‘Even Michael Jordan wasn’t like that’. How Lebron James became the greatest scorer in NBA history

Knowing he’s a week or so from breaking the NBA’s all-time scoring record, LeBron James leans against a wall inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and ponders the idea of whether and why he was once left out of debates about the NBA’s best “pure scorer.”

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Did he buy the premise — that in anointing “pure scorers,” media and fans had mostly focused on other superstars: Kobe Bryant, Kevin DurantJames Harden, Carmelo Anthony? James once had an ambivalent relationship with the very term “scorer.” At times, he almost rejected it — even as he topped most rivals in most scoring stats, especially the efficiency in which he scored.

“I still don’t like it,” James says of the “scorer” label — again, 10-ish days from becoming the most voluminous scorer ever. “I don’t like being singled out as a scorer. I’ve always prided myself in being a pass-first guy — a guy who can make everybody feel comfortable.” Had his spurning of “scorer” status indirectly led to his dismissal from “scorer” discourse?

In his twilight, James has come around some. On a 2022 episode of his HBO show “The Shop: Uninterrupted,” James bristled at his absence from the “best scorer” debates. Now, at the doorstep of history, did he still feel shorted? Did he care?

“I see it and I smirk,” James tells ESPN. “When they talk about the best scorers who ever played the game, my name never comes up.” He pauses.

“They have no choice now,” he says. “They have no choice.”

James has acknowledged the possibility that people don’t perceive him as a scorer because he has no signature move — at least in the half court. (His locomotive left-to-right spin in transition, often flowing into his violent right-handed hammer dunk, might be his trademark. “It’s impossible to stop,” says Andre Iguodala.) It is as if the sheer variety, James’ ability to shape-shift into whatever type of scorer the moment demanded, almost worked against our collective ability to recognize him as a scorer.

The skill broadening was conscious. “I’ve always tried to improve and never have a weakness,” he says. “It depended a bit on how defenses were guarding me: OK, let’s improve on that, so I can be more unguardable.”

Iguodala, James’ antagonist in so many big games, admired how James responded to that low point — the Miami Heat’s 2011 Finals loss against the Dallas Mavericks — by stacking new elements to his offense: post-ups, screens, cuts.

“After that loss, it wasn’t even fair,” Iguodala says. “He came back pissed. He was on another level.”

Still, James’ signature moment is a defensive play — the chasedown block on Iguodala in the waning moments of Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. The flashbulb shot of that game belongs not to James, but to Kyrie Irving — his go-ahead, side-step 3-pointer over Stephen Curry with 53 seconds remaining. It has been somewhat lost to history that James scored 11 of Cleveland’s 18 points in a gut-wrenching fourth quarter that was almost visceral in its brutality and urgency. Those 12 minutes swept over you, unfolding like a long, continuous shriek.

“That was a slugfest,” James says. “I remember everything about that game. Nobody would believe you if you told them I scored 11 out of 18 in that quarter.”

Maybe James’ overwhelming power made it so he didn’t require quite the same level of craft and guile to get where he wanted.

“He doesn’t rely on an arsenal of dribble moves and footwork to create space,” says Kyle Korver, James’ teammate for three seasons in Cleveland. “He doesn’t have as many moves built into his jump shot. To me, that’s why people don’t put him in that ‘scorer’ category. It’s hard to do that now, right?”

“It’s aesthetics,” says Harrison Barnes, who guarded James in those early Golden State-Cleveland Finals. “If someone sees a Kyrie layup, you see the art.”

Barnes was in high school, watching at a friend’s house, when James put up 45 points in Game 7 of the 2008 conference finals against the Boston Celtics — dueling with Paul Pierce, who scored 41. Barnes was enraptured. “For a guy who supposedly wasn’t a scorer, wow,” Barnes says. The year before, James had scored 25 straight points in Game 5 of the conference finals to upend the proud, defense-first Detroit Pistons.

James’ most famous score-first game is probably his 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in Game 6 in 2012 to help the Heat stave off elimination and potentially save their Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. “When it got to the moments of truth, he’d turn on the scoring engine and do whatever was necessary — almost against his instinct,” says Erik Spoelstra, who coached James in Miami.

