The debate as to which young player will lead the next generation of talent has certainly picked up steam this season. All stars like Jayson Tatum and Luka Dončić are only getting better with their teams off to strong starts. Last year's number one pick Paolo Banchero is building off his Rookie of the Year campaign in a big way, as the Orlando Magic are off to their best start in years. There might even be a new big man rivalry in the making with Chet Holmgren of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the San Antonio Spurs' Victor Wembanyama.
However, we should also acknowledge some of this year's memorable moments provided by the some of the players who are guaranteed Hall of Famers. From individual accolades to thrilling playoff matchups, 2023 as a whole gave fans the chance to appreciate such excellence.
When it comes to individual achievements, there are a few players who deserve a mention such as Damien Lillard scoring 71 points, Kevin Durant moving up to number 10 on the all time scoring list, and Joel Embiid becoming the second player from Africa after Hakeem Olajuwon to win MVP. But the one accomplishment that comes to everyone's mind from this year, is LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers eclipsing the all-time scoring record set by legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
For years, that record was viewed by sports fans as unbreakable, which only makes it fitting that James was the one to achieve this feat. Not only has James been unfazed by the immense amount of hype placed on him going back to the night he was drafted, but he has exceeded those expectations. As it is, James already possesses an incredible legacy full of championships and other records. When it comes to some of the records James has set, this might be his greatest feat.
Abdul-Jabbar, who also had high expectations before his debut, was quick to applaud the significance of James passing him.
"Whenever a sports record is broken — including mine — it’s a time for celebration," Abdul-Jabbar said. "It means someone has pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible to a whole new level."
James has been the face of the league for about over a decade, but if there's any other player who's legacy also holds a great deal of significance, it would be Stephen Curry. He has changed the point guard position with his excellent ball-handling and deadly three point shooting. More importantly, he turned the Golden State Warriors from a mediocre team to a dynasty.
At one point, Curry and James' rivalry dominated the NBA landscape. Both players faced off in the Finals for four straight seasons from 2014-2018 with James winning in 2016, while Curry won the other three matchups. Once James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Lakers, it opened the door for more contests between the two players since both players would now be in the same division. While they did face off two years ago in the play-in tournament, last year's semifinals was the first time both players faced off in an actual playoff series in five years.
To say the least, both players put on a masterclass. Their abilities were on full display from the big shots to the intelligent plays in critical situations. James averaged 24 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, while Curry's 26 points a game outscored every other Warrior by 10 or more. The Lakers took the series in six games thanks to a game one on the road that gave them home court advantage which they wouldn't relinquish.
However, there were a lot of people who were hoping for an encore once the series ended. Everyone knows that because both players are on the older side, this might have been their last series. Yet they still managed to bring out the best in one another regarding their performance.
Curry did not hesitate to acknowledge the significance of facing off against James even after losing the series.
"There's so much respect and appreciation for the battles, the experiences, and the back and fourths because it's basketball at the highest level," Curry said.
If fans want to see a rematch in the future, that says something about the impact James and Curry have had on the league.
Even though the Lakers lost to the Nuggets in the following round, James' playoff run proved that as long as he can still play, his title window is still open regardless of age. He hasn't shown much signs of slowing down this year, averaging 25/7/7 with the Lakers in the thick of a competitive Western Conference. Many players usually slow down as they get old, but I think James' brilliance at his age should separate him from others. His sustained excellence is a big reason why there is still not a distinguished player to carry the torch for the next generation of stars.
Finally, there was Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets, cementing his legacy as one of the best centers of all time. Having won back to back MVP awards, along with transforming the Denver Nuggets into a contender, the last thing Jokić needed was a championship. Throughout last year, it was evident Jokić and the Nuggets were on a mission, clinching the number one seed in the Western Conference. They only got stronger in the playoffs where they lost only four games total, and defeated the Miami Heat in the Finals.
By winning the championship, Jokić established himself as undoubtably the best center of his generation. His IQ, and playmaking ability particularly separates him from other great centers who might have been more known for only using their strength to dominate opponents. Jokić might play like a center on one possession, and then resemble a point guard on the next one.
His skills have caught the attention of other legends such as Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon - a player who Jokić's skills draw some comparisons towards.
"He's playing the game, and you think he's not serious, but he's so effective," Olajuwon said. "His shot, his fakes, they are very difficult to time. You don't know when he's faking and when it's real."
