Backpicks GOAT: #1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Key stats and trends

  • Greatest offensive post player pre-3-point line; rarified efficiency at high volume
  • Stellar but flawed defender, anchoring excellent defenses in Milwaukee
  • Unparalleled longevity, particularly for his era

Scouting Report

When people discuss dominant offensive bigs of the early years, they often speak of Wilt. But Kareem’s game was on another level. He towered over opponents, pushing 7-foot 2-inches without shoes, yet was nimble and dexterous. And he possessed the impregnable Sky Hook.

Much like Wilt, he swung the ball out high with an untouchable reach, primed to hit open teammates. But unlike Chamberlain, he blended his passing into his scoring, able to manipulate defenders into picking a poison. This is subtle, but notice No. 10 for Golden State (Charles Johnson) clap his hands in disgust after realizing he’s been baited, allowing Kareem to release the hook:

His height and kung fu agility made the hook a basketball cheat code. It was accurate and had range — I’d estimate out to 16 feet — and a defender’s only hope was to sit on his left hip and prevent a clear launch. But from Day One, Jabbar attacked these overplays with counters back to the right. Below, he feels the venerable Willis Reed cheating, so he drop-steps the other way for the easy score. Function over form:

He lacked Sportscaster athleticism, but fell back on his height, periscoping over 7-footers to spot valuable passes:1

Kareem was active without the ball, readily flashing to either side of the lane to vacuum in entries. This made him more difficult to defend than Wilt’s stationary approach, as Milwaukee would work the ball from side to side in coordination with Kareem’s position, setting up plays like this, where Oscar’s entry from the top surprises the post defender. From there, it was all footwork and length:

Young Kareem was always aggressive like this, and as a result, an enormity of possessions ran through him — his motion and Milwaukee’s spacing made it harder to deny him touches. (The Bucks spacing was ahead of what most ’60s stars experienced, but it ebbed and flowed in the ’70s, and was still subpar compared to today.) He was a solid passer too, possessing above-average court awareness and a feel for hitting cutters. He created a decent amount of offense for his teammates — especially the shooters — and occasionally found interior hookups as well:

As his career wore on, he grew more comfortable anchoring the offense from the mid-post and his distribution improved. He hit cutters and backdoors regularly; here’s a picture-perfect shovel pass from ’79, a connection he made regularly during his prime:

He was an excellent outlet passer too, eagerly looking to convert rebounds into fast breaks. In the first clip, he steals the board with his length before firing one downcourt. In the second, he shows off awareness and his quarterbacking skills:

He wasn’t a great half-court passer though. His delivery was choppy from time to time; here, he floats one that was intercepted when a ball fake might have served him better:

His back-to-the-basket set ups could create blindspots too. Below, he misses a layup pass while sizing up his shot (his goggles might have hindered his vision as well). In the second clip, it takes him a beat to find a nice dime:

By the peak of his powers (around 1977), Kareem added strength to his frame, allowing him to bang, spin and wheel around the paint more effectively. He polished a left-handed version of the Sky Hook and an off-hand finger roll, giving him a complete toolbox of high-efficiency post moves:2

Bruising, physical defenders like Chamberlain and Nate Thurmond bothered Jabbar in his early years, slowing him down in his Milwaukee postseasons. But after a physical maturation, he ravaged teams in the playoffs, regularly upping his scoring on pristine efficiency during his best Laker years. Notice how he drives his defender backwards on this post up, something missing from his early days:

He was also a high-end shot-blocker from the beginning. Teammate and former Wilt backcourt man Guy Rodgers compared Kareem’s rim protection to Bill Russell’s in his rookie year:

“On defense you play differently with him in there. He’s no Russell yet, but Russell was the greatest defensive player who ever lived…[Boston guard] K.C. Jones…had the Great Eraser behind him and he could take risks he wouldn’t take normally. That’s what we have in [Abdul-Jabbar]. We take chances because we know [he] is there.”

He liked to camp out in front of the hoop to eradicate threats. Even when his reaction time lagged, his telephone pole height made up for it:

This little one-legged leap was effective, but it could land him out of position ocassionaly. Even when squared up, his rim defense wasn’t impenetrable. Sometimes, the timing was just off:

He was capable of quick reactions though, thwarting layups at the rim with his skyscraper reach:

He disrupted shots like some of the all-time paint protectors, and is one of 23 players ever to post a 4 percent block rate and 2 percent steal rate in a season (1978). He was slender enough to be pushed off balance at times, yet was so long that he could recover and disrupt attempts.

