LeBron James' legacy will be much more than NBA all-time leading scorer | Opinion
LeBron James’ journey to a record 38,388 points cannot be put into proper context without understanding how it was interwoven into the larger narrative of his NBA journey.
For too many years after he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, James was criticized for taking the easy way out, for pioneering the so-called “Superteam,” for choosing to team up with other future Hall of Famers instead of lifting a franchise by himself.
But with one of the most hallowed individual records in sports soon his, and probably for a long time to come, history should settle on a different narrative: LeBron, in fact, was the Superteam. The Superteam was whichever one he chose to play on. And becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, as important as it will be regarded by all basketball fans, should be seen as a byproduct of a career that was designed to chase different achievements.
James was not always right in how he approached his career, nor was he always correct in his assessment of ideal teammates. We can see that playing out right now in Los Angeles, where he could very well play out his final years in frustration.
But if we are ranking what makes James the most significant basketball player in the post-Michael Jordan era, having the all-time scoring title is at best a distant second. That’s merely a record, something that can be usurped in 30 or 40 years by the next prodigy who comes along. But being at the forefront of so-called player empowerment changed not only the NBA, but the way fans consume sports for the rest of time.
LeBron James changed the game for players, too
It is now viewed as a given that star players in any sport will take full advantage of whatever agency they have to best position themselves to win championships and that teams will make any move necessary to facilitate those desires. It does not always happen — Kevin Durant, for instance, is still a Brooklyn Net despite requesting a trade last summer — but the largely accepted reality in modern basketball is that there are almost no constraints tying star players to organizations. It’s simply a transaction.
People can debate whether this is a positive or negative development in the larger narrative of how people consume sports, but it’s undeniably the legacy of James to a far greater extent than any statistic.
Fans may have been turned off by “The Decision” when James went on television and proclaimed that he was taking his talents to South Beach, but more than a dozen years later they have bought into this paradigm of the NBA as well. We can see this daily on social media simply by the prominence of people like ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and others who compete with him, trying to out-scoop one another on any signing, trade or other piece of roster movement. It is a massive cottage industry unto itself.
James may not have intended all of that when he left the team that drafted him No. 1, the team so close to his hometown of Akron, and went to Miami. But what he did was change the currency of careers from money and points to championships. That’s what James counted, so that’s what we count. And for a remarkable eight straight seasons, encompassing his four with Miami and four more when he returned to Cleveland, James’ statistics were almost irrelevant. How many basketball fans could have told you where he stood in the scoring race or what percentage he was shooting from the field? But all of them knew how many titles he won and how many times in a row he had been in the NBA Finals.
By the time he won his second title with the Heat in 2013, James was indisputably the best basketball player in the world and among the all-time greats. That was a big step.
But ultimately, most of the narratives that were critical of James and the way he managed his career went away in 2016 when the Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors and won the title in Game 7. At that moment, we could at least start the conversation about James as the greatest player of all time — and it wasn’t contingent on matching or exceeding Jordan’s six titles.
Because at some point as he transitioned from Miami back to Cleveland, James’ impact on the game transcended statistics or even really which set of teammates he had. Yes, he was careful and discerning in teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, then Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But the common denominator was him. The winning happened because he was there.
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By the time James left again, for the Lakers in 2018, there was no huge “Decision”-like backlash, perhaps because he had delivered a title to Cleveland but also because everything had changed. Superstars changing teams at will and building the teams they wanted to play on was becoming more of the norm with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George going to the Clippers, Durant joining up with Golden State for two titles then bolting to the Nets with Irving and the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook orchestrating exits from Houston. It's just the way the game was played, for better or worse.
Remarkably, James, 38, still looks like he could continue at a high level of basketball for quite a while, putting thousands of points of distance between himself and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time list.
Whether he adds more titles at this point is a much iffier proposition. Though the move to Los Angeles might have been a mix of personal and basketball considerations for the final chapter of his career, James is still pushing — quite publicly — for the Lakers to give up future assets to remake a poorly constructed roster around him.
This time, it’s unclear whether his wishes will be granted, or even if it would make much of a difference. And then? That’s where the intrigue comes in.
As great as he's been and for as long as he’s played, it has felt inevitable for quite some time that James would get the scoring record. But because of how he changed the NBA, doing player empowerment like nobody before him and always finding ways to team up with players he wanted to play with, we’re going to be asking “What’s next?” until the moment he decides to stop.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James' legacy will be more than NBA all-time scoring leader