In 1984, Macintosh aired their infamous ‘1984’ commercial, introducing the world to the first personal computer. In 2021, you can find plenty of fools who regard that old technology as primitive and basic, understating its impact and dominance. But those opinions won’t change the fact that Apple is the largest company in the world as of today, and has stayed up there since that day in 1984. Well, the same goes for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been at the top of the NBA’s scoring mountain since... you guessed it, 1984. However, a barreling snowball by the name of LeBron James is soon to change that... but does that make it more impressive?
Spoiler alert: One man’s path was significantly more demanding than the other, but I think you can guess who flourished in the softer circumstance.
If I was to ask you to create a simulation for a basketball player in the NBA. Giving you the power of exploiting every era and rule change, every evolutionary stage of defense, you can even affect the one-and-done rule - all for the sole purpose of them scoring 38387 points in the regular seasons from their opening night to their last. Would that simulation look anything like Kareem’s journey?
I don’t like having this conversation because I actually know all these guys, but I know LeBron, and I think this is LeBron’s plan. I think he wants to surpass Kareem cause if he surpasses Kareem in points, we all have to shut the hell up. Think about it, he is going to have four rings, he already passed up Kobe, he already passed up Mike, and now if he passes Kareem, so if that doesn’t make him the greatest basketball player, I don’t know what we are talking about.
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After only six losses out of 102 total games in high school, Lew Alcindor (Kareem) had no choice but to go to the NCAA. Ironically enough, he broke the single-game scoring record for UCLA in his first game with 56, a record that has yet to be broken by anyone not named Lew Alcindor. LeBron James on the other hand was part of the short-lived one-and-done era, meaning he could and did enter the league directly out of high school. So while LeBron started the race as a 19-year-old kid, Alcindor paved the greatest college career of all time with three national championships and this time, only two total losses. That means the greatest scoring feat in league history began at the age of 22.
Another method to ensure the simulation runs smoothly would be to limit the rate and severity of injuries. Well, the midpoint of Kareem’s career is closer to the beginning of the league (1946) than the modern-day (2021). So the medicine, treatment, food, accommodation, therapy, physicians, travel, trainers, and much… much more, might just be a little more favorable to someone like LeBron.
But that doesn't even begin to express the difference of physicality between the two careers. In Giant Steps, Kareem mentioned that during the ‘74 NBA Finals, Dave Cowens was allowed to jump over his back for rebounds whenever referee Richie Powers officiated. Those games were 1,3,5 and 7… all Milwaukee defeats. Or maybe the story of Kareem hopping around on one leg during game 5 of the 1980 NBA Finals, only to be shadowed by rookie Magic Johnson’s legendary game 7 performance, is a better tale of his ability to endure.
But at the end of the day, since the three-point line was a non-factor of Kareem’s career, not only did he have to score everything in twos - meaning he missed out on the recent league splurge in rising of average points per game - every opponent had to drive through Kareem to get their bucket. So instead of playing through the influx of shooting that actually extends careers like LeBrons’, or the emergence of the hand-checking rule that fortuitously came about just after LeBron’s rookie year, Kareem was banging down low with names like Chamberlain, Reed, Cowens, Thurmond, Lanier, and Unseld. It might also be worth mentioning that LeBron’s ascension is significantly less efficient, as he shot a career 50% from the field compared to Kareem’s 56%.
Never mind that Kareem didn’t play with a single All-Star or elite point guard for nearly the first half of his career and prime (‘73 through ‘79). While LeBron on the other hand wrote the book on joining other All-Stars when times get tough. Or the fact that Kareem's 1977’s sucker punch on Kent Benson says everything you need to know about the level of brutality and what it took to average 78 games a season over that time period.
The longer you spend readjusting the simulation to reach the goal, the further it strays away from what Kareem actually did. But that’s the point of the exercise. To take into account the individual situations, not just merely reading a stat. While that stat may read a leading 38,387 in favor of Kareem having the most indestructible journey throughout the NBA, LeBron is exactly 3020 points short of reaching that pinnacle. Specifically, LeBron needs to average 18.4 points over two seasons to catch Kareem - he could hold the torch early into the 2022-23 season.
But while great players are great scorers, not all great scorers are great players. I’m not going to deny that Kareem’s longevity isn’t the defining aspect of his career. But what stands out to me past the accumulation of scoring is him winning Finals MVP’s 14 years apart, or coming fifth in MVP voting as a 38-year-old, or just being the surest two points to ever walk the earth.
Jordan didn’t even hit the 30 K club until he wore a Wizards jersey, Carmelo Anthony will likely join the club (diminishing a lot of what makes it special) and Luka Dončić may very well hit 40 K. How many points a player scores in their career is too relative a measure to compare greatness. It is not simply just what they accomplished but more what they went through to accomplish it. So when dissecting the history of the league, there's only one thing you can be certain about.
There will never be another Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.