The NBA Playoffs are finally here, but at what cost?
This week, the community said goodbye to two certain Hall of Famers — Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki.
Beyond their cemented statuses as adored fan favorites for nearly 20 years, the pair also boast an insane amount of professional achievements. Wade finishes his career with the 23rd-most points in NBA history, while Nowitzki closes with the sixth-highest tally at 31,560 — and, importantly, not a single active player in sight. Their statistics back up their cases well, but if that weren’t enough, they share four championships, two Finals MVPs, six All-NBA First Team selections and a whopping 27 All-Star appearances.
Of course, Nowitzki was also the runaway winner for MVP in 2007, handily defeating Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant.
On Wednesday, both Wade and Nowitzki closed their books with memorable moments. In San Antonio, home of Nowitzki’s long-time bitter rivals, the Spurs put together a tribute that moved the German star to tears. Despite losing a step at the age of 40, Nowitzki turned back the clock in his last two games, posting 30 points before dropping 20 points and 10 rebounds during the finale. For Wade, fans and allies alike flocked to the Barclays Center to wish the guard a warm-hearted farewell in Brooklyn.
LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony all witnessed Wade drop his first triple-double since 2011 — a fifth over in a storied 16-year career — relishing in their best friend’s swan song and encore performance.
This marks the near-end of an era in the NBA and their retirements come sharply in the well-missed footsteps of Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and other recent legends. The season-long goodbye tours for Dwyane and Dirk didn’t feel hackneyed as their emotional moments — like commissioner Adam Silver naming both as special additions to the All-Star Game — felt deserved and earned.
But irreplaceable as they may be, somebody else new will need to take their mantle as idolized father figures and record-chasing future Hall of Famers. Aside from the obvious and not-quite-old-enough — hello, Kevin Durant — here’s where things stand headed into 2019-20.
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James’ legacy in the pantheon, even if he suddenly decided to quit tomorrow morning, will never be in question — this much is already clear. The ever-reliable James is fourth in scoring all-time with just Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left to pass for the elusive top spot. All things considered, health dependant, James will likely reach this summit, along with too many other records to count. It’s not just his bucket-getting prowesses that’ll be on display either as James is already 10th in assists with 8,662 and, as the cherry on top, owns 1,937 steals — good for 17th-best. In conversations about the absolute greatest player of all-time, James’ inclusion is one of the first two or three names on the shortlist.
LeBron James is masterful — but you already knew that. In an ideal world, he’ll be playing long into his forties as well.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Like James, Durant is headed straight to the top too.
36th in points and 25th in three-pointers made, Kevin Durant — whether in Seattle, Oklahoma City or Golden State — has been a bonafide scoring machine. Durant has averaged an ungodly 27 points per game over his first 12 NBA seasons and shows no sign of slowing down either. His Warriors-related championships remain a polarizing topic, but the record books will only remember the result, not every detail of his ever-winding journey.
If Durant averages just 22 points per game for the next six years, he’d find himself knocking on the door to the top five scorers in league history. Durant has only scored less than 25 points once in his career, notched way back in his rookie year of 2007-08. So, yeah, love or hate him, Durant is here to stay, smash some records and lock himself into all-time legend status.
Carmelo Anthony, Free Agent
Although it’s possible that the now-forgotten Carmelo Anthony could make a comeback next season, the odds remain stacked against him. In 2018, it took just 10 games before the Rockets tossed him aside as his iso-heavy style of play didn’t mesh with Houston’s uptempo Harden-fueled juggernaut. Following months of flirtations with the Lakers, Anthony sadly stayed on the sidelines and without a franchise for the remainder of the campaign.
At the time of his release, Anthony was tallying 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds on 40.5 percent from the field — so it’s hard to believe that the Hall of Famer’s career has come to such a jarring halt, but that might be the harsh reality.
If this the end of the line for Anthony, he’ll march into retirement as the 22nd-best scorer of all-time, an achievement placed proudly alongside his status as one of basketball’s top Olympians.
Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks
The list of veterans that could ably take the torch from Wade and Nowitzki, both statistically and popularly, is varied — but it must start with Vince Carter. As of now, it’s expected that Carter will return for his 21st campaign, despite a diminishing role over the years. Although the former high-flying dunker has been offered spot minutes on legitimate contenders year after year, Carter has opted for mentoring position on growing rosters. When the prodigious talent does eventually return, he’s still an unlikely candidate to rise too far up the all-time totem pole.
