NBA Metrics 101: LeBron, Curry and More Hit New Milestones This Season
Whenever I'm asked why I prefer the NBA to its collegiate counterpart, one answer always rises to the top.
Forget style of play (although watching slow-it-down NCAA squads like Wisconsin can grow torturous). I get the passion argument, but try actually watching a few NBA contests, then see if you can convincingly argue the men involved really don't care. Hint: You can't.
For me, the legacy elements of the NBA always superseded everything else. I love learning about the history of this sport, and college contributors only have so long to build up their resumes before they must depart for real-world jobs, European careers or the ranks of the Association. Most get four years of eligibility; some, through medical exemptions, get five.
But NBA players can suit up as long as they're capable of earning jobs, affording themselves the luxury of carving out their places in the lengthy history of the game with every on-court move. And that's what makes the prospect of diving into career milestones such an exciting endeavor.
These six pursuits are the reflections of endless drive and desire, combined with skill matched by few—if any—people on the planet. They're the summations of decades of hard work, and they'll all be distinct parts of earned legacies when the relevant players finally hang up their sneakers for good.
Get ready to celebrate some history in 2017-18.
Fight for Top 10 in Games Played
Just playing in the NBA is hard.
Thousands of the world's best basketballers attempt to make the cut for even a training-camp invite with a team at the sport's highest level; precious few stick around for an entire season. To compete for a top-10 spot on the career games leaderboard? That's worthy of far more praise than it typically receives and requires dedication to the craft and meticulous physical training.
But the 2017-18 season boasts two players fighting for placement within the top 10, which currently features Robert Parish (1,611), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560), John Stockton (1,504), Karl Malone (1.476), Kevin Garnett (1,462), Kevin Willis (1,424), Dirk Nowitzki (1,394), Tim Duncan (1,392), Jason Kidd (1,391) and Reggie Miller (1,389). And thanks to the tightly packed nature at the back end, both could make it.
Jason Terry, who enters the upcoming journey with 1,359 games under his belt, re-signed with the Milwaukee Bucks on a one-year deal to play out his age-40 season. Meanwhile, Vince Carter is entering his age-41 campaign in a new location, latching on with the Sacramento Kings to provide both on-court skills and veteran mentorship for his younger teammates. He sits at 1,347 career contests.
Though he comes into the season ahead of his gray-bearded counterpart (we'd say "grizzled," but that may just confuse people, thanks to his old team's nickname), Terry is the bigger risk.
He's played in at least 72 games during each of the last three seasons, and doing so for the fourth consecutive go-round would allow him to jump past Miller, Kidd, Duncan, and Willis. But his on-court efficacy has been trending down, and DNP-CDs could occasionally come with Tony Snell on board for the full season and intriguing youngsters like Rashad Vaughn and Sterling Brown looking to earn some run.
Carter, meanwhile, could only climb to the same lofty positioning if he played in 78 games, which he hasn't done since 2013-14. But he should fill a key two-way role for the Kings in limited minutes, making him a fairly safe bet—injuries notwithstanding—to log the 45 appearances necessary to match Duncan's lifetime output.
Come this time next year, the ladder should feature both names within the top 10. So long as Terry gets to 33 games and Carter hits 45, each makes the cut.
Dirk Nowitzki for Top 3 in Minutes Played
Maybe you noticed Dirk Nowitzki could move into the top five for games played. He could even tie Karl Malone for No. 4 if he somehow suited up in all 82 contests—unlikely, since the 39-year-old power forward hasn't achieved that feat since 2000-01.
But No. 41 also has a distinct shot at an even bigger accomplishment.
Right now, he's only marginally outpacing Kobe Bryant in career minutes, which leaves him behind five other NBA legends. But the end of the year, he might be staring up at no more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (57,446), Karl Malone (54,852) and Kevin Garnett (50,418). He might even topple Garnett.
Obviously, he's not going to surpass Malone during the 2017-18 season. Doing so would require him to play 6,179 minutes, and the all-time single-season record belongs to Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 (3,882). Nowitzki would need to play—gulp—75.4 minutes per game without missing a single appearance, and that's a lot of overtime basketball.
