Top 50 NBA players of the past 50 years: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranks No. 2

Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, “What is Wright with Nick Wright?” FOX Sports Commentator Nick Wright class it 50 best NBA players of the past 50 years. The countdown continues today with the No. 2 player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar Career Highlights:

  • Two-time Finals MVP
  • Six-time league MVP
  • 19 times All Star
  • 10 times All-NBA First Team, five times Second Team
  • Five-time All-Defensive first team, six-time second team
  • Double scoring champion
  • 1976 rebound champion
  • Four times block leader
  • 1970 Rookie of the Year
  • First on the all-time goalscoring list
  • Third on the all-time rebounds list

By the time Kareem Abdul-Jabbar finally retired from basketball, he had been playing better and longer than anyone. He had taken the most shots, scored the most points and earned the most MVPs.

More than three decades later, he still holds those records and more. But he oddly fell out of conversation for the greatest player of all time.

“The GOAT debate is almost always limited to LeBron [James] and Michael [Jordan]”, Wright said. “But there is a third person who, at all costs, should be included, and that is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is No. 2 on Nick Wright’s 50 Best NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is No. 2 on Nick Wright's 50 Best NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s dominance, consistency and longevity are unmatched in NBA history. More than three decades after his retirement, he is still the league’s all-time leading scorer.

For more than half of his 20 seasons, Kareem has had no peers.

He arrived in the NBA in 1969 as Lew Alcindor, the most decorated amateur player of all time. He was so good in college that the NCAA banned the dunk after his freshman season at UCLA. Legendary trainer John Wooden told Abdul-Jabbar it would ultimately make him better. No kidding. The restriction prompted the nimble 7-foot-2 center to develop the skyhook.

“The most unstoppable, unstoppable shot in NBA history,” Wright said.

Kareem was an immediate superstar in the league, his 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game turning the expansion Milwaukee Bucks into title contenders. They were down three wins heading into the 1970 Finals, losing to the eventual champion New York Knicks, despite Kareem’s 35-17-4 averages (with 57% shooting) in the playoffs.

“So what does he do for year 2?” says Wright. “It brings together what is the greatest season so far in NBA history, from start to finish.”

Kareem posted an NBA record 31.1 points with 16.0 rebounds as Milwaukee won 66 games, which was the second most on record at the time. The league MVP went on to average 27-17 in the playoffs and recorded a double-double in every game, beating Hall of Fame centers Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld and Nate Thurmond in the process, while also guiding the Bucks to a 12-2 mark and the title.

At 23, he remained the youngest MVP until a future teammate controversially won the award over him a decade later.

Statistically, Abdul-Jabbar was even better the following season. He went for 35-17-5 per game to repeat as MVP. Milwaukee’s attempt to repeat themselves as champions was curtailed in the conference finals by a 69-win Lakers team that would earn a record 33 game winning streak. It was arguably the best meeting between two teams outside of the final, and Kareem was by far the better player. He averaged 34-18-5 for the series, only to see Milwaukee lose three games by four runs or less to the deeper Lakers.

In the 1973 playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar struggled from the floor as the Bucks were upset by the Warriors in the first round. It would be the only time in 18 career playoff trips that he would retire to a team that didn’t at least reach the final.

Kareem won his third MVP in four seasons in 1974 and then staged perhaps the best playoff of his career. The Bucks’ lone All-Star averaged 32-16-5 over three rounds, taking the team back to the Finals. He sank a last-second skyhook to force a Game 7, only to see Milwaukee fall to a Celtics field that included three Hall of Famers in their respective primes.

“I believe that was the first Finals MVP that was robbed even though they lost in the Finals,” Wright said. “By the way, they had just given the Finals MVP to a losing player a few years before in Jerry West. So that wouldn’t have been unprecedented at all.”

The following season was a bit lost for Abdul-Jabbar. He wanted to leave the Midwest and asked for a trade, then broke his hand during the preseason. The club fell without his services for a month and missed the playoffs. In 1975 he was traded to the Lakers, who were in the midst of their own rebuild. They too failed to make the playoffs with Kareem, despite winning the league MVP award.

He would win a second straight MVP and compete for two more, but the club only won two playoffs in his first four years in Los Angeles. And then Magic Johnson come. The unique skills of the rookie wonder blended beautifully with those of Abdul-Jabbar, who went on to earn a record sixth league MVP. Additionally, Magic’s boisterous personality was a fitting contrast to the introverted giant, whom his teammates reverently referred to as “Cap”. All of this has made the “Showtime” Lakers a juggernaut.

