Who Will Reign Supreme as the Top Scorer?

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One day, LeBron James will take his breakaway tomahawk dunk and tuck it in his back pocket, the same way Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did his sky hook. Eventually, Kevin Durant’s pull-up midrange jumper will be destined for a time capsule, like Tim Duncan’s bank shot. And at some point, Stephen Curry’s post-three-pointer shimmies will be relegated to memes, much like Michael Jordan’s shoulder shrug.

 
The Greatness of the NBA's Old Guard Remains Astonishing - The Ringer

But that day is not today, and the trio are headlining NBA All-Star Weekend again. These late 30-somethings are determined not to become relics anytime soon. Not when they still have so much to give to the game.

“Basketball is going to end at some point,” Curry says. “I’m trying to get everything I can out of this.”

 

The NBA relies on its stars more than any other league, and it has leaned on James, Durant and Curry for nearly a decade as the game has grown globally. Led by the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (Cameroon), international players have claimed the past five MVP awards, with the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic (Slovenia), the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada) and the San Antonio Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama (France) emerging as potential heirs.

 

Even as Americans such as Jayson Tatum, Devin Booker, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Paolo Banchero have reached the cusp of superstardom, none has given the NBA’s broadcast partners reason to turn away from James, Durant and Curry, who continue to defy what’s expected of players their age.

“If they can figure it out, good luck,” Draymond Green, Curry’s teammate for the past 12 seasons, a former Durant teammate and James’s good friend, says of the next wave of American players. “You got to remove them off the throne. I think we got some young guys, they’re starting to make a petition, but it don’t just happen because they get older.”

 

From painstaking preparation to competitive commitment, James, Durant and Curry know what it takes to get there — and stay there.

“We’re true to the game,” James says. “And when you’re true to the game, the game continues to give back to you.”

 

The trio visited the East Coast in early February and discussed how they continue to go extra rounds with Father Time.

Feb. 3 in New York

“The league’s given me so much,” LeBron James says, “I just try to set an example for the next generation.” (Frank Franklin II/AP)

It’s a little past 11 p.m., and James has just completed a performance at Madison Square Garden in which he scored 25 points to help end the New York Knicks’ nine-game winning streak. That included a late-game fadeaway that gave him a chance to talk some smack to Spike Lee. James is shirtless, his feet are buried in a tub of ice, and both knees are covered with ice bags.

 

The faded ink from the tattoo across his back that reads “The Chosen 1” serves as a reminder of how long he has lived in the fish bowl of social media and mindless debate shows while meeting the NBA’s hopes that he would provide a marketable name while avoiding any serious off-court scandal. He has flexed his power in a manner that exceeds any of his predecessors, building himself into the only billion-dollar business empire who can still physically dominate a basketball game.

 

James is the oldest player in the league — at 39, he is older than three NBA head coaches — and holds the unusual distinction of having competed against 35 percent of the players in league history. He has battled legends of different eras, outlasting not only his contemporaries but several stars who came a generation or two later. James doesn’t have a clock in his head for how long he plans to play but also won’t limit himself with a number because, as he says, “I already exceeded it.”

“The league’s given me so much,” James says. “I just try to set an example for the next generation. I never got into, like, ‘Oh, I’m the face of the NBA.’ I never, ever even said that. I’ve always just understood it as a responsibility with being a professional. And I’ve always wanted to be that and always have done that.”

 

No other player over 36 is averaging more than nine points, but James (24.8) is averaging more points than all but 15 players and more assists than all but seven. In 21 seasons, James has evolved from a fresh-faced wunderkind to a literal graybeard who inspires wonderment.

 

And he continues to put in the work. More than two hours before tip-off, well before most fans are allowed to enter his favorite road arena, James shot turnaround fadeaways and three-pointers with Los Angeles Lakers assistant Phil Handy before throwing down a two-handed lob dunk and leaving the court.

“He doesn’t skip any steps,” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham says of James, who potentially has positioned himself to be the first NBA player to share the floor with his son. Bronny is a freshman at Southern California, and Bryce is a junior in high school.

 

When James came on the scene, smartphones were still years away. In the years since, his brain has become one, filled with apps that allow him to take advantage of opponents’ tendencies and manipulate defenses with craftiness, guile and no wasted motion. His dedication to investing seven figures into his body every season is well-documented, and he has managed to reinvent himself multiple times, turning his accumulated knowledge and skill into an unprecedented package.

 

“You always hate to see when a great player retires,” Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau says. “You want him to play forever.”

James is trying.

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Feb. 4 in Washington

“I’m not going out there and relying on my name and what I’ve done in the past to get that respect,” Kevin Durant says. (Nick Wass/AP)

At the 80-minute mark on the pregame clock, Durant leaves the visiting locker room at Capital One Arena and jogs to the main court to begin his routine.

 

Before getting into his complicated shooting drills from above the foul line — hopping one-legged from side to side before shooting, lowering himself and spinning around like a top into more jumpers — Durant, 35, does strength and flexibility exercises behind the basket with aqua sandbags. He concludes his 15-minute workout by making a 360-degree spin while throwing down a lob dunk.

Durant is back home, but he’s not interested in stealing the show from teammate Bradley Beal, who spent his first 11 seasons with the Wizards and is returning to face them for the first time. The Suns win easily, giving Durant a light day’s work, and he makes time for some quick postgame weightlifting.

