The Greats Series – Tier One

Who are the Fifteen Greatest NBA Players of All Time?

Before we begin to answer that question, I’m going to make a few notes. One, this is a reflection of how I see things today. Any active players can obviously change the equation with the rest of their careers. Two, “greatest” here is a mix between career production and playoff success. To be in this group, you need to have one of four things – great regular season numbers and great playoff performance, all-time numbers and decent playoff performance, decent numbers and all-time playoff performance, or all-time numbers and all-time playoff performance. Third, I will be breaking these rankings into tiers. Those tiers are based on small (or big in some cases) gaps between a set of players and the guys behind them. 

 

Let’s start with Tier 1. 

 

TIER 1: The GOAT Conversation 

* No order below

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabaar

Michael Jordan

LeBron James

 

These are the three players who have a legitimate claim to the throne. They are the best of the best in regular season numbers, and they’ve all reached postseason milestones, from Jordan’s 6-0 record in the Finals to Kareem’s six championships in ten Finals appearances to James’s nine Finals appearances in only sixteen full seasons. But who is really the GOAT? Let’s find out. 

 

The Regular Season Numbers: 

The numbers we’re looking at here are points (per game and total), assists (per game and total), assist percentage, rebounds (per game and total), offensive rebounds (per game and total), defensive rebounds (total), rebound percentage, blocks (per games and total), block percentage, steals (per game and total), steal percentage, minutes played (per game and total), games played, Usage Rate, PER, Box +/-, Offensive Box +/-, Defensive Box +/-, VORP, Win Shares, Offensive Win Shares, Defensive Win Shares, Field Goal %, Effective Field Goal %, True Shooting %, Three-Point %, and Free Throw %. I didn’t look at total field goal attempts or free throws or threes, or anything relating to total shots, makes, or misses because I see those as repetitive with points and shooting percentages given. That leaves us with a total stat number of 34. Turnovers, fouls, and seasons played will also be discussed, though those two stats are not included in the total stat number. 

Regular season awards – MVP, All-NBA, All-Defense, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year – are also part of this category. Top three finishes in the MVP race were also considered, as were any seasons in which a player led the league in points, rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks per game. 

Lastly, VORP, Box +/- Stats, and Block % were not recorded for the first 4 years of Kareem’s career; Rebound % was not recorded for the first year; Usage Rate was not recorded for the first 8 years, when his likely would have been highest. It’s also unclear how accurate recorded blocks, offensive rebounds, and defensive rebounds from his first four years are. 

 

1) Let’s start with a look at how each player’s statistical profiles rank historically

Stats in the… Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Top 100  23 29 27
Top 50  18 26 24
Top 25  17 17 19
Top 10  12 12 13
Top 5  12 8 9
Top 3  8 7 8
Best All Time 6 4 1

 

Kareem has the most in the top 100 and top 50 and ranks second for most in the top 25, 10, 5, 3, and 1. That’s a pretty solid resume, though it is fair to note that there are a few additional rebounding stats that could tilt this in his favor. Still, I’m giving this category to Jordan. Kareem has the edge over the first half of this table, but Jordan shines where it matters most – in the top 5 and beyond. I’m giving Kareem second. James has time to close this gap and improve on some of his Top 3 rankings, but it’s hard to give LeBron anything but last when he has a 1 in that last row.

  1. MJ 
  2. Kareem
  3. LeBron

 

2) Now we’ll look at scoring stats: points (per game and total), Field Goal %, Effective Field Goal %, True Shooting %, Three-Point %, and Free Throw %. We’ll also throw in Scoring Championships here.

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Points Per Game 30.1 (1st All-Time) 24.6 27.1
Career Points 32,292 (5th) 38,327 (1st) 34,087 (3rd)
FG% 49.7 56 50.4
EFG% 50.9 55.9 54.2
TS% 56.9 59.2 58.6
3P%  32.7 5.6 34.4
FT% 83.5 72.1 73.5
Scoring Champ 10 times 2 times 1 time

 

I think it’s pretty clear that this one goes to MJ. He’s the all-time leader in points per game, and he’s won seven more scoring championships than Kareem and LeBron combined. Those two deserve credit for their longevity, which has pushed them past Jordan in the career points rankings, but that’s not enough to make up the edge Jordan has on a per game basis. He is the most effective scorer the NBA has ever seen. James’s finish will determine who ends up in second. Abdul-Jabaar was averaging 26.4 points per game at the end of his seventeenth season (where James is now) before that number dropped quickly over his last three seasons. If that happens with James, it’ll be a close call, especially if Kareem remains the career points leader. 

