Was Michael Jordan the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time? Part II: Kareem is King

September 13, 2009

We continue with Part II of our analysis in which we evaluate the three finalists for the title of history's greatest basketball player: Wilt, The Captain, and His Airness.

Comparison #1: Wilt v. The Captain

The logical starting place is to compare the two men who played the same position.

Wilt was a powerful force of nature who absolutely dominated his opponents. Offensively, he had a variety of low-post moves, including his patented finger roll. He also was clever around the basket, often taking one step or a dribble before dunking rather than immediately elevating. By doing so, he avoided charges - a key factor in his career-long ability to avoid fouling out.

Contrary to popular perception, Wilt could be a team guy who would sacrifice when necessary. When his coaches asked him share the wealth, he led the league in assists. This same pattern followed him later during his time with the Lakers, as Wilt willingly took on the role of a defensive and rebounding specialist so that Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Gail Goodrich could do most of the shooting.

Wilt was history's most dominant rebounder and a very underrated defender. This was partly because during his early years he was such a prolific scorer that his shotblocking prowess was overlooked.

Moreover, a 30-something Wilt competed quite well against Kareem during Abdul-Jabbar's early years in the league, as Wilt consistently put up double-doubles in their head-to-head battles, and often equalled the production of his young foe.

Kareem, meanwhile, shared many of Wilt's great qualities in that he was a willing low post passer, a great shotblocker, an excellent rebounder, and a terrific offensive threat with a diverse post game.

Although Kareem employed more finesse and skill into his game, he too had the leaping ability, athleticism, and wiry strength to dominate his opponents.

Unlike Chamberlain, Kareem stayed remarkably injury-free throughout his career, allowing him to excel well into his late thirties and early forties. At age 38, he earned Finals MVP honors. At age 39, he averaged 20 points per game. And at age 40, he still put up 17 points a game, despite losing touches to the evolving games of Magic, James Worthy, and Byron Scott.

Wilt, on the other hand, developed some knee problems late in his career, and was a less agile player in his thirties than The Captain.

Then there is the issue of performance in the clutch.

Although Wilt certainly had his moments coming through in big games, his teams often came out on the short end of the stick. To be fair, many of those failures were beyond his control, as injuries, mediocre teammates, and in one instance, coach Butch Van Brenda Kolff, all contributed to his undoing.

Nevertheless, Kareem consistently delivered for his teams both at UCLA and in the NBA. Part of this was due to the skyhook - a shot with range out to 18 feet that opponents could not block.

Another reason was his ability to hit free throws, as Kareem consistently shot better than 70% from the stripe throughout his career.

In fact, if there is one thing that can be distinguished between these two giants, it is their free throw shooting. Wilt was always a poor free throw shooter, hitting at only a career 51% clip. At some point, that made him a less reliable go-to option in the clutch. And perhaps no better indicator of this difference between the two men can be seen than in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals.

At the time, Kareem was in 19th season. The Lakers were in their second year of transitioning their offensive attack away from Kareem and toward their younger stars. Despite his decrease in touches, Kareem managed to average a respectable 14 PPG.

With less than 30 seconds remaining, the Lakers had the ball and trailed by one point. A loss would have meant the end of the season, as the Detroit Pistons held a 3-2 edge in the series.

Head Coach Pat Riley had plenty of options at his disposal, starting with the previous year's MVP in Magic Johnson. He also had James Worthy - the man who would go on to earn Finals MVP honors for the series - and a sharpshooting, 22 PPG scorer in guard Byron Scott. Scott in fact had just drained a midrange J on the team's previous possession.

With all those options, Riley, without hesitation, elected to call the "fist play" -- Laker-speak for "get The Captain the ball." To put things in their proper perspective, Kareem was 41 years old at the time.

Kareem drew a foul, sank both free throws, and the Lakers went on to win their second title in a row.

Comparison #1 Winner: Kareem, if for no other reason than the fact that he was a better option to have in crunch time.

Comparison #2: Kareem v. Jordan

The sport's best big man versus the most complete perimeter player of all-time. We will start by looking at their defensive talents.

Jordan was a premiere defender, and from a statistical standpoint he accumulated his fair share of steals and blocks. But even more impressive was the defensive intensity he displayed on the court, as #23 competed relentlessly on the defensive end from tipoff until the final buzzer.

