The Greatest Forgotten Player

J.M. Poulard —  November 29, 2011

Let’s liven up the place by playing a little bit of Jeopardy. For those that are unfamiliar with the game, it consists of names, cities or events showing up on the television screen and you have to figure out what question would prompt the answer that is displayed on the monitor. For instance, if I said Forum Blue and Gold, the proper question would be something along the lines of “what is the name of the Los Angeles Lakers ESPN TrueHoop Affiliate blog?”

Now that that’s been settled, on to the game shall we?

Answer #1: Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain

Most would agree that the question here would be something along the lines of “who are the two most dominant players the NBA has ever seen?”

Answer #2: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan

If we polled NBA fans, the majority would probably conclude that the question is “Who are three of the greatest players of all time?”

Answer #3: Kobe Bryant

This one obviously has some historical context to take into account, but if that name had to be the answer to a question at any point in time during the year 2011, a fairly substantial amount of people would agree that the question would and should be “Who is the greatest Laker ever?”

All three answers seemed to sync up perfectly with the questions; and yet we could have substituted the name of one player to fit in all three of the answers for which the questions matched: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal were easily two of the most imposing as well as gifted big men the NBA has ever seen. Both players could put up ridiculous numbers in scoring, rebounding and shot blocking; but more importantly they instilled fear in the heart of their opponents with their size, athletic ability as well as basketball talent.

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan changed our collective perception of superstars. By the time they had retired, it wasn’t enough to simply outplay your opponent night after night no matter how great he was; instead you had to also make your teammates look and play better along the way in order to earn the right to be mentioned amongst them.

Recently, Kobe Bryant became the Lakers all-time leading scorer and in addition he helped the purple and gold extract some revenge against their biggest rivals by leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a victory over the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals. Couple that with his five championship rings, his MVP trophy, his four All-Star Game MVPs and his two Finals MVP trophies, and he built himself an impressive case to be considered the greatest Laker of all.

And for all of the greatness of the players previously listed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s name has to absolutely fit in there amongst them.

For all the talk of the dominance of big men, few were more dominant than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was throughout his lengthy career. Indeed, fans remember his famous skyhook and how automatic of a shot it seemed to be, but it was viewed as a finesse shot and thus the labels of power player or unstoppable big man were never really bestowed on the former Bruin.

And yet, when Abdul-Jabbar joined the NBA in 1969, no one could stop him. Not even the great Wilt Chamberlain. Granted the Big Dipper was an aging player, but he still had enough left in the tank to play at a high level (as evidenced by his 1972 NBA Finals MVP award) and dominate the paint. But when the Stilt played against Kareem, there was nothing much he could do. He may have blocked a few of his opponent’s shots and successfully contested his attempts; but ultimately Wilt was powerless against his nemesis in the 1971 Western Conference Finals and same in 1972.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a monster, routinely hitting the 30-point mark against Wilt. And to put this in perspective: if the Big Dipper himself could not limit the future Hall of Fame center’s production; no one would be able to. Have a look at Abdul-Jabbar’s six best statistical postseason runs (championship seasons in bold):

Season

Age

PPG

RPG

APG

BPG

FG%

1976-77

29

34.6

17.7

4.1

3.5

.607

1960-70

22

35.2

16.8

4.1

N/A*

.567

1973-74

26

32.2

15.8

4.9

2.4

.557

1979-80

32

31.9

12.1

3.1

3.9

.572

1978-79

31

28.5

12.6

4.8

4.1

.579

1970-71

23

26.6

17.0

2.5

N/A*

.567

*The NBA only started tracking blocks during the 1973-74 season.

The scoring and rebounding may stand out, but the most impressive aspect has to be his age. Kareem was impossible to defend from day one in the NBA, and that trend continued well into his late 30s (he averaged 25.9 points per game on 55.7 percent field goal shooting during the 1986 playoffs, at the tender age of 38). His effectiveness as well as his consistency allowed him to score an unprecedented 38,387 career points; the most in league history.

