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.
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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.
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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.
Since 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.
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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?
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.
NBA Daily: The Comfortability of Caris LeVert
Caris LeVert talks to Basketball Insiders about filling in at point guard, turning the proverbial corner and getting more comfortable with his game.
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for the Brooklyn Nets, it probably involves Caris LeVert.
After finding his niche as a do-it-all rotation player, LeVert upped his averages in points (12.1), assists (4.2) and three-point accuracy (34.7 percent) during his second NBA season. Although those outer-layer statistics may not scream budding star quite yet, his growth and flexibility were key to a Nets team once again decimated by injuries.
When Jeremy Lin suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during the season opener, the guard situation became understandably shaky. But then the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell went down for two months in November and things almost became untenable. If not for the efforts of LeVert as the backup point guard (and the vastly improved play of Spencer Dinwiddie), things could’ve been a whole lot worse for the Nets in 2017-18.
But according to LeVert, his development as a ball-handler was just the next, albeit necessary, step in his career.
“It’s been important, especially this year with injuries to Jeremy and D’Angelo,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like Spencer and myself had to definitely step up a lot this year and were asked to do a lot. But that was just something the team needed from me.”
Referring to his new-found prowess in such simple terms might be a slight understatement on LeVert’s development this season. Beyond his immense, quick chemistry with rookie center Jarrett Allen, LeVert has been a major bench catalyst all year. Often thriving under the sophomore’s playmaking hand, Brooklyn’s bench tallied a healthy 43.9 points per game, a benchmark only beat out by the Sacramento Kings (44.4). While his role as a point guard came about somewhat as an emergency, it’s clearly a position the Nets like him in.
Although he started 16 fewer games than he did in his rookie season, coming off the bench offered LeVert plenty of offensive freedom and the opportunity to feast on weaker opposition. On most nights, the 23-year-old didn’t disappoint. Some the Nets’ best individual lines all season came via LeVert, but few were better than his dominant play during a narrow one-point victory in Miami. On the road, LeVert torched the HEAT for 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in just over 34 minutes. This season, the Nets were 7-1 when LeVert registered eight or more assists and even topped out with a career-best 11 dimes.
As both a playmaker and a scorer, LeVert has shown serious signs of promise — or, more simply, put the ball in his hands and good things happen. But compare this LeVert to that raw first-year version and he’s convinced it all comes down to comfortability.
“I don’t know, I would say just how comfortable I’m getting,” LeVert said. “My game hasn’t changed all that much, honestly, I’m still getting more comfortable out on the court. But it’s just getting more playing time, more experience and I feel like I’ll grow more into my game.”
Frankly, the Nets have needed a win in the draft department for years. Outside of Mason Plumlee’s brief two-season cameo, the Nets haven’t drafted and groomed a long-term talent since Brook Lopez way back in 2008. Thankfully, he and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — and joined by the aforementioned Allen this season — seem poised to buck that trend. Hollis-Jefferson, acquired on draft night for Plumlee in 2015, averaged 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds on 47.2 percent from the field in 2017-18, a vast improvement over his first two campaigns. Allen, a 20-year-old hyper-athletic shot blocker, wasn’t let loose until after the new year but showed potential in the pick-and-roll or while catching lobs up above the rim.
Together, the trio, along with Russell, represent the Nets’ best present and future assets. But ask LeVert if brighter things are on the horizon and the 6-foot-7 multi-positional talent is largely uninterested in getting ahead of himself.
“I feel like I got a lot better on both ends of the ball as the season went on,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “Also feel like I learned a couple more positions this year and got comfortable playing them. But I still got a long way to go. You know, it’s only my second year, obviously, but I feel like I definitely made new strides this year.”
The Nets, in a vacuum, can be viewed in almost the same way.
Since LeVert was drafted with the No. 20 overall pick back in 2016, the Nets have racked up a total of just 48 wins. This year alone, 11 franchises equaled or earned more wins than the Nets’ two-year yield. In fact, the only franchise with fewer wins over that period of time were the Phoenix Suns at 45, but they were also recently rewarded with Josh Jackson and currently own a 25 percent chance of taking home the No. 1 pick this summer. All of this is to say that Nets have struggled to hoist themselves out of a pick-less bottomless pit for reasons outside of their control.