As an on-ball defender, Jordan was a true stopper who could essentially shut down his man for the night.

As a help defender he was spectacular, aggressively doubling down on bigs and then swatting them from behind.

Ironically, one of Jordan's most embarrassing moments on defense also revealed just how great a defender he truly was.

Late in his career, Jordan got matched up one night against a young AI near the top of the key. Iverson dribbled left, then gave Jordan a wicked crossover dribble to his right hand. The move faked out Jordan, giving Iverson ample space to rise up for a 20-foot jumper.

But as AI proceeded to rise up and bury the shot, Jordan made an incredibly quick recovery, and actually got a hand up to legitimately contest the shot. That recovery showed just how quick and tenacious #23 could be, even on those few occasions when he did get beat.

In comparing him to Kareem, however, Jordan has one glaring defensive disadvantage - his size.

Generally, a good big man can wreak more havoc on an offense than even the best of perimeter defenders. By rooting out post players, collapsing on penetration, swatting shots, and controlling one's defensive backboards, an intimidating interior defender can alter a team's entire attack away from the paint.

Kareem was precisely one of those intimidating big men. An accomplished shotblocker, Kareem led the league in total blocks at the time of his retirement. In fact, his overall number of blocks would have been well over 4,000 had the NBA kept records of such statistics during his first few seasons.

Kareem also was a solid man-to-man defender who could cover his man without defensive help. Although he could get outhustled down the floor in his later years, Kareem always competed aggressively with his foes for post position, and was often successful in pushing his man off the block.

But like any great big man, The Captain made his mark with his help defense. This was seen not only in his blocked shots, but also by the Lakers' collapse immediately following his retirement.

Kareem's one sub-par season was his twentieth and final year, so when he retired it was assumed that his loss could be filled with the combined production of Mychal Thompson and rookie Vlade Divac.

Initially those predictions seemed correct, as the Lakers hit the 60-win benchmark in the regular season and achieved the top seed in the West.

However, in the second round of the playoffs, they met up with Kevin Johnson and the Phoenix Suns. Without Abdul-Jabbar's presence in the paint, KJ created enormous problems for the Lakers' defense, as he broke down their guards only to find no big man near the basket to swat his shots. For the Lakers, it was the type of attack that The Captain had been able to discourage only one year earlier.

Abdul-Jabbar's absence revealed that he could indeed have a defensive impact on the game, even at age 42.

Offensively, Jordan was the most fundamentally sound player in the history of the game, as he literally had no flaws.

Jordan not only was a superb ball handler who could slash to the rim and finish over any big, but he also had a reliable J to fall back on when needed. Later in his career, that jumper became his bread and butter, as he killed opponents with his midrange game.

Jordan also had an outstanding post game, and for years was the only Bulls player capable of commanding a double team in the low post. In fact, Jordan's turnaround fadeaway jumper from the block was nearly as unblockable and unstoppable a weapon as Kareem's skyhook.

More importantly, Jordan consistently delivered in the clutch. Sure he had his occasional failings - his missed shot at the buzzer in Game 1 of the '91 Finals being one example - but during the 90's he was the one guy coaches feared above all others with the game on the line.

But as great as Jordan was in the clutch, Kareem was his equal, if not flat-out superior.

Any low post touch by Kareem mandated an automatic double or triple team. And because Kareem was such an outstanding passer, he could carve defenses apart by hitting cutters and spot up shooters.

Moreover, his skyhook single-handedly negated whatever defense could be thrown at him.

If he was forced off the block into bad position, he could still nail his hook as far out as 18 feet. And when he posted on the right block, Kareem could overcome any double team by simply "swinging left and shooting right" toward the baseline and away from the defense.

Still, much like any other big man, Kareem had one inherent disadvantage - his dependency upon first receiving a post entry pass.

Any poor pass, steal, or aggressive fronting defense, could essentially take the ball out of The Captain's hands during the game's crucial moments. This was clearly seen in the 1984 Finals, when Magic Johnson's pass to Abdul-Jabbar was stolen in the final minute, denying Kareem his chance to take the big shot.

College Years
If there is one factor that separates Kareem and Jordan, it is their college careers.

Kareem was the best player on the most dominant team in NCAA history. During his three years with UCLA, Kareem earned three NCAA championships and led his team to an 88-2 record. For each of those titles, he earned the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player honors.

