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Tuesday, November 03, 2015

LeBron James Becomes 25th--and Youngest--Member of the 25,000 Point Club

On Monday night, LeBron James became just the 25th member of pro basketball's 25,000 point club. At 30 years, 307 days, he is easily the youngest player to achieve this milestone, surpassing Kobe Bryant's record (31 years, 351 days). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who broke Wilt Chamberlain's once seemingly untouchable mark of 31,419 points in 1984, ranks number one with 38,387 points but his 30-plus year reign as king of the all-time scorers may be in jeopardy in six or seven years if James stays healthy.

Shamefully, the NBA still ignores ABA statistics and pretends that Julius Erving, Dan Issel, George Gervin and Rick Barry--four Hall of Famers who played in both the ABA and the NBA--did not join the 25,000 point club. As long as the NBA sends that quartet's names down some Orwellian memory hole, I will make a point of mentioning those names every time I write an article about the 25,000 point club.  

James' accomplishment brings to mind the way that he is often called a "pass-first" player. I have never bought into that description because, among other things, Pass First Players Do Not Score 61 Points in a Game. As I have explained many times, James is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Why does it matter to make a distinction between being pass-first and being a great scorer who also passes well? It is important to realize that despite all of James' skills, he did not win a championship until he embraced the challenge and responsibility of being a big-time scorer when the stakes are highest; ignoring that truth is a major distortion of basketball history and permits people to create some kind of false dichotomy between James and players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant who are celebrated for their scoring prowess (and often not given proper recognition for their playmaking skills).

During his first stint in Cleveland and during the early part of his run in Miami, James would score a lot of points during the regular season and early playoff rounds only to become bizarrely passive the deeper that he advanced in the playoffs, including no-show efforts versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and versus Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. After the latter debacle, when James was outplayed at critical times by Jason Terry,  Dwyane Wade implored James to accept the responsibility of carrying a heavy scoring load against elite teams. The strange thing about this is that James has the fourth highest regular season scoring average and fifth highest playoff scoring average in pro basketball history; he has spent his whole career being a dominant scorer, so it is mystifying that he mentally checked himself out of the aforementioned Boston and Dallas series. Those playoff failures did not represent James being a pass-first player; they represented him carrying his teams to the playoffs by scoring a lot of points only to let his teammates down by playing passively precisely when his scoring was needed the most. Presumably, after scoring at a high rate in the 2012 and 2013 NBA Finals while leading Miami to back to back titles, James put all of that pass-first nonsense to rest forever during last year's NBA Finals, when he very properly jacked up shots at a rate that would make even Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant blush; the short-handed Cavaliers needed for James to shoot early and often and perhaps they could have even stolen the title if James had taken more shots during the pivotal game four when the Cavaliers were trying to seize a 3-1 lead over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Correctly labeling James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history does not in any way diminish his other skills, including passing. It does place his career and the careers of other great players in proper perspective, though. Magic Johnson was a pass-first player for the vast majority of his career and he only assumed a score-first role after Abdul-Jabbar was well past his prime. Jason Kidd was always a pass-first player. James, on the other hand, is going to lead his team in scoring and in shot attempts every year until his body breaks down. When James arrived in Miami, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had to accept lesser scoring roles, not the other way around. The same thing has held true for Kevin Love when he joined forces with James in Cleveland. Yes, James passes the ball to his teammates but he also makes sure that he is the team's leading scorer--and there is nothing wrong with that, just like there was nothing wrong with Jordan or Bryant filling a similar role during their respective primes. Other than Magic Johnson, there have not been many pass-first players who were the best player on a championship team. On the other hand, Abdul-Jabbar won six championships, Jordan won six championships and Bryant has won five championships. Erving won two ABA titles plus an NBA title and Barry put on tremendous scoring exhibitions in the 1967 and 1975 NBA Finals, leading the Warriors to the title 40 years ago.

The bottom line is that there are some very good passers in the 25,000 point club but there are no pass-first players in that elite fraternity--and that includes James. Maybe if James sticks around long enough to surpass Abdul-Jabbar as the sport's all-time leading scorer people will finally understand and accept this.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM

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