SEEING EVEN BETTER HOW LEBRON’S NOT JUST A SCORER
Believe it or not, LeBron James is set to move past Kobe Bryant into third place on the all-time scoring list within a month or so.
Besides the basketball history, the moment will be a unique celebration considering how long and how recently Bryant led this franchise. It should also offer some clear context regarding what James accomplished previously to Lakers fans who got to admire the captivating entirety of Bryant’s career spent torching nets.
Truth is, early in Bryant’s career when Phil Jackson was asking him to organize the offense, distribute the ball and be an unstoppable scorer all at the same time, Bryant referenced the methodically great Oscar Robertson but noted that no one in basketball history really ever did master that crazy balance of maestro passing and virtuoso scoring.
James’ career as a one-man orchestra is making his case, and it is definitely testimony to how scoring isn’t everything, even while James has outscored everyone in league history except Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Bryant. The Lakers dominating the league early this season is further testimony, because James has scored plenty but probably been more valuable as a tone-setter.
James—leading the league in assists by 1.6 per game over anyone else and vocalizing the same sort of spirit has set an unwavering example of sharing, thus bringing this team together. “Bron consistently has been our floor general and our leader thus far in every aspect,” Danny Green said. “On and off the floor.”
When he passes Bryant, James probably won’t be the Lakers’ leading scorer for the season. That’s because after piling up more points while Anthony Davis got comfortable with the Lakers in location, system and health, James has moved forward with his preseason plans to run the offense through Davis as much as possible.
When Davis delivered that 50-point outburst against Minnesota while James scored 32, that made seven consecutive games without James outscoring Davis; they matched 25 points at Denver, but the six other games, Davis outscored James—adding even more consistency to a team that did well to establish its identity quickly this season.
“Mid-post, low-post, perimeter, he can do it all,” James said of Davis. “So it’s our job to continue to get him the ball.”
James certainly isn’t going to force-feed Davis depending what the defense gives him, and James broke from the trend Wednesday when Davis’ shot was off by outscoring him, 25-16, in beating Orlando. But the mandate is clear. As the Lakers run more and more pick-and-roll sets for the two of them at key stretches and they’re understanding better the multitude of ways to attack together whatever defensive coverage, James is specifically using that springboard to Davis’ benefit more than his own.
When the Lakers were trying to get Davis to that 50-point plateau and many teammates had told him as far back as halftime to go get it, with Rajon Rondo notifying Davis once he needed one more bucket—James set Davis up alone in the mid-post area to get it. They failed the first time they tried, so James gave Davis some direct verbal advice before the next overture, and Davis took James’ pass isolated against Minnesota’s Jordan Bell and this time went much quicker from the mid-post ... immediately attacking Bell with a drive before Karl-Anthony Towns could come with shot-blocking help from the other side of the lane.
The bucket for Davis ensued, as did the Minnesota timeout, high-five from James and standing ovation from the Staples Center crowd.
This fit has far transcended two superstars taking turns leading their team in scoring, even though James (25) and Davis (27) do stand as the only two NBA teammates averaging 25 points or more. This has been mutual respect bringing out the best in each other—with Davis supporting James being a great defensive presence for the team, too—but James setting the tone as the elder statesman. Even after all the success Sunday, when James would’ve ranked among the league assists leaders simply on his eight assists to Davis, James could be heard speaking congenially and constructively about how further to fine-tune their timing on lob passes.
“Both on and off the basketball court, their chemistry has been seamless, I think to the surprise of all of us,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We all thought there would be a little bit more of a learning curve.”
As the assigned point guard, James has the ball in his hands as much as ever this season. His legend is secure, and his jumper is more dependable than ever if he wants to hoist more often. Nevertheless, the next person to accuse James of keeping the ball too much to himself this season might be the first.
Even if it is his pizza chain by now, James is standing by his career-long commitment to making sure he doesn’t serve himself too big a slice.
