NBA Records Made to Be Broken -- or Are They?

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OK, so basketball isn't as in love with its records as some other sports — most notably baseball.

Therefore it's just off the radar screen that a number of today's players are making a bid to become the NBA's record holders in career stats. That's partly because so many players in today's game turned pro directly out of high school, or after just one year of college. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and others have opportunities to take over several long-standing career records.

So, we started to wonder: Will they get there?

To estimate a player's odds of breaking a record, I created a metric based on his age, height and established performance level. This method cribs liberally from the "Favorite Toy" formula developed by Bill James for baseball a couple of decades ago. No, I don't know why he called it "Favorite Toy" either, but for baseball, the thing works.

For basketball, it requires some modification. For starters, we have to allow for the fact that NBA careers are slightly shorter than baseball careers. Second, we have to allow for the fact that height is an important predictor of career length, with every inch of deviation from the optimal height of 6-foot-10 reducing a player's expected number of career games.

Through some experimentation, I developed a basketball version of the "Favorite Toy."

The first step was to figure out how much longer a player could be expected to play at, on average, his current level.

Here is the equation:

Remaining seasons = (42-Age)/2.2

"Age" in this case is the player's age in years as of Dec. 31, 2008. This gives a 22-year-old 9.1 seasons remaining, a 28-year-old 6.4, and a 36-year-old 2.7.

I should point out these estimates are wildly optimistic for most NBA players, but for this project, we aren't looking at "most" players — we're looking at the stars, who tend to have the longest careers.

Note: This is not a prediction of when a player will retire. Rather, it's a way to estimate the number of future seasons for which to credit a player in the formula below.

As a second step, I factored in height using this equation:

Adjusted Remaining Seasons = Remaining Seasons * (60-HeightDiff)/55)

"Remaining Seasons" is the prediction from the first equation above, and "HeightDiff" is the difference in inches from the optimal height of 6-foot-10.

As a third and final step, we need an "established level" for a player in each statistical category. That's the easiest part, because the Bill James formula translates perfectly to basketball for this measure.

To find a player's "established level" of play, we use the most recent three seasons of data, with the most emphasis placed on the current season:

• Take one part of the player's results from two years ago; • take two parts of his results from last season; • take three parts of his prorated results from this season; • add it all up; • divide the sum by six.

Note: The "Favorite Toy" is ideally employed between seasons. In this case, we are using the current season's data because the regular season is about 80 percent finished.

For example, Nowitzki is on pace to play 3,011 minutes this season. He played 2,821 minutes last season, and 3,089 the year before, so for the purposes of this discussion his "established level" is 2,960.7 minutes.

From those numbers, we can figure out a player's odds of eventually owning the record, again using James' metric.

Chance of record = [(remaining seasons * established level)/amount needed] - 0.5

In Dirk's case, he's estimated to have 5.75 remaining seasons, and an established level of 2,960.7 minutes, for a total of 17,024 minutes. He needs to play 29,560 minutes after this season to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record of 57,446 minutes, so that goes in the denominator. Divide and subtract 0.5, and you have a 7.6 percent chance of Nowitzki eventually owning the record for minutes played.

It turns out Dirk isn't the only one with a shot at this particular record. Several of his colleagues have established an even better chance, led by Kobe Bryant at 18.0 percent, LeBron James at 15.3 percent and Kevin Garnett at 14.3 percent.

But there are far bigger fish to fry out there than the minutes record. Let's have some fun and take a look at other marks that could fall in the coming years.

Before we do, though, another quick note for those who enjoy the nitty-gritty: This formula breaks down at the extremes — you can end up with a percentage above 100 or below zero. For what we're doing, that's OK. The idea here is to get an idea of the probability for players who've established themselves as being on some kind of record pace, not to assess the odds of somebody getting hit by a bus the day before he gets the record (at the high end) or having some cataclysmic shift in abilities that makes him a far better player (at the low end).

With that out of the way, on to the fun stuff:

The most vulnerable record

The career record most likely to be broken in the next 15 years is the record for 3-pointers, currently held by Reggie Miller at 2,560.

