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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: LeBron James not on the level of Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell

Mar 27, 2014, 1:10 PM EDT

Sears Shooting Stars Competition 2014 Getty Images

LeBron James put Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson on his NBA Mount Rushmore. And he said someone would have to come off to make room for himself. So, we’re already up to five players.

But what about Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell?

Another all-time great who at least belongs in the discussion, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, takes up their cases.

Abdul-Jabbar, via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

“LeBron James was talking about how he’s the best ever, but he never saw Wilt play,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “If he had, he wouldn’t say that. Whenever he averages 55 points a game, then I might want to listen to what he has to say. I’m not trying to put LeBron down. He’s awesome. He’s the best player in this era at this point. But he didn’t see Bill Russell play. When his team wins eight consecutive NBA championships, maybe I’ll compare him to Bill Russell.”

LeBron is quickly climbing the list of all-time greats, but he’s passed neither Chamberlain nor Russell. Chamberlain and Russell are two of the best players in NBA history, and they’re rightfully remembered as such. They’ve also completed their careers.

LeBron deserves a chance to pass them as he keeps playing. If Abdul-Jabbar sets the standards, though, he never will.

LeBron can’t compete with numbers produced in another era.

Yes, Chamberlain scored 50.4 points per game in 1961-62 (shy of the 55 Abdul-Jabbar credits him for) – in large part (literally) because he was ahead of his time. In his first season, the NBA had only one other 7-footer, Walter Dukes. Only one season in Chamberlain’s career did more than half his opponents have a single 7-footer.

Now, there are 40 7-footers in the NBA.

Here’s how far the number of 7-footers per team during Chamberlain’s career (purple) fell short of the bar set this season (gold):

image

LeBron has a tremendous physical advantage over his opponents. His combination of size, speed and agility is unmatched in NBA history. But it doesn’t compare to Chamberlain’s advantage.

Russell too had a era-related advantage. During his run of eight straight titles, there were eight or nine teams in the NBA. Now, there are 30.

image

Beating a field of 30 for a championship is, all other factors equal, more impressive than beating a field of eight or nine.

Numbers are a valuable tool in ranking players, but it’s never easy to compare eras. Using the numbers as Abdul-Jabbar does – insurmountable bars – gets us nowhere.

It wasn’t always better back in the day. It was just different.

119 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. ashoreinhawaii - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    To hear Bill Russell get upset over LaBron not putting him on his Mt. Rushmore is pathetic.
    I also think Wilt was the betther player – compare one-on-one stats when they played each other. Russell was surrounded by Hall of Fame talent. Wilt, for almost all of his career, was not.
    Championships? Dr. J only had one, so he must’ve sucked, right?

    • money2long - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:14 PM

      There’s no way u leave off a big man from the NBAs Mount Rushmore. Period.

    • trevor123698 - May 30, 2014 at 1:27 AM

      did you happen to watch them play? if not dont even talk. just shut up fool. they sre both better than anyone in history

  2. ndrick731 - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:10 PM

    So you think a talent rich nine team NBA is easier to win a championship in then an extremely watered-down 30 team league. Most of the players in the NBA now have the fundamentals of a high school kid back in the 60s and 70s. Eliminate the dunk and the three point shot and these teams today wouldn’t score 75 points a game.

  3. johnheisman - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    I am a huge Celtics fan but WIlt was truly the most dominant player and he would dominate today as well. For example:
    – Besides leading the league in scoring and rebounding multiple times he also once led the league in assists.
    – Wilt certainly has to be at worst the 2nd best shot blocker of all time. Maybe Russell was better but he was smaller. No one could drive on Wilt.
    – Wilt never fouled out of a game and one season averaged more than 48 minutes a game due to OT.
    – Wilt was also a track athlete and a high jumper. He was also fast. Clearing a high jump bar takes plenty of coordination as well as jumping ability. I read somewhere where they changed the rule because of Wilt on foul shots requiring the shooter to stay behind the line. Previously Wilt could dunk foul shots.

    • macka4 - May 27, 2014 at 12:19 AM

      Russell too was very fast, a high jumper in college, a track man himself. No center has ever meshed with his team offensively (yes, offensively) and defensively as Russell. Walton did as well, only for a very short time due to injuries. Wilt is unquestionably great and dominant. So was Bill. Wilt a better scorer by far, but that is it. Pretty close in all other areas.
      Russell’s Boston teammates say he was without peer in covering for them, bringing out the best in them, allowing each man to excel at what he best. You didn’t hear much of this about Wilt, esp. in the early days. Though it seemed to be different in LA, when Wilt had the HOF cast around him.

  4. golfrangeman - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    Ij312 if your going to make up stats at least make them somewhat believable 2 for 13 really in 4 years. 3 pointer against GS at allstar break driving lay-up with 2 seconds last week for the win, lay-up against Indy last years playoff and I’m putting no thought into this.

