Shepard: You Can't Argue LeBron Is Better Than MJ For One Simple Reason

LeBron James is not the GOAT, David Shepard says; in fact, he's not even runner-up

CBS Sports Radio Weekend
May 18, 2020 - 11:27 am
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ESPN came out with its top 74 players celebrating the NBA’s 74 years of existence this week. Overall, they did a nice job, but there did seem to be a little case of recency bias. The debate shouldn't be between Michael Jordan and LeBron James for greatest player of all-time quite yet. LeBron has not surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the better player to this point. 

Before you give me the better all-around player argument (which, yes, LeBron is in relation to Kareem) that logic is not applied elsewhere. Jason Kidd is a better all-around player than Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki. No one has Kidd ranked ahead of those guys. Kareem was more successful than LeBron when it mattered most, the NBA Finals. Kareem was also better in the regular season. He was much better at the beginning of his career. LeBron was slightly better in the middle, and Kareem was much better at the end. 

In fairness to LeBron, he hasn’t had an end yet, but you hold that against Kareem. Kareem was consistently great into his 40s and LeBron, I’m sure, will have something to say about that when all is said and done. LeBron can certainly leap Kareem for second all-time by the time his career is over, but he’s not there yet. 

Here’s why….
Regular Season MVPs
Kareem - 6 MVPs (Most ever). More MVPs than Kobe, Shaq, Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant combined

LeBron - 4 MVPs. Hasn’t won an MVP past the age of 28. Kareem won three MVPs past the age of 28
NBA Titles & Finals MVPs
Kareem – 6 Titles. 10 Finals Appearances. Teams’ overall record in the NBA Finals, 31-24 (seven games above .500)

LeBron – 3 Titles, 9 Finals Appearances. Teams’ overall record in the NBA Finals 18-31 (13 games below .500)

You can’t ignore the 3-6 series record in the Finals for LeBron, winning 33% of the time.
Beginning of both careers – Kareem was much better
- Let’s make it an even playing field and take LeBron’s first Cleveland stint of seven years vs Kareem’s first seven years with the Bucks.

- Kareem - 4 MVPs, 5x All-NBA 1st team, 5x All-Defense, 2 scoring titles, 1 Finals MVP, 7-4 in Finals

- LeBron - 2 MVPs, 4x All-NBA 1st team, 2x All-Defense, 1 scoring title, 0 Finals MVPS, 0-4 in Finals
- Many will argue LeBron didn’t have a lot of help in Cleveland and they would be right. We need to keep in mind Kareem also had very little help in Milwaukee.

- Kareem won an NBA title in his second season. He beat a Lakers team in the Western Conference Finals 4-1. A Lakers team with four Hall of Famers in Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. Yes, Kareem had Oscar Robertson (the only other Bucks Hall of Famer). Oscar was still good but well past his prime.

- Kareem in the Finals in his second season swept a Bullets team with three Hall of Famers (Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson). Again, Kareem had an aging Oscar Robertson and no other Hall of Famers.

- In the 1974 NBA Finals. Kareem pushed a Celtics team to seven games with four Hall of Famers (Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Paul Westphal and Jo Jo White). Kareem had just one Hall of Famer who was on his last legs (Oscar).

- LeBron made it to one NBA Finals in his first seven years in the NBA. Kareem made two NBA Finals in his first five years. LeBron had an 0-4 record, Kareem had a 7-4 record.
Middle of both careers – LeBron was better, but not by much  

- LeBron is arguably still in his prime. He was at his peak from the 2011-12 season until the the 2017-18 season, his last year with the Cavaliers in his second stint. Kareem was past his prime in the early 1980s, but for sake of consistency, we will take Kareem years eight through year fifteen

- LeBron won three titles, three Finals MVPs and two regular season MVPS. LeBron like Kareem needed to go to a different team with multiple Hall of Famers to get those multiple titles. LeBron won his first title with two Hall of Famers in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He won his second title with three Hall of Famers in Wade, Bosh and Ray Allen. He won his third title with two Hall of Famers in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Kareem also won with the likes of Magic Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes and James Worthy. 
Kareem should have won the Finals MVP in 1980 

