LeBron James 'Never Guessed' He'd Pass Jordan as NBA Playoff Scoring King

“I’ve always felt like I was a triple threat: pass, rebound, score,” James tells B/R Mag. “But scoring has never been my concentration on things.”
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMay 26, 2017

The Chosen One did not ask for hops or crazy handles. He did not pray to the heavens for a silky jumper.

The Chosen One asked simply for court vision—for the glory of the team.

We know this because once upon a time, when his game was young and his cheeks were baby-smooth, LeBron James burst into a virtual church and began zipping no-look passes to a jubilant congregation of King James disciples.

The church elders, Jerry West and Dr. J, smiled in approval.

The preacher promptly fainted.

It was 2004. James was a 19-year-old prodigy, just a few months into his rookie season. And if you had yet to see him play, you learned everything you needed to know in "Book of Dimes," a joyful 60-second shoe commercial that cast James as a basketball messiah who would deliver the NBA from a generation of me-first gunners with his selfless play.

"Why did The Chosen One ask for court vision?" sermonized Bernie Mac, playing the preacher. "He wanted glory—for the team!"

The message was clear: James would be unlike any other modern star—a devout playmaker, endowed with divine creativity and a purity of purpose. Oh, he could score, but his passion was for the pass.

He would be more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan. That's what everyone said (and never mind that familiar No. 23 on LeBron's back).

"He's more like me than he is like Michael," Johnson affirmed in a 2007 interview with the New York Times. "He's more into controlling the game than he is dominating it with scoring."

It was certainly true. And yet, not entirely accurate.

The greatest passer of his generation, as it turns out, has become one of the greatest scorers of all time. He's both Magic and Michael.

With 35 points Thursday night, James burst past Jordan to become the No. 1 scorer in NBA playoff history, with 5,995 points. Jordan's record, 5,987, had stood for 20 years. James earned the title while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 135-102 rout of the Boston Celtics, securing a return trip to the NBA Finals.

For James, who idolized Jordan as a child, it was a deeply meaningful momentand one he never imagined.

"I mean, I've watched Mike so much in the postseason and seeing what he did, and the games that he played and the games that he mastered," James tells B/R Mag. "To be honest, no, I would have never guessed it."

LeBron James has surpassed Michael Jordan as the all-time top postseason scorer in NBA history.
LeBron James has surpassed Michael Jordan as the all-time top postseason scorer in NBA history.(Getty Images)

The truth is, even now, James sees himself as the same team-first playmaker who burst into that fictional church all those years ago. But a scorer?

"Nope, nope, nope," James says, shaking his head. "I'm not a scorer, man. I've worked too hard in my career to have that label, from the beginning. I want the right play, I've always loved the success of my teammates—and so, I'm not a scorer. I'm fortunate to be No. 1 in all-time playoff points. But I think that's just a byproduct of me just playing the game the right way."

This had already been a history-making spring, with James leaping past scoring legends Kobe Bryant (5,640) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5,762) in playoff scoring.

In March, James moved into seventh in regular-season scoring, having blown past Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Shaquille O'Neal. At his current pace, James (28,787 points) should pass Dirk Nowitzki next season, and Wilt Chamberlain and Jordan the season after that. He could dislodge Bryant for third all-time by 2020.

If James, now 32, plays another five or six years, he just might catch Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) to become the No. 1 scorer in NBA history.

It might seem unsurprising now—James has been a dominant scorer for more than a decade—but few would have predicted this trajectory in 2003 when a wide-eyed James burst onto the NBA scene.

"Leading the league in scoring," says James' high school coach, Dru Joyce II, "has never been something that he set out to do."

Nor would most NBA coaches or scouts have foreseen it based on James' rookie season.

His jump shot was erratic, his post game nonexistent. Already 6'7" and 245 pounds, James could power to the rim at will. But, of course, he preferred setting up his teammates.

"I didn't know that he would be a dominant scorer," Paul Silas, James' first coach with the Cavaliers, tells B/R Mag. "He used to shoot the basketball on the left side of his body, and his right hand would be over there, and that's where he was shooting."

“Leading the league in scoring,” James’ high school coach, Dru Joyce II, tells B/R Mag, “has never been something that he set out to do.”
“Leading the league in scoring,” James’ high school coach, Dru Joyce II, tells B/R Mag, “has never been something that he set out to do.”(Getty Images)

As a rookie, James averaged 20.9 points, while shooting 41.7 percent from the field. He had 13 games with at least 30 points—and 39 games with 19 points or fewer. True to his reputation, James averaged nearly six assists a game.

"He didn't want to shoot as much," Silas recalls. "He wanted to pass the ball more."

(When James did assert himself, he faced a backlash from the Cavs' veterans, notably Ricky Davis, a brash gunner who viewed himself as the franchise star. "When he started making 24 points a game, they went after him," Silas says. "And it was just really bad.")

But James did what all the greats do: He refined his jumper, expanded his repertoire and worked tirelessly on his game. In Year 2, he pumped up his scoring average to 27.2 points and his field-goal percentage to 47.2, setting the bar for the rest of his career. He averaged 31.4 points in 2005-06 (still his career high) and won a scoring title in 2007-08 at 30.0 points per game.

You could view James' scoring prowess as part of a natural evolution. It was more than that.

"I think it came out of necessity," Silas says.

Those early Cavs teams were, generally speaking, horrendous. There were no elite scorers to lean on, no one to turn those no-look passes into easy baskets. Magic had Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes and later James Worthy. LeBron had Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Carlos Boozer.

"If we'd have had a lot better players, he would have passed the ball a lot more," Silas says.

If there were any doubts about James as an elite scorer, they should have been obliterated in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. That's the night James scored 29 of the Cavs' final 30 points to lead a double-overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons.