Unlike Olajuwon and Garnett, Kareem wasn’t hyper mobile, especially after a few years in the league. He was also saddled with some poor habits. Per his reputation, he wouldn’t always hustle back defensively, and on a few occasions in my film study his man beat him down the floor. Sometimes he would dangle in the backcourt while his mark released for a score at the rim:

And sometimes, his awareness or positioning was slightly off, which can make the difference between a very good defender and a great one:

As he aged, his defensive exertion vacillated, and he went through stretches on film where he was more upright and his recoveries were lethargic:

These periods of lethargy increased over the years, but they were interrupted by stretches of heightened engagement, with Jabbar crouched in his stance, toggling from one threat to the next. When his motor was revving, he would slide and react like the best interior defenders in history:

While issues with awareness, effort and mobility limited him compared to the all-time greats, his length was an enormous equalizer. In the same way giants like Mark Eaton and Manute Bol influenced penetrators, Kareem’s wide block radius swatted or redirected countless shots, even as his agility faded:

In the ’80s, his quickness gradually waned. This loss of coverage is reflected in Jabbar’s rebounding percentages: For most of the ’70s, his defensive rebounding rates were over 26 percent (in the top 10 percent historically among forwards and centers). However, in 1980, the number dropped to 22 percent. Some of that was caused by the addition of better rebounding teammates, but it’s also consistent with his drop in defensive mobility on tape. He would dip from 22 percent in ’81 to 19 percent in ’82 and then down to 17 percent — below-average for big men — for the heart of the ’80s. Yet even in the mid-’80s, Kareem’s length — with only marginal movement — made him a decent protector behind the Lakers trapping D:

From 1983-86, his four-year block percentage fell in the 88th percentile among all players historically. His defense shriveled by ’87, but he could still score during those post-prime years. Kareem’s ageless hook guided him to a mind-boggling 38-year old season in 1986: He averaged 24.6 points per 75 on +6.2 percent relative efficiency (rTS) with 3 creations per 100, a stat line nearly identical to his own 1978 season, Tim Duncan’s MVP seasons (’02 and ’03) and Hakeem Olajuwon’s 1993 season. Jabbar held on offensively in ’87 before finally slipping in 1988.

Impact Evaluations

Kareem’s arrival in Milwaukee correlated with a seismic shift in the Bucks. He proved to be scalable — playing on historically dominant teams — and a floor-raiser, keeping nearly all of his full-strength squads at 50-wins or better, even with questionable rosters around him. He anchored good defenses and great offenses with an historically strong box score profile. And regressing his game-level data reveals superstar impact.3

The ’69 expansion Bucks played at a 23-win pace when healthy (-6.4 SRS) in the first half of the season, and then a 31-win pace (-2.3) for the second half after a midseason trade. In 1970, they added Jabbar and (the historically underrated) Bobby Dandridge to complete the greatest rookie class in NBA history.4 The Bucks were aided by picture perfect health — their top eight players missed a combined 16 games — and as a result, the ’70 team catapulted to a 53-win pace (4.3 SRS) in Kareem’s rookie year.

In 1971, the Bucks added Oscar Robertson, one of the greatest offensive players in league history. They picked up the sharp-shooting Lucius Allen (the only rotational player with health problems that year), veteran Bob Boozer and saw Dandridge mature into an All-Star level talent. Milwaukee dominated a league watered down by expansion, and at full-strength, played at an amazing 70-win pace (11.9 SRS) and cruised to the title.

The defense was excellent that year, but it was the offense that stole the show. They set the record for relative offensive rating (rORtg) at +6.7 points better than league-average efficiency, a mark that would stand until the early 1980s. No other team before the 3-point line was even 6 points ahead of the league, and the Bucks team true shooting was 4.9 percent ahead of the league (rTS), an outlier from the non-3-point era:

Kareem deserves high-praise as the co-pilot of such offenses. Oscar’s presence and Dandridge’s improvement undoubtedly helped him find easier looks, but Jabbar’s swift decisions and balanced floor game made symbiosis possible. Using estimates of creation and based on samples of film, it’s likely that Kareem was creating about 3 or 4 shots per 100 for teammates at the time (and was probably between 5 and 6 at his peak a few years later). These are good rates for a post player, even today.

