Michael Cunningham: NBA's greatest ever, LeBron James, also is best scorer

Michael Cunningham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Basketball

LeBron James was a junior in high school when Sports Illustrated declared him “The Chosen One” on its cover. James audaciously had the phrase tattooed on his back before becoming the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 2003. He was going to be a bust even if he became one of the 50 or so best players in the world. The bar was much higher than that.

The basketball world waited for James to be humbled in the grown man’s league. I was among the skeptics. We critics never got our wish, not even for a moment.

James was very good from the start. He was great by his second season, when he carried a Cavaliers team with no other All-Star players to the NBA Finals. James somehow lived up to the hype. Now he’s the only player who belongs with Michael Jordan in the Greatest of All Time debate.

James is my G.O.A.T. There can be honest disagreement about that. There is no longer any real argument about the game’s greatest scorer. James is settling that matter this week.

James needed to score 36 points for the Lakers against the Thunder on Tuesday night in L.A. night to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA record of 38,387. That mark once seemed untouchable. Abdul-Jabbar was a 7-foot-2 center who played 20 years in the NBA, made 56% of his shots and had the best go-to move in the history of the sport.

Who would ever have the efficiency, durability and longevity to score so many points again?


The answer is James, even if he didn’t set out to do it.

“I don’t like being singled out as a scorer,” James recently told ESPN. “I’ve always prided myself in being a pass-first guy – a guy who can make everybody feel comfortable.”

James has done that for 20 years while also being a prolific scorer. The league has never seen a player like him. He has the skills and vision of a point guard, the scoring ability of a shooting guard and the versatility of a small forward, and he bullies opponents like a power forward. It took The Chosen One to break Abdul-Jabbar’s record during the NBA’s pace-and-space era.

It’s no longer possible to be a great scorer while playing near the basket. That time essentially ended when the NBA legalized zone defense before the 2001-02 season. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that Jordan pleaded with the NBA’s competition committee to keep the illegal defense rule, telling its members that he never would have become Air Jordan without it.


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