NBA Power Rankings: From Paris to Milwaukee Giannis Antetokounmpo keeps on winning

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Kobe Bryant’s untimely death has cast a pall over the NBA, a dark cloud blocking the light for both players and fans. But the league grinds on, and so do our NBA power rankings, which now have Kobe’s Lakers back up to No. 2.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (41-6, Last Week No. 1). Giannis Antetokounmpo was one of the many elite players in the league who credit Kobe Bryant for helping him reach that level: “I grew up with Kobe. Kobe influenced my life. Looking up to him, one of the reasons I started playing basketball. One of the reasons that I am here today.”Milwaukee picked up a win last week the NBA’s first-ever game in Paris.

 
Lakers small icon 2. Lakers (36-10, LW No. 3). Postponing the Tuesday night game against the Clippers was the right move by the league. It’s not just the Lakers’ players who are grieving, Kobe was a 20-year Laker employee who had deep ties outside the locker room with people in game operations, the marketing team, season ticket sales, and so much more. The organization is grieving, and will undoubtedly have a tremendous tribute for Kobe on Friday night against Portland. It’s a crazy coincidence that Kobe died just a day after LeBron James passed him on the all-time scoring list.

 
Jazz small icon 3. Jazz (32-14, LW 2). Utah should have two players in the All-Star Game next month, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. There seems to be momentum behind the Gobert candidacy, talking to people around the league (although the coaches make that vote). Mitchell, while deserving, is battling for a spot on the reserves with other guards who also can make good cases (Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, etc.), and the coaches have some tough choices. Utah slips one spot this week because of the loss to a very shorthanded Rockets team.

 
Clippers small icon 4. Clippers (33-14, LW 4). Against Miami over the weekend, Doc Rivers rolled out his 21st different starting lineup of the season — the most in the NBA. Last season the Clippers had 14 starting lineups total, but roster changes and injuries have made this season exceptional. It speaks to why there has yet to be real cohesion with this Clippers roster, and also why — while they are actively looking at the trade market — they are in no way panicking. This team, as is, remains a serious title contender.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (33-14, LW 8). Pascal Siakam was voted in an All-Star starter and he earned it. Not just with his 23.8 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, but also with the fact the Raptors outscore opponents by 8.6 per 100 possessions when he is on the court (and look like maybe the second best team in the East). The Raptors are winners of eight in a row (and rolling into a soft part of the schedule, so expect that number to climb).

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (31-15, LW 6). Statistically, Boston is playing some of its best basketball of the season, having won 4-of-5 (with victories over the Lakers and Heat in there). That has come with Jayson Tatum missing three of those games (groin injury, but he seems close to a return) and players such as Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart picking up the offensive slack. The Celtics can get healthy against a bit of a soft spot in the schedule, just one of their next five games is against teams over .500.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (32-15, LW 7). We mentioned it in this space a week ago but will do so again: Bam Adebayo deserves to be named an NBA All-Star. The East coaches unquestionably will vote in Jimmy Butler as a reserve (I thought he should have started) but Adebayo is in a tight mix with Tatum, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis and others, and someone is going to get left out. Miami needs to force every game to overtime, they are 8-0 in the extra frame this season (some of that is luck, some of that is how hard they play).

 
Sixers small icon 8. 76ers (31-17, LW 9). Joel Embiid is back from his hand surgery, and Philly needed him. Yes, the Sixers went 6-3 without him and Ben Simmons stepped up, he averaged 24 points a game on better than 70 percent shooting in his last 5 without Embiid. However, in those nine Embiid-less games the 76ers offensive rating was just 104.9, 29th in the NBA in that stretch. Even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league. Embiid is critical to making the offense elite.

 
Nuggets small icon 9. Nuggets (32-15, LW 5). That Denver is keeping its head above water — 6-4 in their last 10 — despite the rash of injuries is impressive. They got Gary Harris back this week, but it has been an impressive run by Nikola Jokic and some good nights from Michael Porter Jr. that has kept Denver as a team that would have home court in the first round through all of this. Big tests this week against Utah and Milwaukee.