In addition, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s stellar play throughout his career helped him win six MVP awards; more than anyone in NBA history. And yet, when talks of the most dominant players ever arise, the player once nicknamed Cap is never mentioned.

He is arguably the greatest offensive player the world has ever seen and yet his game had so much more to offer.

Take one of his teammates for instance: Magic Johnson is without a doubt the standard by which all point guards will be measured because he understood when and how to get his teammates involved (running plays for them, feeding the hot hand and getting them easy scoring opportunities) and when to takeover. It is said, that no one made his teammates look better than Magic and it would be hard to disagree.

But in the same breath, rarely do we hear how Kareem helped Magic on the court. Indeed, Johnson often got clean looks right at the rim when he drove the ball simply because defenses were so keyed in on the Lakers’ star center. In addition, Abdul-Jabbar was a willing passer who would feed cutters and open shooters out of double teams. He rarely took ill-advised shots, instead preferring to either get a good look at the basket or pass it off to someone in better position. In addition, when Kareem screened for players or when they set screens for him underneath the basket, the outcome was often that the player involved in the screen action usually ended up open (even if it was for a fraction of a second) because his defender would help out on the Lakers’ center; and that’s when Magic would fire his bullet passes through traffic for lay ins.

Also, Kareem’s mere presence on both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers helped his teammates become better defenders. Indeed, it is often easier for perimeter players to get up in the face of their opponents and challenge them to drive past them when there is a big man anchoring the paint and knocking shots back. Thus, Michael Cooper may have been an excellent defender in his own right, but having Abdul-Jabbar covering his back certainly helped him in his dealings with the likes of Larry Bird.

Put it all together, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of, if not the greatest individual player in NBA history. But if such is the case, an argument could be made that he is also the greatest Laker of them all. Have a look at his production in a Lakers jersey (ranks in franchise history in parentheses):

  • 24,176 points (3rd)
  • 1,093 games played (2nd)
  • 37,492 minutes played (2nd)
  • 9,935 made field goals (1st)
  • 17,520 field goal attempts (4th)
  • 56.7 percent field goal percentage (4th)
  • 4,305 made free throws (5th)
  • 5,842 free throws attempted (5th)
  • 2,494 offensive rebounds (1st)
  • 7,785 defensive rebounds (1st)
  • 10,279 total rebounds (2nd)
  • 3,652 assists (6th)
  • 983 steals (6th)
  • 2,694 blocks (1st)
  • 22.1 points per game (6th)
  • 2.5 blocks per game (3rd)

In addition, the former Bruin captured three MVP awards, one Finals MVP, was selected to participate in 13 All-Star Games and was voted to the All-NBA 1st team six times as a Laker (yes, those are only Lakers accolades). His production as well as his play with the purple and gold make him a prime candidate for consideration as the best Laker of all time.

Granted, by the time Kobe Bryant’s career ends; one would have to think that he will be beyond the shadow of a doubt the franchise’s greatest player. Mind you as of today, there is still a little bit of wiggle room for debate.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career in the NBA was impressive in its own right and should by itself place him on pedestal. But if we factor in his collegiate career, it would be awfully tough to come up with a player who has enjoyed more individual and team success than the former UCLA center

During his time in UCLA, the Bruins won three straight national championships and Kareem was selected in each of those seasons as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

In essence, other than Bill Russell, there may not be another player with a more decorated or storied career than the individual formerly known as Lew Alcindor.

Six NBA championship rings coupled with six MVP awards is usually enough to have one’s name center around just about every debate that revolves around talks about the absolute best; but Abdul-Jabbar is far too often forgotten when these talks arise…

No wonder he complained about not having a statue.