Against his instinct. James just passed Steve Nash for No. 4 all-time in assists. Passing is what he enjoys most. It might be what you picture if you close your eyes conjure an image of him: James rounding a pick at the top of the arc, whipping a back-handed pass to the weak-side corner (maybe while looking the other way) with the defense wrong-footed.

“When you think of him, you really do think of a point forward — a brilliant passer who seems to thrive off passing more than scoring,” says Steve Kerr, who coached against James in four consecutive Finals. “And yet he’s going to be the all-time leading scorer. It’s insane.”

Miami blew out Boston in that 2012 masterpiece. The game did not require an iconic last-second basket. James has lots of those too. Some came in earlier rounds of the postseason, against the Toronto RaptorsChicago Bulls and others — in series that feel in retrospect like inevitable wins for James’ teams. Another came in a conference finals James’ Cavaliers lost: his 2009 Game 2 buzzer-beater against the Orlando Magic.

James says “most people” would nominate as his “biggest shot” his game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in 2014 in Miami’s win in Golden State just before the All-Star break. But for James, the biggest shot of his career was startlingly basic — except for the weight of it: the 19-foot pull-up jumper he hit with 27 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals to put Miami up by four, 93-89, over the San Antonio Spurs.

It looks so routine. Kawhi Leonard gives James space. He rises and shoots. James had 37 points on 12-of-23 shooting in that game.

“Right at the right elbow,” James recalls. “That’s the biggest shot of my career because they forced me to take jumpers that entire series. And throughout that series, I kinda got discouraged about my jump shot. To be able to knock that shot down — it was huge. Huge.”

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs had used an even more exaggerated form of that strategy in the 2007 Finals, when they swept James and the Cavaliers.

“Early in his career, that was the shot that was given to him,” Spoelstra says. “And ultimately, it was the shot he had to conquer to win titles.”

Kerr was watching that 2013 Game 7 as a fan, though one with interest in becoming a head coach. “I still think that series is the key to his career — the seminal moment of it,” Kerr says. “I felt watching it, like, ‘Oh, s—, it’s different now. If he’s confident in his shot, look out.”

Shane Battier was on the right wing, with a detailed memory bank of defending James. “Early in his career, he couldn’t shoot,” Battier says. “I’d give him five feet, and it wasn’t pretty. When he learned to shoot, it was like, ‘Oh my god. Oh my god! It’s over for the league.’ It was like when Happy Gilmore learned how to putt: ‘Happy learned how to putt! Uh oh!'”

Three Finals games that are not necessarily remembered for James’ scoring — and are, in fact, remembered for other high-profile events — encapsulate James’ evolution into a scorer so versatile, he’d eventually score more than anyone ever. They occurred over six seasons, for two franchises, against very different opponents and schemes.


One game before that Finals-clinching shot over Leonard, with the 2013 Heat playing for their season and repeat chances in Game 6, James turned down almost that same shot with just over a minute left and the score tied at 89.

James committed two turnovers between this play and the end of regulation. He looked tentative at times. Back in Brooklyn, James rewatches that clip and explains his decision.

“I wanted to put pressure on the rim — to get a layup, and put pressure on the referees to maybe call a foul,” he says. “I just didn’t take the shot. I wanted to get the best possible shot, and I felt like right then and there I didn’t have my balance or my footing right to take that shot. But I remembered that if that play came again, or if I had the opportunity, I’d go up with it.”

That game is known for someone else’s shot: Ray Allen’s tightrope-walking corner three to tie it with five seconds left. It is one of the greatest and most consequential shots in basketball history. Fifteen seconds earlier, James had drained a 3-pointer to bring Miami within two.

“No one remembers that,” Battier says. “That 3 was everything. Maybe the most underrated 3-pointer in NBA history happened right before the greatest 3-pointer in NBA history.”

James had 32 points in that game, including 16 in the fourth quarter on 7-of-11 shooting to lead Miami back from 10 points down. James scored or assisted on 29 of Miami’s final 38 points in regulation and overtime. The scope is astonishing, the mixture of scoring skills almost undercutting our ability to digest that there is an all-time scoring explosion happening. He scores out of the pick-and-roll as both screener and ball handler, in post-ups against Leonard, in isolations against Boris Diaw, in transition, at the foul line. James played an indelible scoring game without leaving a singular, indelible scoring image.