 
Pacers small icon 10. Pacers (30-17, LW 11). Victor Oladipo makes his return to the court this Wednesday after missing nearly a year with a right quad tendon rupture, and this could be a huge boost to the Pacers. Eventually. He’s going to come off the bench and have a minutes limit at first. Nate McMillan needs to blend Oladipo’s All-NBA skills (if he can get back to that level) with the scoring and passing of Malcolm Brogdon, plus the secondary playmaking that Domantas Sabonis has provided. It will take some time but the Pacers could be taking a big step forward in the coming weeks.

 
Rockets small icon 11. Rockets (29-17, LW 12). James Harden has missed two games, and likely will miss at least one more, due to a bruised thigh. That forced rest may be a good thing, Harden has struggled in games running up to the injury and looked worn down — in his last five games he’s averaging 23 points a game (13.1 below his season average), shooting 33.3 percent overall and 13.6 percent from three. While Russell Westbrook’s numbers went up, Houston needs Harden’s scoring, the team is 3-5 in its last 8.

 
Mavericks small icon 12. Mavericks (29-18, LW 10). Dallas has gone 2-2 since center Dwight Powell went down with a torn Achilles, and while the offense has been off a little without him it’s the defensive end that has been the bigger issue (surprisingly). Smart trade by Dallas to get Willie Cauley-Stein, who can provide some depth and athleticism behind Maxi Kleber at the five. Clearly, Dallas is still adjusting to its new reality.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (28-20, LW 13). The most underrated, fun lineup in the NBA is OKC’s three-guard grouping of Dennis Schroder, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — they are +29.3 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor. Chris Paul missed his first game of the season mourning his good friend Kobe. CP3 deserves to be an All-Star this year and expect the coaches to give the veteran the nod over some young (but also deserving) players around the league.

 
Grizzlies small icon 14. Grizzlies (23-24, LW 14). 2020 has been good to Memphis so far, they are 10-3 since the calendar flipped to the new year and the key to that has been transition buckets. In January 18.2% of the Grizzlies offense has come in transition (up from 16.6% before that) and, more importantly, in January they are getting 1.36 points per possession when they run (up from 1.22 earlier in the season). Ja Morant has become and open court beast. Memphis now has a 2.5 game cushion for the eighth seed in the West, but they need to be ready for a run by one of the teams behind them.

 
Spurs small icon 15. Spurs (20-26, LW 16). Before a stinker of a game against the Bulls, Derrick White had been playing some of the best basketball of his career — five straight games scoring in double figures, including dropping 25 on the Suns. With LaMarcus Aldridge spending more time at the arc spacing the floor, White had more room to drive and make plays (the same reason DeMar DeRozan saw a scoring spike. The Spurs have lost three close games in a row and next Monday head out on the Rodeo Road trip that has them outside of Texas for eight straight games.

 
Blazers small icon 16. Trail Blazers (20-27, LW 17). Damian Lillard is on a tear, scoring at least 47 points in three straight games and at least 34 in his last five games. He is trying to will this team back into the playoff chase (they are 3 games behind Memphis) but they will need more than his magic against the coming stretch of games: Rockets, Lakers, Jazz, Nuggets, Spurs, Jazz (again).

Pelicans small icon 17. Pelicans (19-29, LW 20). It’s just four games, but Zion Williamson is averaging 18 points in 63.3% shooting plus 8.3 rebounds a game, and the Pelicans are 14.7 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (with most of the improvement coming on the defensive end). It’s small sample size theater, but it’s also very impressive. Even with him the Pelicans are 2-2 in those four games and if they are going to make a playoff run they need to start racking up wins.

 
Suns small icon 18. Suns (20-27, LW 19). Phoenix has not had an All-Star since Steve Nash, Devin Booker has put up the kind of numbers that have him in the mix — 27.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a game — but he’s still on the bubble. Lillard is a lock to be a West guard reserve, but after that Booker is battling Westbrook, CP3, Donovan Mitchell and others for the final guard slots in the West. He’s deserving, but some deserving players will get snubbed this year.

