By: Rob Bishop
Back again, and in a somber development, Lakers all-time great Kobe Bryant tragically passed away in helicopter crash. One of basketball’s greatest scorers ever and arguably the personification of competitiveness, Bryant’s outright shocking passing is difficult to put into context. A generation of NBA talent grew up idolizing Bryant, and his influence will be felt within the NBA for decades. The timing of Bryant’s passing is especially eerie given Bryant’s name was already in headlines on Saturday night for much different reasons.
On Saturday night, Bryant was the subject of headlines as current Lakers superstar LeBron James passed Bryant to move into third place on the all-time scoring list. Accomplished on the road in Philadelphia, the 76ers crowd lavished James with cheers to congratulate him on the feat. Philadelphia’s crowd continued to cheer as the 76ers went on to win the game, continuing the trend of thriving with Joel Embiid sidelined. However, it will be tough to praise James’s accomplishment in the short-term given Sunday’s development. In the long-term, there’s no diminishing James’s place as a legitimate challenger to being the best basketball player ever.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine isn’t likely to be an All Star this season, but the 24-year old continues to improve, and is emerging as an elite offensive player. On Saturday, LaVine scored 44 points to lead Chicago to a win. He is one of the best scorers in the NBA. LaVine’s elite athleticism allows him to create open looks with ease, and he is steadily improving as an outside scorer. The lack of production from his teammates will doom LaVine to watching All Star weekend, but he is right alongside All Star starter Trae Young as one of the best offensive players in the NBA.
Domantas Sabonis has a chance to be Indiana’s sole representative at the All Star Game as a reserve, and on Sunday he exhibited exactly why with a dominant 27-point, 14-board, 10-assist triple-double. Sabonis has been Indiana’s best player while Victor Oladipo prepares to make his return from a full calendar year on the sideline, and the Pacers have somewhat surprisingly remained competitive in the East, sitting at 30-17 and in fifth place entering Monday. Up next for the Sabonis and the Pacers is a match-up against the Bulls on Wednesday, a game in which Oladipo is expected to be in uniform.
Minnesota dropped a ninth straight game with a loss on Saturday night, falling to an incredibly disappointing 15-31 on the season. The Timberwolves entered the year with playoff aspirations, but that is obviously not going to happen this season. An injury to Karl-Anthony Towns certainly hurt, though Minnesota has been far from dominant with Towns back in the lineup. Towns continues to be an absolute stud, going for 37 points in Saturday’s loss, and Minnesota’s lack of pieces around him continues to waste his elite production.
Toronto’s winning streak hit seven with a victory on the road against the Spurs on Sunday. Recently-announced All Star starter Pascal Siakam was a star, scoring 35 points to lead the surging Raptors. As stated last week, the Raptors are in prime position to continue racking up wins, with games against the lowly Hawks, Cavaliers, Pistons, and Bulls up next on the schedule. Catching the Bucks in the standings will be impossible, but Toronto is exceeding expectations by challenging for the two-seed in the East. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard to free agency, the defending champions are very much a threat this season.
Any concerns surrounding center Nikola Jokic’s rough start to the season have been completely erased as the All-NBA big man has been a force for the Nuggets of late. On Sunday, Jokic racked up his ninth triple-double of the season with a 24-point, 12-board, 11-dime showing in a win over the Houston Rockets. It’s wild to consider how poor Jokic played to open the season, but he is back to being one of the most unique—and best—players in the NBA. Jokic was not named a starter to the Western Conference All Star team, though he and Utah’s Rudy Gobert, who is possesses an equally unique skillset for a center, are certain to be reserves.