Kareem won the first five games of the 1980 Finals, including a 40-and-15 performance to give LA a 3-2 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers. But a severe ankle sprain ruled out Ironman for Game 6. That’s when Johnson, of course, jumped down center and lost 42-15-7 to clinch the title. He was quickly named Finals MVP, averaging 22-11-9 with three steals for the series. Abdul-Jabbar went 33-14-3 with five blocks.

“This is the second time I think he’s had a Finals MVP robbed,” Wright said.

Kareem responded with another dominating campaign in 1981, but the Lakers were upset in the first round by Moses Malone and the Rockets. Over a dozen seasons, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 28-14-4 in the regular season and 30-16-4 in the playoffs.

“If he stopped playing after the first 12 years of his career, he would be one of the top 10 players of all time,” Wright said.

But at 34, Cap was not nearly done.

He remained a top-10 player while taking turns with Magic to lead the Lakers to the next four Finals. The duo guided LA to a 12-2 playoff mark in 1982, toppling the Sixers again. In the 1983 playoffs, Kareem eclipsed 30 points six times and averaged 27.1. The Lakers were simply no match for a Philadelphia team led by Malone in his prime and Julius Erving in his late prime.

“This marks Kareem’s start in a slightly different phase of his career,” Wright said. “He no longer plays like [a] global juggernaut every night. Instead, he saved them for the bigger nights.”

Shortly after beating Chamberlain’s all-time mark at the end of the regular season, Abdul-Jabbar topped LA in scoring (26.6) and rebounding (8.1) against the Boston Celtics in the 1984 final. His 30-10-5 performance sparked a victory in Game 6 and a game-high 29 points in the deciding game. Boston prevailed, however, as Magic struggled in Games 5 and 7.

In the 1985 Finals rematch, Cap really turned the clock back. His 30-17-8 helped the Lakers even the series after a 34-point loss in the “Memorial Day Massacre” of Game 1. Abdul-Jabbar went 26-14-7 in a Game 3 rout, 36-7-7 in a Game 5 win and 29-7 to seal the series. He had just turned 38, facing arguably the greatest front line in basketball history, and he was Finals MVP (26-9-5, 60%).

“What Kareem did in that 1985 season is just remarkable,” Wright said. “This playoffs, he’s older than LeBron right now.”

Two years later, in the final installment of the Lakers-Celtics 80s trilogy, a 40-year-old Kareem went for a team-high 32 points in the deciding Game 6. For the series, he averaged 22 and 7.

Although Abdul-Jabbar played a more modest role in the two LA Finals trips that followed, he continued to deliver crucial matches. In 1988, the Lakers were tied at two games apiece with Detroit when Kareem surged 26 points, and his two last-second free throws were the difference in Game 6 – the latter ultimately saving the league’s first successful title defense since Bill Russell’s Celtics.

“So at 41, they don’t win this title without him,” Wright said. “By far the biggest play of their season, and they ran it for Kareem.”

In the penultimate game of his career, and with Magic sidelined by injury, Abdul-Jabbar, 42, had 24 points and 13 rebounds in an effort to avoid a sweep against the Pistons. This effectively capped off a playing resume that was and remains second to none.

Kareem has topped the all-time goalscoring list for 38 years, although James is on course to overtake him in the coming season. Abdul-Jabbar still holds a decent lead in win shares. His 1,074 wins may never be surpassed. His 15 top-five MVP rankings are also the highest of all time.

He ranks first in minutes, second in games and third in rebounds. He’s also third in blocks, a record he likely would hold had they been tracked in his first four seasons. Abdul-Jabbar is the only player in the past 50 years to average more than 24 points and 11 rebounds per game, and he did it while shooting 56%. His 355 games with 30+ points and 10+ rebounds are second only to Chamberlain. No other center comes close to Kareem’s 5,660 assists.

For the playoffs, the six-time champion is in the top five in points, rebounds, blocks, games, minutes and 30-point performance. Only he and Shaquille O’Neal are posting eclipsing averages of 24 points, 10 rebounds and 53% shooting. Abdul-Jabbar’s 10 appearances in the final rank third all-time.

And while his three New York titles and three national championships don’t factor into the NBA equation, they contribute to a legacy unmatched in basketball history.

“You’re talking about almost a quarter century of kicking ass and taking names at every level of basketball you’re allowed to play,” Wright said. “No one will ever have a basketball life like Kareem did. That I know is true.”


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