Monday February 6th 2012, Kobe Bryant surpassed Shaquille O'Neal for 5th on the NBA's all time scoring leaders list. The milestone has sparked the conversation and debate over which Laker is the best. From Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Magic Johnson, Shaq and Kobe, the discussion seems to lean toward Jabbar and Magic. Many NBA analysts and writers, like Mike Wilbon of the Washington Post, believe Magic is the best ever Laker. They list his 5 championship rings, historic impact on the game, his all around skill set and Magic's ability to make every player around him better.
I myself grew up watching Magic and showtime in the latter years just before he contracted HIV, cutting his hall of fame career short. In looking at the argument objectively, I begin by looking at the statistics. Kareem's stat sheet is incredibly impressive for its consistency and longevity. For 20 consecutive years in the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar played in no less than 65 games at 7' 2", averaging almost 25 points per game, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. He dominated the game offensively and defensively consistently for such a long time that his numbers stack up better than anyone else's for all around game.
First noticeable and noteable thing about Magic's stat sheet is how much smaller it is than Kareem's. There is something to be said for the longevity of a player's career, especially when discussing or making an argument for which player is best. Obviously we know why Magic's career was much shorter. He does not get a pass though for this discussion. It cannot be overlooked the fact that he did not have a long career. Greatness and for that matter All-Time Greatness must be measured with time and numbers. Intangibles and immeasureables do not connote the best players; leave those to the role players. All that considered, Magic did average 19 points, 11 assists and 2 steals in 13 seasons with the Lakers. If you project Magic's stats out for the 6 to 10 probable years he would have played had he not contracted HIV, he would have ended up with around 25,000 points, 18,000 assists and 2700 steals. Clearly Magic is one of the all time greats. But I can't put him above Kareem. NBA analysts and fans lose their objectivity with Magic when they refuse to acknowledge character or a character flaw in Magic Johnson. Yes, he was great. Yes he made his teammates better. All great players make their teammates better. But he did not do it long enough and his sexual trangressions and lack of judgement led to contracting the HIV virus cutting his basketball career short. Basketball ability and Magic's personal life have nothing to do with one another, but Magic's personal failures absolutely factor into his Basketball longevity or lack thereof.
Though West and Baylor are certainly noteworthy for the discussion, their numbers and their overall notoriety do not approach that of all time greatness. It is worth noting they did not play in an era where 3 point field goals existed in the NBA, which would have increased their point totals especially West's. Their part in the argument ends quickly when noting West won 1 championship, Baylor won none.
Which brings me to Kobe Bryant. Winner of 5 championships. Kobe garners comparisons to Michael Jordan which is certainly worth mentioning when talking about the best players of all time. Oh yeah and statistically Kobe mos definitely stacks up. 15 years into what is looking like will be a 20 year career just like Kareem's, Kobe Bryant has 28,600 points and every award from MVP to multiple all defensive team awards. Clearly Kobe excels in scoring. The knock on Bryant may be that he did not make other players around him better until Phil Jackson became his coach and instituted his assistant coach Tex Winter's Triangle Offense. I argue that early on Kobe struggled with sharing the basketball efficiently. With experience Kobe learned to be a better teammate and won 3 rings with Shaq, then two more without Shaq.
At this point the argument comes down to overall ability, numbers, career longevity and championships. Kareem wins the championship tally with 6 and Magic and Kobe have 5. It's clear Magic Johnson can be touted as the best point guard of all time winning 5 titles in only 13 seasons. Kobe and Kareem are the pure scorers of the basketball in this discussion. Kobe and Kareem win for consistency and longevity for their careers. All three players win for their overall abilities. Magic falls short in longevity and numbers. Objectively, I put Magic third on the list. Like I said, I think his lack of longevity must be taken into serious account. Kareem is at the moment, the best Laker of all time. However, I think at the end of Kobe Bryant's career he will come close enough or even surpass Jabbar in scoring giving him the nod to be The Best Laker Ever. If Kobe does not equal or surpass Kareem in championship titles or scoring, then for me Kareem remains #1.
Abdul-Jabbar is the most underrated and disrespected basketball player of all time, just like Hank Aaron in baseball. They're both atop very important statistical lists in their sport (Points, HRs, RBIs) yet they were overshadowed by peers who had more personality and flair. Kareem dominated during the golden age of NBA Big Men. There is no argument denying that he played against the best crop of Centers. From 1969 to 1989, Abdul-Jabbar dominated against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Dave Cowens, Billy Cunningham, Patrick Ewing, Elvin Hayes, Jerry Lucas, Moses Malone, Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Parish, Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld and Bill Walton(by the way, they're all apart of the NBA 50 Greatest).
Every great player makes their teammates better. To say Magic Johnson makes his teammates better than Kobe Bryant does isn't fair. Though Magic is probably the best facilitator ever, he comes nowhere close to Kobe's scoring ability. What is more important? Being a great facilitator or great scorer? Magic needs great players around him to truly be at his best. Kobe needs someone to pass him the ball to be great. Kobe and Magic are equal when it comes to defensive prowess, with a slight edge to Kobe for his great athletic ability, which allows him to defend better. When all is said and done I project Abdul Jabbar 2nd, Kobe Bryant 1st, but Kobe still has some work to do.