For right now though, I’ll give second to LeBron. He’s been slightly more effective on a per game basis over the first seventeen seasons of his career, and I’ll give him some extra points for versatility. All that said, these are probably the three best scorers in NBA history. We’re splitting hairs here.

  1. MJ
  2. LeBron
  3. Kareem

 

3) Now we’ll look at passing stats – assists (per game and total) and assist percentage

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Assists Per Game 5.3 3.6 7.4
Career Assists 5,633 5,640 9,298 (8th)
Assists Percentage 24.9 14.6 36.4

 

This is pretty clear cut. LeBron might be the best frontcourt passer in league history. Jordan was a solid passer, but wasn’t on James’s level. Abdul-Jabaar did a decent job as a passer considering his size and position, but he doesn’t come all that close to giving Jordan any trouble here. 

  1. LeBron
  2. MJ
  3. Kareem

 

4) Now we’ll look at rebounding stats – rebounds (per game and total), offensive rebounds (per game and total), defensive rebounds (total), and rebound percentage

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Rebounds Per Game 6.2 11.2 7.4
Career Rebounds 6,672 17,440 (4th) 9,353
Offensive Rebounds Per Game 1.6 2.4 1.2
Career Offensive Rebounds 1,668 2,975 1,502
Career Defensive Rebounds 5,004 9,394 7,851
Rebound Percentage 9.4 15.7 11.2

 

This one is pretty clear cut too. Kareem is the best rebounder of the group by far, as he should be. LeBron is a better overall rebounder than Jordan, though MJ holds an edge in offensive rebounding.

  1. Kareem
  2. LeBron
  3. MJ

 

5) Now we’ll look at steals and blocks – blocks (per games and total), block percentage, steals (per game and total), and steal percentage

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Steals Per Game 2.3 (4th) 0.9 1.6
Career Steals 2,514 (3rd) 1,160 2,011
Steal Percentage 3.1 1.2 2.2
Blocks Per Game 0.8 2.6 (8th) 0.8
Career Blocks 893 3,189 (3rd) 951
Block Percentage 1.4 3.8 1.6

 

This is a tough one. LeBron is pretty clear third here despite having solid numbers, but it’s hard to say whether MJ deserves more credit for being an elite stealer of the basketball or if Kareem deserves more credit for being an elite blocker of the basketball. Jordan led the league in steals three times. Abdul-Jabaar led the league in blocks four times. I’ll call it a tie.

      1.   MJ

      1.   Kareem

      3.   LeBron

 

6) Now we’ll look at advanced offensive stats – offensive win shares, offensive box +/-, usage rate, and offensive rating

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Offensive Win Shares 149.9 (5th) 178.9 (1st) 165.7 (2nd)
Offensive Box +/- 7.2 (1st) 4.1 7.1 (2nd)
Usage Rate 33.3 (1st) 24.3* 31.5 (6th)
Offensive Rating 118 115.5 116.2

 

We’ll take it from the top here. Kareem is the undisputed Offensive Win Shares champ. Jordan isn’t close, and James will need a strong finish to overtake him there. However, any edge that Kareem gains from that is lost in the second row. MJ and LeBron are the two best in Offensive Box +/-. Abdul-Jabaar is just in the top 50. Usage Rate is a little tricky here, as it wasn’t recorded for the first eight years of Abdul-Jabaar’s career, and it likely would have been at its highest over those first eight years. It’s impossible to know how high it would have been, so I won’t knock Kareem here. Jordan and James are elite again though, showcasing the amount of control they had/have over their teams offensively. All three have solid, top 50 offensive ratings, but no one is an all-timer there. I don’t love the stat for individual players, so I won’t put too much into that. I’m going to give a very slight edge to Jordan here for being the all-time leader in two of these categories. James takes second with his three top-six finishes. Kareem is no slouch here, but he’ll take third.

  1. MJ
  2. LeBron
  3. Kareem

 

7) Now we’ll look at advanced defensive stats – defensive win shares, defensive box +/-, and defensive rating

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Defensive Win Shares 64.1 94.5 (3rd) 70.4
Defensive Box +/- 2.0 1.6 1.8
Defensive Rating 103 99.3 104

 

This is another tougher one. Kareem has the clear edge in defensive win shares, and LeBron isn’t anywhere near catching him. He probably won’t even if he finishes really strong. Jordan has the slight edge in defensive box +/-, but all three are relatively close. Kareem has the lead in defensive rating, but it’s a stat that tends to tilt in the favor of big men. I don’t know if that tilt is worth 3.7 points, but it is worth something. Either way, Kareem is the only one in any of these categories with a clear edge. He takes first. I’m going to have to go with a tie for second. LeBron has the edge in win shares, but he’s also played two more seasons. Through fifteen seasons, he had produced 64.4 defensive win shares, a number that’s virtually identical to Jordan’s. He still deserves some credit for his longevity, and that means that Jordan’s edge in box +/- and defensive rating isn’t enough to give him second by himself. 