“He could be a scoring great from anywhere on the court,” Battier says. “I can’t imagine trying to game plan against him at that point. There were no answers. They were all bad answers. There’s not a scorer I can think of — Larry Bird maybe? — who could do it from every place on the court, and in every facet. Even Michael Jordan wasn’t like that. Even Kareem wasn’t like that.”

On defense, James seemed to be everywhere. He smothered Tony Parker, rotated to protect the rim, appeared like a phantom in passing lanes. The ferocity, the primal desperation, is almost jarring. Much of that rampage came after James’ headband fell off on a dunk early in the fourth quarter.

“I remember thinking, ‘Get this guy another f— headband,” says Danny Green, San Antonio’s shooting guard then. “It’s like he got extra powers.”

A lot was written about the work James and Miami’s coaches put in building his post-up game. But James is just as proud of his improvement as a screener, and smiles at the memory of this dunk from that epic Game 6:

“Screening was a sacrifice for him,” Spoelstra says. “It was a way for us to get D-Wade and James together — to get an action with them together. Every great player is used to having the ball in their hands. It’s where they are usually most comfortable. I think Dwyane really understood that it was a sacrifice for LeBron, and really appreciated it. And very quickly, I thought LeBron became the best rolling guy in the league.”

“We worked on it every single day,” James says. “Fiz [former Heat assistant David Fizdale] and Spo were on me about screening angles, screening angles, screening angles. They knew defenses would try to keep myself and D-Wade out of the paint. They were on us about the proper screening angles to not allow defenders to get under a screen. It was when I basically became a positionless player — when Spo brought it to me, like, ‘We’re going to play positionless basketball because of you’ — I knew I could be effective without the ball by getting in the screen and roll game as the screener and not always the ball handler.”


In Cleveland, James took those lessons and formed one of the league’s most potent pick-and-roll combinations with Irving. Both stars were comfortable as screener and ball handler. It became their fail-safe, their preferred tactic to hunt Stephen Curry in the Finals — including in that Cleveland Game 7 victory in 2016.

“You had to adjust your whole defense because LeBron was a screener,” Iguodala says. “He’s smart enough to set the screen so you almost have to switch. Some guys, you can blow it up. But with LeBron, it was, ‘OK, make a choice.'”

James ended the third quarter with a fadeaway in the post over Shaun Livingston. Some have argued that shot has approached signature territory for James. Larry Nance Jr., James’ teammate in 2018 in Cleveland, says one of his favorite James scoring memories was his 43-point performance in Game 2 of the 2018 conference semifinals against Toronto — when James, out of some mixture of mischievousness and cruelty, capped a blowout win with a series of high-arching fadeaway jumpers. “They were outrageous shots,” says Nance. “I was watching and thinking, ‘OK, I think this is the greatest player I’ve ever seen.'”

Iguodala learned all the tricks James used in the post — sly methods of creating contact, changes in weight distribution. “He understands gamesmanship,” Iguodala says. “It was like chess.”

Iguodala developed counters. “Sometimes, it was like we were doing a dance, almost holding each other,” he says. “We are two-stepping, like in a ballroom.”

Early in the fourth quarter, James ran one pick-and-roll to get Barnes switched onto him. “It’s one of those moments that as a competitor, you cherish,” Barnes says. You just want to show him as many bodies as possible, but never the same look twice in a row. He’s too smart.”

He sized Barnes up, drove left, and lofted a floater over Barnes and Draymond Green:

“He made a tough floater on the biggest stage,” Barnes says. “That’s what great players do.”

Minutes later, Kerr, seeking a spark, replaced Barnes with Festus Ezeli. James hunted Ezeli down and dragged him beyond the arc. With about 5:30 to go, he baited Ezeli with a pump fake and drew a 3-shot foul — making all three to cut the Warriors’ lead to one.

On the next possession, James engineered the same switch in almost the same spot. “He knew he had Festus,” Kerr says — that Ezeli, wary of fouling again, would be slower off the floor. “He just rose up and made it. Those two plays, I remember clearly to this day.”


The Cavs had little chance in the trilogy Finals of 2017, with Kevin Durant then in Golden State. That may have been the best Cleveland team of James’ career. Almost every member of it is confident they’d have beaten the Warriors had Durant signed elsewhere. “That 2017 series,” Kerr says, “was about as high a level of basketball as I’ve ever seen.”

