HoopsHype is doing a series where we examine various historically elite player’s cases to be considered the NBA’s GOAT.
First, we covered the legacy of one strong candidate, Michael Jordan. Next, we followed that up with the current era of basketball’s unquestioned best player… LeBron James. Today, we examine the case of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the greatest big man in league history.
Let’s jump right in.
He has the most MVP trophies ever…
When discussing GOAT candidates, one of the most common accolades that get brought up is the all-important number of MVP awards players won during their careers.
Magic Johnson won three during his time in the NBA. Larry Bird did, too. LeBron has four (and potentially counting). Jordan and Bill Russell have five apiece.
He’s got six, the most won by a single player ever.
Abdul-Jabbar’s first MVP award came in 1970-71, his age-23 season, just the second campaign of his career, and one in which he led the league in scoring with 31.7 points per game (57.7 FG%) while also averaging 16.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists nightly. He led the Bucks to a championship that season, too.
Abdul-Jabbar’s last MVP came in 1979-80 as a 32-year-old when he averaged 24.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and a league-leading 3.4 blocks per game. He won the second title of his career that season, helping lead the Lakers to the top of that mountain that year.
He has an overwhelming amount of accolades, aside from MVPs…
Abdul-Jabbar owns the record for most All-Star appearances with 19 (he was an All-Star in all but one of his 20 career seasons), plus he made 10 1st Team All-NBAs (third-most ever) and five 2nd Team All-NBAs. That places Abdul-Jabbar tied for the most All-NBA selections all-time with James and Bryant. It should be noted, though, that Abdul-Jabbar had the unfavorable luck of playing in an era without the existence of a 3rd Team All-NBA, which didn’t come into effect until 1988, meaning instead of being tied for the most All-NBA selections, he could own the record outright right now.
On top of all that, Abdul-Jabbar was a two-time Finals MVP, a two-time scoring champion, a four-time blocks leader and a one-time rebounding champion. He’s also one of just two players, along with David Robinson, to have led the league in scoring, rebounding and blocks throughout their careers.
He might have done most of that in an era not considered the most talent-laden in league history, but either way, Abdul-Jabbar’s list of accolades is absurdly impressive. And for someone who arrived in the NBA with a ton of fanfare and hype after his illustrious college career, he more than lived up to expectations.
His peak and longevity are unmatched…
Abdul-Jabbar’s statistical peak – a seven-year stretch from when he was 22 until he was 29 – was insane. Over that run, the big man averaged 30 points, 15.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, winning one title in those seven years, taking home a Finals MVP, while also being named MVP four times and making 1st Team All-NBA five times.
Even if Abdul-Jabbar’s production had fallen off a cliff after that point, he would have been a Hall-of-Famer. The fact that the UCLA legend would go on to have another ten extremely high-level campaigns after that just goes to show why he is often mentioned as a GOAT candidate.
Abdul-Jabbar won four more titles after his statistical seven-year peak, even being named Finals MVP in 1985, putting an unheard-of 14-year gap between his two Finals MVP awards, a record for the longest stretch between a player’s first and last such trophy.
Considering the average NBA career lasts just under five seasons, that Abdul-Jabbar was performing at an elite level for such a long time is quite noteworthy when discussing his case to be considered the GOAT.
He won an awful lot…
Perhaps because he was sometimes the sidekick of those teams, maybe it’s because it happened a long time ago, but for whatever reason, when discussing GOATs, the fact that Abdul-Jabbar won six titles in his playing career doesn’t get brought up a lot.
Those six championships put him tied for the second-most since he reached the NBA along with Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Only career role player Robert Horry has more rings since Abdul-Jabbar’s debut.
His first title came in 1970-71 and he was unquestionably the top player for the Milwaukee Bucks that year, averaging 27 points and 18.5 rebounds over a four-game championship victory those Finals. And his last one came in 1987-88 when he had fallen down the Los Angeles Lakers’ pecking order third-most important player on that team behind Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
Even so, for Abdul-Jabbar to contribute to that many championships – more than all but 13 players ever – says a lot about Abdul Jabbar’s historically elite career.
