Backpicks GOAT: the value of longevity and defense

The first time I ranked players using this method, the effect of longevity surprised me.

I think we learn a lot by comparing players through a career value lens like this, but it’s not how most of us typically think of “greatness.” We aren’t wired to rigidly add up the value of just about anything, and there are cognitive forces at play that minimize longevity in these kinds of comparisons. We don’t feel warm and fuzzy about ranking a guy who played 25 good years over someone who played eight great ones.

Consider the case of 2011 James, LeBron v. 1994 Jordan, Michael. Many of us “penalize” LeBron for his lackluster Finals series, calling into question his “reliability.” There’s some social hardwiring involved here; in a way, we “asked” LeBron to perform, and he let us down. Even though Michael didn’t play in 1994 (thereby providing no value), we didn’t “ask” him to do anything. If we did, we assume that he would have delivered based on his other performances. Averaging provides cognitive security; those who regularly deliver make us feel more confident they will come through again.

On the other hand, two or three seasons can feel too brief for validation. For many of us, players need to book a certain number of years to solidify their greatness. But once that happens, longevity becomes a wash — the average supersedes the sum — even though players keep adding value. We focus on top speed when total distance traveled is the objective; career-based lists often prioritize by peak.

So, are we overvaluing peak seasons?

Is longevity underrated?

We can test this with a simple thought experiment. Imagine three separate championship-over replacement player (CORP) curves:

  1. A linear one — this provides the same advantage an All-Star has when compared to a sub-All-Star that an all-time season has when compared to an MVP season.
  2. A superlinear one — essentially the “actual” CORP values — this provides a larger and larger advantage for seasons as they move from weaker seasons (like sub-all-star) to stronger years (like MVP seasons).
  3. A “steep” exponential one — this provides huge chunks of value for great seasons when compared to all-star or even all-league level ones.

The linear model is totally unrealistic based on the data we have about player impact and the historical odds of winning a series, while the steepest curve is likely too extreme and slanted toward top-end seasons in order to make a point.1 Still, if we used these three curves and plugged in the same seasonal valuations I used for the Backpicks GOAT, they would spit out the following rankings (not adjusted for era):

Notice that a low-peak, high-longevity career cracks the top-20 in a linear model (Stockton), and degrades in value as higher-peak seasons are given more and more weight. But, even in the steepest model, both Stockton and Reggie Miller are top-35! This is largely a function of scarcity — only 31 players since 1955 have been named to at least eight All-NBA teams. The antithesis of these players — a short-career, high-peak star like Steph Curry — moves from 44th to 34th to 26th as rarer seasons are given more value. However, it takes an extreme treatment for a player like Curry, who already has seven healthy NBA seasons under his belt at the time of writing this, to pass the Miller type.

Now look at Jordan (and most of the top players). Despite holding the highest peak ever in my estimation, it takes the steepest curve for Jordan to (barely) pass Kareem, and that’s before era-specific longevity would tip the scales back to Jabbar. So, it seems that beyond a simple difference in rating criteria, we intuitively undervalue longevity in these kinds of rankings. What’s going on here?

“First options” and the longevity threshold

When stacking up the multi-season MVP giants, peak play is often given preference. For most of us, it doesn’t matter that Kareem provided more career value — that thought isn’t even in the equation sometimes — it’s just that Jordan had a better peak, and Jordan didn’t have a short career, and thus Jordan goes first. Once all the multi-year MVPs are off the board, it might even be OK to slot in Bill Walton, because, well, he was better than all the longevity monsters when he played. (Walton was 38th on Elliot Kalb’s list and 27th on Bill Simmons from only one great healthy season.) Ironically, the more someone plays, the less their longevity seems to matter.

Ranking a sort of peak-prime combo does answer the question “who was best, at his best, for at least longer than just a few seasons?” And maybe that’s what most of us mean when we ask ourselves who was “greater.” I don’t think any GM would ever draft like this, but it’s an approach that seems to align more closely with our concepts of “greatness.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with ranking this way. I’m not fully on board with it because of how challenging it can be to deliver value for an extended period of time. For instance, Larry Bird’s retirement nearly crippled the Celtics franchise in his 13th season, but Kareem was a key cog on four more Laker title teams after that point in his career. Kevin Garnett’s 13th season was his DPOY and near-MVP double in Boston. Stockton’s 13th and 14th seasons helped Utah to two close Finals losses. Replacing these players is really, really hard; All-Stars don’t grow on trees.

Which leads to the issue of “first options.” Most of us intuitively dismiss seasons in which a player can’t be the lead figure on a championship team — we can’t rely on them to carry the load. But the second, third and fourth-best players make it possible for a first-option to win titles in the first place! Without secondary All-Stars and role players, winning is nearly impossible, even for the highest-peak stars. So when totaling career value, these secondary seasons are important for both lower peak players like Miller and for pre/post-prime stars. As I put it when discussing CORP for Nylon Calculus:

“First options” aren’t quite as earth-shattering as we might think. While many people rightfully believe “there’s no way Klay Thompson could lead a team to a title in 2015,” they overlook the equally important counterbalance: It’s unlikely Steph Curry could have led that team to the title without Klay Thompson…You want Klay Thompson on your team, even if you wouldn’t want Klay Thompson to be the best player on your team.”

