LeBron James: Making History

With no signature shot, LeBron James simply scores from everywhere

On the verge of history, LeBron's scoring journey is marked by longevity and unparalleled determination throughout the course of his career.

Superstar LeBron James is on the verge of becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.

Twenty years ago, historical seeds were planted at a basketball cubbyhole called ARCO Arena, which no longer exists, in a distant small-market outpost named Sacramento, and a time zone that meant more than half of America was counting sheep instead of counting down the debut of a future NBA sensation.

Yes, who could ever forget the first field goal by a barely legal-aged LeBron James, besides just about everyone who wasn’t there?

And even those who witnessed the season opener between the Kings and visiting Cavaliers and their 18-year-old turbo-hyped rookie had no clue how one basket would launch more than just a career. Well … on Oct. 29, 2003, the pursuit of the NBA’s career scoring record auspiciously began with 8:56 left in the first quarter when LeBron swished a baseline jumper from 16 feet, right corner, just beyond the reach of a defender named Brad Miller. Since then there have been thousands more jumpers and Brad Millers.

Yes, it was an unlikely time and place for a new beginning, and just as well, the player himself, seems oddly positioned to reach the all-time points mountaintop when compared to the scorers he’s leapfrogging to get there, because:

LeBron never developed a signature shot that he could keep on autoplay. As in: Michael Jordan’s baseline jumper, Dominique Wilkins’ dunk, Karl Malone’s fast-break layup and obviously Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook.

I always wanted to be someone who wasn’t predictable, so the defense couldn’t figure me out.”

LeBron James

LeBron only led the NBA in scoring for one season. By comparison, Adrian Dantley, who’s not even among the top 30 scorers of all time, did that twice. By comparison, Jordan did that 10 times. Imagine Wayne Greztky, the all-time goal scorer in hockey, leading the NHL only once. (He did it five times.)

Relive LeBron James' rookie season debut for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003!

Then there’s this: LeBron passed the ball throughout his career and therefore defied, rather than defined, what a volume scorer should look like and play like. He was never a selfish gunner. Actually, in his very first NBA game, on that night in Sacramento, as a precursor for what would come over the next two decades, LeBron’s first contribution to the box score was … an assist.

Those quirks make LeBron’s scoring journey all the more interesting, if not incredible. And combined with his longevity and ability to get baskets by the bucketful here in his 20th season, at age 38, they explain why and how he’s about to nudge aside Kareem for the Holy Grail of individual NBA records. Because the object of the game, after all, is to put the ball through the hoop.

“LeBron has taken care of himself so well and he’s been able to play a bundle of games for a lot of years,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “His commitment to the game and to what he has to do has allowed himself to be in this position.”

That’s true. And that still doesn’t whittle this pursuit down to a simple explanation.

As LeBron himself said:

“I didn’t set out to do this.”

A go-to player without a go-to move

Check out some great regular-season fadeaway jumpers and post-up moves throughout LeBron James' career.

When game situations call for urgency, a scorer will reach for his security blanket. As in, a shot or a move that bails him out, one he made countless times.

Dirk Nowitzki, who is No. 6 on the scoring list, literally fell back on a one-legged, fallaway jumper. The mid-range shot became iconic because it was so uniquely tied to one player, and because it worked. The shot was immortalized twice: first when the Mavericks tattooed the shot silhouette onto their home court, and earlier this season when they placed a statue outside American Airlines Center of Nowitzki performing, what else, the one-legged lean-back.

Carmelo Anthony (No. 9) unleashed turnaround baseline jumpers on defenses for nearly 20 seasons. Hakeem Olajuwon (No. 12) famously delivered the “Dream Shake” where he used his impeccable footwork, sharpened while playing soccer as a kid, to bamboozle defenders in the post.

Additionally, Tim Duncan (No. 16) had money in the bank shot, Kevin Garnett (No. 19) a 20-footer from the elbow, Reggie Miller and Ray Allen (No. 22 and No. 25, respectively) ran off screens for 3-pointers. And on and on. Essentially, the top NBA scorers flexed their own trademark shot, with very few exceptions, one being the player who’s about to outscore them all.

“I always wanted to be someone who wasn’t predictable, so the defense couldn’t figure me out,” LeBron said.

LeBron’s scoring ability went through three phases throughout his career. The first was mostly mid-range shots and transition baskets. Blessed with a tank of gas that stayed full, he took advantage of a bounce that never failed him in his late teens and throughout his 20s. That allowed him to beat his man down the floor and also to certain spots on the floor.