Additionally, Abdul-Jabbar owns the record for most wins by a player with 1,074, which also definitely doesn’t get discussed nearly enough anymore.
He’s the NBA’s all-time leader in scoring…
Throughout his 20-year career, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 24.6 points per contest, posting 17 seasons where he averaged at least 20 points, which is tied with LeBron James and Karl Malone for the most all-time.
In total, he finished his time in the NBA with 38,387 total points scored, making him the Association’s all-time leading scorer, a record that has stood for over 30 seasons at this point. He did that without looking for foul calls or shooting a bunch of three-pointers, too.
In a sport where getting buckets is the most important endgame, the fact that Abdul-Jabbar has scored more points than anyone else, as well as cashed in more field goals than anyone else (with 15,837), goes a long way in his GOAT candidacy.
He had the most unstoppable go-to move ever…
When asked to determine the most iconic, dominant singular moves in NBA history, there’s almost always one common answer: Kareem’s skyhook shot.
He’d back down opponents no matter how long it took, sometimes fake like he was turning right before going to his left shoulder, extending his right arm to an impossible-to-block spot in the air, and toss in buckets from anywhere in the short midrange area of the floor.
And although he made it look easy at times, no player since Abdul-Jabbar has been anywhere near as effective trying to score off of hook shots, and in today’s NBA the move is basically extinct.
How frustrating must it have been for the big men of the 1970s and ’80s who knew what Abdul-Jabbar wanted to do, and yet were so rarely able to stop him? What made it even harder to stop was the fact that Abdul-Jabbar had a turnaround fadeaway jumper he could go to as a counter to the skyhook, so in all, the Bucks and Lakers legend made things impossible for foes who wanted to slow him down.
He also absolutely dominated at the college level…
Along with LeBron James, Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most hyped-up players ever, who had a ton of buzz surrounding him prior to reaching the NBA.
The reason for that is Abdul-Jabbar had arguably the greatest college basketball career in the sport’s long history, one that saw him spend three seasons at UCLA, win a national title all three seasons, be named a 1st Team All-American all three seasons, win National College Player of the Year all three seasons and be named Final Four Most Outstanding Player all three seasons.
That’s complete and utter dominance at the NCAA level, and if we were to factor it into this discussion, then Abdul-Jabbar easily becomes the strongest GOAT candidate we have.
Had his prime occurred later, there might not be a GOAT debate…
Abdul-Jabbar’s GOAT candidacy gets hurt by the fact that his peak occurred in a down era historically for the NBA, one where the 7-footer didn’t have a true rival and where the sport wasn’t anywhere near as popular as it would go on to become. As you’ve probably heard countless times, the Finals were even on tape delay back then, which is hard to fathom considering the millions of people who enjoy the NBA live these days.
By the time the league saw an uptick in talent and popularity in the 1980s, Abdul-Jabbar, though still an excellent player, wasn’t the same guy who was dropping 30 points nightly over the first seven years of his career.
Let’s say Abdul-Jabbar comes along 10 years later, starting his career in 1979-80 and finishing it up in 1999-00, and it goes the exact same way: He becomes the league’s all-time leading scorer, he wins MVP a record six times, he makes 19 All-Star appearances and all that other stuff we just talked about.
Would there even be a debate about who the GOAT is right now?
Probably, just because people love to argue about sports that much, but way more people might side with Abdul-Jabbar in the discussion than those who do so now.
In all, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t have the ultra-charismatic personality of a Jordan, or a LeBron or even of a Kobe, which cost him some fans, nor did he do the bulk of his damage in a super popular, talent-laden era of the NBA, but even so, when you consider everything the sky-hooking legend accomplished in the sport, it’s hard to not give him at least some consideration when discussing who the greatest NBA player of all time is.
And Abdul-Jabbar is definitely up there.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter: @FrankUrbina_.