 ppg for the series. What people don’t understand is that it was Walton’s supreme understanding of offense and great passing ability that led to this.
Lionel Hollins averaged 16 ppg for the series, but after Walton’s injury in 1978, never averaged more than 15 ppg for a playoff run, even while coming into his prime. It was the same case for Maurice Lucas, who averaged 23 ppg for the series, but after Walton got injured, his scoring numbers in the playoffs decreased in the following years (17 ppg in 1978, 11 ppg in 1979) until he eventually went to Phoenix. Bob Gross also only averaged double digit scoring in the playoffs while playing alongside Walton, while even when he was in his late 20s (prime years), he never averaged more than 9 ppg. Twardzik was able to score 11 ppg for the 1977 title run, but in the next 3 years without Walton healthy, never averaged above 8 ppg. Kareem never helped improve any of his teammates to the extent Walton did. Keep in mind, that all of the aforementioned players played on the same Trail Blazers for several years after 1977, but all of their playoff scoring numbers declined as Walton’s health did. His impact on the team was enormous, as the team went from winning a championship in 1977, to two first round exits the next two years that Walton did not play in the playoffs.
In the NBA Finals, the Trail Blazers went against their polar opposites, the Philadelphia 76ers. While the Blazers were known for their passing and cohesion, the Sixers were full of individual talent, most notably Julius Erving. Of course, Portland won the series in 6 games, as Walton stepped up his game, putting up 19-19-5-1-4 on 55%. Walton not only lead both teams in assist and blocks, but also absolutely dominated on the boards, grabbing an absurd 19 rpg, and outrebounding the Sixers two best rebounders by himself (114 total rebounds for Walton vs 110 for McGinnis and Jones combined). Walton in this playoff run showed how scoring can be helpful for winning games, but that there are many other elements that go into a victory. The fact that a big man was able to lead both teams in assist in the NBA Finals and dominate on the glass to this degree is incredible, and makes one wonder what Bill Walton could have done if he played an entire healthy career (he was just 24 in these Finals). It is for this reason mainly that I can’t put Walton above Kareem on an all time scale. While Walton’s 1977 playoff run was more impressive than anything Kareem accomplished in 20 years, it was just one run. It is just too small of a sample size to justify him being greater than Kareem all time. However, prime for prime, I believe that Walton’s 1977 season was much more impressive than any season in Kareem’s career.
There you have it, why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most overrated center (though one could make an argument for Wilt Chamberlain) in NBA History, and one of the most overrated players in the history of the league. There are a few other big men that could possibly have a case for being greater than Kareem all time (Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, David Robinson), but I wouldn’t argue if Kareem was put ahead of them. However, the players I have listed all have strong evidence supporting why they were greater than Kareem, either on an all time scale or in their primes. Kareem was indeed a great player, but was never a great leader. In actuality, he was really just one of the greatest (arguably the greatest) second best players for championship teams.