The second phase was points in the post. For a player with his size (6-foot-8) and strength (245 pounds), his post-up game was weak initially and haunted him during the 2011 NBA Finals, when the Dallas Mavericks exposed that deficit. LeBron was humbled by that embarrassing experience, which saw the Mavericks throw 6-foot guard JJ Barea against him in the paint. He vowed that summer to improve his footwork and learn to use his body.

And then, years later, as his speed diminished and he reached into his 30s, he stretched his range; his 3-point attempts were just 2.4 per game in 2011-12, then swelled to 8 per game in 2021-22.

His ability to recalibrate was mainly due to maturity and also the advancement of age; LeBron became more of a jump shooter, much like Jordan, in his mid-to-late 30s — when he started feeling the gravitational pull.

“LeBron always had a size and agility advantage over players but also the mentality,” said Wilkins, who is No. 15 on the scoring list. “He basically said, ‘I can do whatever I want and whenever I want to do it’ throughout his career. Like, for what, 20 years now? Freak of nature.”

But the NBA’s pace and changes in the game over the last few decades also impacted these adjustments as well and influenced how LeBron would, and should, score. Once the league embraced analytics and coaches spread the floor, it favored those with one-on-one skills and thrived in isolations. Therefore, LeBron didn’t need a signature shot. With his size and quickness and handle, he only needed to beat his man off the dribble and feast on layups, dunks and short jumpers for much of his career.

“He evolved over time,” said Tyronn Lue, who coached LeBron with the Cavaliers. “That’s what all the great players do. They spend their time getting better every year.”

LeBron’s lack of a go-to does raise a fair question, however: Whom would you choose for the last shot in a Game 7? Would it be Kareem and the nearly unstoppable sky hook? Jordan and his bloodthirsty desire to be in those situations? Maybe Stephen Curry because of his range? What about the player who’s about to become the all-time scoring leader?

The all-time record awaits a 1-time scoring champ

Look back at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar knocking down his first NBA bucket on Oct. 18, 1969 and LeBron James hitting his first NBA bucket on Oct. 29, 2003.

In the 2007-08 season, LeBron led the league in scoring for the first and only time. His 30.3 ppg average was nearly four points better than runner-up Kobe Bryant, who actually had more total points that season. LeBron has only three seasons over 30 ppg and he averaged 31.4 ppg in 2005-06 (the highest of his career) and 30.3 ppg last season while playing only 56 games.

Stranger still … LeBron’s highest seasonal average ranks 38th — 38th! — all time among NBA seasonal leaders. Obviously, Wilt Chamberlain owns the top six marks, but here are some surprising names ahead of LeBron: Nate Archibald, Walt Bellamy, Tracy McGrady, Bernard King and World B. Free.

One scoring title? Certainly, LeBron shared his era with supreme scorers. Kobe, Allen Iverson, James Harden (who won three scoring titles) and Kevin Durant (four) all had lights just as green, if not greener, than LeBron. So LeBron settled for close-but-not-quite finishes.

“That didn’t matter,” said Wilkins. “He was always up there, averaging 28, 29 points. I shake my head. How? He did that every night. Just about every year.”

That’s precisely the point, and a reason he’s on the verge of being the game’s greatest scorer. LeBron owns one scoring title, four runner-up finishes, five third places, two fourths, three fifths and an eighth. And so: not counting this season which is still in progress, LeBron finished outside the top 10 only three times in 19 years.

Take a look back at some of the key milestone baskets in LeBron James' career.

To compare him to an all-time great in another sport, Jack Nicklaus holds the record for most major titles in golf with 18 … but also finished an astonishing 19 times as the runner-up (and five of those were decided by one stroke or a playoff).

Therefore, that unmatched consistency, stretched over two decades, trumps multiple scoring titles.

“Even right now, at his age, he shouldn’t be carrying the load, but he does,” Wilkins said.

His most surprising runner-up finish was to Dwyane Wade (30.2 points) in 2008-09, before they became teammates in Miami. That was the best regular season of Wade’s career by a fair margin; he never topped 30 again or came close to another scoring title. LeBron’s other runner-ups were to Durant (twice) and Joel Embiid (last season in 2021-22).

New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, one of the league’s more strategic defensive coaches during LeBron’s time and someone who spent many nights game-planning against LeBron, isn’t surprised by the lack of scoring titles.

