‘King of the grind’: LeBron James relies on three traits as he closes in on NBA all
Consistency, longevity, durability.
Of all LeBron James’ remarkable attributes, those three shine brightest and enabled him to maximize his talent, work ethic, IQ, size, strength and quickness – a skillset that has made him one of the best players in basketball history.
With unmatched consistency, longevity and durability with Cleveland, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers, James is on the verge of passing Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a pursuit that has seemed fait accompli for the past five seasons. James is just 88 points from Abdul-Jabbar’s record heading into Thursday’s game against Indiana (7 p.m. ET).
Over the course of his 20 NBA seasons, James averaged at least 25 points in 19 seasons, including 30.2 in 41 games this season, and he has played in at least 90% of his team’s games in 15 seasons.
This is a story about numbers, but stats do not tell the entire story.
“When you look at those three things, it’s a testament to how he lives his life,” Warriors star Draymond Green told USA TODAY Sports. “I recently said he’s the greatest face the NBA has ever had. Think about the day and age we live in – cameras, social media – he’s never had a scandal. Never been arrested. Never photo’d drunk. Those things go hand in hand with durability, longevity, consistency.
“It’s a testament to the discipline he has in his life, and basketball is a result of that. It speaks to the person that he is, and basketball has benefitted from that.”
It has allowed him, season by season, game by game, incredible moment by incredible moment, to pass some of the game’s greatest scorers – Jerry West, Moses Malone, Oscar Robertson, Dominique Wilkins, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone – leaving only Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) in front of him.
“As he closes in on my all-time scoring record, I have been a cheerleader urging him on, happy to pass the mantle to someone so worthy as an athlete and a person,” Abdul-Jabbar said in April.
When James (38,299 points) passes the Hall of Famer and former Lakers great in the next few games, he will have scored more points than Abdul-Jabbar in fewer games, fewer minutes and with fewer field goal attempts.
When it happens, the game will be stopped to recognize the moment, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver indicated the league plans to celebrate the accomplishment during All-Star Weekend on Feb. 17-19 in Salt Lake City, assuming it happens before then.
“To do that at the highest level game after game, and then to be in a position to break one of the all-time records of most points ever scored, it’s quite remarkable,” Silver said. “It’s such a testament to him. And he’s not just sort of at the end of his career just like hanging around to get that record. He’s still playing at an incredibly high level. I think it’s spectacular.”
It has been a persistent, methodical hike to the top of the scoring mountain. And he has done it under inconceivable expectations placed on him as a high schooler.
In James’ first NBA game, with Cleveland on Oct. 29, 2003, he scored 25 points and had nine assists and six rebounds against Sacramento. He was 12-for-20 from the field, making eight of 12 shots in the paint – a harbinger for James’ dominance at the rim as a scorer. Nearly 20 years later, on Jan. 16, James scored 48 points (16 in the paint and 15 on 3-pointers).
“The thing I think is most impressive about the longevity and what’s he’s done is the game has changed dramatically since he entered the league and probably three, four different brands of basketball since he’s been in the league,” Green said. “He’s been at the top no matter what the game did.”
Of the players in his NBA debut game, James is the only one still in the league. Of the players in his draft class, only James remains in the league as a player. Some of his draft class peers moved into coaching (New Orleans’ Willie Green and Luke Walton), the front office (Phoenix’s James Jones, Atlanta’s Kyle Korver), part ownership and other endeavors (Utah’s Dwyane Wade) and wine making (Carmelo Anthony).
“The thing that’s most impressive is his ability to do it all again the next day – not just playing the games but doing the work to play games,” said Korver, who played until he was 38 and was James’ teammate in Cleveland during three seasons.
Not every player can do that, but Silver noted, “I hope the young players pay attention to that. Anyone who’s ever been around LeBron, he’s always working on his body. He’s always thinking about getting his sleep and proper nutrition. It’s hard to talk to him where he doesn’t have some device hooked up to him or ice on some part of his body where he’s constantly recuperating from the bangs and the minor injuries he’s constantly dealing with.”
To maximize his ability, that care extends to James’ physical conditioning. He doesn’t look that much different today than he did in 2013. Five years ago, James’ friend and business partner Maverick Carter, said James spends $1.5 million annually on his body – personal trainers, chefs, nutritionists, massage therapists, cryotherapy, or cold therapy, hyperbaric chambers and compression boots.
Korver said James is the “king of the grind.”
“It’s just monotonous work to do all the little bits of self-care that add up,” Korver explained. “It’s putting the time in. He has genetics and a body that is just different. He’s been blessed physically in ways that are very unique. But he still does all the work. You have to have both to play as long as he has at the level he has. His commitment to his craft and commitment to his body is everything.”
Consistency, longevity, durability.
It’s displayed over and over throughout his career. He shot a career-low 41.7% from the field in his rookie season and has not shot lower than 47.2% in the next 19 seasons. While his Cavs 1.0 teams pushed his minutes played to 40 per game, including a career-high 42.5 in 2005-06, he has been steady in the 36-38 range since then.