 
Bulls small icon 19. Bulls (19-30, LW 21). Lauri Markkanen, already not having the breakout season many in Chicago hoped to see, will now miss 4-to-6 weeks with stress reaction of his right pelvis. Chicago can offer Markkanen an extension to his rookie contract after this season, but this injury and all the others will make them hesitant. Chicago may come in with a lower number and Markkanen may choose to bet on himself and see if a good season can boost his value in the market.

 
Magic small icon 20. Magic (21-27, LW 15). No team in the NBA seems to have a divide on how they play against teams under or over .500 like Orlando. The Magic are 4-21 against teams over .500 but 17-6 against the ones under that mark. Orlando has lost four in a row and has Miami up next, then they head on the road for three games.

 
Nets small icon 21. Nets (19-26, LW 20). It’s one thing to lose five in a row against the toughest stretch of your schedule all season, but it’s something else to need overtime to beat the Pistons, then to lose to the Knicks. The Nets are now 1-1 in a run of seven straight against struggling, below .550 teams — a chance for them to lock down a playoff spot. Brooklyn continues to hang on to the eighth seed in the East, but mostly because the teams chasing them (Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte) are worse, not because Kyrie Irving has the Nets playing well.

 
Kings small icon 22. Kings (17-29, LW 23). The Kings continue to look for Dewayne Dedmon trades and he likely gets moved before the deadline (he has been fined for publicly requesting a trade), but will he be the only King traded? There has been a lot of Bogdan Bogdanovic chatter around the league, but the price to land him will be steep. The Kings have to seriously consider it, however. With Sacramento 5.5 games out of the playoffs (and a lot of teams to jump to get in), becoming sellers at the deadline makes sense.

Pistons small icon 23. Pistons (17-31, LW 22). Losers of three in a row, now 3.5 games out of the playoffs, and with Blake Griffin done for the season, the question becomes how serious of sellers will the Pistons be at the trade deadline. While there was a lot of buzz early about Andre Drummond trades (a sign the Pistons may not want to pay what the market will this summer when the big man is a free agent), the real push from contenders is for the resurgent Derrick Rose. The question is, can any of them put together a trade that actually interests and helps Detroit?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (15-31, LW 25). Rookie Rui Hachimura, who has missed 21 games with a strained groin has gone through full practices with the Wizards and is close to a return (but not Wednesday in Miami). Another note on the rookie, he is not giving up his No. 8 jersey in honor or Kobe Bryant, and with good reason:

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (12-36, LW 27). Trae Young is an All-Star starter (the first Hawk voted to start since Dikembe Mutombo in 1998), but it was his backup Brandon Goodwin — along with John Collins — helped spark the comeback of the year for Atlanta, from 19 down to beat the Clippers. Atlanta went 2-2 in their last four, and Young’s skill as a pick-and-roll ball handler continues to improve.

 
Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (16-31, LW 30). Apparently the few days of croissants and crepes of France did Charlotte some good. The Hornets returned from the NBA’s first ever game in Paris (where they lost to the Bucks) and proceeded to snap their eight game losing streak with a win over the Knicks. Malik Monk dropped 31 points on the Bucks in Paris and now James Borego is hoping he can do more of that stateside.

 
Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (13-35, LW 26). From friend of this site Tommy Beer: Since Mitchell Robinson’s 11-of-11 shooting night and 22 points on Jan. 1 (in a win over Portland), he hasn’t attempted more than 7 shots in a game, and is averaging just 4.3 shots a night. If the Knicks are grooming Robinson to be part of the future then RJ Barrett and the other ball handlers need to get him more touches.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (13-35, LW 28). Strangely, this ranking almost feels like it’s too high. It’s not just that Cleveland has lost 8-of-9, it’s who they lost to in that stretch — the Bulls (twice), Wizards, and Knicks. While the offense is bottom 10 in the league during this nine-game stretch, the real problem has been a 29th ranked defense with a 118 net rating in those games. Ouch.

 
29. Timberwolves (15-32, LW 24). Karl-Anthony Towns continues to put up numbers that could make him an All-Star, he’s been back from injury for seven games now, and in his last five is averaging 31.6 points per game on 53.3 percent shooting, plus grabbing 8.4 rebounds a game. It’s not enough, the Timberwolves have lost 10 straight. A lot of trade buzz around this team, particularly contenders with interest in Robert Covington.

