Old school vs new: Kareem vs Shaq

The NBA in the 70s/80s was a lot different than the NBA in the 2000s…they played faster, less emphasis on defense, some different rules, etc.  While raw box scores don’t reflect any of those changes, many of the advanced stats that we’ve talked about are normalized for pace and player competition level, making them stand up better than raw box scores across time.  So, let’s take advantage of some of our new toys to compare some of today’s greats with some of yesterday’s.

You may remember Shaquille O’Neal’s famous “Kobe, tell me how my … tastes” rap from last summer.  During that freestyle, Shaq also made fun of the idea that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might be better than him.  The thing is, though, Kareem has a pretty strong case.  He has six NBA titles and six MVPs, trumping Shaq’s four titles and one MVP.  But how did they match up stats wise?  Unfortunately, the NBA didn’t start recording stats like blocks and turnovers until the 1977-78 season, when Kareem was 30 years old in his 9th season (and well past the day of other great Lakers centers like Wilt and Mikan, excluding them from this comparison).  Still, that was only Kareem’s third season with the Lakers, and he had such an extremely long peak that we can still compare Kareem’s stats from 1977 – 1985 with Shaq’s eight-year run in L.A. to see who deserves the title of best center in Los Angeles history.

Raw Box Scores:

Abdul-Jabbar 618 games, 35.6 min, 23.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.7 blocks, 0.9 steals, 3.0 TOs, 58.1% FG, 74.5% FT

O’Neal 514 games, 37.6 min, 27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.5 blocks, 0.6 steals, 2.8 TOs, 57.5% FG, 53.3% FT

The quick nuggets I see in the box score stats are that Kareem was a lot healthier (more than 100 more games played in the same time period, a big gap even with the lockout shortened ’99 season), that Shaq put up more impressive scoring/rebounding numbers, but that Kareem was a bit more efficient as a scorer (the free throw percentage is the huge gap).

PER: Abdul-Jabbar 24.6, O’Neal 28.9

This tells us that Shaq put up more dominant box score stats with respect to his peers than Kareem did during these eight-year stretches.

Ratings and Win Shares

Offensive Rating and Offensive Win Shares: Abdul-Jabbar 116.6 ORTG/64.6 OWS, O’Neal 113.6 ORTG, 67 OWS
Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares: Abdul-Jabbar 101.6 DRTG/ 33.7 DWS, O’Neal 99.6 DRTG/31.5 DWS
Net Rating and Total Win Shares: Abdul-Jabbar +15.5 Net RTG/ 98.3 WS, O’Neal +14.0 rating/98.4 WS

These confirm for us that Kareem was more efficient on offense (higher ORTG) but that Shaq’s production was more dominant with respect to his peers (Shaq has more offensive wins shares despite playing more than 100 fewer games).  On defense, the Lakers that Shaq anchored had slightly better defenses with him on the court than Kareem’s Lakers did.  On the whole, though, Kareem was slightly more efficient on combined offense/defense and his consistent presence on the court allowed his total production to roughly equal Shaq’s despite Shaq’s more dominant numbers (almost exact same number of total win shares).

Wins Produced: Abdul-Jabbar 157.5 wins and 0.341 WP48, O’Neal 140.2 wins and 0.344 WP48

This stat tells a similar story to the rating/win shares combo, but shifted a bit more in Kareem’s favor.  They “produced wins” at almost the exact same rate, but Kareem played many more games so on the whole he “produced 17.3 more wins” over a similar 8-year period.

Conclusion: Over the eight years examined here Shaq appeared to be more dominant than Kareem with respect to their peers, especially on offense.  This could be a function of Shaq’s strength, or it could also be a function of fewer great centers in 2000 than there were in 1980.  Kareem, though, was there day-in-and-day-out while Shaq tended to miss games, so over the entire time period Kareem was a bit more productive statistically.  Then, there’s the kicker: this comparison pitted Shaq at his absolute physical prime vs. Kareem in his 30s…and Kareem at-worst kept it honest.  That suggests that if we compared Kareem’s prime (where he put up much bigger numbers) vs. Shaq’s then Kareem would have won this battle pretty easily.  Gives us some perspective on just how great Abdul-Jabbar was, and also acts as the tie-breaker in this comp to say that Kareem is the one that should be asking Shaq how his backside tastes.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Basketball Reference, the Basketball Database, and Wages of Wins for the stats cited here.

Disclaimer: This is not (nor is it meant to be) a definitive argument for one player being better on the court than another, as it is impossible to truly compare across era...we're just comparing some stats.  Also, because +/- stats are a new invention, we don’t have any of that data from before the new millennium and even the stats we do have only go back to 1977 (apologies to the old school greats).  That said, comparing all-time greats is always fun and stats can add a new layer or two to water cooler debates.  


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