It is one thing to have one of those attributes or even two, but all three is unprecedented. No one at 38 years old has done what James is doing this season.
James has avoided a major injury, like a torn ACL or ruptured Achilles, that forced him to miss a season’s worth of games or more. However, in his four seasons with the Lakers, he has missed significant time, including 27 games in each of the 2018-19 and 2020-21 seasons and 26 game last season due mostly to groin injuries, ankle sprains and abdominal strains.
Still, the most consecutive games he has missed in a season is 20 in 2020-21 with a sprained ankle. Considering he has played three-plus extra seasons of playoff games (266) and spent five summers with USA Basketball at the Olympics, FIBA World Cup and FIBA Americas, it’s surprising he hasn’t missed more games.
“That doesn’t happen often, and it’s not going to happen, probably again for a long time,” Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Father Time wins at some point. But ’Bron’s battle against it is amazing.”
James never considered himself a scorer, and he means that in two different ways. He’s not a pure scorer the same way Bryant, Jordan and Kevin Durant put up points, and he never wanted his game framed as one-dimensional.
“The overall point of my game is what means more to me, me being able to be an all-around player to be successful on the floor and to be able to contribute to the three franchises that I’ve played with so far in my career,” James said in 2020.
Wade, his longtime friend and former teammate, once said, “If he wants to, he could put up 40 a night.”
Not only is James one of the game’s great scorers, but he is also one of basketball’s best all-time passers. He will finish his career as the all-time leading scorer and in the top four (possibly top three) in all-time assists. With 11 assists on Tuesday, he passed Mark Jackson and Steve Nash and moved into fourth place with just Chris Paul, Jason Kidd and John Stockton ahead of him.
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Asked by USA TODAY in 2020 if he ever considered what his game might look like if he scored more and passed less, he said, “That’s not who I am as a player.” Though Wade said James could score 40 a game, he rarely did unlike Bryant and Jordan.
James has 14 50-plus point games while Bryant had 25 and Jordan 31. James has 74 games with 40 or more points, and Bryant had 122 and Jordan 173. But James has 530 games with at least 30 points trailing just Jordan (562) and well in front of Bryant (431). Just this season, James has scored at least 30 in 21 of 41 games.
The barrage of buckets is constant. He has scored at least 10 points in a record 1,137 consecutive games, a streak that began on Jan. 6, 2007. Jordan is next at 866.
James has led the league in scoring per game once (30.0 per in 2007-08) and led the league in total points once (2,251 in 2017-18).
“I don’t know if 38,000 points is more impressive or the fact that he’s still averaging the same amount of points that he averaged seven years ago,” Green said.
There are other constants to James’ record-climbing pursuit. From a tactical perspective, James attacked the rim for 20 seasons. Look at his shot chart. Scoring at the rim with layups and dunks is a staple. Given his size, strength, skill and smarts, he has obliterated defenses in the restricted area.
Early in his career, James took a significant number of mid-range jumpers as he worked on his 3-point shot. A dedicated learner, James understood analytics’ impact on the game and became a threat as a 3-point shooter and limited his mid-range shots.
“We see so many athletes and they never grow their game, and to grow that side of his game with the athleticism he has – and still has – shows who he is as a competitor and as a student of the game,” Green said. “What works? Where do I need to improve?”
His evolution as a scorer changed but consistency remained the same. Even as James reduced his mid-range shots and increased his 3-point shots, his shooting percentage didn’t oscillate wildly.
One fact is certain: James dislikes corner 3-point attempts. He never took more than 36 left-corner 3s and 45 right-corner 3s, according to NBA.com’s shot breakdown. He is an above-the-break 3 guy and still enjoys eyeing up a 3 and knocking it down, making a career-high nine 3s in a 46-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 24.
James’ much scrutinized choice to join the Miami Heat in 2010 was another turning point in his career. That four-season run with the Heat resulted in two MVPs, two championships and two Finals MVPs as he played some of the most efficient basketball of his career.
With the Heat in 2012-13, the season James won his fourth and last MVP, he averaged 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists and shot 56.5% from the field, 40.6% on 3s and 75.3% from the free throw line. It’s difficult to say when he was at the height of his powers, but he had figured out how to exploit defenses with mastery.
Then, he went back to the Cavaliers and led the city to its first major sports championship in 52 years, and joined the Lakers, leading the franchise to their record-tying 17th championship, in the bubble, in 2020.
“LeBron does have a map of how he operates,” Korver said. ” … Every game, there’s going to be three, four breakaway dunks, a few free throws, a few turnaround jumpers, a 3 or two and there’s probably been a few more lately, but there’s a general map to how he is going to operate and play.
“He tinkers and it evolves with the game.”
James is adamant he wants to play alongside his oldest son, high school senior Bronny, in the NBA. If he’s averaging 30 a game now, it seems he has at least a few more seasons of 25 a game.
How many more?
After a triple-double against New York on Tuesday, James said, “I’m going to be in this league for at least a few more years.”
With that consistency, longevity and durability, James will finish his career with more than 40,000 points – a record that may take another 40 or 50 years or longer to break.
If anyone breaks it.
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt