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With a fadeaway jumper in the third quarter on Tuesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James has scored more regular-season points than any player in NBA history. It is astounding that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's longstanding scoring record -- 38,387 points, amassed in 1,560 career games -- has fallen. It is a different kind of astounding that, as James approached the record, there has been debate over whether or not James is a "scorer."

"It's crazy," Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham said last week in Brooklyn. "Yeah, he loves to playmake, but he's a scorer through and through." 

Ham said that James "gets tagged as being this pass-first type of player" because he has always "wanted to play the right way." The implication is that James' critics have used his ability to create for others against him, inaccurately painting him as something less than one of the most dangerous scorers of all-time. A few days earlier, Kevin Durant said he thinks James is "a scorer first" and that it is "underselling him" to say otherwise.  

This sounds like a valid gripe. No matter what else they do well, the Danish brothers who recently broke the record for the world's largest Pokémon card collection do not have to worry about anyone saying they're not "collectors."

The idea that James is not a scorer did not come from his critics, though. It came from James himself.

"I've heard him say multiple times that he's not a scorer, he's a pass-first guy, which is … not wrong," Lakers wing Austin Reaves said, laughing. "But if you lead NBA history in scoring then you've gotta be somewhat of a scorer." 

This is a silly story about semantics. It's a dumb debate about definitions. To understand it, though, one must understand the contours of James' 20-year career, the criticism he has received in the media and the way in which he has always approached the game. 

From the beginning, LeBron defined himself

In his first NBA game, an 18-year-old James passed up an open dunk on a fast break to get an assist to Ricky Davis. "I'm a team player," he said afterward. "He's a scorer, I'm the point guard."

Asked to define his role in January of his rookie season, James said: "I'm a leader. I'm the leader of this team, and they look for me at any point in the game, and that's not just scoring-wise, I do other things."

James averaged a team-high 20.9 points as a rookie, to go with his 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists. In Year 2, he averaged 27.2 points, the beginning of an 11-year run in which he finished no worse than fourth in the league in scoring. During the 2006 All-Star weekend, about a month after Kobe Bryant's 81-point game, a reporter asked James, who had eclipsed the 50-point mark twice that season, if he could envision himself doing something similar.

"That's not my kind of game," James said. "I like to do more than shoot the ball. Nothing against Kobe, but I couldn't see myself ever doing anything like that."

In 2005-06, James averaged 31.4 points, which remains his career high. The next season, he scored 25 consecutive points in Game 5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers' series against Detroit Pistons to earn a double-overtime win. The season after that, he became the Cavaliers' all-time leading scorer and, for the only time in his career, won the scoring title.

No matter how many points he piled up, James resisted the label. "I'm not just a scorer guy," he said during the 2011 NBA Finals. When he scored 35 points in Game 4 of the conference finals a couple of weeks before that -- and guarded MVP Derrick Rose in overtime -- he said, "I love defense much more than I do offense."

James started the 2012-13 season by scoring at least 20 points in his first 33 games. Twenty-three games into that streak, he had another little streak going: For five games, he hadn't committed a single foul. "The foul thing is more impressive to me," he said. "I don't care about scoring as much."

'I'm going to pass it again'

After Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, James was endlessly scolded for making an awesome play. Down by two with 12 seconds left, James rejected a screen, drove to the rim, drew help and passed to Donyell Marshall, wide open in the corner. Marshall missed the potential game-winner. 

"Donyell could have had a cup of coffee and a sandwich," Cavs coach Mike Brown said that night.

Four years into his career, James had already taken some heat for playing "like a Pippen when the Cavs needed a Jordan." This drive-and-kick turned the temperature way up.

"You take what's there," James said, prompting this response from Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press: "Help me out here. This is LeBron, right? The superstar's superstar? And those other guys he's talking about -- he's not on the Olympic team, right? I mean, he was dishing to Donyell Marshall. The guy had one basket all night." In Cleveland's previous game, Marshall had made six 3s, including three in the fourth quarter.

In Game 6 of that series, James finished with 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists, repeatedly creating open shots for Daniel Gibson, who shot 5 for 5 from deep and finished with 31 points. The win sent James to his first NBA Finals. A reporter asked if this illustrated that he had grown up.

"I don't know why people say that," James said. "I'm still the same player. If I get double-teamed and the game is close, I'm going to pass it again. If we make the shot, I'm on top of the world. If not, then I'm under a lot of trees and leaves."

The idea that James was afraid of the moment, lacked killer instinct and was too unselfish followed him from Cleveland to Miami. "I'm more than just a scorer," he said after his first playoff game with the Heat, rejecting the premise that he'd had an "off game" because he'd shot 4 for 14 from the field. (But he was also 13 for 14 from the free throw line, and finished with 14 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in a win.) In his second season in Miami, everybody did the same song and dance when he hit Udonis Haslem with a perfect pocket pass and Haslem missed an open midrange jumper that would have won the game. 

Two months later, when James won his third MVP award, Pat Riley said it was "maddening" to see "all the toxic data that he has to deal with that's out there." Riley expected that the script would flip when James won a championship, like it did for Michael Jordan, who at the same age was ripped for not being a team player. 

James' first championship came that June. In the aftermath, Heat owner Mickey Arison crowed about his 13 assists in the clincher.

"I don't know what people will say now," big man Juwan Howard shouted during the celebration. "He's done everything now. What are they going to try to beat him up about now?"

What if …?

After winning a ring, James got better. His usage dropped, as did his field goal attempts, but he led the entire league in field goals made (Kobe Bryant was second and attempted 241 more shots) and finished with a 64 percent true shooting percentage. 

About halfway through the 2012-13 season, James said that he and Dwyane Wade were competing for numbers. They both wanted to shoot at least 50 percent from the field in every game. 

"Sometimes you wish you had that Kobe thought, where you just don't care," Wade said. "We talk about it all the time. It sucks at times, but it's who we are."

In December of that season, James said he could led the league in scoring if he wanted to. 

"But that's not my job here," he said. ""My job is to do a lot of everything -- rebounding, passing and defending -- so that takes away from my scoring."

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said that James could realistically average 37 points if he were not so concerned about passing. Later that season, ahead of a matchup with Bryant's Lakers, Spoelstra said that "scoring is so often a second thought to him, and he does it as well as anyone in this league." 

At the time, James said he could probably score 60 or 70 points in a game if that were his only objective. It would be difficult for him, though, to routinely drop 40 or 50. "I don't think I could see an open teammate and not pass it," he said. Near the end of the regular season, when Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant were battling for the scoring title, James said he was not jealous. 

"That's not who I am," he said

Heading into the playoffs, Riley said, "If he wanted to, he could average 40." The following November, four days after the Toronto Raptors' Rudy Gay scored 29 points on 11-for-37 shooting in an overtime loss, James scored 39 points on 14-for-18 shooting in a win. 

"If you give me 37 shots in a game, I'd have 60 ... 70," he said. "I had [almost] 40 now with 18 shots, I mean ... If you give me 37 shots in a game, I'd put up 60. Easy."

James followed up the most efficient season of his career with a slightly more efficient one. And in January 2014, he changed his tune a bit, saying that he sometimes gets jealous when he sees that Durant has taken 30-plus shots in a game. 

 "I'm not much of a forced-shot guy," he said. "But there are games where I have it going, and then at the end of the game, I'm like, damn, I shot just 12 for 16? Why don't I get up at least six or seven more? I definitely notice it."

That March, he scored a career-high 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats, but needed only 33 field goal attempts to do it. Five seasons later, 16 games into his Los Angeles Lakers tenure, James scored 51 points on 31 shots. After the game, Kyle Kuzma channeled Riley: "He could average 40 if he wanted." 

James has still never taken more than 36 shots in a game.

'What are you doing here?'

Here are some things James has said when he has approached or broken other scoring records: 

  • November 2015, after becoming the 20th player in NBA history to score 25,000 points: "To be able to accomplish something like that and my game is not predicated on just scoring, it's pretty cool. Because I can score the ball but I really don't care too much about it."
  • November 2015, after passing Hakeem Olajuwon for the 10th spot on the all-time scoring list: "For me, scoring has never been on my list of goals. Facilitating, getting my guys involved, and rebounding, defending, getting blocked shots and things of that nature always ranked above that." (He commemorated the milestone with an Instagram post featuring the hashtag #ButImNotAScorer.)
  • May 2017, after passing Abdul-Jabbar for the No. 2 spot on the all-time playoff scoring list: "I believe my best attribute is how much I care about my teammates and how much I want to see those guys succeed and that comes from passing the ball."
  • May 2017, before breaking Jordan's playoff scoring record: "I'm not a scorer. I don't want to be labeled as a scorer. I can put the ball in the hoop, but I'm a playmaker, I'm a player. Put me on the court and I'll find ways to be successful. So when you talk about scorers, you have a lot of great scorers in our league of all-time guys who shot a lot of shots and volume shooters and score the ball at a high clip. I'm not one of those guys." (After breaking it, he said, "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.")
  • January 2018, after reaching the 30,000-point mark: "When you categorize who I am as a basketball player, it won't say 'scorer.' There's too much more attributes to my game, and then you can talk about scoring, as well. I'm joining elite company. When I walk into the 30 [thousand]-point club, they're going to look at me like, 'What are you doing here?' I ain't supposed to be there." (He also said, "I'm still a pass-first guy.")
  • May 2018, after passing Abdul-Jabbar for most postseason field goals: "I think it's pretty cool. You hear the scoring, the field goals made -- and for a kid who really doesn't care much about scoring."
  • October 2018, after passing Dirk Nowitzki for sixth on the all-time scoring list: "I'm not a scorer, I'm a ballplayer. I've always gotten a kick out of seeing my teammates succeed. If that comes from a pass from me or a hockey assist from me, I've always been more proud of that. I've been fortunate to put a few baskets in the hoop, but I'm not a scorer."
  • March 2019, after passing Jordan for fourth on the all-time scoring list: "It hits in a certain way because I am a pass-first guy. I've always been a pass-first guy." (Leading up to this milestone, he again insisted he is not a scorer: "I've been telling myself ever since I was a little kid that if I ever got to this point in my life and this career, that I would never be defined by just being a scorer. If you take scoring away from me, I told myself I would still be able to make an impact on the game. That's just who I am.")

Approaching the record, a strange debate

Despite the fact that James himself has been uncomfortable with -- and at times outright hostile toward -- being called a scorer, some of his supporters have argued in favor of this designation. Last May on his podcast, Draymond Green went off on the subject. 

"He's 100 percent a scorer," Green said. "And those that don't think so, I question your basketball IQ. What game are you watching if you think that LeBron James is not a scorer?"

JJ Redick delivered an impassioned speech on his own podcast this week, using a "First Take" segment about whether or not James should be considered an "all-time great scorer" as a jumping-off point. Redick noted that James has the fifth-highest career scoring average of all-time and concluded by saying, "LeBron James: Is he an all-time great scorer? No, he is the all-time greatest scorer."

Beyond a tweet at the end of the 2021 season, there was scant evidence that James thought he was being shortchanged as a scorer until he said so on an episode of "The Shop" last March. Initially, James did his usual thing, saying it's "weird to me" and "crazy" to have passed Abdul-Jabbar for the most combined points in the regular season and playoffs because he's not a "natural scorer." Then, he said, "When they talk about the best scorers of all time, they never mention my name." 

Maverick Carter, James' longtime business partner, asked James if this pissed him off. James answered in the affirmative. Shortly after the episode aired, after a game in which James scored 56 points (on 19-for-31 shooting), Carmelo Anthony said there is a difference between a "pure scorer" (i.e. himself) and players like James, who "know how to score." Informed that James had griped about being excluded from the best-scorers-of-all-time conversation, Anthony said, "Can't have everything." 

A month ago, James told ESPN that, "When I say I'm not a scorer, I say it in a sense of, it's never been the part of my game that defined me." Last week, in another interview with ESPN, he said, "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." He also said that people "have no choice now" but to start mentioning him among history's best scorers. He has effectively put himself on both sides of the debate at the same time.

How can one man spend two decades telling the world that he doesn't want to be called something, then object when he's not called one of the best of those somethings to have ever somethinged? One answer can be found just before he starts talking about scoring in that episode of "The Shop." Before some games, particularly if he hasn't slept well the night before and needs "a little jumpstarter," James will "go out on the floor during warmups, and I just be looking for a LeBron hater. I just need one of them.'" Professional athletes, particularly the all-time greats, will use anything you can imagine as fuel. There is no length James won't go to convince himself that he's being disrespected. 

Another answer is that James wants two things that are not mutually exclusive, but not exactly complementary, either. First, as he said when he passed Jordan to become the NBA's top playoff scorer, he wants to influence kids to "feel like passing the ball is OK, making the extra pass is OK, drawing two defenders and no matter if you win or lose, if you make the right play, it's OK," rather than thinking that scoring is everything. 

Second, James wants credit for turning himself into an incredible scorer. All the stuff about him being fundamentally flawed and not enough of an alpha was nonsense, but he did have weaknesses. James didn't enter the league a reliable jump shooter, an imposing post presence, a crafty screener or a devastating cutter. He has credited opposing teams -- most notably his NBA Finals loses to the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 and 2013, and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 -- for forcing him to become a complete player. 

Last week at Madison Square Garden, Tom Thibodeau recalled meeting with James during his 2010 free agency. Thibodeau had just become the coach of the Chicago Bulls, and before that, he was in charge of Boston's defense, which had stifled James' Cavaliers in the playoffs less than two months earlier. James asked Thibodeau all about that series. 

"You could tell he had already been going through it," Thibodeau said. "They were very pointed questions." 

Hours later in New York, James passed Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to move into fourth place on the all-time assists list. "There's some guys in NBA history that are gunners," Reaves said. "They score and that's what they've been asked to do since they first got in the league. But him … you can't call him a scorer or a pass-first guy because he does both really well."

Or you can call him both. James may not have planned to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer, but it isn't an accident, either.

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