    • reesesteel23 - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:47 PM

      and they wonder why they’re called haters….point and case

    • trevor123698 - Mar 27, 2014 at 10:31 PM

      if you are going to say whose the best ever go back to youtube and watch every nba finals played since 1970..magic is the g.o.a.t

    • trevor123698 - Mar 28, 2014 at 12:00 AM

      magic johnson is the greatest player of all time. he could have guarded wilt.

    • 1historian - Mar 29, 2014 at 9:14 AM

      Next time you post I would advise you to think twice before ending with “I’m putting no thought into this.”

  5. reydearmas - Mar 27, 2014 at 4:48 PM

    “GET OFF MY LAWN, LEBRON!” – Kareem

  6. provguard - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    Kareem is right. Yeah, Wilt was a 7 footer in the days where there weren’t a lot of them, but he played in a era when other players were allowed to do more to him than they do to LeBron. LeBron is a candy-ass that is babied by the NBA and especially the refs. Lebron couldn’t hold Kareem’s jock.

    LeBron’s putting himself on Rushmore is a dream of a egotistical brat. He is the biggest meme in sports!

  7. andyroth1227 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:06 PM

    I saw most of Wilt’s career and for the people who didn’t see him play they seem to not take his stats seriously because they are so off the charts. It wasn’t unusual for him to put up double digit blocked shots in a game. He had 17 in his pro debut and once blocked 26 in a game. Even over the last three years of his career with Kareem in the league he led the league in rebounding.

  8. ranfan12 - Mar 27, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    Didn’t basketball used to be a game for one’s life? I swear if someone lost in it’s early days, they died. Basketball has come a long way since then if it’s true

  9. sdlakerfan - Mar 27, 2014 at 8:48 PM

    interesting – a few months back Kareem stated that Oscar Robinson was better than MJ and Lebron. Stats wise pretty good comparison as Oscar Robinson led the other two in rebounds (by alot) and assists and averaged over 25 pts over his career. Now Lebron doesn’t measure up to Russell and Chamberlain. Frankly, seems like he wants to diss current players. Maybe all Lebron’s self-promotion is pissing him off…lol.

    Cool subject – very subjective, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. After all, on any given night, there are guys better than Lebron right now – Lebron just has more superior nights than anyone else.

    Started watching NBA fervently in 1969 so only saw the last 4 yrs of Wilt’s career – only one of those yrs did he average over 21 pts a game so maybe I’m not qualified to judge. By then, Jerry West was the heart and soul of the Lakers – at least IMO.

    Russell’s resume is tough to argue with – won state championship in HS, two championships in college, a championship his first yr in the NBA, a championship in his last yr in the NBA, and nine more championships in between. Two while he was player and coach. In only 13 yrs. How do you top that? Statistics be damned – this guy’s a winner!

    Russell, Magic, Jordan, Kareem are my Mount Rushmore. Personally, I can’t pick a best out of those four. I’d take any one of them over Lebron though.

  10. championmamba - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:15 PM

    Lebron can’t catch a break lolll

    the luminaries of the sport continue to call out his all time frontrunning by colluding w/2 superstars in taking the all time shortcut in winning

    it was only a matter of time before they start calling the cheating out

  11. 00maltliquor - Mar 28, 2014 at 12:04 AM

    You know what Kareem was really trying to elude to…….you ain’t seen ME play!

    • macka4 - May 27, 2014 at 12:25 AM

      Yeah, to some degree. He’s not alone either.

  12. arrondior - Mar 28, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    Chamberlain doesn’t get NEARLY enough credit. He was a ridiculous athlete. Why aren’t we talking about how dominant the other 7 footer was in his time? Oh that’s right, because he wasn’t. Also, there were other centers in the league at the time that were nearly as tall. No they didn’t break the 7 foot threshold but they were close in height. Apparently the knock on Chamberlain is that having a 2 inch height advantage on other centers is why he could average 50 points and 26 rebounds per game (sarcasm). Apparently, that had nothing at all to do with skill, his freakish work out regimen, or work ethic practicing. Also, at the end of his career, and well passed his prime, he still dominated younger centers who were just as tall or taller that were entering the NBA. A testament to how good he was his longevity. At age 34 (1970) he was averaging 20 PPG and 18 Rebounds per game (again this is well passed his prime). Apparently, Willis Reed, Kareem, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton, etc. were “door mats.”

    • sdlakerfan - Mar 28, 2014 at 8:18 PM

      Yep – he was a ridiculous athlete. Couldn’t shoot at all though. I remember him being the last guy down the floor and his fav shots (other than dunk) were a finger roll and a fallaway bank shot.

      None of the guys you mentioned were in the league when he averaged 50. Walton and Chamberlain weren’t in the league at the same time so never played against each other.

