'They have no choice now': LeBron James, seldom labeled a pure scorer, eyes the NBA points summit

AP Photo/Corey Sipkin

Knowing he's a week or so from breaking the NBA's all-time scoring record, LeBron James leans against a wall inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and ponders the idea of whether and why he was once left out of debates about the NBA's best "pure scorer."

Did he buy the premise -- that in anointing "pure scorers," media and fans had mostly focused on other superstars: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony? James once had an ambivalent relationship with the very term "scorer." At times, he almost rejected it -- even as he topped most rivals in most scoring stats, especially the efficiency in which he scored.

"I still don't like it," James says of the "scorer" label -- again, 10-ish days from becoming the most voluminous scorer ever. "I don't like being singled out as a scorer. I've always prided myself in being a pass-first guy -- a guy who can make everybody feel comfortable." Had his spurning of "scorer" status indirectly led to his dismissal from "scorer" discourse?

In his twilight, James has come around some. On a 2022 episode of his HBO show "The Shop: Uninterrupted," James bristled at his absence from the "best scorer" debates. Now, at the doorstep of history, did he still feel shorted? Did he care?

"I see it and I smirk," James tells ESPN. "When they talk about the best scorers who ever played the game, my name never comes up." He pauses.

"They have no choice now," he says. "They have no choice."

James has acknowledged the possibility that people don't perceive him as a scorer because he has no signature move -- at least in the half court. (His locomotive left-to-right spin in transition, often flowing into his violent right-handed hammer dunk, might be his trademark. "It's impossible to stop," says Andre Iguodala.) It is as if the sheer variety, James' ability to shape-shift into whatever type of scorer the moment demanded, almost worked against our collective ability to recognize him as a scorer.

The skill broadening was conscious. "I've always tried to improve and never have a weakness," he says. "It depended a bit on how defenses were guarding me: OK, let's improve on that, so I can be more unguardable."

Iguodala, James' antagonist in so many big games, admired how James responded to that low point -- the Miami Heat's 2011 Finals loss against the Dallas Mavericks -- by stacking new elements to his offense: post-ups, screens, cuts.

"After that loss, it wasn't even fair," Iguodala says. "He came back pissed. He was on another level."

Still, James' signature moment is a defensive play -- the chasedown block on Iguodala in the waning moments of Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. The flashbulb shot of that game belongs not to James, but to Kyrie Irving -- his go-ahead, side-step 3-pointer over Stephen Curry with 53 seconds remaining. It has been somewhat lost to history that James scored 11 of Cleveland's 18 points in a gut-wrenching fourth quarter that was almost visceral in its brutality and urgency. Those 12 minutes swept over you, unfolding like a long, continuous shriek.

"That was a slugfest," James says. "I remember everything about that game. Nobody would believe you if you told them I scored 11 out of 18 in that quarter."

Maybe James' overwhelming power made it so he didn't require quite the same level of craft and guile to get where he wanted.

"He doesn't rely on an arsenal of dribble moves and footwork to create space," says Kyle Korver, James' teammate for three seasons in Cleveland. "He doesn't have as many moves built into his jump shot. To me, that's why people don't put him in that 'scorer' category. It's hard to do that now, right?"

"It's aesthetics," says Harrison Barnes, who guarded James in those early Golden State-Cleveland Finals. "If someone sees a Kyrie layup, you see the art."

Barnes was in high school, watching at a friend's house, when James put up 45 points in Game 7 of the 2008 conference finals against the Boston Celtics -- dueling with Paul Pierce, who scored 41. Barnes was enraptured. "For a guy who supposedly wasn't a scorer, wow," Barnes says. The year before, James had scored 25 straight points in Game 5 of the conference finals to upend the proud, defense-first Detroit Pistons.

James' most famous score-first game is probably his 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in Game 6 in 2012 to help the Heat stave off elimination and potentially save their Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. "When it got to the moments of truth, he'd turn on the scoring engine and do whatever was necessary -- almost against his instinct," says Erik Spoelstra, who coached James in Miami.

Against his instinct. James just passed Steve Nash for No. 4 all-time in assists. Passing is what he enjoys most. It might be what you picture if you close your eyes conjure an image of him: James rounding a pick at the top of the arc, whipping a back-handed pass to the weak-side corner (maybe while looking the other way) with the defense wrong-footed.

"When you think of him, you really do think of a point forward -- a brilliant passer who seems to thrive off passing more than scoring," says Steve Kerr, who coached against James in four consecutive Finals. "And yet he's going to be the all-time leading scorer. It's insane."

Miami blew out Boston in that 2012 masterpiece. The game did not require an iconic last-second basket. James has lots of those too. Some came in earlier rounds of the postseason, against the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and others -- in series that feel in retrospect like inevitable wins for James' teams. Another came in a conference finals James' Cavaliers lost: his 2009 Game 2 buzzer-beater against the Orlando Magic.

James says "most people" would nominate as his "biggest shot" his game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer in 2014 in Miami's win in Golden State just before the All-Star break. But for James, the biggest shot of his career was startlingly basic -- except for the weight of it: the 19-foot pull-up jumper he hit with 27 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals to put Miami up by four, 93-89, over the San Antonio Spurs.

It looks so routine. Kawhi Leonard gives James space. He rises and shoots. James had 37 points on 12-of-23 shooting in that game.

"Right at the right elbow," James recalls. "That's the biggest shot of my career because they forced me to take jumpers that entire series. And throughout that series, I kinda got discouraged about my jump shot. To be able to knock that shot down -- it was huge. Huge."

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs had used an even more exaggerated form of that strategy in the 2007 Finals, when they swept James and the Cavaliers.

"Early in his career, that was the shot that was given to him," Spoelstra says. "And ultimately, it was the shot he had to conquer to win titles."

Kerr was watching that 2013 Game 7 as a fan, though one with interest in becoming a head coach. "I still think that series is the key to his career -- the seminal moment of it," Kerr says. "I felt watching it, like, 'Oh, s---, it's different now. If he's confident in his shot, look out."

Shane Battier was on the right wing, with a detailed memory bank of defending James. "Early in his career, he couldn't shoot," Battier says. "I'd give him five feet, and it wasn't pretty. When he learned to shoot, it was like, 'Oh my god. Oh my god! It's over for the league.' It was like when Happy Gilmore learned how to putt: 'Happy learned how to putt! Uh oh!'"

Three Finals games that are not necessarily remembered for James' scoring -- and are, in fact, remembered for other high-profile events -- encapsulate James' evolution into a scorer so versatile, he'd eventually score more than anyone ever. They occurred over six seasons, for two franchises, against very different opponents and schemes.