 
Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (10-38 LW 29). Here’s all you need to know about the Warriors’ roster depth right now: Earlier this month the Warriors waived Marquese Chriss because they wanted to convert Damion Lee’s two-way contract to a regular one, but they needed the roster spot. Then, when they traded Willie Cauley-Stein to Dallas, opening up a roster spot again, the Warriors re-signed Chriss — and almost instantly Chriss was starting at center again.

PBT Podcast: LeBron chases history, WNBA superteam and trade talk

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It’s one of the craziest weeks in the NBA — the week before the trade deadline is always insane — yet that is maybe the third biggest story in the league right now.

First, in this edition of the PBT Podcast, we dive into LeBron James chasing history and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record — what does that say about LeBron and his legacy? And his conditioning to be doing this 20 years into his NBA career.

From there, Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself dive into the biggest move in the basketball world this week — Breanna Stewart shaking up the WNBA and choosing the New York Liberty in free agency. She formed a superteam in New York, and there is another one in Las Vegas, and this is an opportunity for the WNBA to grow – and get charter flights for their players. From there, it’s Corey’s Jukebox and time to talk some Damian Lillard.

Then we into trade rumors from around the league and everyone waiting on the Raptors to open up the market.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above (the Christmas games segment) or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Three things to Know: Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Breanna Stewart is headed to New York, WNBA must seize moment

The biggest free agent in WNBA history has chosen to form maybe the first super team in league history — and that’s a real opportunity for everyone.

Former league MVP and two-time WNBA champion Breanna Stewart has chosen to leave Seattle and play for the New York Liberty.

Just a few weeks ago, the Liberty traded for 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to pair with Sabrina Ionescu, forming one of the best pick-and-roll threats in the league. Now add Stewart and her playmaking to a roster filled with quality players —  Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, Joceyln Willoughby, Kayla Thornton — and this is a team that’s a legitimate threat to win the WNBA title next season. This is a superteam.

New York’s move comes just days after two-time former MVP and WNBA champ Candace Parker chose to join the defending WBNA champion Las Vegas Aces with reigning MVP A’ja Wilson and quality players around her such as Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray. This is also a superteam.

It’s not a coincidence Stewart and Parker chose to go to teams with newish WNBA owners willing to spend to win, Joe Tsai in New York (also the owner of the NBA’s Nets) and Mark Davis in Las Vegas (owner of the NFL’s Raiders). Two owners who came into the WNBA wanting to spend to pay players but also improve their experience — a new practice facility in Las Vegas, for example — and grow the sport that way. Owners with the vision to know they must spend money to make money — grow the league and its popularity and franchise values will skyrocket.

Stewart in her free agency pushed charter flights for players to the top of the list of ways to improve the league. Right now, the WNBA CBA requires teams to fly commercial. It’s part of a penny-pinching mindset from some quarters that sometimes feels like it will choke off the growing league. Charter flights for every team to every game — something common in professional sports and high-level college sports, including women’s college basketball — would cost about $30 million for the league.

There’s a divide among WNBA owners, not all want to pay that added charter flight cost out of their pocket, but the league has to find a way. As Corey Robinson of NBC Sports noted in the video above, this feels a lot like when his father — Hall of Famer David Robinson — wrote an open letter in 1991 to then San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs asking to fly charter to games because of the competitive advantage (McCombs agreed after the public pressure, now charter flights are just expected in the NBA).

Beyond just flights, this is an inflection point for the WNBA — it has to intensify its marketing, its outreach, and do whatever else it takes to grow the league.

Stewart, a recognizable face and name to any sports fan in America (even casual ones who only know her Olympics efforts) just formed a superteam in the biggest media market in the nation. They have a natural, high-profile rival in Las Vegas with their own superstars and big names. If you can’t sell this, you’re doing it wrong — this will be great basketball (and that’s not even mentioning Brittney Griner and the Phoenix Mercury, and other good teams out there).