Quick quiz: In what way is Alex Caruso’s season scoring average (5.7 points) possibly comparable to Davis’ scoring average (27.2)?
Davis is up 3.5 points from what was his career average of 23.7 entering this season. Helped by Caruso’s season-high 16 points Sunday, he stands at 5.7, at least near his previous career average of 5.9 points. And that’s the closest we can come to finding another Lakers player who has increased his scoring this season.
That’s how much sacrifice is going on throughout this Lakers roster.
Taking the temperature of an NBA locker room will often show morale going down when guys’ scoring averages go down. A player’s individual point total is much like the make of one’s car or the style of one’s clothes in this league. Points convey status.
So it is no small accomplishment to have the kind of harmony the Lakers have when almost everyone is stepping back individually.
Kyle Kuzma and Dwight Howard, for their part, have specifically said on multiple occasions that team chemistry is great and individual concerns are minimal with the victories stacking up. That mindset throughout the team is partly the group focus on a championship, partly the trickle-down effect of James at the top steadfastly being pass- and team-first.
“When we share the ball,” Kuzma said, “we’re pretty good.”
The Lakers do want Kuzma to find more consistent footing as a scorer after he was set back by missing training camp. But his per-36-minutes numbers are not that dissimilar from what he did his first two years in the league. And when you’re shooting 43.3 percent from the field, as Kuzma is, and your team is leading the league in field-goal percentage at 48.7 percent, it’s plain that additional scoring opportunities must serve the group.
There is consistency in that message from James, as even earlier Sunday he had posted to his Instagram account advice to another young player—his son, Bronny—to value the team good from passing over the individual glory of scoring:
“The dunks, crossovers, jumpers, step backs, etc etc etc is all cool and all because it’s needed but this is what will separate yourself from the majority of the competition! The joy you get from seeing your teammates succeed is a rarity and you have it son! Beautiful thing to watch!”
James is about 18 games away from Bryant (and exactly 454 points away), but it’s safe to say points chasing is still not high on James’ list of priorities. And if James is keeping his shot selection sharp, that sets a standard for others—especially when they all know they can benefit from the easy buckets his passing provides—to stay above board.
This is and long as been James’ approach in leading by example, which is why he willingly starts so many of his media answers with: “It starts with me.”
It’s a small thing, but James has taken to lingering at the edge of the court after games for Davis. If Davis hasn’t finished his post-game on-court interview yet, James will wait there for Davis to wrap up so they can leave together. It meant several minutes of James standing there Sunday after all the other Lakers had headed back to the locker room.
It’s just another show of solidarity, which is James’ specialty. Points are how we decide who wins, but there are a multitude of elements that go into how those points get scored.
If Davis weren’t unequivocally amazing at putting the ball in the basket, James would be looking in many other directions. Fundamentally in James’ world, though, the more solidarity there is among him and his teammates, the more likely those points can even exist.
By now, it’s impossible to distrust the philosophy James often states that he’s “not a scorer.” His pride is in playing winning basketball in every aspect of the game, not just shot-making. His stretch of three consecutive fourth-quarter assists to Avery Bradley, Caruso and Jared Dudley was the perfect answer Wednesday after Orlando had rallied to tie. And the record book increasingly reflects James' distinguished stature as a passer, especially with his league-leading assists this season.
James is now 35 away from Gary Payton for ninth in career assists, 130 away from Isiah Thomas for eighth. Significant rungs on that all-time ladder are coming shortly, too—and they’ll keep coming.
James is already the only name in the top 10 of both lists. Bryant is 31st in assists, Abdul-Jabbar 43rd, Jordan 45th. All-time assists leader John Stockton is but 45th in points. Robertson had been the best hybrid, and he is 12th in points and sixth in assists—but James probably passes Robertson in assists as early as next season, too.
When it comes to doing both, we are seeing the unequivocal best there ever was.
We are also seeing the incredibly unifying effect of this all-time great scorer knowing and showing it’s the team’s score that wins.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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