We have heard it so many times that it has almost become like gospel: Michael Jordan is the best player ever. His 6 NBA rings with 6 Finals MVPs to go along with 10 scoring titles makes him truly one of the most accomplished athletes in all professional sports. MJs greatness was on display most recently during the ‘90s which is why so many claim MJ passed the eye test for the best player ever. But what about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the single greatest scorer in NBA history in total points. Kareem also has won 6 MVPs and 2 Finals MVPs to go along with 6 NBA titles. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also managed to win 3 titles in 3 years at UCLA, which is why he is considered by many as the best basketball player ever taking into account all levels of play. When it comes to comparing greatness closest to Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar certainly has the strongest case.
To try to distinguish between the 2 legends, it is time to compare both players by their most important attributes.
Scoring - Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest scorer in NBA history, and his average of 30.1 PPG ranks first all-time. Jordan's ability to score at the rim, create his own shot from mid-range, and get buckets when it matters most makes it hard to argue against MJ as the number one scorer ever. Kareem ranks first all-time in total points scored and he has the single most unstoppable shot in NBA history with the Sky Hook. Both players are arguably the two best scorers in history, but does Jordan get the edge in this regard?
The answer is yes. Kareem's total points record is a testament to his longevity and ability to be a dominant player thanks to his Sky Hook. Kareem won 2 scoring titles but Jordan won a whopping 10 of them. Jordan's ability to score in an era where hand-checking and aggressive defense was allowed is special, and winning a decade's worth of scoring titles gives him the edge.
Athleticism - Michael Jordan
Jordan is a better athlete in terms of speed, vertical, quickness, and everything that comes with being athletic. Jordan might be the most impressive physical specimen who made the game so beautiful to watch because of his leaping and hang time in the air. Jordan stands 6'6" and weighed 198 lbs in his playing days, meaning he could explode off his feet for dunks and fantastic finishes around the rim.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is athletic due to his size, and he has managed to use his large frame and height to become one of the most unstoppable players in history. Kareem stood 7’2” tall and weighed 225 lbs meaning he was a rock on the inside. Of course, being such a large person meant he needed a point guard to get him the ball, something Jordan never had to worry about. Therefore, another win for Jordan as a better athlete, and there is no debate about it.
Defense - Michael Jordan
This one, like scoring, is extremely close because both players are some of the best 2-way stars we have ever seen. Kareem shut players down in the paint and Jordan did it in the perimeter. The difference here is that Jordan managed to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award and also make 9 All-Defensive First Teams which gives him the edge.
Michael Jordan made 9 All-Defensive Teams of which 9 were All-Defensive First Teams. Jordan led the league in steals 3 times and won the Defensive Player of the Year Award (in the same season he led the league in scoring at 35.0 PPG). Jordan’s ability to lock down opposing players was a big reason for his dominance, and the fact that he did it on both ends of the floor at the highest possible level was almost inhuman.
Kareem made a total of 15 All-Defensive Teams of which 5 were All-NBA First Teams. Kareem also led the league in rebounds once and blocks 4 times. Kareem’s advantage in total All-Defensive Teams is a testament to his incredible longevity, and his ability to lock down the paint for a decade and a half. Ultimately, Jordan showed more dominance on the defensive end because he captured the Defensive Player of the Year Award as a guard and also made more All-NBA Defensive First Teams.
Clutch - Michael Jordan
This one is a bit unfair because Michael Jordan is considered one of the most clutch players in sports history. Even if he didn't make every big shot he took, he still had the killer will and belief that nobody else on the floor should take that shot. It was Jordan's belief in himself and his skills that gave his team the best chance to win games, and also why Jordan was a killer in the clutch.
Jordan also came through in the clutch countless times, including game-winning shots in the playoffs. Jordan's track record of taking and making the biggest shots gives him the edge over Kareem, even though the latter was exceptionally skilled at coming through for his team. Kareem is one of the best clutch players ever, but this attribute will always go to Jordan.