New York vs. Las Vegas could be the 1980s Lakers vs. Celtics moment for the WNBA. Stewart vs. Wilson can be a version of Magic vs. Bird — a rivalry and must-watch matchup that took the NBA off tape-delayed late-night television and vaulted it into prime time, putting it on the course for what it is now. This feels like that moment for the WNBA, but will WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert be able to grab the opportunity the way David Stern did? Can she get her owners to buy in the way Stern did? The WNBA must spend, it must take advantage of this opportunity. Chances and players like this don’t come around very often.

2) Timberwolves outplay Warriors in clutch, pick up quality win

Right now, this Warriors team just does not have the aura of its championship teams of years past. Even last year’s team didn’t enter the playoffs as the favorites in the West (that was the 64-win Suns), but we had seen enough to know they could be a threat to win it all with a couple of breaks. Which they got.

This year’s team… the Warriors had a 13-point lead on the Timberwolves Wednesday night with less than 11 minutes left and then got outplayed the rest of the way. While D'Angelo Russell was draining key 3-pointers, Stephen Curry, Donte DiVincenzo and  Andrew Wiggins were missing theirs, and Jonathan Kuminga was committing illegal screens. The result was the Warriors blowing their lead and the Timberwolves took advantage of it — with some critical plays by Naz Ried.

“I thought we had control of the game and then I thought we just kind of gift-wrapped it,” Kerr said postgame, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “And not to take anything away from Minnesota, I thought they were great. They took advantage of our mistakes and lack of execution. [D’Angelo Russell] got hot and guys made big shots, but we missed box-outs, we threw the ball away, we took really difficult shots.

“So everything we had done to that point to have control of the game, we stopped doing. We got what we deserved.”

This year’s Warriors are 13-14 in the clutch (games within five points in the final five minutes), with a -1.8 net rating. Make that a game within three points in the final three minutes and the Warriors are 10-12 this season.

The Warriors had won 4-of-5 before this and it felt like they may be flipping the switch, but then games like this happen and it gives you pause. These Warriors are not there yet.

3) Celtics put on a show, romp past shorthanded Nets

Boston has cooled off following its hot start to the season, but there are nights when they get focused, turn the burner back on high, get hot and remind everyone why they are the title favorites this season.

The Nets ran into those Celtics on Wednesday — Boston outscored Brooklyn 46-16 in the first quarter, hitting eight straight 3-pointers to open the game.

From there the Celtics romped to a wire-to-wire 139-96 win. Boston stayed hot from deep and hit 48.1% from 3 for the game (26-of-54). Jayson Tatum scored 31 points,  Jaylen Brown added 26, and both got to sit in the fourth quarter and watch.

The Celtics needed a win like this.

The Nets… life is tough sometimes without Kevin Durant. This is a game Brooklyn can flush and move on, even with KD it would not have helped much the way the Celtics were shooting.

ONE BONUS THING TO KNOW (or see): Give Tari Eason credit, he did not give up. That is persistence.

Nuggets’ Michael Malone to coach Team LeBron in All-Star Game

DENVER NUGGETS VS LOS ANGELES LAKERS, NBA
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Denver is comfortably in first place in the West and looking like a contender.

Which is bad news if Nuggets coach Michael Malone purchased any non-refundable plane tickets for the start of the All-Star break, because now he is headed to Salt Lake City.

With Portland beating Memphis on Wednesday, it ensured that the Nuggets will have the best record in the West on Sunday ( two weeks out from the All-Star Game, meaning Malone is now the head coach of Team LeBron.

This is Malone’s second All-Star Game as a coach, but the captains should be familiar to him. In 2019 he coached Team LeBron to a win against Team Giannis 178-164.

Boston’s Joe Mazzulla will coach Team Giannis.

The coaches do not know which players they will coach — Malone doesn’t know if he will be coaching Nikola Jokić or not. This year team captains LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo will pick their teams live, just before the game. We know the pool of starters the captains will pick from, with the reserves being announced Thursday.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
89

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,299

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 2 at Pacers
Feb. 4 at Pelicans
Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors

When is LeBron projected to set the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30.2 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 7 at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, although that would be by one point, so Feb. 9 against Milwaukee is certainly a possibility.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”