1980 Finals – In four of the six games led both teams in scoring. In five of the six games, led both teams in rebounding. Averages of 33 PPG, 14 RPG, 3 APG & 5 BPG. Magic (the Finals MVP) had averages of 22 PPG, 11 PPG, 9 APG & 0 BPG

1982 Finals - Averages of 18 PPG, 8 RPG, 4 APG & 2 BPG

1983 Finals - Averages of 24 PPG, 8 RPG, 3 APG & 2 BPG

1984 Finals - Averages of 27 PPG, 8 RPG, 4 APG, 2 BPG
The end of career where Kareem was still great and LeBron hasn't entered yet
- The two other NBA greatest centers of All-Time in Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were out of the NBA by the age of 38. At age 38 in 1985 (his 16th season) Kareem won Finals MVP with averages of 26 PPG, 9 RPG, 5 APG & 2 BPG.

He did this against a team with four Hall of Famers in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. The Celtics in this series also had a former Finals MVP in Cedric Maxwell (1981).

- At age 39 (his 17th season) he was averaging 26 PPG in the playoffs and made an All-NBA first team in the regular season.

- At age 40 (his 18th season) he was averaging nearly 20 PPG (19.2 PPG) in the postseason. The Lakers won a title that year.

- He was starting in the NBA Finals at the age of 42. In his second to last game of his career, he went for 24 points and 13 boards. Only one other player past the age of 35 had had a game like this in the NBA Finals. Tim Duncan did it at 37 (five years younger)
Kareem had a much better regular-season career overall

Scoring King
- His 38,387 regular season career points are the most in NBA History. 1,459 more points than the second all-time leading scorer (now retired) Karl Malone. 4,300 more career points than LeBron who is in 3rd all-time. Kareem passed Wilt Chamberlain for the all-time leading scorer in NBA History on April 5th, 1984. A record he has obviously had for more than 36 years. He would play FIVE more seasons after becoming the All-Time NBA leading scorer

Should have not just been the King in Career Points, but Blocks King as well 

- The NBA didn't keep track of blocks in Kareem’s first four seasons. He'd be the All-Time career blocks leader had they done that. Nonetheless, he is still third all-time.

- LeBron is 105th in career blocks. LeBron is 13th in career steals (3rd
 among forwards)

- Kareem is 102nd in career steals (7th among Centers); would have been 2nd among centers, trailing only Hakeem had they recorded steals in his first four years in the NBA
Got it done on the boards too
- Kareem is 3rd All-time in Career rebounds. Nobody who started playing in 1960 or after (Jabbar's rookie season was 1969) has come within 1000 career rebounds of his total. Only one ACTIVE player Dwight Howard is within 6000 rebounds of his total

- LeBron is 49th All-Time in rebounds. (24th all-time among forwards)
- LeBron is 8th in career Assists (first among forwards)

- Kareem has more career assists than Michael Jordan & Hall of Fame point guard Dennis Johnson. Kareem ranks 43rd in career assists – 1,000 more assists than any other center in NBA History.
To conclude this argument....In the beginning (with their first team) we need to keep in mind Kareem like LeBron had little help. Kareem won a title and took another Finals series to seven games against a much better Celtics team. LeBron made one NBA Finals and got swept by the Spurs in his first stint with the Cavs. 

LeBron is more marketable and is a worldwide brand, something NBA players didn’t have the luxury of back in Kareem’s day. A dominating 7’2 Center isn’t as appealing to most as a 6’9 once in a lifetime athlete. It is well known that the media that covered Kareem considered him aloof. If you have significantly better regular-season numbers and better Finals numbers and RESULTS, you are objectively a better player. LeBron clearly isn’t done yet. 

Before we have a GOAT conversation between LeBron and MJ, let’s make sure he passes Kareem first. I’m not even including college, where Kareem might have been the greatest college basketball player of all time.

CBS Sports Radio producer David Shepard is a former ESPN researcher, a former Division I college basketball practice player, and the host of The Good Shepard YouTube channel. Follow him on Twitter @TheGoodShepard_.