J.M. Poulard

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20 responses to The Greatest Forgotten Player

  1. Having watched Kareem from the day he stepped onto the UCLA campus, I have to say this thread is long, long overdue.

    One story: I served in Vietnam in 1968 and that was one of the years UCLA won the national title. However, they lost to Houston earlier in the season because – IMO – Kareem had an eye injury. One of my fellow soldiers was a Houston follower and I bet him, before the tournament, that UCLA would finish #1. The game was played and UCLA won 104-64. I approached him and said, see I was right. He said the polls closed before the tournament started and Houston was rated #1. I was mad, but agreed to pay off the bet if he would listen to the UCLA-Houston tournament game again, as I had recorded it on tape. He refused and neither of us ever paid off on the bet.

    UCLA had a lot of talented players, but there was only one Lou Alcindor, and he could do anything on the court – sort of like Magic, but taller, a better shooter and a better defender.

  2. I agree that Kareem was one of the greatest ever, if not the GOAT. The sheer power of his numbers and the length of his career justify it, even for those who don’t remember his play.

    However, the same way that Kareem is a symbol to the Lakers franchise, so it is to the Bucks franchise. I don’t argue that he did more for the Lakers than he did for the Bucks, since he stayed longer, but he was not a Laker out of college.

    To me, the “greatest Laker of all time” must be a person who played his entire NBA career for our franchise and that narrows the number of players to be considered… So, I would have to pick between George Mikan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant.

    Today, when I think of the Lakers franchise, the first thing that comes to my mind is Magic’s smile (or the sadness we all felt when he made that announcement 20 years ago). The second thing I think of is that we suffered a lot at the hands of the Leprechauns even though we had Wilt, Logo and Elgin. And only after that I think of Shaq and Kobe.

    So, to me, the greatest of them all was the man who signed a contract for life with our franchise…

  3. Ahhhh….

    The vagaries of the NBA draft.

    Thank goodness for Ford…and Cleveland.

  4. How is it possible that Kareem is #1 in offensive rebs and #1 in Defensive rebs, but not #1 in total rebs?

    Is the #1 spot held by someone who played before rebs were separated between o rebs d rebs? Or is it a typo?

  5. I’ve always felt that KAJ has been criminally overlooked in any discussion about GOAT. The only creditable argument I’d consider is to split the categories between big men and perimeter players. Otherwise, I think KAJ has the best claim to GOAT compared to anyone else.

    Understanding that it’s a subjective argument, at the very least his name should be mentioned every single time a GOAT discussion arises.

  6. Amen, times 100, to everything chownoir just wrote.

    Kareem came along a few years to soon to capitalize on the NBC/TBS-driven NBA ratings swoon; he lacked the marketing magic a Nike could provide; he lacked the smile and media savvy of a Jordan or Magic; and let’s be honest, the Islam angle just wouldn’t sell as easily on Main Street or Madison Avenue compared to a guy whose fame was something more “traditional,” whatever that means. (Muhammad Ali overcame the religious bias largely through his persona, which was far more public friendly than Kareem’s.)

    For these reasons Kareem’s name is too often left out of the GOAT discussion. But his play on the court was better than anyone, in my opinion, including the Sacred Cow of Charlotte, Mr. Karla Knafel himself.

  7. This has been apoint I’ve been trying to make for years. Literally. I’m not sure how he gets overlooked other than the fact that Kareem was never physically menacing. He was skinny not bulky, he hopped and didn’t jump, he never spiked the ball on a blocked shot he almost always tried to keep it in play. Arguing about increased media coverage in Shaq’s era seems silly as there was almost no coverage of Wilt up until the 70s, near the end of his career. 100 points sounds more glamorous (as well as all the ladies) Kareem’s biggest off the court exploits involve books, jazz and helping people. Somehow, this relegates him to the rubbish heap.

  8. I feel for Buss, Mitch, Brown, Kobe, Bynum, Gasol, Artest, and Odom. Mostly
    veteran suprmeley talented men who who might have their last chance at a title submarined by the worst position in the NBA (the Lakers PG core of Fisher/Blake). What Mitch can do via FA or trade in the next month to put an actual starting NBA player at the 1 for Los Angeles will likley write the final chapter for Kobe Bryant in his attempt to go down as a top five NBA player of all time.