Ray Allen is hot on his heels at 2,071, and the method estimates he has a 97 percent chance. That's only because we are honoring the Bill James rule that no "Favorite Toy" probability can exceed 97 percent. What the method is really saying, in this case, is that Allen will break the record if he isn't injured. Allen's established rate is 198 per season, so even if he cools off a bit with age, he'll break it at some point in 2010-11.

In the odd event Allen doesn't break the mark, several other younger players are waiting in the wings. Rashard Lewis has a 37.6 percent chance of passing Miller, while Jason Richardson is at 29.1 percent and Ben Gordon at 4.6 percent. Those odds will slide, obviously, once Allen is finished raising the bar.

There's a 56 percent chance Hondo missed this shot ... and about a 70 percent chance each for AI and Kobe to break his all-time bricks mark.

One other record has a greater than 50-50 shot at falling in the next few years: John Havlicek's record for career field goal misses, which stands at 13,417.

Havlicek's mark is under assault from both Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. Bryant has a 69.5 percent shot, but Iverson is likely to get there first -- he's at 71.3 percent. There's a decent chance that within half a decade Hondo will be down to third on the list.

And he may have further to go from there -- among the younger generation, both LeBron James (33.5 percent) and Carmelo Anthony (20.7 percent) have established a decent chance at the mark.

The big kahuna

One record that's among the most vulnerable is also the one that's the most treasured: Kareem's all-time scoring mark. At the age of 30, Kobe Bryant is about three-fifths of the way there in raw totals, and my method estimates a 30.7 percent chance of him owning the mark.

Only two other active players show up on the radar for this record. One, not surprisingly, is James, who has a 21.1 percent of breaking Kareem's mark. The other might shock you: Carmelo Anthony. Nobody thinks of him as an all-time great, but the method gives him a 7.6 percent chance of being the game's top all-time scorer if Kobe and LeBron don't get there.

With a 31 percent chance of catching Kareem, KB24 might need some more 81-point nights to become the points king.

There's a good chance Bryant will end up taking more shots than any other player in history. He's established a 33.1 percent chance of owning the record for field-goal attempts, one that's currently held by Abdul-Jabbar.

James (22.4 percent), Anthony (10.9 percent) and Iverson (10.1 percent) also have a good shot at the mark.

Kareem's mark for made field goals, however, seems far more elusive. James has the best chance at 8.4 percent, followed by Bryant at 4.4 percent. Nobody else is in the running for this one.

Moving to the free-throw line, two active players have roughly equal shots at Karl Malone's career record for attempts. Although he's fourth all-time, Shaquille O'Neal isn't one of them. His former teammate Bryant has a 15.2 percent chance of breaking the mark, while the best chance belongs to King James, at 17.4 percent.

Bryant's odds are better when it comes to made free throws. There, he has a 37.2 percent shot of breaking the Mailman's mark, far better than that of James (14.4 percent), Iverson (9.5 percent) or Chris Bosh (4.5 percent).

And then there's the record for just showing up. Thanks to their early arrivals in the NBA, Bryant (9.6 percent), Nowitzki (4.6 percent) and James (4.0 percent) have established a slim chance at owning Robert Parish's career mark of 1,611 games played.

Stockton's no-look act won't be matched by any current players, writes John Hollinger.

If you're thinking of breaking John Stockton's career assists record, just forget it. Even the four players averaging double-figure assists this season registered as having no chance. In fact, to put Stockton's 15,806 mark in perspective, consider that two-time MVP Steve Nash has averaged double-figure assists for four straight seasons … and that if he does it twice more, then at the age of 36, he'll be halfway to Stockton's record.

Another absolutely safe record is Wilt Chamberlain's all-time mark of 23,924 rebounds. Only one active player, Dikembe Mutombo, is even halfway there. Perhaps the "best" chance belongs to Kevin Garnett; to pass Wilt, KG needs only to lead the league in rebounds until he's about 45 years old.