His scoring was even better. If Jerry West was the gold standard in the ’60s, Kareem went platinum in the ’70s. No one until the middle of the Reagan administration scored at comparable rates with better accuracy than Jabbar, who topped 25 points per 75 at a Curry-like efficiency of +10 percent in 1971 and 1972.5 He was even better during the postseason after his physical maturation in LA, distancing himself from the other great big men in history:

In 1972, the Bucks repeated their league-wide dominance when healthy, but Oscar missed 18 games. Without him, they played at a staggering 62-win pace (7.8 SRS), a testament to Jabbar and company’s dominance over a depleted league. At full-strength, Milwaukee played at a 70-win clip (again) with an even better point differential (12.4 SRS) than in ’71. They collided with power Los Angeles — a 69-win team themselves — dropping the Western Conference Finals in six games in a battle of titans.6

By 1973, the expansion freight train slowed and the league caught up to Milwaukee.7 Despite returning its top six players, the Bucks regressed to earthly point differentials, playing like a 60-win team (7.1 SRS) at full-strength. (Oscar missed time along with Dandridge and Perry.) While injuries and Robertson’s aging were certainly factors in Milwaukee’s backslide, some of this was likely the league improving as new talent arrived without further expansion. In ’74, they galloped to a 63-win pace when healthy (8.1 SRS) with the same rotation. Oscar continued to fall off, but this was offset by excellent roster continuity and further growth from Kareem and company.

In 1975, Oscar contentiously retired and Jabbar broke his hand punching a basket stanchion to start the year. Dandridge regressed and the Bucks played at a 49-win pace (2.6 SRS) when healthy. They also lost Curtis Perry to the expansion draft and traded Lucius Allen for Jim Price, who would only play 41 games. Here’s how the Bucks fared without Kareem that year based on shooting data:

As a scorer who drew constant defensive attention, the offensive drop-off (of approximately 7 efficiency points) without Jabbar is understandable. Consistent with the pattern we’ve seen throughout this series, Dandridge barely fell off without Kareem because he could create his own offense. But a finisher like Jon McGlocklin — a deadly outside shooter at the time — was reliant on an offensive vortex like Jabbar to draw his man away and create easy looks. In those games without Kareem, Milwaukee stumbled along at a 28-win pace (-4.5 SRS).

He left a solid footprint on defense too, which jibes with the box score and his positive tendencies on tape. In addition to the 6 point drop in opponent shooting efficiency from his missed games in ’75, his man defense was a plus as well. Below, I’ve plotted the available data against offensively inclined All-Star centers from 1973 to 1977, comparing their scoring against Kareem versus the rest of the league:8

Collectively, those offensive All-Stars lost 3 percentage points off their efficiency with nearly identical scoring rates when facing Jabbar, similar to Shaquille O’Neal and slightly behind Dikembe Mutombo. It’s not the universal lockdown we saw from Russell — likely a result of the inconsistencies from the scouting report — but it’s an indicator that Kareem made scoring a smidge dicier for top-shelf bigs. His team’s overall defensive ratings during this period also support the notion that he was a viable defensive anchor (the Bucks were 4 points stingier than the league from 1971-74). And, despite a lack of big men on the Lakers during the ’70s, Kareem’s defenses in LA still hovered around average. He wasn’t the Second Coming of Russell, but he moved the needle on that end.9

By ’75, Kareem was said to be brooding, no longer wanting to play in Milwaukee for off-court reasons. (He was deeply effected at that point by the 1973 Hanafi Muslim massacre.) So, before the ’76 season, he was traded to the Lakers for a king’s ransom: the second and eighth pick in the draft, center Elmore Smith and a rookie off the bench (Brian Winters). This left the Laker roster bare, and LA was forced to give front-court minutes to future flameouts Don Ford and Cornell Warner. As a result, the Lakers were merely a .500 team when healthy that year.

After missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, Kareem returned in ’77 in the most notable floor-raising effort of his career. With his offensive repertoire at its apex, the Lakers played at a 55-win pace at full-strength (4.9 SRS). While the team is historically panned for its lack of ball-handling and guard play, LA did finish second in the league in turnover rate, largely because the backcourt wasn’t asked to do much heavy lifting. The overall roster construction was better around Jabbar, complementing him with a number of shooters (Lucius Allen, Cazzie Russell) to play more of an inside-out game.

