NBA’s greatest ever, LeBron James, also is best scorer

Lakers forward LeBron James warms up before the game against the Blazers at Arena in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 2022. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Lakers forward LeBron James warms up before the game against the Blazers at Arena in Los Angeles on Nov. 30, 2022. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LeBron James was a junior in high school when Sports Illustrated declared him “The Chosen One” on its cover. James audaciously had the phrase tattooed on his back before becoming the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2003. He was going to be a bust even if he became one of the 50 or so best players in the world. The bar was much higher than that.

The basketball world waited for James to be humbled in the grown man’s league. I was among the skeptics. We critics never got our wish, not even for a moment.

James was very good from the start. He was great by his second season, when he carried a Cavaliers team with no other All-Star players to the NBA Finals. James somehow lived up to the hype. Now he’s the only player who belongs with Michael Jordan in the Greatest of All Time debate.

James is my G.O.A.T. There can be honest disagreement about that. There no longer is any real argument about the game’s greatest scorer. James is settling that matter this week.

James needed to score 36 points for the Lakers against the Thunder on Tuesday night in L.A. night to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA record of 38,387. That mark once seemed untouchable. Abdul-Jabbar was a 7-foot-2 center who played 20 years in the NBA, made 56% of his shots and had the best go-to move in the history of the sport.

Who would ever have the efficiency, durability and longevity to score so many points again?

The answer is James, even if he didn’t set out to do it.

“I don’t like being singled out as a scorer,” James recently told ESPN. “I’ve always prided myself in being a pass-first guy – a guy who can make everybody feel comfortable.”

James has done that for 20 years while also being a prolific scorer. The league has never seen a player like him. He has the skills and vision of a point guard, the scoring ability of a shooting guard and the versatility of a small forward, and he bullies opponents like a power forward. It took The Chosen One to break Abdul-Jabbar’s record during the NBA’s pace-and-space era.

It’s no longer possible to be a great scorer while playing near the basket. That time essentially ended when the NBA legalized zone defense before the 2001-02 season. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that Jordan pleaded with the NBA’s competition committee to keep the illegal defense rule, telling its members that he never would have become Air Jordan without it.

Multiple defenders have been allowed to clog the lane during James’ entire career. That hasn’t stopped him, and not just because he makes jump shots.

James is five inches shorter than Abdul-Jabbar but has nearly matched his career shooting percentage on 2-pointers (55.4% before Tuesday’s game). The NBA added the 3-point line before Abdul-Jabbar’s 10th season. He attempted only 18, making one. James has made 34.4% of his 6,488 attempts.

Unlike Abdul-Jabbar and other great scorers, James doesn’t really have a signature move. The closest thing is a fadeaway jumper and spins to the basket in transition for powerful dunks. James scores by doing whatever is required in the moment against defensive schemes designed to stop him. He does it with power, finesse, counters, speed and skill.

Counting statistics can be misleading because players can compile impressive totals by inefficiently tacking on numbers in their twilight years (that especially happens in baseball). Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring averages in his final two seasons were 14.6 and 10.1 points. That’s impressive considering he was 40-plus years old, but by then, even Byron Scott was relied on more for points by the Lakers.

James is 38. Maybe he’ll have a similar decline once he turns 40, but it’s hard to imagine him not being his team’s main scorer. That’s the way it’s always been, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

James ranked 13th in league scoring average as a rookie, then was top 5 in each of the next 12 seasons. Since the 2019-20 season, when James turned 35, he’s averaged 27.5 points while making 59% of his 2-point tries and 34.7% of his 3-point attempts. James is a great scorer, but he’s so good all-around that leading the NBA in career points is only a small part of his resume.

James already has more assists (10,351) than Magic Johnson. He could finish third all-time behind Jason Kidd (12,091). James has more steals (2,176) than Kobe Bryant. He’s closing in on Scottie Pippen (2,307).

James has more rebounds (10,576) than David Robinson, a top 10 all-time center. Nearly all the 90 players with more career blocked shots than James (1,065) is, or was, a power forward or center. It seems unlikely James will play long enough to catch the exceptions, Julius Erving (1,293) and Shawn Marion (1,233). It can’t be ruled out because, so far, James is timeless.

James’ ability to do anything on the court is why he’s the G.O.A.T. Name the top three players at every position except center in every one of his 20 years, and James is on the list. James has made it to the NBA Finals 10 times and won four rings. He’s the career leader in playoff points (7,631). Jordan is a distant second (5,987) and Abdul-Jabbar is third (5,762).

There’s a reason why those who consider Jordan to be the greatest-ever player focus on NBA championships. It’s all they have left. Jordan won six titles and never lost an NBA Finals series. The hyper-focus on rings started when James’ legacy grew to rival Jordan’s. No one was proclaiming that the seven Hall of Fame players with more rings than Jordan were the G.O.A.T.

Less often mentioned are Jordan’s three losses in the first round. That didn’t happen to James until his 15th trip to the postseason, when he was 36 years old. James had won the NBA title the year before.

It’s true that Jordan lost time by twice retiring. That was his choice. When Jordan returned to play for the second time at age 38, he was a chucker who hurt the Wizards by hunting for points. James is soon to be voted All-NBA for a record 18th time. Abdul-Jabbar ranks second with 15 All-NBA selections.

There is a case to me made for Jordan over James as the G.O.A.T. There is no longer a debate about the greatest scorer of all time. It’s The Chosen One, LeBron James.