      IMO Shaq would have abused Wilt.

      Little known fact – Wilt played on the globetrotters.

      • arrondior - Apr 2, 2014 at 1:36 PM

        Yeah but he was 34 and still averaging a high double double when they were.

      • macka4 - May 27, 2014 at 12:27 AM

        Shaq could shoot? Only non dunk he could make was a jump hook.

    • bklyn221 - Mar 29, 2014 at 2:55 AM

      100% right, say no more.

    • macka4 - May 27, 2014 at 12:32 AM

      Absolutely. My goodness, you’d think Wilt’s slight ht. advantage was enormous listening to some morons. Shaq had a far greater weight and bulk advantage than Wilt did on his opponents. Never hear that though.
      You recall a good list of great centers Wilt competed (very well, even at an older age) against. I must mention Nate Thurmond, one of the few to avg 20 pts, 20 rebs in ind. seasons. Wilt and Kareem each said he was their toughest defender. Nate is often considered to be the 2nd best defensive center in game history.

  13. 12312 - Mar 28, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Kareem never gets his due in the “greatest players” discussions. In general, I truly miss the days of the great centers. I find myself totally captivated watching “hardwood classics” with Kareem going up against Moses Malone or Robert Parrish…Hakeem, etc. Yes, I’m middle aged, and there’s some nostalgia there, but I also am just struck with the flow of the games in those days. The overall basketball intelligence. I do enjoy the games today, but I also think overall basketball skill is not the same.

    • antistratfordian - Mar 28, 2014 at 3:44 PM

      Part of that is his own doing – his personality. Magic discussed that in detail in his autobiography i.e. Kareem was cold and rude. I think he may have had some sort of social anxiety or mild Aspergers.

    • hudgeliberal - Mar 30, 2014 at 2:24 PM

      Yep,Kareem,was insane. He had maybe the most unstoppable weapon in the history of the game..the skyhook. Amazed that no one today tries to learn that shot from Kareem. It was a thing of beauty. My only problem with Kareem,and he is definitely top 7 all time,was that he didn’t rebound well all the time. Early in his career he was a very good rebounder but I can remember Moses Malone(also an all-time great that is forgotten by today’s clueless under 30’s generation)just abusing Kareem on the boards. Still,an all-time great that does not get the respect he should as the games all-time leading scorer and one of the great “winners” of all-time.

  14. antistratfordian - Mar 28, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    Kareem, Kareem, Kareem… you’re supposed to be a smart guy… but you’re not using your brain on this one! Give LeBron (or Jordan or Iverson or Durant or Kobe) 140 possessions a game like Wilt had – they just might average 50 points a game!

    If James can average 31.4 points on 89 possessions, like he did in 2006, he can manage 50 points on 140 possessions.

    • money2long - Mar 30, 2014 at 10:23 PM

      Except when he gets burned out in 4th quarters. Gets nervous in the clutch. And loves to dish to take the blame off his shoulders. Possessions mean nothing if you’re mentally weak as the game winds down.

      If only lebron had the heart of Allen iverson. That’s what lebron is missing

  15. csiegert4 - Mar 28, 2014 at 8:17 PM

    KAJ once again proving that being a talented athlete does not give you the ability to judge talent in that sport. He is 100% wrong right here, for the reason the writer mentioned and then some. Bill Russell is hands down the most overrated basketball player of all-time. He was a pedestrian offensive player and played against absolutely nobody outside of Wilt and a handful of others. LBJ right now is well beyond these two guys. If KAJ wants to throw out stats why doesn’t he actually learn some advanced metrics that help us compare players better across era than your traditional stats? What’s Lebron’s PER vs. Wilt’s and Bill’s? (Hint – I’ts WAY better).

  16. scbaby2013 - Mar 28, 2014 at 10:50 PM

    He ain’t even on par with the great Abdul jabbar!!!

    • csiegert4 - Mar 29, 2014 at 1:11 AM

      He’s better.

    • hudgeliberal - Mar 30, 2014 at 2:27 PM

      Exactly,you can’t argue with the guys hanging on Bron’s nutsack. Bron is great but they put him much higher than he should be in terms of all-time greats. You should at least have 25 years of watching hoops before you can make such statements. 20 years down the line he will have the same argument with some silly kid who is 4 now but will get to 25 and think he knows all…lol.

      • macka4 - May 27, 2014 at 12:35 AM

        True. LeBron is hands down the best today. Only Durant is even within shouting distance. But he is a bit overrated in a historical sense at this point.

  17. 1historian - Mar 29, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    Your comment about Bill Russell – what part of

    1) 11 NBA titles in 13 years

    2) The Celtics never lost a 7th game or ANY championship game they HAD to win when he played in the game.

    do you not understand?

  18. iamjamesmack - Mar 31, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    I would put Lebron over Wilt

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