LeBron James and Jabari Parker—two stars at completely different stages of stardom.
They're both on track to accomplish some pretty wild stuff in 2014. So who's poised for the bigger year? James has the chance to bring home another MVP, championship ring and all sorts of other honors. Parker might win National Player of the Year, go No. 1 in the NBA draft and transform a franchise as its new face.
NBA Lead Writer Josh Martin and I went back and forth as to who we thought would make more noise, as well as what that noise might actually mean with respects to their careers and places in history.
Josh Martin, NBA Lead Writer: Wass, it looks like our last NBA conversation was such a hit that we've got another question to sort through. I'll admit, this one seemed silly when it first crossed my mind, but, upon further review, may not be quite as clear-cut as I thought.
With New Year's right around the corner, who do you think will make the bigger splash in 2014: LeBron James or Jabari Parker?
At first glance, I thought LeBron was the obvious choice. After all, he's having a historic season so far—he's on track to become the first legitimate 60-40 (i.e. 60 percent shooting from the field, 40 percent from three) player in league history—and his Miami Heat are once again within striking distance of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That puts James on track to not only become the fourth player to win five MVPs (the other three being Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan), but also to do so at the helm of just the fifth three-peat the NBA has ever seen.
Which would all seem to blow 18-year-old Parker out of the water until you consider that Parker could be the National Player of the Year at Duke, lead his ninth-ranked Blue Devils to the NCAA tournament championship in April, be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft in June and be the plug-and-play centerpiece of an impressive turnaround at the pro level, perhaps even putting his team in position to compete for a playoff spot by the time the year is out.
What does your crystal ball (because I know you have one) say about all of this, Jon?
Jonathan Wasserman, NBA Draft Lead Writer: The bigger year really comes down to how you value each players' potential achievements, along with their chances of actually making them happen.
I'm a guy who values a college national championship as much as I do an NBA title—maybe even more, given NBA players have 10-20 years to win one in the pros, while you only have up to four years to win a national title in college.
And if you're able to win a title in a one-and-done year, now that's baller. That's like bringing home a perfect 10, kissing her in the morning and never calling her again.
I was a freshman at Syracuse in 2004, the year after Carmelo Anthony won a title for the Orangemen as a one-and-done freshman in 2003. And I can tell you firsthand—Melo is considered a god there. He went from student athlete at 18 years old to god by 19.
If Parker is able to win a national title (and Duke should have a good shot), go No. 1 in the draft, emerge as the face of an NBA franchise and become a global brand name—well I'll take that over a third title and bazillionth MVP. Maybe it's possible I'm still bitter James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010.
Sure, the 60 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point stat is cool. But in the grand scheme of things, obscure stats and benchmarks won't move the needle here for me.
If you ask me, Jabari Parker is my pick for National Player of the Year. And he's also my pick for No. 1 in the draft. And I do believe he'll emerge as the face of an NBA franchise and global name. This has the chance to be a special year for Parker—one that will ignite a promising career, and one he'll never get to experience again. And I think he capitalizes on it.
The kid is oozing with star power, and I'm expecting him to explode in 2014. Based on the meaning of each player's potential accomplishments, and what I think they'll actually accomplish, I've got Parker having the bigger 2014.
JM: That would be a phenomenal year, indeed, for Parker—or any teenager, for that matter. And if Parker pulls it off, more power to him.
But do you think Parker's more likely to pull off his Leibnizian "best of all possible worlds" (i.e. National Player of the Year, NCAA title, No. 1 pick, instant franchise face) than LeBron James is his (i.e. All-Star, All-NBA, All-Defensive, MVP, Finals MVP, third straight championship)?
As you mentioned, James has already been there and done that. He knows exactly what it takes to have that kind of incredible year and is well on his way in that regard. Among his NBA "peers," LeBron ranks fourth in scoring (25.2 points) and field-goal percentage (.595), 12th in assists (6.5) and, if you're a believer in Player Efficiency Rating, tops in PER...again.
He's also widely regarded as one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, and is the leading vote-getter for the 2014 All-Star Game to date. Unless someone like, say, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Paul George or LaMarcus Aldridge really pulls away from the MVP pack over the course of the season, James should have most of the individual, regular season accolades wrapped up.
Aside from Defensive Player of the Year, which he could conceivably snag from Roy Hibbert's grasp, depending on how things play out in the coming months.