  1. Kareem
  2. LeBron
  3. MJ

 

8) Now we’ll look at overall advanced stats – PER, box +/-, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, and VORP

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
PER 27.9 (1st) 24.6 (13th) 27.5 (2nd)
Box +/- 9.2 (1st) 5.7 (15th) 8.9 (2nd)
Win Shares 214 (5th) 273.4 (1st) 236.1 (3rd)
Win Shares Per 48 .250 (1st) .228 (7th) .235 (6th)
VORP 116.1 (2nd) 85.7 (7th) 133.2 (1st)

 

There are a lot of wildly impressive numbers here, but there’s also a clear first, second, and third. Jordan went 1st, 1st, 5th, 1st, and 2nd. Add those numbers up and you get 10. James went 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 1st. Add those numbers up and you get 14. Abdul-Jabaar went 13th, 15th, 1st, 7th, and 7th. Add those numbers up and you get 43, a significant gap that can’t be made up even when considering that his averages (PER, box +/-, win shares per 48) dropped due to lesser play in his age-39 season and beyond. I’ll also take a moment to point out LeBron’s VORP, which is essentially a stat that measures how much better a given player makes their team in comparison to the average, replacement-level player. James’s case for GOAT is always going to rest on his ability to take relatively bad teams to The Finals, and that ability is reflected in his VORP numbers. 

  1. MJ
  2. LeBron
  3. Kareem

 

9) Now we’ll look at fouls and turnovers, just to be complete

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Fouls Per Game 2.6 3 1.8
Turnovers Per Game 2.7 2.7 3.5

 

I’ll first note that putting career turnovers and fouls in here would just show that Kareem and LeBron played longer than Jordan. There’s no point in that. I will also note that turnovers were not recorded for the first eight years of Abdul-Jabaar’s career. I don’t think that the numbers above are really all that meaningful. There’s no crazy shocks here that give anyone an edge. Kareem’s numbers are pretty much what you’d expect. Jordan deserves some credit for his lower turnover numbers given his high usage rate as a ball handler. James deserves some credit for his low foul numbers, for whatever that’s worth. I’m most impressed by Jordan’s turnover edge, so I’ll give him the win.

  1. MJ
  2. LeBron
  3. Kareem

 

10) Now we’ll look at longevity – minutes played, minutes played per game, games played, and seasons played

Stat Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Minutes Played 41,011 57,446 (1st) 48,329 (9th)
Minutes Per Game 38.3 36.8 38.4
Games Played 1072 1,560 (2nd) 1,258
Seasons Played 15 20 Currently Playing 17th

 

This is the one area where Abdul-Jabaar and James can both boast a comfortable edge over Jordan. Kareem is the epitome of longevity in NBA history, and LeBron is a few years away from topping him. Jordan, for all of his successes, played for less time than both of these guys. That does mean something. 

  1. Kareem
  2. LeBron
  3. MJ

 

11) Lastly, we’ll look at regular season awards

Award Jordan Abdul-Jabaar James
Rookie of the Year 1 1 1
Defensive Player of the Year 1 0 0
MVP 5 6 4
Top 3 in MVP Voting (includes wins) 10 9 10
All-NBA First Team 10 10 12
All-NBA Second Team 1 5 2
All-NBA Third Team 0 0 1
All-Defensive First Team 9 5 5
All-Defensive Second Team 0 6 1
All-Rookie Team 1 1 1
All-Star Appearances 14 19 16

 

I don’t know if there can be a winner in this category. All three won Rookie of the Year. Kareem won 6 MVPs to 5 and 4 from MJ and LeBron, but MJ and LeBron edged out Kareem with 10 top three finishes each. LeBron has the most All-NBA First Team appearances with 12. Kareem has the most All-NBA appearances with 15. Jordan won Defensive Player of the Year and has the most All-Defensive First Team appearances with 9. Kareem has the most All-Defensive Team appearances with 11. All three have made the All-Star Game in all but one of their seasons. These are the three most successful basketball players of all-time. Let’s just call it a three-way tie.

