Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. 67RIEFNS No. 24: Chris Paul, NBA’s most underrated point guard

    Oct 21, 2014, 12:05 AM EDT

    Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers

    Clippers point guard on his own level in post-Magic Johnson NBA

  2. Rajon Rondo says the Celtics will “surprise a lot of people”

    Oct 20, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT

    Rajon Rondo Rajon Rondo

    Rondo praises head coach Brad Stevens’ success on the college level.

  3. Donald Sterling drops suit against NBA, Shelly Sterling

    Oct 20, 2014, 9:30 PM EDT

    Donald Sterling Donald Sterling

    He still has an antitrust suit pending against the NBA.

  4. Derrick Rose blows past Dion Waiters for the finish, and one (VIDEO)

    Oct 20, 2014, 8:45 PM EDT

    Derrick Rose Derrick Rose

    It’s only preseason, but the 2011 league MVP looks like his old self.

  5. Report: Board of Governors expected to pass draft lottery reform, Sixers and Thunder opposed

    Oct 20, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT

    2013 NBA Draft Lottery 2013 NBA Draft Lottery

    The proposed changes would give the four worst teams the same odds of winning the No. 1 pick in the draft.

  6. Pacers’ Paul George on court taking shots after practice (VIDEO)

    Oct 20, 2014, 6:59 PM EDT

    Indiana Pacers Media Day 2014 Indiana Pacers Media Day 2014

    He’s moving well considered what happened to his leg just back in July.

  7. Hawks CEO induces certain gesture from T.I., redeems himself with a “for shizzle” (video)

    Oct 20, 2014, 4:52 PM EDT

    Chicago Bulls v Atlanta Hawks Getty Images

    Steve Koonin promoting Hawks’ season opener, which includes T.I. performances

  8. Lance Stephenson already flopping like it’s a playoff game (VINE)

    Oct 20, 2014, 3:33 PM EDT

    Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls Getty Images

    When Stephenson brought his game to Charlotte this season, he clearly brought the flopping with him.

  9. Pistons waive Hasheem Thabeet

    Oct 20, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT

    Detroit Pistons Media Day Detroit Pistons Media Day

    Detroit also cuts Brian Cook, Josh Bostic and Lorenzo Brown

  10. Lakers waive Jeremy Tyler, who’s China-bound

    Oct 20, 2014, 12:22 PM EDT

    Los Angeles Lakers Media Day Los Angeles Lakers Media Day

    Door even more open for Ronnie Price and Wayne Ellington to make roster

  11. LeBron James reveals (?) his recruiting pitch

    Oct 20, 2014, 11:45 AM EDT

    Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day Getty Images

    How did LeBron get Kevin Love, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones to join the Cavaliers?

  12. Five favorites to win NBA 2014-15 MVP

    Oct 20, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers, Game 1 Getty Images

    Smart money should go on LeBron James, but there will be serious challengers.

  13. ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: San Antonio Spurs

    Oct 20, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    2014 NBA Finals - Game Five Getty Images

    If they can stay a step ahead of father time the Spurs are the bar to clear to win an NBA title.

Featured video

What are impacts of NBA's new TV deal?
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. B. Beal (3647)
  2. J. Lin (3359)
  3. D. Rose (3354)
  4. N. Noel (3247)
  5. L. James (3211)