Highlander Write-Off: Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?

Michael Jordan is the definitive greatest basketball player of all time

Drawn by Justus Ross

By: Jonathan Fernandez, SSW

The greatest basketball player of all time argument has been hotly debated for as long as the NBA has existed and is often a barometer of which era one grew up watching. Fans during the 1950s and 1960s argue that it’s Bill Russell, who won five MVPs and 11 NBA Championships during his 13-year career. Others who grew up watching basketball in the ‘70s and ‘80s point to the Los Angeles Lakers and its star duo of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who each have a case to be made in the argument. Abdul-Jabbar ended his career with six rings, six MVPs and is the all-time leader in points scored, but make no mistake, there can only be one “GOAT,” and his name is Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

Jordan is generally regarded as the deadliest scorer to ever play the game. In only his third season Jordan was already averaging an astounding 37 points per game. Over his 13-year NBA career Jordan averaged 30.12 points per game, the most in NBA history. Not even Wilt Chamberlain, who once averaged 50 points per game for an entire season, could outscore Jordan in the long haul.

Despite his monstrous points per game average, Air Jordan is ranked only fifth in total points scored in NBA history behind Kareem, Karl Malone, LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant. There are a couple reasons for his current placing on this list. The first is that every player ahead of him on the all-time scoring list had a longer career; the second is that Jordan retired twice while in the prime of his career, which is unheard of in modern sports. That is like if LeBron retired after winning his third championship, the first in Cleveland Cavalier history, back in 2016.

After winning his first three-peat in Chicago, Jordan decided to take a two-year hiatus to attempt to play professional baseball. After completing his second three-peat in 1998, he once again walked away from the game — this time for three years. Although he was 35 when he retired for the second time, and one can argue there’s a world where he stays in the league and his production dips due to his declining athleticism, the reality is he had just finished a season in which he averaged 28 points per game and was showing no clear signs of slowing down. Just imagine where he would rank if he played those five years and averaged around his career 30 point per game mark.

Another important factor when discussing the greatest player of all time is the hardware, and Jordan consistently brought home the hardware over his career. When Jordan retired for the final time after the 2003 season, he did so with five MVPs to his name. Russell and Abdul-Jabbar are the only other players to win the award five times. 

But we all know that perhaps the most significant accolade in determining someone’s NBA legacy is championship rings. Jordan, like Abdul-Jabbar, finished with six NBA championships, but not all championships are created equal. Jordan finished his career with an unblemished 6-0 record in the Finals, something that has been unattainable for any superstar before or after him. Jordan averaged 33 points per game, six assists and six rebounds per game in the 35 Finals games he played, which was enough to net him all six Finals MVPs, the most in NBA history. 

His perfect record in the Finals and astounding production on the biggest stage has helped contribute to Jordan’s God-like mystique. Fans of the game who never even saw him play live appreciate his killer instinct and still have vivid images of his game winners, the fist-pumping celebrations, the MVPs and of course, the rings.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, is the greatest basketball player of all time

Drawn by Justus Ross

By: Jordan Hom, SSW

The “greatest of all time” in basketball is often debated by casual fans and media personalities alike. Many consider the greatest to be Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous basketball player in history. While Jordan certainly deserves praise for his accomplishments on the basketball court, there is another player who has accumulated the accolades and awards for an argument to be made: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

During his decorated four-year tenure at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar won numerous individual awards, including two National College Player of the Year awards in 1967 and 1969. His dominance also led to the ban of the slam dunk in collegiate play from 1967-1976, largely in part in an attempt to contain him and level the playing field for the rest of the competition. In addition to his individual success, Abdul-Jabbar also led his team to three consecutive NCAA championships, in which he was named the NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player for all three titles. For his numerous accomplishments and awards, UCLA honored him by retiring his number 33 jersey. 

After UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar began his illustrious NBA career in Milwaukee as the first overall pick in the 1969 NBA draft. While some encounter the rookie wall in which they need time to adjust to the pace and physicality of the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar easily dominated, as he averaged 28.8 points per game (ppg) and 14.5 rebounds per game (rpg). For his efforts, he was awarded the 1970 NBA Rookie of the Year trophy. 

Following his stellar rookie campaign, Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first championship alongside Oscar Robertson in what was only his second season. He increased his averages to 31.7 ppg and 16 rpg en route to his first NBA Finals MVP. While he did not win another championship in the remaining four seasons that he played in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabbar did accumulate three MVPs during his time as a Buck. 

Citing a desire for a scenic change, the Bucks traded their star center to the Los Angeles Lakers for a package that included an assortment of players. During his first few seasons as a Laker, Abdul-Jabbar saw much individual success but lacked the team success that he had hoped for. That was the common theme for Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers until the team acquired the first overall pick and selected Magic Johnson in the 1979 NBA draft. 

With the dynamic duo of Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers, nicknamed the Showtime Lakers for their fast-paced style of offense, went on to win five championships during the ‘80s. During this time, Abdul-Jabbar added another Finals MVP to his trophy case in 1985 as he led the team over Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics with 25.7 ppg in the finals. 

In his career, Abdul-Jabbar won a total of six NBA championships, a number that rivals the amount of championships that Michael Jordan earned in his illustrious career. Additionally, while Jordan holds the overall edge in finals MVPs won, with six compared to Abdul-Jabbar’s two, Kareem holds the advantage in regular season MVPs with six, one more than Jordan won in his career. 

Abdul-Jabbar can also boast about being the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, with 38,387 total points in his career, a rank that puts him a solid four spots above Jordan, who currently sits at fifth place. The majority of his shots were converted with his signature skyhook, a shot that remained nearly unblockable throughout his career. 

Another honor that Abdul-Jabbar can claim over Jordan is the total number of All-Star selections with 19. While that number may be surpassed someday by LeBron James, the only active player on the list with more than 16 appearances, Abdul-Jabbar will still hold the record for at least another three seasons.  

With his myriad of accolades and records to his name, alongside his sustained dominance for over 20 seasons, both at the collegiate and NBA level, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can make a claim as the greatest basketball player of all-time.