A close third on the impervious list is Moses Malone's career record for offensive rebounds, which stands at 6,731 and is more than 2,000 ahead of any other player in history. No active player, not even Dwight Howard, registered as having any chance. Throw in Moses' 651 offensive boards from the ABA and it gets even more impossible.

Note: Offensive rebounds were not officially counted before 1973-74.

And then there's Oscar Robertson's record of 181 triple-doubles. Jason Kidd is the only active player who is even halfway there, at 99, and even he doesn't register as having any chance. Nor does James; in fact, you might contemplate the difficulty of Robertson's feat by noting that James has only 17 triple-doubles in five pro seasons.

A couple you might not have expected

While Moses Malone's mark on the offensive boards (6,731) appears safe, Abdul-Jabbar's record for defensive boards (14,465) is much more in play, oddly enough. (Note: Defensive rebounds were not officially counted before 1973-74.) That's surprising given how much the league's pace has slowed since his day, and how long Abdul-Jabbar played. But with a dominant showing on the defensive boards and an early, out-of-high-school start to his career, Howard has established a 14.9 percent chance of eventually owning the mark. A more distant possibility is Garnett, at 3.5 percent; his odds stood higher before this season, but his stats have taken a dip.

Dikembe Mutombo is second all-time in blocked shots, but has no chance of catching another Rocket, Hakeem Olajuwon, for top honors with 3,830 blocks. However, one other player has established a very strong shot. Atlanta's Josh Smith is only 22 but is already about a fifth of the way to Olajuwon's record. My method gives him a 17.8 percent chance of eventually owning the mark. He is the only player above zero.

To catch a thief: Chris Paul's pilfering needs to pick up to threaten John Stockton's mark.

Note: Blocked shots were not officially counted before 1973-74.

Along similar lines, Stockton's record for steals (3,265) is slightly more vulnerable than the assist mark -- but just slightly. Stockton finished with 700 swipes more than any other player in history, leaving Chris Paul with a faint, faint possibility -- a 0.1 percent chance -- of eventually owning the mark. That's 1 in 1,000, basically. As with Smith in blocks, he's the only active player above zero.

However, Baron Davis has a chance if he stays healthy. He shows up with zero probability at the moment because of his injury-plagued 2005-06 season, but if he stays healthy the remainder of this season and all of next and keeps stealing the ball at the same rate (a big if, I know), he'll be at 2.1 percent.

Note: Steals were not officially counted before 1973-74.

Anyone want these old records?

In addition to Havlicek's mark, a few other marks are out there that players would probably rather not own.

We have several players chasing down Abdul-Jabbar's all-time mark for personal fouls (4,657). Shaq still has a sliver of a chance at 1.5 percent, but the better odds are with the younger generation. Howard is at 17.2 percent and Amare Stoudemire -- even with a missed 2005-06 season -- is at 8.7 percent. In fact, with another full season at his current rate, Stoudemire's odds will balloon to 22.3 percent.

Try, try again: Iverson's college years might prevent him from reaching the NBA's all-time shot record. In contrast, Wilt Chamberlain's mark for missed foul shots (5,805) seems relatively safe. Shaq is second, but has just a 3.5 percent chance of catching Wilt for the top spot. The player with the best chance is Howard at 12.3 percent, but if his stroke improves, those odds will sink rapidly.

Kidd has an 11.8 percent chance of breaking the career turnover mark, which is currently owned by Karl Malone (4,524). (A quick aside, because seeing this got me thinking: If Malone owns the turnover mark and Stockton has the steals mark, then how much higher would those two records be if they'd been able to play against each other?)

But if Kidd breaks the record, he may not hold it for long. Iverson is slowly gaining on Kidd and has established a 15.9 percent chance of breaking Malone's mark. And behind them, Bryant has the record in his sights too, with a 25 percent chance of surpassing Malone.

Even if those three fail, the record may fall. Among the younger generation, Anthony (13.1 percent) and Howard (21.7 percent) also are in hot pursuit of the mark. No other record has so many current players with an established probability of breaking it.