  1. MJ, Kareem, and LeBron

 

So, where does that leave us? Which of these three have the best regular season numbers? Who has the worst?

Let’s answer that question by looking back over the eleven categories. In the second column, I have them ranked on a points system based on how important I think that category is. 

Category Points
Regular Season Awards 
Historical Statistic Rankings 6
Overall Advanced Stats 6
Scoring 3
Passing 3
Rebounding 3
Steals and Blocks 3
Offensive Advanced Stats 3
Defensive Advanced Stats 3
Longevity 3
Turnovers and Fouls  1

 

First place in a category gets you the number of points listed above. Second gets you ⅔ of that value. Third gets you ⅓. Let’s see how MJ, LeBron, and Kareem stack up. 

 

Category MJ LeBron Kareem
Regular Season Awards  6 6
Historical Statistic Rankings 6 2 4
Overall Advanced Stats 6 4 2
Scoring 3 2 1
Passing 2 3 1
Rebounding 1 2 3
Steals and Blocks 3 1 3
Offensive Advanced Stats 3 2 1
Defensive Advanced Stats 1 2 3
Longevity 1 2 3
Turnovers and Fouls  1 0.67 1.33
Total Points 33 26.7 27.3

 

Well, there you have it. Based on regular season production, MJ is the clear number one, with Kareem slightly edging out LeBron for the second spot.

 

  1. MJ – 33 points
  2. Kareem – 27.33 points
  3. LeBron – 26.67 points

 

Playoff Performance: 

This is going to be more subjective than the first part, but I’ll do what I can to come up with a comparable ranking here. There were 80 points on the line for the numbers, so there will be 80 points on the line here as well. I have seven categories here – championships, Finals record, Finals appearances, Finals MVPs, supporting casts, opponents, and overall postseason record. Those first four and the last one are very clear measures of postseason success, while looking at supporting casts (in Finals seasons) and Finals opponents will give a little bit of context beyond the clear but basic measures that the other categories give us.

 

1) Let’s start with championships

Player  Championships
Jordan 6
Abdul-Jabaar 6
James 3

 

This is a pretty cut and dry thing here. The little table wasn’t really necessary. Kareem and MJ both have 6 titles. LeBron has 3.

      1. MJ

      1. Kareem

      3. LeBron

 

2) Now, we’ll look at Finals records

Player  Finals Record
Jordan 6-0
Abdul-Jabaar 6-4
James 3-6

 

The key to Jordan’s case is always going to start with the 6-0 Finals record. That’s an elite mark that no other all-time great can claim. It’s a huge edge that Jordan has on James. We’ll get to the Finals appearances argument in a minute, but there’s just no denying the basic reality of these numbers. Jordan was a cold-blooded assassin in The Finals; James has not been that consistently. Jordan’s killer instinct when he got to the final round stands in sharp contrast to James’s .333 winning percentage on the biggest stage. 

Abdul-Jabbar holds a closer case to Jordan on the playoff success front. Going 6-4 in 10 Finals appearances is a solid mark, but it’s still Jordan on top without any difficulty here.

  1. MJ
  2. Kareem
  3. LeBron

 

3) Now we’ll look at Finals appearances

Player  Finals Appearances Percentage of Seasons with Finals Appearance
Jordan 6 40%
Abdul-Jabaar 10 50%
James 9 56.3%

 

I do think that the argument centered around James making the Finals more (in 56.3% of his seasons so far) than Jordan (40% of his seasons) should hold some weight. It is true that losing in the Finals, like James has so often done, is better than losing before getting there, like Jordan did nine times to James’s seven despite playing one year less. Making the last round in 40% of your attempts is no small feat, but making it in 56.3% of your seasons is an unbelievable achievement. James tops Jordan here. The only question is whether or not he tops Abdul-Jabaar. Kareem made the Finals 10 times, one more than James. But, he played four more seasons (really just over three at this point), which dropped his percentage to a little bit below James. Looking at this right now, it’s hard to pick one over the other, but I’ll give the edge to LeBron due to the diminished role of Kareem on a few of his late-career Finals runs. 

  1. LeBron
  2. Kareem
  3. MJ

Before we continue, it’s important to say that it’s impossible to look at Jordan’s playoff success without mentioning that he took almost a full two-year break between two three-peats and then took a three-year break after the second run of titles. Who knows how 1994-1998 shake out if Jordan plays all five years. Does he win a seventh title against Hakeem and the Rockets in ‘94? Does he get to another Finals in ‘95 if he plays more than the last seventeen games of the season? How does that affect the second three-peat in ‘96-’98? And how long could he have kept that run going if he hadn’t stepped away from the game after the 1998 season? We’ll never know, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Jordan’s legacy considering the invincible Finals stretch those breaks allowed. 