But he does have a realistic shot at taking down his power forward contemporary, since 1,745 minutes would do the trick.
First, some context. Nowitzki has played at least 2,000 minutes during almost every season of his career, with only three notable exceptions. Injuries limited him to 1,661 in 2012-13 and 1,424 last year, while he recorded only 958 as a 20-year-old rookie.
Age isn't working in his favor, and neither is Dallas' rotation. Nowitzki should start games, but the frontcourt rotation comprised of himself, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel and Dwight Powell is strong enough that the Mavericks could limit his output and preserve him either for the stretch run or another season with loftier expectations.
However, he played only 26.4 minutes per game last year, and that could still be enough to hit the necessary, Garnett-surpassing number. At that rate, he'd need to log 67 appearances, which seems reasonable for the German 7-footer now that he's entertaining the season with the luxury of health. Bump that up to 2015-16's 31.5 minutes per contest, and we're looking at just 56 showings.
This should be doable, and it's not even the only milestone Nowitzki is chasing.
Dirk Nowitzki Chasing Wilt Chamberlain in Points
Ultimately, nothing in basketball gets more attention than scoring.
Legendary one-way point-producers typically get bumped up over one-way defensive studs. High scoring averages correlate to hype and can boost stocks of contributors who don't really deserve celestial status. The scoring title is a renowned achievement, and it's a massive deal whenever someone jumps a legend on the career leaderboard.
With LeBron James basically locked into seventh place, that responsibility falls to Dirk Nowitzki. Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony—the next two on the active hierarchy—could conceivably leap into the top 20, but the German 7-footer has a distinct chance to surpass Wilt Chamberlain and ascend into the storied top five.
Yes, that Wilt Chamberlain. The Big Dipper. The 100-points-in-one-game scorer. The Chairman of the Boards. The man who averaged 50.4 points for an entire season, then followed it up by dropping 44.8 per game the next year.
Nowitzki could prove his statistical superiority—in this one category, mind you—thanks largely to the remarkable longevity of his offensive game. The one-legged flamingo fadeaway hasn't gone anywhere, and jump-shooting allows him to avoid the hindrances of Father Time as he moves into more of a supporting role for the Dallas Mavericks.
Heading into the year, he needs only 1,159 points to climb into the top five, and that's a mark reached by 49 different players in 2016-17. Nowitzki himself wasn't one because of injuries, but he's only missed the cutoff in the three years homed in on while discussing his other potential milestone.
If Nowitzki scores 16 points per game and suits up 70 times, that leaves him 39 points shy. If he meets ESPN.com's projections (13.0 points per contest and 75 appearances), he'll be even further behind the necessary figure.
But do you really want to bet against the future Hall of Famer?
How High Can Stephen Curry Rise in Career 3s?
Stephen Curry won't turn 30 years old until March, which makes this his age-29 season. He's far too young to be nearing the top of a prestigious leaderboard, but the way he's shaped the game over the last few years has allowed him to become a notable exception.
At this point, arguing against Curry's status as the best shooter in league history is a foolish endeavor. The way he blends volume, efficiency and shot-creation leaves him in a class of his own, and he now has four of the top five single-season marks. Only one of his own teammates prevents him from making it a clean sweep.
But we're not worried about one-year records. Curry can now reasonably set his sights on the all-time hierarchy, which notably features Ray Allen (2,973) and Reggie Miller (2,560) pacing the pack.
The league's best sharpshooter isn't going to catch either of those two. He's not going to make 643 triples during the 2017-18 campaign when his personal high is 402. Curry has a way of inspiring regret in those who doubt him, but that kind of leap seems outlandish enough to inspire some semblance of comfort in making the previous statement.
But can he propel himself into the top five? Figuring that out is a bit tricky, given the plethora of active contenders.
Thanks largely to that outlier season in 2015-16, Curry is averaging 309 successful threes per NBA calendar over the last five years. The median—likely more accurate, in this case—is 286. So let's go with that, which would bump the Davidson product up to 2,203 career treys.