For some Hall of Famers, winning the Finals is the last thing they need to accomplish in their career. Jokić already had a legitimate case, but now that he's is the latest player to have achieved everything an NBA player could possibly dream of. At 28 years old, Jokić will likely continue to ascend among the best centers to ever play the game.
It is well known that quarterback is the toughest position for anyone in sports. They are responsible for guiding the offense every game and must know where all 21 other positions are for each down. Their decisions on each play dictate the flow of the offense, and they have to make them with opponents looking to hit them every play. With how steep these requirements are, it is understandable that some rookie quarterbacks initially experience some growing pains.
However, there does come a quarterback like Dan Marino or Justin Herbert who already proceeds to look like a polished veteran. Fourteen weeks into the season, CJ Stroud of the Houston Texans has been on that same trajectory. Once seen as a rebuilding team, the Texans are in the heat of the race of an AFC wild card spot, and Stroud is a major reason why. With the individual and team success Stroud has enjoyed, it is worth evaluating where his year stands with some of the other great seasons by rookie quarterbacks.
From a statistical perspective, there's not one statistic where Stroud doesn't look impressive. While he is fresh off his worst outing against the Jets, he's thrown for 3,651 yards and 20 touchdowns. Stroud might not be able to shatter Herbert's rookie record of 31 touchdown passes, but he is likely to set a new mark for most passing yards by a rookie with Andrew Luck's 4,374 yards standing in his way. Needing only 723 yards, it's a safe bet Stroud will shatter that record even if he stays in concussion protocol following a head injury he suffered last week. As if that's not impressive enough, Stroud is leading the league in passing yards while managing to protect the football, throwing just five interceptions.
Another important factor that should be talked about in discussing quarterback's rookie seasons is their role in the offense. There are a few rookie QBs who might have had a good year and won games, but that was more because of a great defense or a run first offense. A great example of this is Ben Roethlisberger, who won every regular season game his rookie year but played on a team that ranked last in pass attempts and second in rushing attempts.
Meanwhile, the Texans have asked Stroud to do a lot more, with their rushing attack ranking in the bottom tier for most statistical categories. Their offense may not be in the top tier in pass attempts, but any football fan would know that Houston's offense revolving around Stroud. It's also not like the Texans are having him throwing these short passes in fear of possibly turning the ball over and losing his confidence. They fully trust Stroud to lead them down the field, which is evident in his 8.5 yards per completion.
Head coach DeMeco Ryans, who also deserves credit for Houston's turnaround, re-iterated this notion of the team's faith in Stroud following his first comeback win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I think trust is earned and C.J. has earned that trust by showing it on the practice field, proving it to his teammates, and you build that trust over time," Ryans said. "C.J. has built that trust amongst his teammates, amongst the coaching staff that we can put a little bit more on him.”
That game particularly shows you all you need to know about Stroud. On the winning pass, he reads the safety Dee Delaney the entire play. When Delaney commits to receiver Noah Brown, Stroud zips the pass down the middle to fellow rookie receiver Tank Dell for the win.
Then there's the fact that Stroud has helped engineer one of the league's best turnarounds this season. Before the arrivals of Stroud and Ryans, the Texans had won a combined 11 games in three seasons. Now the Texans have been reeling off one signature win after another with some of Stroud's performances. In my opinion, Stroud's season is reminiscent of Andrew Luck in 2012 where he turned the Colts from a bottom dweller to a playoff team overnight.
Robert Griffin III, the guy who actually who actually won the award over Luck, wasn't shy to shower Stroud with praise four weeks into the season.
"CJ Stroud isn't just the Texans' franchise quarterback," Griffin said. "He's a top ten QB in the league already."
In addition, Stroud is elevating the players around him. Nico Collins has went from a seldom used receiver to a reliable number one option who already topped 1,000 receiving yards. Dell also formed a potent rookie connection with Stroud although that will unfortunately be put on hold after Dell suffered a fractured fibula in last week's win over Denver.
The Texans are currently just outside of a wild card spot with their week two loss to the Colts being the difference. Despite a blowout loss to the Jets, most of the other teams ahead of them didn't gain much ground. Houston also has a soft schedule before getting another crack against the Colts in the final week. If Stroud clears concussion protocol, there is a good chance Houston sneaks into the playoffs. When the playoffs begin, we might be giving even more praise to Stroud's season.
Note: Majority of this article was written before Stroud's head injury against the Jets.