February 3, 2023

Reliving LeBron’s Road to the Scoring Title

Reliving LeBron’s Road to the Scoring Title

We’re within days of LeBron breaking the scoring record for total points in his career, just after clinching what will probably be his final spot as top 4 in total assists all time. The scoring record was an achievement that few thought a player could break even a decade ago, a testament to LeBron’s consistency over the course of his 20+ year career, and how he’s taken the steps to shape his game to thrive in a constantly evolving NBA and each of his stops in it. 

When thinking of the best scorers in the NBA, it’s easy to look at the wild numbers that players like Jordan, Bryant, Durant, and LeBron have all put up in individual games. But if you look outside the number of 40, 50+ point games a player has, Bron has shown a level of consistency that is unprecedented, not only in terms of the scoring, but age and longevity as well. He famously self proclaimed he’s a playmaker, not a scorer, but boasts a high level scoring at a consistency and efficiency that is unmatched.

With that, let’s take a look at how LeBron’s scoring evolved over his four stops in his career, dating from his sensational rookie season back in Cleveland, to his current time in LA where he shows no signs of slowing down as one of the NBA’s best players.

Cleveland Years (‘03-’10) 

From the moment he joined the Cavaliers, he was a sensation. James joined a (bad) Cavaliers team that allowed him to experiment, run the floor, and show off his athleticism in every way possible. With a rookie debut of 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals on 12/20 shooting, James looked every bit the part of a franchise changing player. He was inefficient, but was willing to try any shot, regardless of how he was shooting. 

LeBron would go on to win one scoring title and two MVP’s during his time with the Cavaliers. The growth from LeBron’s game between his first and third season was astronomical. He went from an extremely inefficient rookie year, averaging 21 PPG, to 31.4 PPG, to leading the league in non-centers in points in the paint (only behind Shaq). LeBron would grow into a dynamic presence, using his strength, athleticism and all-around game to attack the rim and score at will, or kick out to a teammate for open shots. He would continue to struggle from anywhere outside the paint however, and with limited scoring options outside of him, teams like the Celtics would game plan to stop James with physicality and relying on his subpar counterparts to help carry the load.

Miami Years (‘10-’14) 

Following a harrowing loss to the Celtics, LeBron famously exited with co-stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to take his talents to South Beach. While being one of the most controversial and memorable moves in sports history, LeBron grew into his peak with a noticeable change to his game. After a bitter defeat by Dallas in his first year as the NBA’s villain, LeBron showed a maturing of his shot profile. With two dynamic players in Bosh and Wade, LeBron would assume playmaking roles, becoming a threat in a spaced out Heat team. He continued to excel at attacking the rim, but learned to be judicious with the quality and quantity of his mid range jumpers. As a result, his efficiency soared to one of the best in the league every year after the 2011 NBA Season, posting his most efficient numbers ever in his last two years as a member of the Heat.

Return to Cleveland (‘14-’18) 

After two championships and two more MVPs to his name, LeBron returned to Cleveland to join a team with up and coming star Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. LeBron returned to a team determined to bring a championship back to the Cavaliers. While LeBron didn’t seem like he was slowing down by any means, his shot profile continued to change, with very few attempts in between the three point line and the rim. While he continued to show he could score from anywhere on the court (2018 being one of the wildest showcases a 15 year player has ever shown), LeBron began to showcase himself being an even better playmaker, posting career highs in assists per game, while still scoring with the best of them. Outside of his 2015-16 season, he shot the ball at a good rate from three on high attempts a game, while still being at the top of the league in efficiency at the rim and points in the paint. Much has been said about LeBron’s shot adding a layer to his game, but ultimately  his ability to continue attacking the rim and converting at all costs  greatly contributed to being such a good scorer throughout his career.

LakeShow Bron (‘18-Present) 

Coming to the Lakers, a lot of questions about LeBron’s age started to slowly pop up. How would he age? Would he still be a high level player at the end of his Laker contract (we can answer this with an obvious, yes)? Would he still be the same player?

To answer the last question, it’s obvious enough just watching LeBron currently that his game does look different from previous eras. He bulldozes to the rim and converts still at an extremely high rate, but more-so than ever he’s relied on his three point shot as a means of adapting his game (and limiting the potential for injury on his body). He takes fewer shots in the midrange now, and according to Kirk Goldsberry, his average shot distance is almost 23 feet during the ‘21-’22 season. Part of this is age, and part of this is to accommodate playing with a talent like Anthony Davis, a player who lives inside the paint and three point line for most of his career. LeBron’s frequency to play out of the pick and roll with AD increased tenfold since joining the Lakers, leading him to an increased number of threes, open lanes to the rim, or playmaking anywhere in between. 

A Retro

It’s often that we take a retrospective on a player's career in the twilight of their playing days; Kobe and Wade’s farewell tours, players taking their last minimum deals with hopes of winning a ring. With these ceremonies celebrating these careers, we spend time remembering each moment, struggle and triumph that shaped the play-style, image, and character we see on the court each game, and how they evolved and changed as players in a league looking for the next new thing. The best often see their influence in the players in a generation after the peaks of their careers; Kobe, DWade, and Nash all saw their own disciples come into the league with a flair of their own, and moved into a mentorship role to each. 

With LeBron, he’s seen his influence in some of the up and coming stars in the league already. The blueprint of a point forward with scoring, playmaking, and defensive instincts can be seen throughout some parts of the league.

Is LeBron the best scorer ever? We could probably argue that ten different ways across players like KD, MJ, Kobe, Iverson, Harden, etc. in the rhetorical 1v1 matchup. But LeBron breaking this record is moreso proof of his longevity and consistency in not only being an amazing scorer, but learning how to score differently over time to win in many different situations. Very few times do we see a player keep playing and breaking records at the level LeBron has, with no short-term end in sight. It’s a fool's errand to try to predict when we’ll see LeBron start to really show his age, but it's important to take a step back and appreciate him continuing to cement his legacy as one of the most accomplished sports figures ever.

Tejas Priyadarshan
Data Scientist & Sports Enthusiast