“He’s about to get the all-time scoring record,” Thibodeau said, “and what’s ironic is people thought he never scored enough.”

Given a choice, this shooter often would rather not

Look back at some of LeBron James' best assists from his career as he's now 4th on the all-time list.

This may come as a surprise, given the milestone he’s about to conquer, but here’s LeBron on the essence of his offensive game:

“I always considered myself a passer.”

That might be a bit of a stretch, though not by much. LeBron’s teams wouldn’t win many games unless he scored in bunches — consider the meager surrounding talent in Cleveland during his first stint with the Cavs — but he is indeed the only high-volume scorer in history with strong ball-sharing instincts and ability.

Once again, you can rewind to where it all began — his first NBA game in 2003. Buried underneath the hype was this obscure fact about his debut: LeBron led the Cavaliers with nine assists, delivering the first to Ricky Davis with a lob 88 seconds into the matchup … before he even took a shot.

After that game, Kings guard Bobby Jackson, crystal-balling the future, gushed: “Look at how he plays. The best thing about him is how he distributes the ball. He does it extremely well.”

LeBron is fourth all-time in assists after passing Steve Nash and Mark Jackson just days ago. No other top-10 scorer ranks among the top 30 in assists; Kobe is 33rd and Jerry West 34th, Kareem 47th and Jordan 50th. To introduce another somewhat comparable from another sport, Gretzky is hockey’s all-time goal scorer … and assists leader as well.

He evolved over time. That’s what all the great players do. They spend their time getting better every year.”

— Tyronn Lue, on LeBron James

Crazy in hindsight, but during a chunk of his career, LeBron generated blowback whenever he bypassed shots. The public criticism always cited Jordan (and other greats) and why those players choose to be the hero. This irritated not only LeBron, but also Popovich, who coached him in the Olympics and always preached ball movement and trust as coach of the Spurs.

“If he made a pass, somebody would say, ‘He should’ve shot it.’ It would really anger me,” said Popovich.

Like, when LeBron in the final seconds of Game 5 passed to a wide-open Danny Green to win the 2020 NBA Finals, and Green missed the shot. The Lakers would eventually beat Miami in the series, but still.

In those situations when the double team came his way and a teammate was open, LeBron made the right basketball play, even if it wasn’t what others considered the best play. Which meant, him shooting the ball. But LeBron was never wired that way, then or now, and unapologetically so.

“I just wanted to play the right way every night, then let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “It’s what I love to do, get my guys involved, try to put the ball on target for my guys to shoot it. See the pace, see the floor and get it to them with the right pass.”

There’s a reasonable notion that if Abdul-Jabbar went straight from high school to the NBA, like LeBron did, instead of spending four years at UCLA, the scoring record would be beyond reach. Well, had LeBron been more of a gunner over his career, maybe the record he’s about to set will also be out of reach.

What LeBron has done for 20 years is similar to what Chamberlain did back in 1967-68. After scoring 100 points in a game, averaging 50.4 for a season, grabbing seven scoring titles, and eventually becoming the career leader prior to Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain wanted to change his perception of being selfish. So he led the league in total assists that season, still the only center to do so.

But not the only non-guard to do so. Because just three seasons ago, as if on a mission to emphasize what everyone already knew about him, LeBron led the league in assists.

Who’s next? Anybody?

Ultimately, the path to the all-time scoring record is paved with skill and longevity, twin necessities for greatness. Some players were just as gifted as scorers, or better, but lacked the longevity. Others played nearly as long but their talent couldn’t keep pace and by their 30s they became secondary options. LeBron has remained a threat to finish top five in the seasonal scoring race — even now, at 38 — his body stubbornly refusing to turn creaky, his talent unwilling to dip.

Even with that, there’s still a measure of marvel regarding a career record that has stood for nearly 39 years.

“Kareem always seemed to be from another planet on that particular record,” Popovich said.

The player who breaks LeBron’s record must bring the same skillset and luck — can’t have any major injuries — and also the desire to play for two decades. Don’t underestimate the need for that desire. Because of the astronomical rise in salaries, any such player will have banked many millions, and from a financial standpoint would have zero incentive to play that long.

That’s why Wilkins was moved enough to make a bold statement:

“That’s freakish, man, what we’ve seen from LeBron. Ain’t nobody doing that again. I’m looking into the future and going out on a limb. Ain’t. No. Body.”

> Previously: Why Kareem’s sky hook is absent in today’s NBA | Kareem & LeBron: Their similarities & differences

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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