LeBron James on cusp of scoring record – but let's talk about his passing

LeBron James on cusp of scoring record – but let's talk about his passing

Updated: 1 month, 26 days, 17 hours, 26 minutes, 53 seconds ago

The question posed to each of the expert witnesses has been about the NBA’s long-standing scoring record that’s about to go timberrr!

But their answers keep drifting in another direction, pointing not to the staggering tally in the scoring column, but to the astounding number of fingerprints found on the ball.

That’s testimony in appreciation of a skillset so absolute, that scoring – the thing LeBron James will have done more of than anyone in the history of the NBA – is just part of what makes him, him. Which is to say: the greatest of all time, perhaps. Probably. Almost certainly.

Going into Tuesday’s game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, James is 117 points away from breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA record of 38,387 career points and is forecast to surpass the Lakers legend at Crytpo.com Arena on Feb. 9 against Milwaukee – if, sore foot permitting, he sticks to his career scoring average of 27.2 points per game.

It could happen sooner too, because James is averaging 34.3 points in January, more than anyone besides the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (35.4).

And still, even on the cusp of knocking over what once felt like an untouchable record, no one in the know can talk about the NBA’s all-time leading-scorer-to-be without mentioning his passing fancy.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich: “I think he enjoys passing more than he enjoys scoring. To this day … he gets as big of a kick out of that as knocking down a shot.”

The numbers support that claim: James enters Tuesday with 10,327 career assists, the sixth-most all-time.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue: “It’s funny that we’re talking about LeBron being the all-time leading scorer when he’s a pass-first guy.”

James is just seven assists shy of Mark Jackson’s career mark, and eight behind Steve Nash’s. Ahead of them, Chris Paul is third all-time, with 11,237 going into the Phoenix Suns’ game Monday, and Jason Kidd, now the Dallas Mavericks’ coach, ranks second, with 12,091. John Stockton holds the record, with 15,806.

Atlanta Hawks coach Nate McMillan: “A lot of people want to compare him to (Michael) Jordan and I compare him to Magic (Johnson). He’s a big guard that can play five spots and he wins. … He is a guy that plays chess out on the floor. I would compare him to a guy like Tom Brady.”

No NBA player with more assists than James has scored more points than Paul (21,365 and counting). Only Oscar Robertson is in the top 20 all-time in points (his 26,710 points are 13th) and assists (9,887; eighth) – though Abdul-Jabber’s 5,660 career assists, from the center position, ranks an impressive 47th all-time.

Houston Rockets coach Stephen Silas: “That was the staggering part when I was with him his rookie year: Man, he just knows the game as a 19-year-old. Finds every pass, on the money, on target, on time. The scoring part, it kinda came along with it.”

(In James’ rookie season, at age 19, he averaged 20.9 points and 5.9 assists per game.)

Lakers center Thomas Bryant: “He has a great feel, where he can be aggressive but still dish it out and play-make at the same time.”

(In James’ 20th season, at age 38, he’s averaging 30.2 points and 7.1 assists per game – including, recently, weaving one of his nifty “how-did-he-see-that?” passes through the Spurs’ defense to Bryant in transition.)

The thing is, the preponderance of James’ passes actually feeds an argument that he’s too generous on the court. That he’s somehow lacking a basketball killer’s killer instinct.

That he’s not like Jordan. Or Kobe Bryant. (They finished their careers with 5,633 and 6,306 assists, respectively the 50th and 33rd most all-time.)

It’s been almost a national pastime, at times, discussing shots James didn’t take, those unrequited assists teed up in playoff games and the regular season alike.

The people taking up that case might present:

March 2, 2012, when James came off a screen at the top of the key, drove – and fed his then-Miami Heat teammate Udonis Haslem, who missed from about the free-throw line in a 99-98 loss. The broadcast: “He passed it again.”

Or March 1, 2017, when James’ Cleveland Cavaliers lost, 101-99, to the Boston Celtics after he pump-faked twice and got a couple of defenders to fly past – for a pass to Deron Williams, who air-balled an open look from the corner. Facebook was like: “Game winner and your going to pass? Mamba does not pass Jordan does not pass not on that moment ..”

Or March 10, 2022, in the Lakers’ 139-130 overtime loss to the struggling Rockets, when James again drove and looked to have a layup before passing out to Carmelo Anthony, who rushed a miss at the regulation horn. The sentiment on the broadcast: “Wow, why didn’t LeBron take the layup?” And in the YouTube comments: “Turning into Ben Simmons right before our eyes!”

They might have you believe that, in these moments, James has very select last-second-shot phobia, that he never met a game-winning look he liked, and that that’s why he’s so often hid behind that cloak of making “the right basketball play.”

"Bron's been very criticized his whole career for making the right basketball play late in games … You know when you're playing with him he's gonna make the right basketball play. And that's what you want your leader to do."pic.twitter.com/XfDwoOimQS

— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) December 12, 2022

In reality, James has successfully launched almost as many successful buzzer-beaters (seven) as MJ (nine) or Kobe (eight). Or Joe Johnson (eight).

And it’s worth mentioning that with a little more timely help from his friends, like Jordan got from John Paxson and Steve Kerr, or Bryant from Metta World Peace, the narrative about James’ late-game decision-making would ring differently.

You might also hear another argument, about how many more points Abdul-Jabbar would have scored if he had the benefit of the 3-point line, a seismic wrinkle adopted 10 years into his career, after which he went 1 for 18 from deep.

James, by comparison, has made 2,228 3-pointers, accounting for 6,684 points. But also consider how many 3-pointers he’s facilitated: Coming into the season, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry had that tally at 3,449. Multiply that by three and you get 10,347 points and counting…

So while the world watches and waits to witness LeBron pass Kareem, know that his Lakers teammates will keep their heads and hands up, awaiting and appreciating his passes to them.

Staff writer Kyle Goon contributed to this column.