Monday, May 23, 2011

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Statue and Legacy

There was a bit of a dustup last week regarding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his status within the Lakers organization. Now, most of these stories got boiled down to "Kareem's upset because he doesn't have a statue," which isn't exactly accurate or fair. Yes, he does seem to be ticked off about that, but that seems to be more of a tipping point thing than the actual issue. The fact that he doesn't have a statue was the proverbial "last straw" in what he feels is a continual lack of respect from the Lakers organization - and probably from fans and the NBA in general.

Now, I'll admit that before I started working on my Greatness Equation project a couple of years ago, I would not have put Kareem as high up as that system does. Just off the top of my head, I would've said he was a top ten player, but I really don't know where I would've placed him. I'm thinking I probably would've said sixth or seventh, after Jordan, Wilt, Russell, Magic, Bird, and maybe Robertson (Oscar, not Alvin). I certainly would not have placed him second as the formula suggests he is. And it's not even close between him and third place (Russell). Kareem has a 932.0 rating while Russell has a 739.6. In fact, Kareem is far closer to first place than he is to third - Jordan is (obviously) in first with a 934.5 rating. (To be fair, though, Jordan left a ton of points on the table by giving up two years of his prime and three still good to great seasons. I once estimated he'd have had, conservatively, 200 more points on that total if he'd played continuously from his rookie season to his final retirement.)

(Quick side note about the statue before I forget: Kareem is 2nd all-time, but he's 4th on the Greatest Lakers list after West, Magic, and Kobe because he spent his first six years with the Bucks. He still should have a statue, and I'm sure he'll get one before Kobe, but West and Magic rightfully come first.)

So, what exactly did Kareem do to place himself so high on that list? Well first let's take a look at his stats. Even though the formula doesn't use stats to determine the rating, I wanted to lay some of these out. We all know he's first all-time in points. He's also fourth all-time in rebounds and third all-time in blocks. He's also 35th overall all-time in assists, and he leads all centers in that category. Wilt is second among centers (59th overall) with 1,017 less than Kareem. (Kareem is 87th overall in steals, 7th among centers as well.) With some of the more advanced stats, Kareem is first all-time in win shares, and 12th all-time in PER.

Setting those stats aside and just looking at the formula's criteria, here's what Kareem did: first all-time in win shares with 273.4, 6 MVP's with 6.202 MVP Award Shares (2nd all-time), 10 All-NBA 1st Team Selections (tied for 2nd), 5 All-NBA 2nd Team Selections, 19 All-Star Selections (1st), 6 Championships with 13.4 Championship Win Shares, 4 Finals Losses with 10.4 Finals Win Shares, and 4 Conference Finals Losses with 9.0 Conference Finals Win Shares.

Then what are the arguments against Kareem's greatness? Well, first, he played for 20 seasons. When an average NBA career lasts 12-15 seasons, playing an extra 5-8 years is bound to inflate some stats. But there's something to be said for longevity in it's own right. And he was in the top 5 in MVP voting for 15 years and in the top 10 another two years, so it's not like he was just hanging on by a thread any more than any other great player does. 

I think the other argument against Kareem is primarily Magic Johnson. Kareem really only won one title as a team's alpha dog, which was in Milwaukee. (Yeah, Oscar Robertson was on the team, too, and he was still really good, but he definitely wasn't better than Kareem.) Does Kareem win those five titles in Los Angeles without Magic? No, definitely not. Maybe one or two, but not five. But does Magic win those five titles without Kareem? Again, maybe one or two, but not five. And neither of them win in 1988 without James Worthy. Plus, Bird doesn't win three without McHale and Parish, Jordan (probably) doesn't win six without Pippen, Shaq doesn't win four without Kobe and Wade, Kobe doesn't win five without Shaq and Gasol, and Russell doesn't win 11 without Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, and Bill Sharman. I always find it to be a flawed argument to discount a player's titles by saying he didn't do it on his own, or he wasn't the best player on the team. Very rarely does a player single-handedly carry a team to a championship. (I can really only think of it happening twice in the last 30 years: Duncan in 2003 and Hakeem in 1994.) And nobody wins a handful of championships that way.

But, hell, titles are titles. I remember just a few years ago people started asking "Is Robert Horry a Hall of Famer?" after he won his seventh ring. (Answer: no.) So obviously people at least acknowledge that winning titles is extremely important to a player's greatness and legacy. So why don't Kareem's six get the same kind of reverence that Jordan's six get? Well, I think it comes down to the way Kareem played.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar looked absolutely effortless when he was playing basketball. You know how when you look up and see a bird soaring the sky, you don't even bat an eye? But really, every time, you should be thinking to yourself, "Holy s---, that thing is f---ing flying!" Well, we don't. It has wings. It looks like it should fly. It's supposed to fly. The same thing happened with Kareem. The man looked like he should be playing basketball. He was supposed to play basketball. Hell, the NCAA changed the rules of the game when he was playing because it was so damn easy for him. I think people somewhat resent that, or at least hold it against him. "How can he be great? He didn't have to try." Which may or may not be true. I really don't know how hard Kareem tried to be great at the game, mostly because it doesn't look like he was trying at all. He perfected the skyhook, which is the most unblockable shot ever developed. And it must be insanely hard to do, because I've never seen another play do it well, but if you watch clips of Kareem doing it - it simply looked effortless. It looked like walking, breathing, and making skyhook jump shots from the free throw line all took the same amount of effort for him to do successfully.

But what about other players? I've said before that Blake Griffin was put on this earth to dunk. That his purpose in life is to viciously throw a ball through a hoop, energize his teammates, and demoralize his opponents. But that's not entirely true. It doesn't take that much to imagine him as a linebacker pulverizing opposing quarterbacks. It really doesn't even take that much to imagine him playing hockey and checking someone through the glass and into the stands. But he chose to play basketball. And you can say that about basically any basketball player. You can imagine Steve Nash playing soccer. You can imagine LeBron playing football. You can even imagine Tim Duncan as an Olympic swimmer. Maybe none of them would be as great at those other sports as they are at basketball, but you can still imagine them doing it, and doing it well. Michael Jordan is a great example of this. Yes, he sucked at baseball. But he sucked relative to other professional baseball players. He was still better than 99% of everyone who has ever swung a bat. And I have no doubts that if he'd devoted himself to baseball instead of basketball from day one, he'd have been in the major leagues. He probably wouldn't have been as great, or the "Michael Jordan of baseball" as it were, but he could have made a career out of it.

And I think that's what hurts Kareem most of all in the eyes of the general public. You don't marvel at a bird that's flying, you marvel at a man who has figured out how to fly.

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