Another NBA Playoff season, another rash of articles about how Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time. People just say it as a fact, as if it’s common knowledge, with no evidence needed. Well, we at A Sip of Sports need to see some evidence before we go along with the stampede. So let’s see some.
(For a fully comprehensive look at our argument for Greatest Basketball Player of All-Time click here.)
Michael Jordan in 15 seasons, 1,072 games, averaged 30.12 Points per Game. This is the most in NBA History and is solid evidence of Jordan’s greatness. How much weight should we give points per game. Let’s look at the top ten in points per game.
- Michael Jordan 30.12
- Wilt Chamberlain 30.07
- Elgin Baylor 27.36
- LeBron James 27.16
- Jerry West 27.03
- Kevin Durant 27.02
- Allen Iverson 26.66
- Bob Pettit 26.36
- George Gervin 26.18
- Oscar Robertson 25.68
There are several players on that list that are in the conversation for Greatest Player of All Time, #1, #2, #4, and #10 for sure, but that leaves seven that are not. Players not on the list of top scorers who are on the short list for Greatest Player of All Time are;
12. Kobe Bryant 24.99
14. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 24.61
16. Larry Bird 24.29
21. Shaquille O’Neal 23.69
Magic Johnson 19.54
Tim Duncan 19.03
Bill Russell 15.08
As you can see, Points Per Game is a valuable stat, but not the definitive one. What we’re going to do is do a one on one comparison between Jordan and one of the other players on the short list for Greatest of All Time and see how he stacks up.
The player we’ll use is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The reason we use Jabbar is that his career overlaps with most of the players on the list, including Jordan’s, which allows us to compare two players of roughly the same era. Jordan played from 1984-1993, 1995-1998, and then 2001-2003, 15 seasons in total. Jabbar was in the league from 1969-1989, 20 seasons in total. Jabbar played 388 more games than Jordan, and scored 6,095 more points than Michael in his career. What we’re attempting to gage first is which one was the more effective scorer. Jordan has a higher points per game average, Jabbar has more career points. Let’s look at it closer. Let’s judge them by age:
Age 21: 28.2
Age 22: 22.7 28.8
Age 23: 37.1 31.7
Age 24: 35.0 34.8
Age 25: 32.5 30.2
Age 26: 33.6 27.0
Age 27: 31.5 30.0
Age 28: 32.6 27.7
Age 29: 26.2
Age 30: 26.9 25.8
Age 31: 30.4 23.8
Age 32: 29.6 24.8
Age 33: 30.4 26.2
Age 34: 28.7 23.9
Age 35: 21.8
Age 36: 21.5
Age 37: 22.9 22.0
Age 38: 20.0 23.4
Age 39: 17.5
Age 40: 14.6
Age 41: 10.1
At the same age Jordan outscored Kareem just about every year. Jordan was the better scorer.
Let’s go to Rebounding.
Jabbar’s Rebound Per Game for his career was 11.2, with a total of 17,440. Jordan averaged 6.2 with a total of 6,672. There can be no debate, Jabbar was a far better rebounder. Well, Jordan defenders will say, Jabbar was 7’2” and Jordan was 6’6”. This gives Jabbar an unfair advantage. The answer to this question is easy; it doesn’t matter what size they were, the question is who was the better rebounder and that answer is obvious, Kareem.
Now we’ll look at Assists
Jabbar’s Assists Per Game was 3.6 with total of 5,660. Jordan’s were 5.3 with a total of 5,633. A slight edge for Jordan.
Not going to spend a lot of time on Steals and Blocks, but we would expect those to be a wash, and they are: Jabbar averaged more blocks (2.6 to 0.8) and Jordan more steals (2.3 to 0.9).
Total defensive value would be a slight edge to Jabbar. A 7’2” center in the middle is more valuable that a 6’6’’ shooting guard. He just is.
As it stands now, it’s very close. Jordan has an edge on offense, but Jabbar was much more valuable on the glass and slightly more valuable on defense. Let’s look at the subjective record:
MVP: 5 6
Top 5 in MVP: 10 15
All NBA first team: 10 10
Defensive Player of the Year: 1 0
Led League in Win Shares: 9 9
The Win Share figure means that each player was considered the best player in the NBA nine times. Abdul-Jabbar (273.4) has more career Win Shares than any other player, Jordan (214) is 5th. The other figures show that Abdul Jabbar was slightly more highly regarded while he was active than Jordan was while he was active.