Despite the devastating injuries, this resilient Nets squad put together a relatively strong final stretch under head coach Kenny Atkinson. While the second-year head coach spent much of the campaign feeling out what worked and what didn’t, LeVert became a steady presence just about everywhere. Following the All-Star break, the Nets went 6-4 in games in which LeVert surpassed his season average in points, but they were just 1-4 when he went for single-digits.
Needless to say, the Nets often go where LeVert takes them.
But after two back-to-back disappointing campaigns. LeVert says that the Nets’ locker room senses that they’re close to turning the proverbial corner. Still, they know they’ve got a long, long way to go.
“[It felt that way], especially after the All-Star Break and going into the second half of the season,” LeVert said. “But we’re definitely not satisfied — we can’t wait to work hard this offseason and get after it next year.”
Now with two seasons under his belt, the Nets’ front office must be pleased with the steps LeVert has taken — whether that’s effectively running an offense or snaking through the paint for a crafty finish. But for LeVert to join the higher class, he returns to the same word again and again: Comfortability. Between getting familiar with his body and skillset, LeVert knows that a big key is also finding consistency each and every night. However, he’s not worried about who he might play like or how good he might end up being — LeVert is just focused on getting better one day at a time.
“I kinda just take little parts of everybody’s game and try to put it in my own — I don’t really just look at one person,” LeVert told Basketball Insiders. “As a young player in this league, that’s kinda how it is, a little inconsistent. But like I said, I’m still getting more comfortable with myself and my game.”
Although the Nets are headed into another offseason of uncertainty, they can rest assured knowing that a bigger and better LeVert will likely emerge next fall. It hardly matters if he’s filling in at point guard again or growing into his shoes out on the wing, LeVert will clearly play a large role in sculpting Brooklyn’s malleable future.
LeVert, as always, is up for the challenge.
“I still got a long ways to go, I’m still getting more comfortable, still growing into my body — but I’m ready for a big summer for sure.”
The Real Jrue Holiday Has Finally Arrived
It may have been a little later than they would have wanted, but the Jrue Holiday that New Orleans has always wanted is finally here, writes Matt John.
New Orleans has always earned the nickname “The Big Easy”, but ever since Jrue Holiday came to town, his time there has been anything but.
When New Orleans traded for Holiday back in 2013, they hoped that he would round out an exciting young core that included Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Ryan Anderson. At 23 years old, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 8.0 assists, and 4.2 rebounds the previous season and was coming off his first all-star appearance in Philadelphia, so the Pelicans had much to look forward to.
Unfortunately, recurring extensive injuries prohibited the Pelicans’ new core from ever playing together fully healthy, with Holiday getting his fair share of the bruises. In his first two seasons, Holiday played in only 74 games combined with the team due to injury, and things didn’t get much better his third season. While he played more games, Holiday was on a minutes restriction and his season ended again with injury.
Holiday avoided the injury bug his fourth season, but he nobly took a leave of absence at the start the season to tend to his ill wife, which caused him to miss the season’s first 12 games and 15 in total. Holiday’s inability to stay on the court coupled with New Orleans’ stagnated progress made him a forgotten man in the NBA. That was until last summer, when Holiday became a free agent.
Given the circumstances, Holiday did what he could for the Pelicans. He certainly proved he was above average, but he hadn’t shown any improvement since his arrival. Coupling that with both how many games he had missed in the previous four seasons and the league’s salary cap not increasing as much as teams had anticipated, and one would think to proceed with caution in regards to extending Jrue Holiday.
But the Pelicans saw it differently. New Orleans gave Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, befuddling the general masses. Besides Holiday’s inability to stay on the court, the Pelicans already had an expensive payroll, and they later added Rajon Rondo, another quality point guard, to the roster. So, with all that in mind, giving Holiday a near-max contract on a team that had made the playoffs a grand total of once in the Anthony Davis era seemed a little foolish.