By the fourth Warriors-Cavs matchup in 2018, Irving was in Boston. The Cavaliers were badly overmatched, the series mostly forgettable. But in Game 1, James had perhaps the greatest scoring game of his career: 51 points on 19-of-32 shooting.

“It is the best game I’ve seen in my life,” says Iguodala, who watched from the bench with an injury. “It was a perfect game.”

James’ jumper was on. He dusted an army of All-Defense candidates — blowing past the first layer of defense with speed, powering over and through help defenders.

“We had an armada waiting for him,” Kerr says. “I don’t think I had ever seen anybody play a better individual game than LeBron did that night. It matched anything I had ever seen Michael Jordan do.”

“I was locked in,” James says. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t be stopped that night, no matter what.”

James mixed in skillful off-ball cuts:

Standing outside the Lakers’ locker room at Barclays Center, James grins as he sees the play again. He credits his high school coach, Keith Dambrot, with teaching him that even the best players need to move off the ball. In his first tenure in Cleveland, Cavs coach Mike Brown had a play in which Anderson Varejao would set a rip screen for James on one wing while Mo Williams ran a pick-and-roll on the other. Varejao’s pick catapulted James for cutting dunks. “In the NBA, [cutting] started there for me,” he says.

That part of his game blossomed in Miami, when James had to share the ball and the paint with Wade. “That’s when I got very, very good at it,” James says. He discovered Wade preferred skulking cuts along the baseline. James would have to figure out how to make himself available on the wings and in the slot. He noticed that when ball handlers drove baseline, his defenders often turned their heads to peek — and that in the moment, James could dart to the rim untouched.

James is a forceful, strong player, but some of his baskets in that 51-point game in 2018 showed the touch he had learned to put on all sorts of shots.

Kevon Looney shades James to his right — “They did not want me going left, that’s for sure,” James says — and James zooms there, even knowing Durant is waiting at the rim. James lofts that gorgeous layup so that it embeds into the top of the glass and drips downward.

“That’s a Tier 3!” he exclaims upon seeing the play again for the first time. He clarifies: One of his trainers came up with a tiered system of layup finishes. Tier 3, James says, meant aiming for the top of the backboard. “And that’s a Tier 3 right there!” he says. “That’s a helluva shot.”

“When he came into the league, the NBA was a game of brawn and physicality,” Spoelstra says. “It still is now, but it’s also a game of skill. And you’re talking about one of the most rugged, locomotive-type players coming into the league who can now go toe-to-toe with anyone in skill.”

The Cavaliers rebounded a missed free throw with 4.7 seconds left in regulation and the score tied, only for J.R. Smith to forget the score and dribble away from the basket as time expired. Smith’s error, and James’ tortured reaction to it, became the defining memory of the night.

James has never rewatched the game. “It is one of the most heartbreaking losses of my career,” he says.

In the locker room, the emotion spilled out of him. James wept, teammates recall. And as has been well-documented, he punched a whiteboard in frustration and broke a bone in his hand. “I remember in that moment feeling the weight he carried just being LeBron James on a daily basis — just everything that comes with that, you felt the weight of it,” Korver says.

(James was also still seething about an overturned charging call on Durant — which James drew — with 36.4 seconds left and the Cavaliers up by 2. It was one of two occasions on which James says he felt “cheated,” according to sources close to him — with the second being the Lakers’ Jan. 28 loss to Boston. After that game, the league conceded Jayson Tatum fouled James on a last-second shot at the end of regulation.)

James’ teams have won four championships, but he is running out of time to match Jordan’s six. He can never match Jordan’s undefeated Finals record. Even now, Jordan is and probably will always be regarded as the superior “scorer.” But James knows the enormity of the record he is about to seize. In the final lead-up, he imagined what his reaction might be to passing Abdul-Jabbar.

“It’s weird, it’s weird,” he says. “I don’t know how I’m gonna feel, to be completely honest. I made goals. I want to be Rookie of the Year. I want to be an All-Star. I want to be the most valuable player at some point. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year and make All-Defensive teams. I want to lead the league in assists. I never, ever set a goal that I wanted to be the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. It’s 38,000 points. I’m like, that’s not even possible. So I don’t know how I’m gonna feel. But I’m humbled. It’s very gratifying to know my name is placed with the greats. I’ve always wanted to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, that ever played this game.”

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