Ten years ago, in a seminal sports magazine piece on Michael Jordan, the basketball legend predicted to ESPN’s Wright Thompson what then-Miami Heat star LeBron James would do throughout a basketball game just by noting the direction he went as he came down the court. If James veered to the right, Jordan said, look for James to drive to the basket. To the left meant he’d settle for a jump shot.
“For the rest of the game, when LeBron gets the ball and starts his move, Jordan will call out some variation of ‘drive’ or ‘shoot,’” Thompson wrote, later adding, “He’s answering texts, buried in his phone, when the play-by-play guy announces a LeBron jump shot. Without looking up, Jordan says, ‘Left?’”
That anecdote was described as a “flaw” in James’ game — as talented as James was, he was, at times, predictable.
But in the 10 years since, James not only has become less formulaic as a scorer, he’s added new elements to his game that have helped him turn perceived weaknesses into strengths. That adaptability has the Los Angeles Lakers star just 36 points away from breaking the NBA’s all-time scoring record going into Tuesday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder,
Yes, longevity has been key to James’ pursuit of the NBA scoring record — the 38-year-old is in his 20th season, the same as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he scored his 38,387th point. But don’t underestimate how important versatility and a singular ability to change and refine his game have been to the success James has enjoyed over two decades in the league.
“I just want to be able to not have any weaknesses, you know, and allow a defense to dictate what I do,” James said in 2019.
As James has said, the four-time champion’s first NBA Finals served as an eye-opening experience. In 2007, James’ Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by a superior San Antonio Spurs team. And in that series, James said, the Spurs went “under” on every James’ jump shot — meaning they gave him space and dared him to shoot. “I wasn’t comfortable with shooting the ball,” he said.
That finals loss wasn’t the only wake-up call for James, either. After Miami was shocked in six games by the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 — one of the all-time upsets in NBA history — James became determined to add a post game to his repertoire after he was unable to take advantage of Dallas’ smaller defenders. Over the next few seasons, James became strong enough to bully players down low with alarming efficiency. He shot over 55% the next two seasons, winning his first pair of championships in the process.
Even in the latter stage of his career, James has continued to grow. As the league started shooting more and more 3-pointers, so did the 18-time All-Star. Since joining the Lakers in 2018, James has averaged no fewer than 5.9 attempts per game from deep. Though he’s only shooting 30.8% on his 7 3-point attempts this season, his embrace of the shot has allowed him to stay on pace to pass Abdul-Jabbar — even as James has begun to wear down physically.
Over the last four-plus seasons, James has missed nearly 100 games because of injuries and other reasons — whereas he only missed 71 games in the first 15 years of his career. Despite the missed time, James has averaged 30 points per game over the last two seasons in part because of his expanded range. In terms of averages only, they’re the second- and third-most points per game of his career — behind only 2005-06’s 31.4.
Even now, with James older, forcing James into a jump shot is considered a “win” for opposing defenses. When the Thunder face the Lakers on Tuesday, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Oklahoma City’s game plan centers on letting James’ teammates try to beat them and attempt to hold the superstar in check as much as possible.
This season — and the past few, truthfully — have been disappointing for the Lakers, who are 13th in the West with a 25-29 record entering Monday’s slate of games. A day earlier, James appeared to express frustration on Twitter that his team failed to trade for guard Kyrie Irving by tweeting “Maybe It’s Me” after the former Brooklyn Net was shipped to Dallas.
To James’ critics, the forward’s near-constant roster demands and attitude may be his most aggravating quality. On Monday, for instance, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote that James has been a “horrible general manager” — a star player who used his influence to push the franchise to trade for players like Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook. Davis’ acquisition netted a championship in 2020, though Plaschke wrote that the trade “ruined” Los Angeles’ immediate future. The Westbrook deal has been an overall disaster.
But James’ apparent roster choices will take a back seat whenever he passes Abdul-Jabbar. If it doesn’t come Tuesday, then the Lakers host the Milwaukee Bucks in a nationally televised game on Thursday. The biggest question is not when James will break the record, but how he will do it.
Maybe Jordan has an answer.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the topic of an ESPN profile referenced in the article.
• Matthew Paras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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