As for the final two honors (i.e. championship and Finals MVP), LeBron's taken home both of those each of the past two springs. You could argue, too, that this year's Heat team will be the Big Three's best yet, with Michael Beasley and Roger Mason Jr. in the mix and the potential for Greg Oden to further solidify the frontcourt.
Oh, and have I mentioned that LeBron's a pretty big part of all that, too?
Compare that to what Parker's up against at his level. He's been phenomenal and Duke is stacked, but he and the Blue Devils will have some pretty serious roadblocks to their respective accolades.
Parker may be atop your NBA draft big board right now, but would you say he's the clear-cut choice? Surely, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and perhaps even Joel Embiid will get serious consideration from whichever pro team lands next year's golden ticket.
Even before then, Parker has some stiff competition for collegiate player of the year honors. There are established names like Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Creighton's Doug McDermott, Louisville's Russ Smith, UConn's Shabazz Napier and Michigan State's Adreian Payne; along with fellow freshmen like Wiggins, Randle and Arizona's Aaron Gordon.
And as talented a team as Mike Krzyzewski has on his hands, I don't know if I'd go so far as to say his Blue Devils are better than a decent choice to make it through March Madness. They've fallen short in their two toughest tests—against Kansas and Arizona, both at Madison Square Garden—and rank just 17th in Ken Pomeroy's college basketball ratings.
If you had to pick one team to win it all right now, would you really take Duke ahead of Louisville, Arizona, Ohio State, Michigan State or Syracuse?
For Parker, then, you don't have to look very far to find players and teams that could keep him from sweeping through the honors and awards for which he'll be eligible. In LeBron's case, doing so requires much more diligence.
And, perhaps, a willingness to overlook the obvious.
JW: If I had to pick my MVP and National Player of the Year at this point in time, I'd go with LeBron and Parker, respectively.
I'll take Parker over Oklahoma State's Smart, Creighton's McDermott, Louisville's Smith and Connecticut's Napier, the best candidates at this point. Parker has them all from a statistics standpoint (22 points, 7.8 boards, 1.8 assists, 53.9 percent field-goal percentage, 46 percent three-point), and Duke should be right near the top of the ranks by the time March rolls around.
Kenpom Shnempom. With Parker, along with a strong supporting cast, Duke has a strong enough team to run the table. Though to answer your question, if I had to pick now, I'd take the Syracuse Orange. But in a one-game elimination tournament, it's not always the best team that wins it.
In a March Madness tournament, I'm one of those guys who values "takeover ability," and Parker has the skill set and mentality to take it over.
As for LeBron, I assume he'll take MVP because he's the best player on the planet, but if Indiana finishes with the best record, could Paul George take it? You could argue he'd have done more with less, no?
Defensively, as good as LeBron is, my vote goes to Roy Hibbert, even if Indiana does finish No. 2 in the East. Indiana holds opponents to almost four points less than anyone else in the league, and in my eyes, that's a reflection on Hibbert.
The rest of LeBron's accolades don't move the needle enough for me in terms of determining who has the better year. PER, All-Star invitations, the wild stats—LeBron rolls out of bed with them—not that I'm holding that against him.
And no, there is no clear-cut favorite for No. 1 overall. But at this point, I think the risk-to-reward ratio Parker offers will generate the most potential suitors. He rates higher on the sure-thing scale than both Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, who are more long-term projects that come with uncertainty. Parker has the ability to make an instant impact while maintaining the ceiling (and being a lot closer to reaching it) of a franchise player.
Let's say all these scenarios play out—LeBron wins MVP, Parker wins National Player of the Year. Parker goes No. 1 in the draft, LeBron wins his third title. Parker establishes himself as a franchise player in 2014-15, LeBron picks up the obvious smaller awards but misses on Defensive Player of the Year.
For LeBron, it could seem like just another year despite his dominance. But for Parker, it could be the biggest one of his career, and the start of something really special. If both players reach the goals they're on pace to achieve—well, what do ya' think?
JM: As far as single years are concerned, I'm inclined to agree with you. An 18- to 19-year-old kid dominating his one year in college and solidifying his status as the top draft pick probably means more than a seasoned pro having yet another great year.
Even more so when you consider that only one person has ever captured all three of the major pre-NBA accolades (i.e. player of the year, national championship, No. 1 pick). That would be Anthony Davis, who pulled off this particular trifecta at Kentucky in 2012.
Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to an NCAA title as a freshman, but was upstaged by T.J. Ford in the player of the year race and by LeBron James in the draft. Kevin Durant was the first freshman to ever take top individual honors, but won but one game in March Madness and wound up behind Greg Oden in the 2007 draft.
Those two proved to be huge successes right off the bat in the NBA. Anthony led the Denver Nuggets to their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade. Durant's Seattle SuperSonics won just 20 games during his first season, though he came away as the Rookie of the Year.
Davis was solid as a rookie (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.0 combined blocks and steals in 28.8 minutes), but missed 18 games due to various injuries for a forgettable New Orleans Hornets squad and finished a distant second to Damian Lillard in the Rookie of the Year race.
Who will have a bigger 2014?
Parker, then, could become the first freshman to go 4-for-4 in collegiate and early pro distinctions. LeBron, on the other hand, wouldn't be the first person to win three NBA MVPs and championships in a row; Bill Russell pulled off that particular triple-double with the Boston Celtics between 1960 and 1963. Back then, the league didn't designate a Defensive Player of the Year or a Finals MVP, the latter of which has since been named after Russell.
Since then, there's been one pro who's been an All-Star, an All-NBA selection, a Defensive Player of the Year, a regular season MVP, a Finals MVP and a champion all at once: Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.
That year, Michael Jordan hit .202 with three home runs and 51 runs batted in for the Birmingham Barons, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.
I'm still torn as to which would be more impressive, but do you think Parker is more likely to have a transcendent year amid his circumstances than LeBron is under his?
Let's say we narrow the field of honors down to four for each: the quadrant mentioned above for Parker (national player of the year, NCAA champion, No. 1 pick and instant franchise changer) and regular season MVP, Finals MVP, championship and All-NBA for LeBron (since Hibbert has a substantial lead in DPOY). Which of the two is more likely to come out ahead in 2014?
In this case, I'd still have to lean LeBron. Jabari has dominated his collegiate competition so far, but he's yet to so much as taste the rigors of conference play. How will he react when he has to play at the Carrier Dome against an elite Syracuse squad or at the Dean Dome in the Tobacco Road rivalry opposite a top-25 North Carolina team? And how might his reactions affect his stock, be it in the POY race or the run-up to the NBA draft?
JW: Let me jump in here quick and say Parker's stock could fall if he struggles during conference play. But we've already seen him go for 27 points and nine boards against Kansas, 23 points, 10 boards and five assists against UCLA and and 19 against Arizona. He's played some pretty good competition so far, and he's played it pretty well. Parker is just too skilled, physically gifted and bright to allow himself to hit the freshman wall hard enough to dent his stock.
But please, go on with King James' domination...
JM: We've already seen James dominate his peers in the pros. He knows how to handle every situation with aplomb. He's been there and done that. There's no mystery to his All-NBA and MVP candidacies.
And as far as the ultimate prize for each is concerned, the math favors James over Parker. The NBA title is contested among 16 teams, each of which has to lose four times in seven games, some of which are played on each team's home court, to be disqualified from the field. The NCAA championship, on the other hand, is awarded to one of 68 hopefuls in a single-elimination tournament wherein all the matchups take place at ostensibly neutral sites.
To be sure, it's tougher to win 16 games than it is to win six, but, again, LeBron and his buddies have been through that grind already—three times, in fact. Meanwhile, March Madness remains a mystery to Jabari, though he at least is playing on a team comprised largely of guys who advanced to the Elite Eight this past spring.
Parker's best possible 2014 may be more impressive than LeBron's, but let's not forget the driving question here: Who will have the bigger 2014? In my mind, the odds are ever in James' favor.
JW: Woah. You just dropped some serious knowledge over there JM.
And listen, I'll admit—the Heat have a better shot at winning the title than Duke does winning theirs. In fact, Sportsbook.com has Miami's odds at +170 and Duke's odds at +900.
So for me to realistically say I believe Duke will win the championship would be irresponsible.
At the end of the day, I'll give it to you—after this long conversation, it's tough to argue that Parker has a better shot at pulling off a title, National Player of the Year and No. 1 pick than James does title, MVP, Finals MVP and leading the world in PER.
But the fact is, it's only natural to be less impressed when you expect it. LeBron has a great shot at pulling off his monster year. And Parker has a good one. If I had to bet, I'd bet they both have legendary 2014s.
So in conclusion, the odds of experiencing a mega-year are in James' favor but Parker's year has a shot to make a bigger splash.