 

4) Now let’s take a look at supporting casts

There’s no great way to measure a supporting cast, but I’ll use the top three teammate regular season win share totals for each Finals season. The seasons that ended in championships are in bold. The last column is the sum of the top 3 teammate postseason win shares. It’s not necessarily the win shares of the three players listed for that regular season, but those players are obviously among the top 3 in the playoffs too more often than not. To (sort of) measure roles, I put any teammates that produced more regular season win shares than Jordan, Abdul-Jabaar, or James in italics, and the playoff win shares are also in italics if one of those three didn’t lead the way in the playoffs that year. The seasons are more or less ranked by total combined regular season and playoff win shares, though there were some arbitrary decisions made when the numbers are close. 

Year/Team Top WS Teammate 2nd 3rd Total Top 3 WS Top 3 WS in Playoffs
‘87 Lakers Magic Johnson (15.9) James Worthy (9.3) Byron Scott (7.7) 32.9 8.3
‘89 Lakers Magic Johnson (16.1) James Worthy (9,7) A.C. Green (9.4) 35.2 5.6
‘92 Bulls Horace Grant (14.1) Scottie Pippen (12.7) John Paxson (4.7) 31.5 7.9
‘88 Lakers Magic Johnson (10.9) Byron Scott (10.7) James Worthy (7.9)* 29.5 9.1
‘96 Bulls Scottie Pippen (12.3) Toni Kukoc (10.1) Steve Kerr (8.3) 30.7 6.7
‘71 Bucks Oscar Robertson (12.4) Bob Dandridge (9.5) Jon McGlocklin (8.9) 30.8 5.9
‘11 Heat Dwyane Wade (12.8) Chris Bosh (10.3) James Jones (4.7) 27.8 7.5
‘85 Lakers Magic Johnson (12.7) James Worthy (7.5) Byron Scott (6.9) 27.1 7.3
‘91 Bulls Scottie Pippen (11.3) Horace Grant (10.3) John Paxson (5.7) 27.3 7
‘80 Lakers Magic Johnson (10.5) Jamaal Wilkes (10) Norm Nixon (6.7) 27.2 6
‘82 Lakers Magic Johnson (12.9) Jamaal Wilkes (7.7) Norm Nixon (6.6) 27.2 5.4
‘97 Bulls Scottie Pippen (13.1) Steve Kerr (7.1)  Toni Kukoc (6.9) 27.1 5.6
‘15 Cavs Kyrie Irving (10.4) * Kevin Love (8.7) Tristan Thompson (6.8) 25.9 6.2
‘93 Bulls Horace Grant (9.1) Scottie Pippen (8.6) BJ Armstrong (7.5) 25.2 5.6
‘84 Lakers Magic Johnson (10.2) James Worthy (6.5) Michael Cooper (6.5) 23.2 7.3
‘16 Cavs Kevin Love (8.7) Tristan Thompson (8.5) J.R. Smith (5.5) 22.7 7.5
‘13 Heat Dwayne Wade (9.6) Chris Bosh (9) Ray Allen (5.4) 24 5.9
‘83 Lakers Magic Johnson (12.5) Jamaal Wilkes (7.4) Michael Cooper (5.2) 25.1 4
‘17 Cavs Kyrie Irving (8.9) Tristan Thompson (7.3) Kevin Love (6.4) 22.6 5.9
‘98 Bulls Dennis Rodman (7.8) Ron Harper (7.2) Toni Kukoc (7) 22 6.4
‘74 Bucks Bob Dandridge (8.4) Lucius Allen (8.2) Oscar Robertson (5.9) 22.5 4.1
‘12 Heat Dwayne Wade (7.7) Chris Bosh (6.9) Mario Chalmers (4.3) 18.9 6.9
‘07 Cavs Zydrunas Ilgauskas (6.6) Anderson Varejao (6.6) Drew Gooden (6.5) 19.7 5.8
‘14 Heat Chris Bosh (8) Chris Anderson (6) Dwyane Wade (5.5) 19.5 4.4
‘18 Cavs Kevin Love (6.4) Jeff Green (3.9) Kyle Korver (3.4) 13.7 3.4

* A.C. Green also produced 7.9 win shares in 1988

* Kyrie Irving was tied with James with 10.4 regular season win shares in the 2015 season

 

There’s a lot to take away from this, so I split it up a bit more than usual.