 

“I was just trying to get to 10 years in the league, and that was my goal. But then once you get to nine, eight, you’re like: ‘I feel great right now. I can keep going,’ ” Durant says, adding that he, James and Curry could play into their 40s.

 

After winning the last of his four scoring titles at 25, Durant has spent the past decade focused on scoring efficiency, not volume. Last season was the second time in his career that he reached the coveted 50-40-90 shooting percentage splits. He has shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of his past 10 seasons, better than 40 percent on three-point attempts six times and at least 90 percent from the free throw line five times.

Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and James were the standard-bearers when Durant was drafted second overall in 2007. Durant managed to beat all four in the postseason, taking down the first three in his first run to the NBA Finals in 2012.

 

Now that he has become a player others measure their talent against, Durant stands firmly rooted in the present so that he remains relevant.

 

“Those older guys didn’t want to just say, ‘Here, young’un, you the next one up.’ You had to try to take that from them,” Durant says. “I’m not going out there and relying on my name and what I’ve done in the past to get that respect. I respect that about the young players. They don’t give a s— about what you did in the past. It’s about today. So that keeps me on point.”

His late-career objective is mastering the game. He’s not worried about his body betraying him before he meets the impossible standard that he’s chasing. Seventeen years after he was drafted, Durant, a player once reluctant to acknowledge his height, is being used as a small-ball center while devastating defenses with the latest development in his game.

 

“Whatever curveball they throw at you, you still got to hit it,” he says. “And I feel my experience helps me with that and my fundamental skills help me with that.”

Feb. 7 in Philadelphia

“The business of basketball gets to you every once in a while,” Stephen Curry says. “And then you get on the court, it’s fun.” (Matt Slocum/AP)

Game shorts dripping, torso blushed red, Curry enters the visiting locker room at Wells Fargo Center, fresh from an ice bath on a rare night in which the Warriors didn’t need his brilliance to defeat a Philadelphia team missing reigning MVP Joel Embiid.

Unlike Durant and James — who have the benefit of all-star teammates in Booker and Anthony Davis, respectively — Curry isn’t afforded many off nights such as this one, when he is held to nine points just five days after matching Bryant as the only players 35 or older to score at least 60 in a game. He still keeps with a postgame routine that can be strenuous and monotonous — and freezing cold. It has resulted in Curry scoring at a higher clip in his 30s than he did in his 20s.

Two of Curry’s three highest-scoring seasons occurred after he suffered a broken hand in the 2019-20 season, and he is on pace to make it three of four. A month shy of his 36th birthday, Curry, who is averaging 28.0 points this season, is the most unexpected member of the trio to be in this position despite being the son of an NBA standout. He wasn’t drafted first or second, wasn’t challenged to make championship runs upon his arrival or heavily criticized for not doing so. Yet he has the same number of championships as James, he helped Durant win two, and his incomparable shot ushered in the league’s love affair with the three-pointer.

“I never thought I’d be here to begin with,” Curry says.

That has contributed to his appeal, a pandemonium that follows him wherever he plays. He has sculpted his body to better handle the rigors of extended playoff runs, but the added muscle hasn’t made him any less relatable or fun. He can still hit a full-court shot in warmups, refusing to limit his showmanship.

Fans swarm the basket where Curry gets ready for games with his legendary workout.

When he darts to the court in a black hoodie for his workout, fans cheer his arrival as though a prizefighter is entering the ring, and it’s impossible to tell whether this is his first game or his 927th. His enthusiasm hasn’t waned. The switch that Curry flips, he says, goes back to what Durant used to say during their three seasons together in the Bay Area: “Get your feet on the floor.” Meaning: Just having the opportunity to play is sufficient because it provides a purpose and justifies all of the hours invested in the gym to be among the all-time greats.

The drills Curry runs with assistant Bruce Fraser include fancy dribbling, half-court shots and a closing two-handed dunk that comes after he volleyball serves the ball and catches it off the bounce.

“How I approach anything is how I approach everything,” Curry says. “And so there’s a reverence and a respect for what that responsibility comes with. The business of basketball gets to you every once in a while. All the hard work is stuff you do in the weight room and recovery and strength and conditioning. The mental stuff. And then you get on the court, it’s fun. It’s kind of an automatic trigger. It’s not every night you hit that 10 out of 10 in the joy, but it’s pretty close.”

The next wave

The late 30-somethings aren’t playing for championship contenders, but their presence still makes their teams relevant, and their résumés allow their voices to resonate. To anyone hoping one day to fill James’s size 15 sneakers, Durant’s size 18s or Curry’s size 13½s, James explains that “the game gods” will reward players based on their levels of commitment. And he offers some advice:

“Learn the history of the game. Respect the ones that came before you, even when they do disrespect you. It’s okay. It’s absolutely okay. Know who paved the way. Pour it all into the game — if you want to be great and if you want to be someone that will never be forgotten in this league. The cars and the jewelry and all the other dumb s— that don’t matter means absolutely nothing. Worry about the game. Worry about your family, and then worry about the game some more. And be selfish, too. It’s okay to be selfish because you have to be a little bit selfish to be able to be great. Some people have to fall to the wayside at times.”

“If it’s meant for you, it’ll happen,” Curry says. “I think we all just love to hoop. People might think that’s a given, but I don’t think it is.”

Says Durant of that love for the game: “Once that fades away, then I’ll move on to something else.”

But that day is not today.

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