At the beginning of the ’78 season, Kareem cold-cocked Bucks center Kent Benson and missed substantial time with another broken hand. However, it’s hard to infer much from the injury since LA fired off two trades around that period.10 With Jabbar — and ignoring all the other lineup activity — the Lakers played like a 53-win team (4.1 SRS) in ’78. With a similar roster in ’79 (minus Charlie Scott), LA ticked along at a 50-win clip when healthy (3.1 SRS). Below, I’ve plotted the ’78 team’s performance in 21 games without Kareem, in which the Lakers played at a 36-win pace (-1.7 SRS) after a major offensive drop-off:11

As Kareem’s prime was nearing its end, LA drafted Magic Johnson and brought in first-year forward Michael Cooper along with veterans Jim Chones and Spencer Haywood. Upgrading these secondary pieces resulted in a 58-win pace at full-strength and a championship. In ’81, with Haywood gone but the young players a year older, the Lakers played like a 52-win team (4.7 SRS) when healthy, and in 45 games without Magic clocked along at a 47-win clip (2.1 SRS) behind Jabbar. In ’82, with his prime ending, the full-strength Lakers marched to a 59-win pace (6.4 SRS) en route to another title. (They would replicate the same pace the following year.)

At his peak, Jabbar’s floor-raising efforts were phenomenal, only dipping below a 49-win pace once (in a barren situation in ’76) and repeatedly carrying squads across the 50-win plateau in the ’70s. Yet his integration on high-end offenses was seamless, both in Milwaukee at the beginning of the decade, and then again in LA 10 years later, where he was a specialized half-court anchor for the Lakers dynasty. Incredibly, Kareem was able to maintain comparable scoring rates during Showtime, with an rTS between +6 and +8 percent. In 1986, he finished in the top-five of the MVP voting for the 15th time.

Yes, others were better at their best, but Jabbar passes them with the most impressive longevity in NBA history, finishing with the most All-Star years (17) and MVP-level seasons (10) in this series. Put another way, his Lakers career alone was longer than Magic Johnson’s entire career (and nearly as valuable), and he played six all-world years before that in Milwaukee. His drop in mobility (per the scouting report) reduced him to a marginal defender during many of those later seasons, but size kept him relevant, and I credit him with seven strong All-Star campaigns in the ’80s alone and three MVP-level years at the beginning of that decade.

At his best, he was an elite offensive anchor and a strong defender with a number of monstrous value-signals, enough for me to give him a top-eight peak of all time. My valuations even feel conservative because of how tricky it is to weigh his dominance in the early ’70s; he smoked the competition, but it was the strangest period in league history, with teams stretched thin by expansion. His lead over the field is large enough that I’d have to downgrade his prime seasons by nearly 10 percent just to pull him off the top line. So, the most reasonable conclusion is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar authored the best career in NBA history.

  1. Yup, this layup was nullified because of a “travel.”
  2. Also, proof the NBA has been missing blatant travels since 1979!
  3. Jabbar’s average impact in those three studies (+6.2) falls just short of the +8 or so from the best results ever.
  4. Dandridge made four All-Star teams and finished fifth in the ’79 MVP voting.
  5. If we take the volume of shot attempts and multiply it by the efficiency of the shots, relative to the league average, only one scoring season in NBA history added more points, per game. For a more nuanced approach to this kind of calculation, see Jacob Goldstein’s efficere.
  6. They outscored the Lakers by 14 points over the series, but dropped three close games. All told, they faced LA 10 times that year when healthy and outscored the Lakers by 9 points.
  7. After adding eight teams in five years (!), including three in 1971 alone, the NBA went two consecutive seasons without expansion for the first time since 1966. To put this in perspective, excluding the merger with the ABA (where four teams were retained), the league added eight teams from 1972 to 2004.
  8. Detailed box scores are sparse and unavailable from his first few years in the league.
  9. I credit him as a strong defender, slightly ahead of peak Shaq but a rung or so below the best bigs ever.
  10. Kermit Washington played while Kareem was out, and then was later traded with Don Chaney to the Celtics for Charlie Scott. Before that trade, and immediately after Jabbar returned, LA also traded James Edwards and Earl Tatum for Adrian Dantley. The Lakers also drafted rookie Norm Nixon and signed Jamaal Wilkes before the season.
  11. Since WOWY views Dantley as adding to the offense at the expense of the defense, and since Dantley arrived when Kareem returned to the lineup, the numbers below should probably be curved slightly. My mental adjustment is to give some of the net differential back to the D.

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