This season, however, Jrue Holiday has rewarded the Pelicans’ faith in him and has proven the doubters so very wrong.
With a clean slate of health, Holiday has proven himself to be better than ever. This season, Holiday averaged career-highs in scoring (19 points a game) and field goal percentage (49 percent overall), which played a huge role in New Orleans having its best season since Chris Paul’s last hurrah with the team back in 2011.
Holiday’s impact extended beyond what the traditional numbers said. His on/off numbers from NBA.com showed that the Pelicans were much better on both sides of the ball when he was on the court compared to when he was off. Offensively, the Pelicans had an offensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 possessions when he was the on the court compared to 104.4 points per 100 possessions when he was off.
On the other side of the court, Holiday was even more integral. The Pelicans had a defensive rating of 103.3 per 100 possessions when Holiday was on the court compared to 112.3 off the court. Overall, the Pelicans were 13.6 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on the floor. That was the highest net rating on the team, even higher than Anthony Davis.
Other statistics also support how impactful Holiday has been this season. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus page, Holiday’s 3.81 Real Plus-Minus ranked ninth among point guards – No. 16 offensively, No. 4 defensively – which beat out Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Goran Dragic, all of whom made the All-Star team this year.
However, Holiday’s effectiveness shined through mid-way through the season, or more specifically, on Jan. 26, when Demarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles tear. While Davis certainly led the way, Holiday’s role could not have been understated when the Pelicans went 21-13 without their MVP candidate to finish the season. Offensively, Holiday’s point average went from 18.6 to 19.4 and his assist average went from 5.2 to 7.2, all while his turnover average – from 2.6 to 2.7 – stayed the same.
Defensively, Holiday had much to do with the Pelicans’ improved defense after Cousins went down. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans defensive rating went from 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions to 103.7, and much of it can be attributed to Holiday. When Holiday was on the court, the team’s defensive rating was 101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions compared to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions with him off.
Holiday’s improved numbers, combined with the Pelicans steadying the boat without their star center, make a fair argument that Holiday was one of the league’s best all-around point guards this season, but Holiday’s style isn’t much of a thrill to watch. He doesn’t have Russell Westbrook’s other-worldly athleticism, he doesn’t have Stephen Curry’s lethal jumper, nor does he have Chris Paul’s floor general abilities. Holiday’s specialty is that he has every fundamental of a good point guard, which makes his impact usually fly under the radar.
That was until last week, when the Pelicans unexpectedly curb stomped the Blazers. The Jrue Holiday coming out party was in full-swing, as the 27-year-old torched Rip City, averaging 27.8 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds a game on 57 percent shooting from the field, including 35 percent from deep. He did all of that while stymieing MVP candidate Damian Lillard, as Dame averaged 18 points and 4 assists while shooting 35 percent from the field, including 30 percent from deep, and surrendered four turnovers a game.
If Holiday’s contributions weren’t on full display then, they certainly are now. The Pelicans have suddenly emerged as one of the West’s toughest and most cohesive teams in this year’s playoffs, with Holiday playing a huge role in the team’s newfound mojo and potentially glorious future.
This was the Jrue Holiday the New Orleans Pelicans had in mind when they first traded for him almost five years ago. While his impact has come a little later than they would have wanted, it’s as the old saying goes.
Better late than never.
NBA Daily: Are Player Legacies Really On The Line?
How important is legacy in the NBA playoffs? Lang Greene takes a look.
As the NBA Playoffs continue to pick up steam, the subject of individual greatness has become the big topic of conversation. Today, we ask the question: is legacy talk just a bunch of hyperbole or are they really made or broken in the playoffs?
To be clear, legacies do matter. Reputations are built on reliability and how dependable someone is throughout the course of their respective body of work. We all have them. They are built over time and it’s seldom they change from one misstep – but they can. Some of the greatest players in NBA history never won a title; see John Stockton and Karl Malone during their Utah Jazz years. Some NBA greats never won a title until they were past their physical prime and paired with a young charge that took over the reins; see David Robinson in San Antonio. Some NBA greats never won a title as the leading man until they were traded to a title contending team; see Clyde Drexler in Houston. We also have a slew of Hall of Famers that have been inducted with minimal playoff success in their careers; see the explosive Tracy McGrady.
