With the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance,” which aired to huge ratings on ESPN this spring, and now on Netflix, the debate about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) basketball player has intensified. Jordan or LeBron? And it is a pretty good debate. But are we forgetting someone? Yes. His name is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which you would think would be a tough name to forget. Even if you did forget that name, he has another name you also had a chance to remember: Lew Alcindor. Did you forget both those names? Come on, you have to do better with your names memory.
If Kareem might be the greatest, why does he not get talked about much in this debate? I have two theories: one, Jordan and LeBron were both aerial artists, performing spectacular leaping feats. Kareem, on the other hand, was only an aerial artist in that at 7’2” he lived in the air and had a devastating hook shot that was pure art. But the artful hook shot, while appreciated by purists, is generally not as exciting as a windmill dunk, or a reverse dunk, or just any dunk. The second reason Kareem does not get discussed like the other two? Recency. LeBron may not be the GOAT, but he is the GOART – the Greatest Of All Recent Times. And Jordan, while now a 57-year-old team owner, played recently enough that anyone over 30 clearly remembers him in his prime. Almost as clearly as they remember him in those Hanes ads. Kareem’s era predates a lot of those folks who are having this debate. Before you call me an old-timer, know that Kareem retired before I even knew anything about basketball. So I cannot use the eye test to decide who the GOAT is. But I can use the information test. So here is some information:
Jordan won six championships to LeBron’s three, but Kareem also won six. LeBron took nine teams to the Finals, while Jordan never made it when he was not winning it all, but Kareem went to the Finals ten times. That is one more than LeBron’s nine, though LeBron has a good chance to tie him this year.
Jordan won five MVPs to LeBron’s four, but Kareem won six MVPs, the most ever.
Jordan scored 32,292 career points, and LeBron passed him, and currently sits at 34,087, but Kareem is the all-time leading scorer with 38,387. Okay, so LeBron will probably pass Kareem to become the all-time leading scorer eventually, but guess what? He got a four year head-start on Kareem because he skipped college. Then there is college. What did Kareem do in college? Well, his college career was so legendary, he had to change his name when it was over, presumably because it would be impossible to have an NBA career that could live up to what he did in college as Lew Alcindor (or maybe it was because he converted to Islam, it is unclear). And yes, as I just pointed out, Kareem still had probably the best NBA career ever, but in college? Freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity in the sixties, so he was the opposite of today’s “one-and-done” guys, playing for the UCLA Freshman team, for which he averaged 33.1 points and 21.5 rebounds, which is pretty good. Then in his three varsity seasons, UCLA went 88-2, won the national championship every year, and Alcindor won all three Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards.
Jordan did play three years in college at UNC, and he hit a shot that helped clinch an NCAA title as a freshman, but he did not win another one, nor was he even the best player on the title team. That would be Kareem’s future teammate James Worthy.
Okay, you say, that all sounds pretty good for Kareem, but these days we have advanced statistics we look at to measure greatness. Stats like PER, VORP, and Win Shares. So let’s take a look at these legends through this prism. All three of these stats are tools to measure a player’s overall value. Oh, if you didn’t know, PER stands for Player Efficiency Rating and VORP stands for Value Over Replacement Player. If you do not know how they’re calculated, join the club. I looked them up, and I already forgot everything I read. There is a whole lot of math, but let’s assume they have some validity, because if they do not, someone did a lot of work devising them for nothing and I would feel bad about that.
Led League in PER
Kareem – 9 times (3 times over 29, 10 times over 25)
LeBron – 6 times (6 times over 29, 15 times over 25)
Jordan – 7 times (7 times over 29, 11 times over 25)
Led League in VORP
Kareem – 7 times* (1 time over 9)
LeBron – 9 times (5 times over 9
Jordan – 9 times (8 times over 9)
Look, we finally found something that Kareem trails the other two guys in. But wait, the VORP stat did not exist until Kareem’s fifth season in 1973-74. Given that he led the league in both PER and Win Share in three of those seasons, it is probably safe to assume he would have 10 VORP titles. So again, Kareem is on top in total times leading the league. That said, Kareem’s top scores in VORP and PER are below those of Jordan and LeBron, but these are stats that are boosted by high-volume shooting and that do not penalize misses that much. Kareem shot a much better percentage from the floor than the other two. Plus, as a center, one might argue that he impacted the game defensively more than the other two, in that centers must guard the opposing bigs, and also serve as the last line of defense when perimeter players penetrate. There is a reason that the Defensive Player of the Year Award has gone to centers more than all other players combined. And no, Kareem never won one, but the award did not exist until he was already in his mid-30s. Perhaps the best advanced statistic that seeks to measure a player’s all-around performance is Win Shares. And winning is the name of the game. Let’s take a look:
Career Win Shares
LeBron – 236.1 (as of the COVID “break”)
Jordan – 214.0
Kareem is the league’s all-time leader, but to be fair, he did have a longer career than the other two so far. Due to the fact that Kareem played until he was 41, with declining averages his last few years, it would be misleading to compare average Win Shares, but if we dig deeper, we see:
Led League in Win Shares
Kareem – 9 times (three times over 20)
LeBron – 5 times (once over 20)
Jordan – 9 times (three times over 20)
So Kareem clearly has LeBron beat here, while Jordan is tied in both areas, but well behind in career total. For comparison, the man regarded as the league’s greatest winner, Bill Russell’s (5 MVPs, 11 titles) greatest single season Win Share total was only 17.3.
Maybe the best argument against Kareem as the GOAT is that he was only the Finals MVP twice, while Jordan and LeBron were always the Finals MVP when they won the title. But Jordan and LeBron did not play with teammates who were also in the top 10 players of all time, while Kareem had Magic Johnson on five of his six title teams. Magic won three of those Finals MVP Awards, while the other one went to James Worthy. There is that man again: a lower-tier Hall Of Famer who was teammates with both Kareem and Jordan, and somehow managed to outshine them for stretches. Do you know who else won a Finals MVP while his teammate Steph Curry has none? Andre Iguodala. So it would be tough to use this gauge to pick Jordan or LeBron over Kareem.
And sure, Jordan was fine in “Space Jam,” and LeBron was funny in “Trainwreck,” but Kareem in “Airplane” as ‘Roger’ the co-pilot denying that he was Kareem? Classic. So is Kareem the real GOAT? Roger, Roger.