 

  • Abdul-Jabaar is the only one to have played with other players on this list (Johnson and Robertson). 

Robertson was still good but nearing the end by the time he arrived in Milwaukee. Johnson was probably the best player on seven of the eight Lakers teams that reached the Finals when Abdul-Jabaar was there. That means Kareem was the best player on only three or four of his ten Finals-reaching teams. 

  • That’s a negative, but it isn’t quite as big as it seems when you look at the context 

– Kareem made an All-NBA team in six of those ten Finals seasons (and was suspended for part of a seventh). 

– He was an elite player until ‘87, ‘88, and ‘89, even if Johnson was likely better starting around ‘82. 

– Considering that Kareem was already twelve years into his career in 1982 (and 34 years old), it’s hard to hit him too much for not being better than another all-time great just starting to hit his prime. 

– It’s also really hard to complain about a 39 year-old putting up lesser numbers, and Kareem turned 39 during the ‘87 season. He wasn’t elite, but he was still a reliable contributor through his final season as a 41 year old. 

– This hurts Abdul-Jabaar in comparison to James and Jordan, but it shouldn’t have much of a negative impact of his legacy

– Another point – Abdul-Jabaar on the Bucks and James on the Cavs the first time around would be a decent comparison, though the Bucks were probably a little better. In 6 years in Milwaukee, Abdul-Jabaar went 1-1 in two Finals appearances. In seven years in Cleveland, James lost his only Finals appearance. Neither one really hit their groove championship-wise until they moved and got better pieces around them.

  • Kareem’s longevity is an all-time feat

– Jordan won his last title at 34 and only played to his age-39 season despite taking nearly five years off over the course of his career. Again, the breaks make it hard to project what might have happened after ‘98, but the simple reality is that Jordan only played two seasons after turning 34. Abdul-Jabaar played seven. 

– James is currently 35, though he’s only a few years behind Kareem in career length. It’s impossible to project how the next three or so years will go, but James has a very good chance of leapfrogging Kareem in a variety of areas at his current pace. Still, as things stand today, he’s behind Kareem in this area. 

  • Kareem, by comparison, also had a solid amount of help

– The ‘87, ‘88, and ‘89 Lakers all had at least three players that produced more win shares than Abdul-Jabbar, and the players around him on those teams formed three of the top four supporting casts based on my ranking above. Again, Abdul-Jabaar was either 39, 40, or 41 during these seasons. It’s not a knock on him that he was no longer elite, but those years do mean that his postseason numbers were padded by successful runs fueled largely by others. 

– The ‘71 Bucks and ‘80, ‘82, and ‘85 Lakers also finished in the top half of the supporting cast rankings above. Those teams went 4-0 in The Finals.

– The seven teams above went a combined 6-1 in the Finals, which means that Kareem was 0-3 in his three other Finals appearances. The ‘83 and ‘84 Lakers had slightly below average supporting casts (in the context of these rankings) and the ‘74 Bucks had a pretty poor supporting cast. Abdul-Jabaar couldn’t finish the deal with any of those teams.

  • Jordan had good players around him, but he was the clear driving force

There are twenty-five teams in the table above. Jordan’s supporting casts rank 3rd, 5th, 9th, 12th, 14th, and 20th. You can’t take those numbers and say that Jordan had a monstrous team behind him, but you also can’t say that he was dragging nobodies to championships. To put it simply, he was an all-time great winning championships with a good team around him. The ‘92 and ‘96 Bulls were really good. The ‘98 Bulls weren’t fantastic. The other three were somewhere in the middle. My opinion on Jordan isn’t shifted at all by this. 

  • James has dragged some really bad teams to The Finals

The bottom four teams in the ranking above are James’s. So are seven of the bottom ten. As a reminder, he’s made The Finals nine times. The ‘12, ‘13, and ‘14 Heat were a little better than their win share numbers might suggest. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were both relatively injury-prone, and that impacted their regular season numbers. Still, these were teams that didn’t have much beyond rotation players after James, Wade, and Bosh. James won two championships in those three years anyway. The ‘17 Cavs fell well into the bottom half of the rankings, partly due to injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Despite those injuries, James brought them to The Finals. The ‘07 Cavs were pretty bad for a Finals team. Anderson Varejao and Drew Gooden were two of their four best players. James brought them to The Finals. The ‘18 Cavs were laughably bad for a Finals team. A 31 year old Jeff Green and a 36 year old Kyle Korver were two of their four best players. They weren’t even close to the other teams on this list. They were the 14th best team in the league that year by SRS, a measure of point differential and strength of schedule, and that’s with LeBron included. James brought them to The Finals. This is where his case gets stronger. 

