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.
Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around
Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.
The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.
There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.
“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”
While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.
“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”
Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.
According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).
But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.
“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”
He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.
“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”
As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.
When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.
“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”
Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.
“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”
So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?
“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.
“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”
Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.
In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.
“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.
“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”
Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.
“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”
One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.
“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”
NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West
While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.
While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.
All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.
Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.
“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”
Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.
“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”
Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.
“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”
Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.
“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”
Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.
“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”
Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.
“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”
This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.
NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season
Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.
With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.
This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.
We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.
Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors
This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.
There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.
At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.
Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.
Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.
“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”
Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.
With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.
Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.
– Lang Greene
DeAndre Jordan and Paul George
Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.
The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.
With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.
Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.
He’s definitely a player that should be watched.
Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.
There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.
– Moke Hamilton
Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business
The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.
The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.
“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”
The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.
– Lang Greene
Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something
It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.
Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.
It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.
And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.
There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.
The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.
– Moke Hamilton
Only 21 Days To Go…
With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.
For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.