Had he been allowed to play as a freshman he probably would have added a fourth ring, as his UCLA freshman squad famously routed the #1 ranked defending champion UCLA varsity squad during his freshman campaign.

Kareem's dominance was such that the NCAA felt compelled to outlaw the slam dunk in order to make games more competitive for UCLA's opponents.

Kareem had a career average at UCLA of 26.4 PPG, with a career-best mark of 61 points in a single game. He also was the main attraction behind the famous "Game of the Century" that was played before 50,000-plus at the Astrodome. That game was crucial in broadening the appeal of not just college basketball, but the sport as a whole.

Jordan himself was a college champion, thanks in large part to his game-winning shot in the final minute against Georgetown.

However, that season was Jordan's freshman year, and on that squad, it was James Worthy who was unquestionably the team's star and driving force behind their title run. Jordan essentially was a role player who rode Worthy's coattails to a championship.

Once Worthy left, Jordan never saw the Final Four again.

Jordan would finish his career at North Carolina with a career average of 17.7 PPG. And while he clearly was one of the country's top players when he left after his junior season, unlike Kareem, he was not the consensus number one guy.

X Factor: The Media
If the press did not exist, Jordan still would be in the "G.O.A.T." discussion due to his immense talent. He was clearly more than just a media creation.

Still, Jordan was the beneficiary of more media attention than any basketball player before him. That attention has one key effect: It causes those players who might otherwise be Jordan's equal to be overlooked.

In the case of Kareem and the media, there is another factor to consider, as Kareem has received negative attention from the press in the past.

Unlike Jordan, who kept things simple by smiling, pitching products, and never taking a stand on anything of significance, Kareem was a Pan-African intellectual who was not afraid to give his opinion.

To the white press corps, those characteristics caused him to be labeled as "militant," although in truth, Kareem was merely proud of his heritage and knowledgeable of history.

Through the years the negativity persisted, partly because Kareem wasn't always inclined to play the usual game of dull questions and soundbite answers that typifies press-athlete relations.

Kareem was smarter, more well read, and generally a deeper thinker than the average athlete of his time. And to the press, that was quite threatening. After all, it's not often that a writer finds an athlete with a superior command of English grammar than herself. This unique dynamic often led to the occasional unprovoked "attacks" against The Captain by the press.

Over the years, Kareem has responded to that negativity not by lashing out, but rather by withdrawing and taking the high road. That only led to more descriptions of Kareem being "sullen." Unfortunately, for him, he did not have the entire Nike P.R. department to rebut those claims.

Of course, reporters have always countered that Kareem brought the negativity upon himself.

But basketball fans have never felt such animosity towards Kareem. In fact, they have always respected him due to the class and dignity with which he carried himself. No greater evidence of this was seen than in his farewell tour, when opposing fans gave him heartfelt standing O's in every NBA city.

In the end, the media's lukewarm treatment of Kareem has artificially limited his standing among the basketball greats. He is not always the first or second name that rolls off most people's tongues when they discuss the all time greats, and that is an absolute crime for which the press must take some blame.

Because if performance, numbers, and intangibles truly did drive the debate, then Kareem's name would come up immediately.

Ultimately, the greatest player of all-time should be decided on performance, not popularity. The truth must be found on the hardwood.

The Verdict

Kareem. Both men were superb offensively and defensively, but The Captain was the most reliable offensive option in the history of the game. In addition, Kareem's dominance at the college level is something that Jordan just does not have, as MJ was a relative late bloomer in comparison. When all factors are viewed collectively, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest basketball player of all time.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com


  1. I agree. Kareem is the GOAT. All these Jordan lovers are basically youngsters who missed most of the 80s. If Kareem was back in the NBA today at age 32 - doesn't have to even be in his prime - he still is better than Rose, Howard, LeBron, Kobe, & everyone else in the league and its not even close

  2. Bill Walton on Kareem: "Without question, no hesitation, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best player I ever played against. Not just the best center, he was the best player, period. He was better than Magic (Johnson), better than Larry, better than Michael (Jordan). He was my source of motivation. Everything I did was to try to beat this guy. I lived to play against him, and I played my best ball against him. No matter what I threw at him, though, it seemed like he'd score 50 against me. His left leg belongs in the Smithsonian. And it wasn't just offense. He was a great defender and rebounder, a great passer, a wonderful leader. He was phenomenal."


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