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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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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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