  • That 2011 loss to the Mavs is still unforgivable

– And this is where his case gets a whole lot weaker. The ‘11 Heat were the seventh-best team above by regular season win shares from their top three non-James players. They were tied for fourth in playoff win shares from their top three non-James players. That was a really good team,  probably the best one James has played on, and they were soundly defeated in The Finals by a Mavs team that shouldn’t have been able to keep it all that close. LeBron was a 26 year old physical monster and he just couldn’t get it done when it mattered. That’s a stain that will never come off. There’s not much margin for error in the race to be the greatest of all time. 

– Now, some might point to the ‘89 Lakers and ask why Kareem gets a free pass there. I’m giving him one for the same reason that I won’t be giving him as much credit for reaching The Finals that year. He was 41. 

  • The Heat, for all the talk of a superteam, really weren’t that stacked

Much has been made about LeBron’s decision to form a Big Three in Miami after failing to make a successful Finals run during his first stint in Cleveland, with a fair amount of people believing that his championships there weren’t earned quite as much as other championships given the teaming up that went on beforehand. The numbers don’t really back that up. Bosh and Wade, when healthy, were very good, but they weren’t superstars. The rest of the roster was basically a bunch of smart role players. Those guys are crucial, but they don’t make a superteam. Of the 20 teams that made The Finals from 2010-2019, James’s Heat teams were 5th, 6th, 11th, and 16th by SRS. Those top two teams would have been right up there with the ‘14 Spurs as the best in the decade if it weren’t for the Warriors, but the Heat as a whole in those four years were relatively average among Finals teams. There should be no asterisk on LeBron’s basketball legacy for his choice to go to Miami, even if there are legitimate gripes to be had with the way he handled the announcement of that decision. 

 

So, to recap, Jordan’s teammates shouldn’t have any impact on the way his career is viewed. Abdul-Jabbar, among these three, had the best supporting casts, but his age and the length of his career give him a decent excuse for not being the clear best player that Jordan and James always were. James has done some really impressive things with some really poor supporting casts, but he also slipped up in brutal fashion with his best team. His Heat teams also weren’t as good as the general narrative says they were. I’m giving him the edge here because of how bad some of his Finals teams have been in comparison to others. 

  1. LeBron
  2. MJ
  3. Kareem

 

5) Now let’s look at Finals opponents

There are a number of ways to do this, but let’s keep it simple. We’re just going to look at SRS numbers. Championship wins are again in bold. The table is ordered by SRS margin, which is calculated by SRS – Opponent’s SRS.

Year/Team SRS Opponent Opponent’s SRS SRS Margin
‘71 Bucks 11.91 Bullets 0.91 +11.0
‘96 Bulls 11.80 SuperSonics 7.40 +4.40
‘74 Bucks 7.61 Celtics 3.42 +4.19
‘92 Bulls 10.07 Trail Blazers 6.94 +3.13
‘97 Bulls 10.70 Jazz 7.97 +2.73
‘11 Heat 6.76 Mavs 4.41 +2.35
‘91 Bulls 8.57 Lakers 6.73 +1.84
‘87 Lakers 8.31 Celtics 6.57 +1.74
‘98 Bulls 7.24 Jazz 5.73 +1.51
‘80 Lakers 5.40 Sixers 4.04 +1.36
‘13 Heat 7.03 Spurs 6.67 +0.36
‘89 Lakers 6.38 Pistons 6.24 +0.14
‘85 Lakers 6.48 Celtics 6.46 +0.02
‘93 Bulls 6.19 Suns 6.27 -0.08
‘88 Lakers 4.81 Pistons 5.46 -0.65
‘12 Heat 5.72 Thunder 6.44 -0.72
‘82 Lakers 4.37 Sixers 5.74 -1.37
‘83 Lakers 5.06 Sixers 7.53 -2.47
‘84 Lakers 3.32 Celtics 6.42 -3.10
‘14 Heat 4.15 Spurs 8 -3.85
‘07 Cavs 3.33 Spurs 8.35 -5.02
‘18 Cavs 0.59 Warriors 5.79 -5.20
‘15 Cavs 4.08 Warriors 10.01 -5.93
‘16 Cavs 5.45 Warriors 10.38 -5.93
‘17 Cavs 2.87 Warriors 11.35 -8.48

 

– This is where James really can make a case.

– Jordan played five of his six Finals against teams with a lower SRS than his team. The average SRS margin between the Bulls and their Finals opponent in those six years was +2.26. 

