LOS ANGELES — The King has now become the scoring king.
From the time LeBron James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager, so much was expected of him. He was expected to lead teams to championships, to become an MVP and a global icon.
Passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time scorer was a bridge too far — even among all the accolades James has conquered during his two-decade reign in the NBA’s white-hot spotlight. His four MVPs trail Bill Russell, Michael Jordan (five each) and Abdul-Jabbar (six) for the league’s singular individual honor, and plenty of players from different eras have more championships — with Stephen Curry matching James with four rings with the Golden State Warriors’ latest title in June.
But he stands alone atop the scoring list. With a stepback fadeaway bucket near the end of the third quarter Tuesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, James took his spot in history.
Abdul-Jabbar drop-stepped and sky-hooked his way to 38,387 points, passing Wilt Chamberlain in 1984 with a sky hook on the right wing against the Utah Jazz, then putting the record nearly out of reach before his retirement in 1989.
James has no such move, and is falsely labeled as being “not a scorer,” but has managed, by way of devastating consistency, to claim the title — looking down on Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Jordan in the top five of all-time scorers.
The scoring chase has become more of a focus even while James has begun what’s expected to be his twilight. While he’s led the league in scoring average only one time (2008), two of his best four scoring outputs have come in a Laker uniform — hovering around 30 points per game this season and averaging 30.3 in 56 games in 2021-22.
Surprisingly enough, he’s averaged more as a Laker than when he was a much younger man. In his first stint in Cleveland, he was almost a reluctant scorer, but his high volume made it such that he would do a lot. In Miami, he was the most complete, devastating version of himself — adding efficiency and becoming a premier 3-point shooter. During his second stint in Cleveland, he found himself mixing between the two roles, depending on his teammates, and sometimes, his mood or want to take over.
His gifts have always been undeniable, and he’s honored them rightfully as he’s still an impact player at age 38.
But his ability to see trends and adjust to them has been understated, perhaps. When he entered the NBA in 2003 as an 18-year-old on opening night, the league was still in the grind-it-out phase, when teams scoring 100 was a struggle and cause for celebration.
James negotiated his growing physical strengths and advanced skill to compensate for natural scoring ability, and evolved naturally right as the league opened things up to make room for the likes of himself and draft mate (later, teammate) Dwyane Wade.
Too big, too strong and essentially, too great for hardly any one player or team to handle. His greatness has endured — aided by his hand in team-building, as the NBA has moved faster than in any point of its nearly 80-year existence.
The league emphasized post-up play and pick-and-rolls headed to the basket when James began his career, aided by midrange jump shooters ruling the top of the scoring charts. James was never as insatiable as Allen Iverson (the 2005 scoring champion) or Bryant, who led the league in scoring a few times. Nor was James as clinical a scorer in the ways of Kevin Durant, who won the season scoring title three times in four years.
But he always found himself among the top five — hungry enough to eat with the best of them while also wearing the clothing of a distributor. After his rookie season and until his 14th, James never finished outside of the top five in scoring average.
His passing ability and desire to make the right play have been his longtime reputation, but James found ways to manipulate his game to still have a heavy fingerprint in the scoring column.
It wasn’t an accident he arrived at this place at this point in his career, especially as scoring exploded and teams fell deep in love with the 3-point shot. The images of James passing up late-game shots is widely overblown — often, him taking the last shot, the first shot and plenty in between is the best possible outcome for the teams he’s played on.
The Ray Allen shot in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals is considered one of the greatest in league history, and certainly in recent history. But the way the ball bounced to Allen was because James missed the tying 3-point attempt off the inbounds pass — not as a way to criticize James but to illustrate his willingness to have a game, a series, be won or lost on his shoulders.
Even as Chris Bosh was locating Allen trailing back to the right corner, James could be seen clapping for it, aiming at another chance at history.
We’re in the Curry era as far as influence. Scoring is up across the board, and there are no signs of it slowing down. Last season, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and DeMar DeRozan were the top five scorers — different flavors each and certainly a different brand of scorer compared to when James entered the league.
His greatness has transcended and endured through time. Even though James does not fully indoctrinate himself into whatever trend the league is running with, he assimilates himself just enough to ride the wave.
It’s consistent with all the great scorers. Jordan developed into the best midrange shooter during the hand-check era after beginning his career as a relentless driver to the rim. Bryant refined his game through his career, probably because he was never the athlete of Jordan or James’ caliber.
Malone matured into a premier elbow shooter after starting it as a pick-and-roll master with John Stockton — emphasis on the roll with his muscular frame.
To some degree, James tracks.
The one thing that’s stayed consistent is James finding ways to get to the basket or put the ball in it. He won’t rank among anyone’s individual list in terms of a certain aesthetic, perhaps with the exception of being a devastating finisher at the rim, especially during his athletic prime.
His place atop the scoring list won’t change anyone’s opinion of him and where he sits on an all-time list, if one believes he’s the greatest ever or somewhere behind the likes of Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar, or anyone else.
The one thing that’s indisputable: James has claimed a record most felt couldn’t be topped.