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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.