Regardless, a two-nation farewell tour would suit the eloquent and often show-stopping Carter, a walking highlight reel even at the tender age of 42.
Should Carter duplicate his recent 562-point season (7.4 PPG), he’d finish with right around 26,000 on the career — a total that would push him past both Alex English and Carmelo Anthony, but fall short of Kevin Garnett’s 20th-place ranking. While ursurping Jason Terry for fifth in three-pointers made is certainly still in play — only 53 behind — Carter has the potential to be jumped by both Jamal Crawford and James Harden in 2019-20.
Of note, Carter is 47th in steals and 78th in assists all-time.
Despite his achievements both above the rim and overseas, Carter’s legacy would take an even grander leap if he rode off into the sunset with a ring of his own.
That much, however, remains to be seen.
Dwight Howard, Washington Wizards
It’s been a bumpy road for the often-maligned center but his impressive resume will put him in position to become a first ballot Hall of Famer. It goes without saying, but Howard does not own the strongest outward-facing reputation amongst fans these days. No matter how you feel about Howard, statistics are unavoidably cold and the once-league-wide fan favorite still ranks him highly. After beginning the year on the injured list, Howard played in just nine games before he require what would eventually become season-ending surgery.
Still, it’s the worst ailment of Howard’s career by a longshot and he’ll be a strong candidate to pick right back up where he left off. Even if Howard averages just eight boards per contest over a 60-game clip for the next five years, he would cruise into the top seven for all-time rebounds. Indeed, that estimate feels slightly unfair, admittedly, as Howard had never tallied less than 10 rebounds per game until this season — again, in only nine opportunities, he put up 9.2 boards — and has only played less than 60 games in two of his other 14 seasons.
Reaching the 15,000-plus rebound plateau would put Howard in elite company and in the conversation with Tim Duncan, Elvin Hayes, Artis Gilmore, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Additionally, Howard owns a puncher’s chance of reaching the top ten in blocks to boot, a reflection of a rim-protecting presence that once won him three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year honors.
At just 32 years old, there’s plenty of time left for Howard to cement his place as an all-timer — just don’t expect many teary-eyed goodbyes in visiting arenas.
Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
Last but not least, there’s Chris Paul, ball-wizard aficionado.
Even if his career ended today, Paul would still be considered one of the best point guards of all-time — that sentiment is hardly up for debate. His awards case, if it’s not already overflown, is comprehensive and far-reaching at the same time. Paul has earned All-Star Game honors on nine occasions and was selected for the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team eight and nine times, respectively. Furthermore, the 6-foot court general has led the NBA in assists during four different seasons, while he outpaced everybody else for steals in six instances.
Basically, when healthy, Paul is a well-oiled machine of the best variety.
Unfortunately, that’s been his Achilles heel as of late and it may just cripple his attempt at snagging the title of best-ever at his position. Paul has played 58 games in back-to-back seasons and he’s already 33 years old — so it’s fair to ask how much longer he’ll play at an elite level. Given that his assists have dropped with the MVP-worthy rise of James Harden, Paul’s odds of catching John Stockton’s nearly-untouchable assists record of 15,806 are next-to-none. But it’s all gravy from here on out for Paul, who will finish his Hall of Fame-worthy career in the same breath as Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
If that wasn’t enough, Paul only needs 392 steals to pass Michael Jordan for third all-time. For a stellar guard that’s finished with under 100 steals in a season just twice, that’s like playing with house money. Whenever Paul does say goodbye — with or without a championship ring on his finger — you can bet that the country will roll out the red carpet to celebrate basketball’s high-level orchestrator.
Ultimately, the loss of Wade and Nowitzki will sting, thanks in part to their strong community ties, statistical achievements and overall cultural influence on the game. Replacing them will be difficult, if not nearly impossible, but there are more than a few worthy candidates to consider. As Carter, Howard and Paul continue to climb the leaderboards alongside James and Durant, the league is clearly in safe and secure hands.
Eventually, however, all great careers must come to a close — for now, let’s just hope there’s a tiny break in Father Time’s unrelenting march toward mortality… ‘cause we’re all out of tears for now.