So what’s in a legacy? And why does it mean more for some then it does for others?
Four-time League MVP LeBron James’ legacy is always up for debate, despite battling this season to make his ninth NBA Finals appearance. James’ legacy seems to be up in the air on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s because of the rarified air he’s in as one of the league’s top 10 players all-time or maybe it’s just good for ratings.
As this year’s playoffs gain momentum, the topic of legacy has been mentioned early and often.
Out in the Western Conference, the legacy of Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook is being questioned at all angles. There’s no doubt Westbrook is one of the best players in the league today as the reigning MVP and coming off two consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double. However, Westbrook’s decision making has come into question plenty over the past couple of seasons.
The subject of whether you can truly win a championship with Westbrook as your lead guy serves as the centerpiece of the debate. It goes without saying former league MVP Kevin Durant bolted to the Golden State Warriors amid rumors that he could no longer coexist next to Westbrook in the lineup. Ever since Durant’s somewhat unexpected departure, it seems Westbrook has been hell-bent on proving his doubters wrong – even if it comes at the detriment to what his team is trying to accomplish.
The latest example was in game four of his team’s current first-round series versus the Utah Jazz.
Westbrook picked up four fouls in the first half as he was attempting to lock up point guard Ricky Rubio, who had a career night in Game 3 of the series. Westbrook infamously waved off head coach Billy Donovan after picking up his second personal foul in the first quarter. Westbrook was also in the game with three personal fouls and under two minutes left in the first half before picking up his fourth personal.
You can make an argument that this was just bad coaching by Donovan leaving him in the game in foul trouble, but it also points to Westbrook’s decision making and not being able to play within the constructs of a team dynamic. Further, what will be Westbrook’s legacy on this season’s Oklahoma City Thunder team with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George if they were to flame out in the first round with little fizzle – against a Jazz team with no star power and zero All-Stars? Is discussing Westbrook’s legacy worthless banter or is it a legitimate topic? There is no doubt on his current trajectory Westbrook is headed straight into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. As an individual player there is no greater achievement than to have your name etched in stone with the greats of yesteryear, but the court of public opinion factors in team success and this is where the topic of legacy comes into play.
Say what you will about Durant’s decision to go to Golden State, but his legacy is undoubtedly secured. Durant won the Finals MVP last season in absolute dominant fashion and showed up on the biggest of stages. All that’s left from those that question Durant’s legacy at this point are the folks on the fringe saying he couldn’t do it by himself. But that is exactly the line of thinking that’s getting Westbrook killed as well, because winning championships is all about team cohesiveness and unity.
Out in the Eastern Conference, all eyes will be on Milwaukee Bucks do everything star Giannis Antetokounmpo. After five seasons in the league, Antetokounmpo has zero playoff series victories attached to his name. Heading into the playoffs this season, the seventh-seeded Bucks were considered underdogs to the second-seeded Boston Celtics.
But the Celtics are wounded. They do not have the services of All Stars Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. The Celtics are a team full of scrappy young talent and cagey veterans. Antetokounmpo is clearly the best player in the series and teams with the best player usually fare well in a seven game series. But the Bucks are facing elimination down 3-2 versus Boston. Antetokounmpo has only been in the league half of the time Westbrook has, but the chirping about his legacy has already begun as Milwaukee attempts to win its first playoff series since 2001.
So what’s in a legacy? Are there varying degrees for which people are being evaluated?
Despite James’ success throughout his career, a first-round exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers over the next week will damage his legacy in the minds of some. While others feel even if Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were to drop this series against the Celtics, he should be given a pass with the caveat that he still has plenty of time in his career to rectify.
As for Westbrook, there are vultures circling the head of his legacy and these folks feel that a first-round exit will damage his brand irreversibly after 10 seasons in the league
Ultimately, the topic of legacies makes for good column fodder, barbershop banter and sport debate television segments. Because when guys hang up their high tops for good, a Hall of Fame induction is typically the solidifying factor when it comes to a player’s legacy.