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Could LeBron Ultimately Surpass Kareem?

We’ve always compared LeBron James to Michael Jordan, but he’s been quietly chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget about Michael Jordan, LeBron James may actually have his eyes set on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And no, it’s not because the legendary center stands at 7’2, it’s because James has a legitimate shot at surpassing him as the greatest scorer in NBA history.

In fact, if things continue along the way they have been, it may end up being a walk in the park for King James.

* * * * * * * *

While we were watching LeBron James finish up his high school career on ESPN, the world could only imagine how his talents would translate to the NBA. Many were believers from day zero, while some thought there was a very real possibility that he’d never live up to the hype. So much for that.

One of the sad truths about life is that we often fail to revere those that deserve it while they’re around. When we grow up seeing things every day or subliminally feel that we could if we wanted, we tend to take them for granted. That’s exactly why a fair amount of New Yorkers (including myself) have never visited the Empire State Building. It’s the same reason why Michael Jackson was the butt of jokes prior to his death and universally celebrated as a musical genius afterward. We take things for granted when they’re right in front of our face.

At this point, if we began rattling off James’ career accomplishments and pointing out how many things he did before any other NBA superstar, we’d be sitting here all day. So let’s just start with the most obvious: James wasn’t the first youngster to make the quantum leap from high school to the pros. The long list of those who made the jump includes serviceable pros such as Monta Ellis, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Tyson Chandler and Al Jefferson. A few former All-NBA talents are within the bunch, as well: Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. The cream of the bunch, obviously, is Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant.

In theory, a player entering the league at the young age of 18 years old should have a greater opportunity to accomplish highly. Beginning one’s career earlier essentially means additional years of eligibility. However, the trend that we’ve seen with most of this generation’s high school stars is that it most often takes years to learn how to become effective at the NBA level. And then, in most instances, the pinnacle of their effectiveness isn’t near what their high school accomplishments suggested they could be.

Consider that of all the players mentioned above, only Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are among the top 20 scorers in NBA history. After them, Tracy McGrady clocks in at number 62. Nobody else is even worth mentioning.

Nobody, of course, except LeBron James.

* * * * * * * *

With the world watching, the 18-year-old James began his reign.

Back in 2003, Mike Bibby and his Sacramento Kings weren’t far removed from being an NBA power, but even they had their hands full with the young phenom. Although the Kings defeated the young forward in his first ever NBA game, his 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists and four steals reverberated quite loudly across all league circles.

Immediately, everyone saw that LeBron was the real deal.

InsideLeBronJamesSince then, James has steadily improved to the point where we have developed a separate scale by which we judge him. Over the years, while a great many of his peers would be applauded for a 20-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist effort, those types of stat lines no longer impress us as it relates to him. His greatness has become so unobtainable that other players aspire to be as productive as he is in what would be considered an off night.

As a first-year player, James joined Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as just the third rookie in league history to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. As an 18-year-old, that productivity was an omen of what was to come. That the only other two men to accomplish the feat before him each played three years collegiately said a lot. Now, 14 years, we know that well.

Truth be told, the only two contemporaries to whom we can measure James—considering his leap from high school to the pros—are Bryant and Garnett. But Garnett didn’t become a 20-point per game scorer until his fourth year in the league, while Bryant didn’t even become a full-time starter until his third.

Objectively speaking, one could easily make the case that no player that made the quantum leap hit the ground running as effectively as James. And now, after becoming the youngest player in NBA history to eclipse 27,000 career points, it’s time to start talking about the only other goal—aside from more championships—that is still worth his interest: Kareem’s scoring title.

The current generation of NBA fans have seen a fair number of promising careers either cut short or severely limited due to injury. Of all of his gifts, LeBron’s health has been the greatest.

Thus far, James has played in 12 82-game seasons and has averaged 77 games played. Over the course of the 13 complete seasons he has played thus far, James has played in 987 of a possible 1,050 games—94 percent.

In terms of longevity and productivity, Bryant is a good model. He recently ended a 20-year career that saw him begin playing at 18 years old. When it was all said and done, Bryant had amassed 33,643 points, which is third-most in history.

At the ripe age of 34 years old—despite playing in his 17th season—Bryant was able to average over 27 points per game. Had he not suffered injuries in the final years of his career, he would have probably had a legitimate shot to run down Kareem’s record. For the duration of his career, Bryant was widely regarded as a tough player who often played hurt and took pride in putting on his hard hat, especially in the years following his divorce with Shaquille O’Neal.

For comparison sake, compare the first 12 82-game seasons of Bryant’s career with that of James. Bryant managed an average of 75 games per year—slightly less. And when directly comparing the first 13 seasons of their careers, Bryant played in 948 of a possible 1,034 games. That’s 91 percent.

By either measure, through 13 years, James has been more durable.

What remains to be seen is if James can be nearly as productive (and fortunate) as he creeps up upon the infamous 1,000 games played mark. Historically, that’s when perimeter players begin to show signs of being worn down. But Bryant, somehow, was able to remain a 27-point per game scorer well after playing 1,200 games.

Still, what is most jarring in comparing the two is the difference in their cumulative point totals through 13 years played. After 13 seasons, Bryant had scored a total of 23,820 points. James’ total is a staggering 26,833.

Unlike Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, LeBron James has always been regarded as a “pass first” player who lacked the “killer instinct” reminiscent of the other score-first gunslingers.

Meanwhile, James has been quietly chasing down the greatest scorers in league history in a way that makes his Iguodala block seem like just another play.

* * * * * * * *

During last season’s playoff run, James surpassed Shaquille O’Neal as the fourth leading scorer in NBA postseason history, and on his way to the locker room, was surprised to run into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As the two exchanged pleasantries, who would have thought that James was embracing a ghost that he had quietly been chasing for the better part of his basketball career?

As James enters play on November 13 with 27,020 points, he is the 10th leading scorer in NBA history. If he averages a mere 22 points per game for the entire season, he would finish up with about 28,600 points, meaning that he would have surpassed Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal. That would leave him as the seventh leading scorer in league history.

Entering his 15th season, Kareem would still sit far away at 38,387, but those 11,787 points may seem further away than they actually are, especially if James continues to average anywhere near the 27.2 points per game he has over the course of his career.

Realistically, though, as James has aged, he has been accumulating fewer points, evidenced by the 25 points per game he has scored over each of the past two seasons. That number will continue to modestly decline as he both ages and hands the reigns over to Kyrie Irving.

In the end, two questions need to be asked: First, as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, how many points per game will LeBron score? And second, how much longer can we expect him to continue playing?

LeBronJamesInside1At this point, those are the only meaningful questions we need LeBron to answer. He’s already an all-time great and probably a member of the NBA’s Mount Rushmore (though one could argue the latter).

What is for sure, though, is that if James averages 25 points per game this season, he would enter next season about 10,000 points away from eclipsing Kareem. At that point, if he maintained a scoring average of somewhere between 22 and 23 points per game, he would start to sniff Kareem in another three years and surpass him (as well as Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant) within the next five or six.

Agreed, LeBron has a lot of mileage on his odometer, but to this point, he has proven to be more durable than Bryant and has accumulated more points. So long as he continues to be exactly who he has been—including the gold standard of a healthy superstar—he will certainly have an opportunity to surpass Kareem as the league’s all-time leading scorer.

Just imagine, for all these years, we’ve been comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan.

Meanwhile, all along, beneath our very noses, he’s been quietly chasing the biggest giant of them all.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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