  9. That deceased equine seems to have undergone a physical assault.

  10. @Ezee_Bee (#4),
    The NBA only started to track offensive and defensive rebounds starting the 1973-74 season. So unfortunately there is no actual way of knowing how many offensive/defensive rebounds Elgin Baylor grabbed; but we do know for sure he is the Lakers all-time leading rebounder.

  11. 1. Big men NEVER deserve the kind of credit they should. If Wilt didn’t have the character he did, and Russel didn’t have his championships, their names won’t come up as often either. Not that they do come up often, as they’re mostly afterthoughts. Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron… they weren’t small, but at least none of them were centers. Not full-time, anyway ;)

    2. Kareem’s character didn’t help his cause. Me, being a Bruce Lee fan, really have a bias towards Kareem and love the guy a bit too much but he is not really liked, and if you’re not liked, you tend to get left out.

    3. His dominance was subtle. It’s not the overpowering, showboating style that makes highlight reels and makes you wonder how humans can achieve such athletic feats. I guess the modern equivalent would be Tim Duncan.

    Well, you could make a list that goes towards infinity… and honestly even in my mind I can’t shake off the fact that he was BIG. There’s something about basketball that undervalues centers’ performances, as if they’re expected to be MUCH better just to be treated equally…

  12. Finals MVP in 1971, and 1985.

    When someone else can pull that off, maybe they can lay claim to having as great a career as Kareem.

  13. I like Harold’s comparison of the Big Man with Timmy Duncan. The fact that Kareem’s game relied on a finesse shot is what I think hurt him in the GOAT discussions. It’s a shame but we know what the media is like and they like fast, big, thunderous. Kareem was never those things (big excepted). He was just ridiculously good, year in and year out, like Timmy Duncan has been.

  14. Kareem deserves a statue…

  15. Its almost the same reason why Phil Jackson doesn’t win Coach of the Year every year… he’s so good that the measuring stick used on him is so much higher/longer.

    So unless Phil hits like 73-9, he will never win COY. Now that he’s comfortably sitting back in his Montana Mansion, all the more.

    I feel bad for Kareem. I guess the racist POV can never be disassociated with him. I guess if he remained Lew Alcindor he would have had 5 statues by now.

  16. Well… It looks like Dwight Howard is out of Orlando but here is my question… How much will it take to get him in LA? Other teams can’t offer Orlando very much so it begs the question… Could the Lakers pull off the biggest steal in NBA history after just pulling off the biggest steal in NBA history (Gasol trade)? If the Lakers sent Gasol amd Odom for Howard and Hedu would that be enough? The Lakers would imidiatley use their amnesty cut on Hedu of course. Usually teams like Orlando want to rebuild and old guys past their primes like Odom and Gasol wouldn’t be very apitising but Odom just came off his best season in LA and both still have a championship shine of two championships in three years. The Lakers would then have the two best big men in the NBA for a decade. Rebuilding after Kobe would no longer be an issue and the team would imidiatley overtake the Heat in Vegas as title favorites. If there is any concern of floor spacing with the 6-10 Howard and 7-0 Bynum it would quickly be forgotten when we see teams struggle to score 60 points against them. Let’s not forget both also have average midrange jumpers. This isn’t a fantasy… I mean the Nets are offering Robin Lopez and pics.

  17. ultimately, kareem caused this for himself. who knows what he did in particular, but it was something. to ascribe this to racism takes a particular kind of idiocy (given that almost all the other contenders are of the same race).

    for some reason, many white sports writers like to trot out racism against white fans. but they never seem to explain how racist people will pay money and support a league that is predominantly black.

  18. #18. I think you misunderstood the comment. It was more about Kareem’s outspokenness on issues about race that made people uncomfortable. Not people’s racist views against Kareem. I don’t think it matters that he was black.

    And, at this point, we probably want to move on. This could spiral quickly into a debate that has little, if anything, to do with basketball…

  19. The greatest forgotten player, to me, is Elgin Baylor.