Leadership - Michael Jordan
Leadership is extremely important when determining the best player of all time. While Jordan and Kareem were the faces of the NBA for a long time, their leadership must be shown by their ability to lead their teammates on and off the court. So which player is the better leader so far?
Jordan was the architect behind 6 NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and that is shown with his 6 Finals MVPs as well. No matter what Jordan did with the Bulls, he dominated. He won the Defensive Player of the Year, he won 10 scoring titles and led the team to 2 3-peats. Jordan was the ultimate leader because he set an example for every player to be the best and he was a hungry winner even if some of his teammates didn't like him.
Kareem showed he could be a very good leader and a winner at all stages of his career, but Jordan's competitiveness and hunger for perfection made him a more dominant leader.
Impact - Michael Jordan
Impact on the game of basketball can be shown on both ends of the floor and also analyzed by what it led to. Jordan's impact on the court transcended basketball because he was the most unstoppable offensive force ever. Jordan could get the ball anytime he wanted to and often did to the benefit of his team's results. MJ could not be planned for or stopped because he is the best scorer ever, with the highest PPG average ever.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the benefit of longevity, and the way he took care of his body as a center is truly iconic. His skill on both ends of the floor was undeniable as he won everything there was to win. The only difference is that Kareem could not dominate the game as much because he needed a point guard to get him the ball, and also he wasn't always the best player on his team. Jordan was and always will be the best player in the NBA for as long as he played in the NBA and his impact was greater.
1 on 1 Game - Michael Jordan
In terms of an automatic bucket in a one-on-one situation, it is arguable that Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the two most unstoppable players ever with Wilt Chamberlain as an honorable mention.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the single most unstoppable shot in NBA history and that was a major reason he lasted as long as he did in the league. Kareem could also nail shots a bit further from the rim, and was automatic close to the basket. In terms of pure intangibles and offensive awareness, Kareem was an unstoppable force as a center. Similarly, Jordan could not be stopped by even the greatest perimeter defenders ever because he had a mix of athleticism and skill.
The difference here is that Michael Jordan had more athleticism to score, a better jump shot, and the ability to create his own shot better than Kareem. Abdul-Jabbar was unstoppable once he got the ball, but MJ could get a bucket every time down the court. Defensively, he can lock up players the entire length of the court and took 1 on 1 game personally. In terms of dominating anyone in 1 on 1 situation, Jordan was the man.
Career - Michael Jordan
Yet another one that is almost too close to call. Kareem might have the best basketball career if college is included because he won on every level and dominated to the highest degree. But when it comes to success in the NBA, 2 players always stand out first and that is Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. Russell won 11 rings, but his individual accolades do not compare to Jordan.
MJ dominated the league in every single way, by being the best overall scorer of all-time and the best 2-way shooting guard ever. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes close but he gets outmatched whenever accolades are compared. No matter which accolades there is, Jordan won it. MJ has 6 Finals MVPs, Kareem has 2. Jordan has 10 scoring titles, Kareem has 2. Jordan won the Defensive Player of the Year Award, Kareem never won it. To argue for Kareem, he has the edge in All-Star games (19 to 14), All-NBA Teams (15 to 11), All-Defensive Teams (11 to 9), and even Season MVPs (6 to 5). While these advantages are impressive, it is more of a testament to Kareem’s longevity over pure greatness.
Kareem had the advantage of playing alongside Magic Johnson, the greatest point guard ever, and that helped extend Kareem’s career to accomplish his accolades. Jordan never had a teammate as great as Magic, and MJ was the single most dominant superstar that we have ever seen over a career. MJ edges Kareem in the last category.
Michael Jordan vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 8-0
This was a great comparison because we might be looking at 2 of the best players of all time. MJ once again retains his place as the greatest player ever and even managed to sweep away arguably the second-greatest player ever. That is not to say that Kareem is not a great player, it is just that Michael Jordan had better intangibles and skills than any other player ever. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes awfully close in a lot of categories but Michael Jordan always edges him out because his accolades and near-perfection on the basketball court make the difference.