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.