Contributions to helping team win: Jordan’s teams were in 6 NBA Finals and won them all. Jabbar was in 10 NBA Finals and his team won 6. While both players were active in the league (1984-1989), Kareem’s Lakers were in 5 finals and won 3, while Jordan’s Bulls made no Finals. Jabbar was the best player on the Lakers through about 1985 when Magic Johnson replaced him. Jordan was the best player on the Bulls in all 6 seasons they made the Finals. We don’t see this as an advantage for Jordan.
Let’s look at their collegiate records: Jordan played 2 years for North Carolina when he was 19 & 20 years old. North Carolina went 32-2 and won the National Championship in his freshman year. Jordan was the third best player on that team, behind James Worthy and Sam Perkins. Perkins was back for Jordan’s sophomore year, UNC went 28-8 and lost in the Regional Final of the NCAA Tournament.
Abdul-Jabbar, who was known as Lew Alcindor in his UCLA days, went 88-2 in his three years and was the best player on a team that won 3 straight National Championships. Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was the greatest college player ever. There’s a reasonable opinion that Alcindor was the best basketball player in the world while he was playing for the Bruins. Big advantage for Jabbar.
(For a look at where these two greats collegiate teams rank all time, click here.)
How did their teams do when they weren’t available: The Milwaukee Bucks were 27-55 the year before the Bucks made Abdul-Jabbar the #1 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft. With basically the same roster, except for the addition of Kareem, the Bucks improved to 56-26. A 29 game improvement. The Chicago Bulls were 27-55 in 1984 when they made Michael Jordan their #1 pick (3rd overall) in the 1984 Draft. With basically the same roster, except for the addition of Jordan, they went 38-44 in 1985. An 11 game improvement. Big advantage for Jabbar.
Jordan retired to play baseball after the Bulls went 57-25 and won the NBA Championship in 1993. The Bulls in 1994 went 55-27 and lost to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Jordan came back late in the 1995 season when the Bulls went 47-35 and again lost in the Conference Semi-Finals. In 1996 the Bulls set the NBA record with a 72-10 record and won another NBA Championship. This is a mixed bag when rating Jordan, only a small impact when he left, but a huge impact when he returned. Jordan again retired after the Bulls 1998 season that saw them go 62-20 and win another NBA Championship. The Bulls slumped to 13-37 in the strike-shortened 1999 season. Jordan’s impact in the decline is tough to decipher, since the Bulls lost 3 other starters from their 1998 championship team (Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Luc Longley were the others). Jordan came back a last time in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards, a team that went 19-63 the year before, and helped them to improve to 37-45. An 18 game improvement.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded from the Bucks to the Lakers after the 1975 season. The Bucks, who received 3 starters in the Jabbar trade (Elmore Smith, Dave Meyers, Junior Bridgeman), remained the same, going 38-44 both seasons. The Lakers improved by 10 games from 30-52 to 40-42. This is a mixed bag for Jabbar.
Finally; the teams Jabbar played for overall record was 1,118-522, a .682 winning percentage. That breaks down to 342-150 .695 with Milwaukee and 776-372 .676 with Los Angeles. Jordan’s teams were 769-476 a .618 winning percentage. That breaks down to 695-386 .643 with Chicago and 74-90 .451 with Washington. If you think Jabbar’s ability to win was because of Magic Johnson, look at the record of Kareem’s Milwaukee Bucks’ teams. It’s hard not to conclude that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a more positive impact on his teams’ ability to win.
In conclusion, here’s what we think, Michael Jordan was a human highlight film. The game he played was spectacular, while Jabbar’s game was rather boring. There’s no doubt that Jordan’s game was more fun to watch, but it seems clear that Jabbar was the more valuable player.
We’re not saying here that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the Greatest of All Time, we think several others deserve to be in the discussion , Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell come to mind, but If Jordan was not better than Abdul-Jabbar, then he wasn’t the Greatest Player of All Time.