When we list out all of the non-lead players that made dynasties possible, it becomes clear how these secondary stars can tally up CORP value that surpasses alpha dogs: Sam Jones and Havlicek, Pippen and Rodman, Ginobili and Parker, Parish and McHaleWorthy (with Kareem) and even Bosh with the Heatles. In the first 60 years of the shot clock, those 10 secondary stars played on 32 title teams. They made most (or all) of those titles possible for the megastars.

Since we typically devalue these kinds of secondary seasons, we dole out more credit to “first options” and thus overestimate their worth. I certainly did before going through this exercise.

Defense, defense, defense

For me, the other huge revelation after quantifying hundreds of seasons against each other like this was the importance of defense. Seven of the first nine players on the list are two-way big men, and while only Shaq and Kareem approached transcendence on offense, the defensive value of these players explains why all-around bigs were the most coveted asset in the sport’s history before they all wanted to play like guards. Height is super important in basketball, largely because it’s harder for small guys to impact the game defensively. (Of the top-20, only Nash, West and Robertson were under 6-foot-6.) It aids longevity too; as athleticism fades, height remains.

Adjusted plus-minus (APM) data suggests that the best defenders might carry 5 points of impact per game and the best offensive players can top 6 points per game in a given season. Before diving into historical data, my impression was that offensive players were way more valuable than top defenders. Even with a clear offense-defense asymmetry (shown below), that’s a claim I cannot reasonable defend anymore. Defense matters. A lot.

Most GOAT-listers out there evaluate offense with a fine-toothed comb but then slot players into really rough buckets on defense because of a lack of historical information. Yet guards racking up all-defense selections are rarely in the same league as dominant bigs. A significant chunk of the great defensive seasons on record come from big men; among four-year scaled APM peaks, 31 of the top 40 results (78 percent) were from bigs, including the top 11 players. This jibes with historical roles around paint protection, rebounding, pick-and-roll containment, etc.

Furthermore, it’s more likely for elite bigs to maintain defensive value from team-to-team when compared to offensive stars because high-end defense essentially fits everywhere. Lesser defenders can lose some value depending on scheme and their teammates.2 This is a huge deal on a scale like this, and it’s a reason why so many defensive studs (e.g. Draymond Green or Dikembe Mutombo) post giant plus-minus numbers over and over. Jordan was an elite wing defender, but did his defense really move the needle while carrying such a huge offensive load? Two decades of plus-minus data (and four decades of game-level plus-minus) make it unlikely that he was close to someone like Olajuwon on D.

Most historical analysis has been offensive-centric — biased by the box score and ball-watching — and most rankings seem to underestimate both the high-end impact of defense and the wide range of defensive impact between most players. The difference on defense between an all-league guard and an all-time level interior defender can be the same difference on offense between an MVP-level attacker and a fringe All-Star.

For Jordan, adding an additional point to his defensive valuations would give him a CORP of 42 percent! (Versus his current estimated GOAT peak of 31 percent.) But a quick thought experiment shows how dangerous this is. This would place Jordan near Patrick Ewing as a defender, who posts huge impact-metrics that are defensively oriented, so in theory I’d then have to bump Ewing up too, but then that brings him up next to Hakeem, so I’d have to bump Hakeem up and then Bill Russell shoots further off the charts. Until I sat down and stacked seasons up next to each other, these issues didn’t reveal themselves.

So about the GOAT list…

Using traditional position designations, this top-40 contained eight point guards, small forwards and power forwards, seven two-guards and nine centers. So it’s top-heavy with bigs — perhaps because size ages well — but otherwise positionally balanced. I’m also comfortable with the distribution of players across eras, as recent generations were slightly over-represented. If anything, I’m concerned about valuing the first 10 years of the shot clock too much; the game rapidly developed in the ensuing decade as more money poured into the sport and the talent pool expanded.3 Here’s a breakdown of the list based on the year each player entered the league:

From that last decade of draft classes, James Harden has the best chance to crack this list first. Russell Westbrook has a shot too, although the potential of Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo make them likelier candidates to shoot up the list for me. And there’s likely a longevity giant or two lurking in the wings, but it’s harder to foresee which all-league performer will crank out another decade of value.

Looking back, this exercise highlighted both underrated careers (like Miller’s) and how absurdly valuable marathoners like Abdul-Jabbar and Malone were. It also demonstrated how painfully close many of these careers were; it’s more fun (and satisfying) to draw a clear line in the sand, but the differences in impact rarely seem to warrant it. Emphasizing order — who is 12th versus 14th — now feels hollow to me, and I’ve come away largely GOAT-agnostic. Plus, different criteria will produce radically different lists.

I give Jordan the best peak, but it’s not by a lot. LeBron has the best consecutive eight-season stretch ever. Kareem has the most valuable career relative to his era. And even Russell has a backdoor claim as the most valuable player of all time. Any of those four are great GOAT choices. I think (hope) that the career ranges that players fell into on this list are a good starting point for any all-time discussion or best player list moving forward.

So, some 80,000 words, 500 videos and 250 graphics later, I hope you’ve enjoyed this as much as I have. Thanks so much for reading and being open to something a bit different.

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.