That moves him to No. 4, trailing only Allen, Miller and Jason Terry (2,242 and counting). But it's not as simple as that, since he'd be leapfrogging four active players: Jamal Crawford (2,049), Kyle Korver (2,049), Vince Carter (2,049) and Joe Johnson (1,938).
Johnson isn't drilling 265 triples in one year when only Curry, Klay Thompson and Allen have ever done so with a full-length arc. But if two of the other three can make at least 155 threes, they'd prevent the marksman in question from moving into the top five.
Carter won't. He's hit 155 only three times, and never since 2012-13. His highest mark in the last three years is last season's 112, and his role could be shrinking as he moves from the Memphis Grizzlies to the Sacramento Kings. Crawford is a slightly more realistic candidate, but he hasn't knocked down 155-plus long-balls since 2013-14. In the last three years, he tops out at 119.
And that leaves Korver, who's coming off a year in which his combined time with the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers led to 162 successful conversions from beyond the rainbow. But with Dwyane Wade aboard, J.R. Smith healthy, Jae Crowder in the mix and Cedi Osman potentially ready to steal minutes, he could be in for a role reduction.
Still, even if Korver replicates his numbers from last year, Curry has a path into the top five. And given his age, that's mind-blowing.
Dwight Howard Pushing into Top 20 for Total Rebounds
- Dwight Howard: 12,089
- Dirk Nowitzk: 10,893
- Pau Gasol: 10,549
- Zach Randolph: 9,811
- Tyson Chandler: 9,676
- LeBron James: 7,706
First, let's note how far ahead Dwight Howard is of every other active player in career rebounds:
In fact, only the other five members of that hierarchy and eight more—Al Jefferson, David Lee, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, David West, Paul Millsap and Vince Carter—have even half his career boards. A handful of active contributors have a chance to join that club by the end of 2017-18, but Howard's overwhelming superiority is still rather impressive.
At this point, he should be considered a lock to move into the top 20.
Entering his first game with the Charlotte Hornets, he sits at No. 22, only needing to pass Charles Oakley and Paul Silas. Even if he drops off to a career-worst 10 boards per contest, he'll need just 27 games to do so at that rate. Barring a devastating injury, that accomplishment should be considered a guarantee, and the historic nature of the feat shouldn't be overlooked.
Given teams' improved shooting percentages and the slowed-down tempos of the modern game, only 10 players have suited up in just the post-merger NBA and earned placement within the top 20: Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Barkley, Buck Williams, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Robert Parish, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Moses Malone. If you think that reads like a who's-who list of dominant interior presences, you're right.
Howard is going to join them. And he'll actually have a chance to surpass quite a few of them.
If he grabs another 940 rebounds, like he did during his lone season with his hometown Atlanta Hawks, he'd jet up to No. 15 on the career countdown, moving past Oakley, Silas, Mutombo, Barkley, Bob Pettit, Jerry Lucas and Williams.
LeBron James Moving into Top 5 for Win Shares
Win shares are by no means a perfect stat. Among the many flaws is this one, highlighted by Basketball-Reference.com's David Corby in an interview with The Score's Joseph Casciaro:
"Understand that Win Shares has its own drawbacks. As an example, a component of defensive Win Shares is a player's individual defensive rating, of which a component is the team's defensive rating. To some extent, then, a player's Win Shares are partly subject to the vagaries of his current team. A player will tend to have fluctuations that are a consequence of lineup changes, a trade, or other factors that affect his team's defensive performance, and which are surely larger than differences in the player's underlying contribution."
It is, however, a useful baseline that props up those who have produced massive individual numbers while contributing to successful squads. When the sample grows large enough, the cream does rise to the top, as the saying goes.
So just consider this: By the end of 2017-18, LeBron James should join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan in the top five. A double-digit tally would even push him past the primary G.O.A.T. contender and into the leading quartet.
James, however, has added no fewer than 10.4 win shares in every single go-round since his rookie year for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Assuming health, he's a mortal lock to hit the necessary number, which means he should finish the year looking up only at Malone, Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar.
The 2.31 win shares necessary to move past John Stockton and into the top five are a formality.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.