– Kareem played six of his ten Finals against teams with a lower SRS than his team. The average SRS margin between the Bucks/Lakers and their Finals opponent in those ten years was +1.086. That number is drawn up slightly by the absurd difference between the ‘71 Bucks and ’71 Bullets, but it’s a lot higher than James’s number either way. 

– James has only played two of his nine Finals against teams with a lower SRS than his team. The average SRS margin between the Cavs/Heat and their Finals opponent in those nine years was -3.60. Each of LeBron’s five Cavs finalists were dramatically worse than the team they played in The Finals, and the ‘14 Heat were not on the same level as the ‘14 Spurs. Suddenly, going 1-5 in those Finals series doesn’t seem so bad. Beating the 2016 Warriors four time out of seven is as impressive of a feat as you will see in any sport ever. If James wins one or two more of those Finals, he’s the GOAT. 

– Another series that he really could have used was that Mavs series. It still looks terrible here, but Kareem’s Finals loss in ‘74 also looks pretty bad through this lens. 

– At the end of the day, here’s what matters from this category – 

MJ in Finals as the better team by SRS : 5-0

MJ in Finals as the worse team by SRS : 1-0

Kareem in Finals as the better team by SRS : 4-4

Kareem in Finals as the worse team by SRS : 2-2

LeBron in Finals as the better team by SRS : 1-1

LeBron in Finals as the worse team by SRS : 2-5

What happens if James doesn’t run into truly elite Spurs or Warriors teams in five consecutive seasons? I think it’s fair to say that a few of his Cavs teams (‘07 and ‘18 specifically) weren’t equipped to win a Finals series against a lot of teams, but LeBron probably has a few more titles in his back pocket if he has a Finals strength of schedule similar to Jordan’s. He would not have gone undefeated. He might not even have six rings. But he would have a better case than he does today. Opponents can’t determine this conversation on their own, and, at the end of the day, James failed to win with the cards he was dealt. MJ had no control over who he played in The Finals either. Still, this is a meaningful piece of the discussion. 

  1. LeBron
  2. Kareem
  3. MJ

 

6) Now let’s look at Finals MVPs

Player  Finals MVPs
Jordan 6
Abdul-Jabaar 2
James 3

 

It doesn’t get any more straightforward than this.

  1. MJ
  2. LeBron
  3. Kareem

 

7) Now let’s take a look at overall playoff record

Player  Playoff Record Playoff Winning Percentage
Jordan 119-60 66.48%
Abdul-Jabaar 154-83 64.98%
James 156-83 65.27%

 

More playoff games can be a good thing (more series) or a bad thing (longer series). It’s going to be the former more often than the latter though, and I’ll give Kareem and LeBron a slight edge over Jordan as a result. Their longevity gets a little more credit here. The difference between those two is two wins out of over 250 games. It’s not really fair to give an edge to someone based off of that. It’s another tie, though James could take the top spot here for his own as soon as this summer. 

      1. LeBron

      1. Kareem

      3. MJ

 

So, where does that leave us? Which of these three have been the most impressive in the playoffs? Who has been the least?

Categories Points
Championships 10
Finals Record 7.5
Finals Appearances  5
Supporting Casts  5
Opponents  5
Finals MVPs 5
Overall Playoff Record 2.5

 

Category MJ LeBron Kareem
Championships 10 3.33 10
Finals Record 7.5 2.5 5
Finals Appearances  1.67 5 3.33
Supporting Casts  3.33 5 1.67
Opponents  1.67 5 3.33
Finals MVPs 5 3.33 1.67
Overall Playoff Record 0.83 2.5 2.5
Total Points 30 26.67 27.5

 

And there you have that. Based on postseason success, MJ is again the clear number one, with Kareem again slightly edging out LeBron for the second spot.

 

  1. MJ – 30 points
  2. Kareem – 27.5 points
  3. LeBron – 26.67 points

 

This brings us to the overall leaderboard, where we combine regular season production with postseason success to rank these three players as 1, 2, and 3 in NBA history. 

 

  1. Michael Jordan – 63 points
  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar – 54.83 points
  3. LeBron James – 53.34 points

MJ is the GOAT. Kareem comes next. LeBron sits in third. 

A reminder that this is a ranking based on today. LeBron has time to change his spot, and he isn’t far off from the only two players ahead of him.

 

* This page has been updated to reflect the fact that Kareem finished in the top 100 all-time in offensive rebounds per game, and that seasons played was not included in the 30+ stats that were used in category 1 of the regular season numbers section. 

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