Skeptics were instead fixated on Game 1 of that series, when James—famously or infamously, depending on one's perspective—passed to an open Donyell Marshall instead of taking the final shot himself. Marshall missed, the Cavs lost, critics feasted.

It was the right play, in the parlance of basketball purists. It also exemplified and amplified all the doubts about James' makeup as a potential all-time great. It was seen as un-Jordanlike.

"I think he had to become—'selfish' is the wrong word—he had to become a scorer," says P.J. Carlesimo, who was on the San Antonio Spurs' coaching staff for their Finals sweep of Cleveland in 2007. "I don't think it's ever been his nature. He doesn't mind scoring. I think he prefers and loves the passing and the handling and the other aspects of the game. He's always been like that."

A decade later, James has swiped MJ's postseason scoring title—but is still doing it his way.

Watch the first quarter of any playoff game, and you'll see James deftly manipulating the defense, creating open three-pointers for Kevin Love and driving lanes for Kyrie Irving. If his own shot is faltering, as it did in Game 3 of the conference finals, James leans comfortably on his teammates. Forced shots are rare. His scoring, coming within the flow of the game, can seem effortless.

James is averaging 7.0 assists a game in these playoffs, along with 32.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. This season, he set a new career high in assists at 8.7 per game, even while averaging a stout 26.4 points. James has 17 playoff triple-doubles, second only to Magic Johnson's 30, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

"I've always felt like I was a triple threat: pass, rebound, score," James tells B/R Mag. "But scoring has never been my concentration on things."

A scorer to his core, Jordan had 173 games with at least 40 points and 31 games with at least 50. James, by contrast, has just 57 games of 40 or more points and 10 games of 50-plus.

Though Michael Jordan set his playoff scoring mark in fewer games, James eclipsed Jordan's record with fewer shots.
Though Michael Jordan set his playoff scoring mark in fewer games, James eclipsed Jordan's record with fewer shots.(Getty Images)

Jordan averaged at least 30 points per game in eight of his 15 seasons and won 10 scoring titles. James averaged 30-plus just twice and has one scoring title. He's spent most of his career hovering in the high 20s in points. He's never led the league in field-goal attempts.

Yet James' longevity, consistency and brilliant efficiency have carried him past his idol. James has played more postseason games than Jordan (212 to 179), but he's also taken fewer shots (4,379 to 4,497).

"That's what makes this more special," Magic Johnson tells B/R Mag. "That's why I love it. Because now I can look at it and say, 'Yeah, see, pass-first guy can still be the leading scorer all-time in the playoffs.' And now also it's gonna help younger players to understand."

The Most Valuable Player trophy this season will go to Russell Westbrook or James Harden, classic high-volume scorers with gaudier point totals. James will finish somewhere behind them—while making a seventh straight trip to the Finals.

"He's about winning—he's not about the scoring," Marshall tells B/R Mag. "We've seen a lot of great players who put up a lot of great stats who haven't won."

At his core, James still isn't about the scoring—though, ironically, he's probably never been better at it, whether shooting from the arc or posting up on the block.

"I've worked on my craft," James says. "I've worked on my offensive game, and my shooting, and my posting and things of that nature over the years. But I've always felt like, listen, if you want to be as complete a player as you possibly can, if you have a game where you're not shooting the ball well, you can still be in the game and affect the game. That's what it's all about."

“That’s what makes this more special,” Magic Johnson tells B/R Mag. “That’s why I love it. Because now I can look at it and say, `Yeah, see, pass-first guy can still be the leading scorer all-time in the playoffs.’ And now also it’s gonna help younger players to understand.”
“That’s what makes this more special,” Magic Johnson tells B/R Mag. “That’s why I love it. Because now I can look at it and say, `Yeah, see, pass-first guy can still be the leading scorer all-time in the playoffs.’ And now also it’s gonna help younger players to understand.”(Getty Images)

Fourteen years ago, Jimmy Smith was the creative director for the advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy, charged with scripting a new Nike commercial for James. But when Smith sat down to interview the kid with the Chosen One tattoo, he couldn't get him to open up.

"How did you get so good?" Smith asked.

"I don't know," James replied.

"He was really humble," Smith tells B/R Mag. "At that time, he didn't really know how he got so good."

But Smith needed material, so he kept probing until James finally replied: "I don't know, man. God just blessed me. God just blessed me. That's how."

From exasperation came inspiration, and "Book of Dimes" was the result. In an era before Twitter and YouTube, the commercial provided most fans their first exposure to James and set the framework for who he was: the consummate team-first star.

"I thought it was going to be more of a Magic Johnson kind of thing," Smith says.

“He was really humble,” Smith tells B/R Mag. “At that time, he didn’t really know how he got so good.”
“He was really humble,” Smith tells B/R Mag. “At that time, he didn’t really know how he got so good.”(Getty Images)

Fourteen years in, we need a new framework, because the old models are insufficient. So consider this:

Of the 10 players in history to reach 27,000 regular-season points, James has the highest assist total (7,461).

Of the 16 players to reach 7,000 assists, James has the highest point total.

You could say he's the greatest playmaker of all the elite scorers and the greatest scorer among all the elite passers.

At the moment, James ranks sixth all-time in "points created," a stat that combines individual scoring and points via assist, according to calculations provided by Darryl Blackport and Aaron Barzilai of WinnersView. John Stockton is the all-time leader at 52,844. James, currently at 46,142, should catch him in the next two to three years.

It's rare now to hear anyone say James is "more Magic than Michael"—with one major exception.

"He's still more me than Michael," Magic says with a smile. "He scores to win," not for personal satisfaction. "He still has that LeBron mentality."

    

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a senior writer for B/R Mag. He co-hosts The Full 48 podcast. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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