NBA legends on why ‘LeBron’s in his own category’ of greatness

LeBron James has been great for so long that it was easy to take the Los Angeles Lakers forward for granted. But as he approaches the NBA’s all-time scoring record, the entire sports world has taken notice.

“I always thought Kareem was like on another planet with that particular record,” said the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, the winningest NBA coach of all-time. “[LeBron’s] commitment to the game and to what he has to do has allowed him to be in this position.”

James is 36 points away from passing Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA-record total of 38,387 entering Tuesday’s game, and is averaging 30 points per game this season, meaning he could set a new all-time mark against Oklahoma City at home. When he does, he’ll overtake a record Abdul-Jabbar has held for over 38 years and one that many believed he’d hold forever.

The funny thing is, James has always considered himself more of a playmaker than a scorer – something he has reiterated many times as he approached this accomplishment.

Those who have observed him closest – coaches who have collaborated with and competed against LeBron, from Gregg Popovich to Steve Kerr – point toward specific qualities that set him apart and drive his greatness. Five legends of the game spoke recently about what makes LeBron James special.


Kidd is in awe of James for being able to do everything on the court, especially considering his size.

“When you’re 6-8, 250-ish you can set screens, you have the ability to play the five or the power forward position,” Kidd said. “But he can play all five [positions], and coach at the same time and help his team win.”

When asked if there’s another player in league history who could play all five positions, Kidd was stumped.

“Oscar [Robertson] play all five?” Kidd asked. “Maybe Magic [Johnson]? I think when you talk about LeBron, LeBron’s in his own category.”

Kidd has viewed James’ game from every angle. He has played with him (2008 Olympics), played against him (2003-13), coached him (as an assistant for the Lakers from 2019-21) and coached against him (currently as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks).

Even though James has been a primary playmaker for much of his career, during the 2019-20 season, the Lakers tasked him with formally being the team’s starting point guard for the first time.

James responded by leading the league in assists (10.2), and guiding the Lakers to their first championship in 10 years. Kidd, a Hall of Famer who became widely considered as one of the greatest point guards ever over his 19 seasons in the league, believes James’ ability to adapt is unparalleled.

In fact, he believes James is the greatest NBA player of all-time.

“I think it’s not the [scoring] record that’s going to make him the best, it’s the total package that’s going to make him the best when you look at what he has achieved in his career since Day 1,” Kidd said.

While many are wowed by what James is doing at age 38, Kidd won his only NBA championship at the same age. The team he beat in the 2011 NBA Finals? James’ Miami Heat. By then, Kidd had become more of a role player than a superstar, averaging 7.9 points and 8.2 assists during the 2010-11 season.

“At 38, there’s a lot of duct tape that hopefully doesn’t get wet and falls apart,” Kidd said. “…Maybe [James] does jump out of bed, knowing him. But at 38 or 39, I was sliding. Your feet slide across the floor. You’re not picking your feet up. So it’s just remarkable that he still has the impact at 38. The numbers that he’s putting up are remarkable.”

When asked how much longer Kidd believes James can keep this up, Kidd shrugged.

“Three or four more years and I don’t want to short-change him,” Kidd said. “He could keep this up longer than that. He could be the [NBA’s] Tom Brady if he wants.”

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Rivers has coached against James for 20 years, but one moment in particular stands out most to him.

After James’ Cleveland Cavaliers fell to Rivers’ Boston Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals, Rivers noticed a change in the superstar when he joined the Heat in free agency that summer.

Early in a game during the 2010-11 season, James amazed Rivers.

“We called out a set, and he turns around and starts calling out our sets,” the current Philadelphia 76ers coach said. “And I turned around to whoever’s sitting next to me…and I said, ‘Uh oh. He’s become a student.’

“Early on, he was just playing. He was just better than everybody. But you could run stuff out of timeouts. You could attack him. You could attack his team, even. And that last year we beat them with the Boston Celtics, the next year, that summer, there was definitely a switch to him, meaning, ‘I gotta be better than just a great player. I gotta be a student. I gotta know everything.'”

James has always known he has had a mental advantage over his opponents. Since he was a teenager, he saw plays before they happened. He knows where every player should be on the court at all times.

As he has advanced in his career, he has increasingly leaned into that power, even recently using it as a way to compensate for any minor losses of agility.

“I always knew that [if] any part of my game, as far as athleticism, would start to go down, that I could still out-think a lot of my competition,” James said. “And as my athleticism goes down a little bit, I knew I could expand my game up.

“Early on, it was a lot of just speed and jumping and then figuring it out. And you get smarter and smarter, you say, ‘Teams know they can key on these things, so how can I make sure that I am unguardable and can always put myself in position where I do what I want to do — and not what the defense wants me to do.'”

Midway through James’ four seasons in Miami (2010-14), Rivers noticed that he had polished his fadeaway, which may be the closest thing he has to a signature shot. James’ name doesn’t often come to mind when thinking about the league’s pure shooters, but he undeniably has one of its most effective shots. In fact, James has made the most game-winners in playoff history (six), compared to Michael Jordan’s three.

Around the same time, James also became a legitimate threat from beyond the 3-point line, going from shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie in 2003-04 to a career-high 40.6 percent from that distance with the Heat in 2012-13.

James had long been a superstar in the NBA, but when he became a student of the game and tweaked his play accordingly, Rivers believes he truly became unstoppable.

James went on to lead the Heat to the 2011 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Mavericks in six games. The following two seasons, James won back-to-back titles.

For Rivers, that moment early in the 2010-11 season was a precursor to it all.

“I literally turned and said, ‘Oh, we’re in trouble,'” Rivers said. “Because from that point on, you look at him in games for the next 10 years, you had to run plays away from him. You had to keep him out of plays. It became very problematic, especially at the end of games. And that was with his knowledge.”

As for his place in history, Rivers believes James is in rarified air.

“I think he’s going to have the greatest career of all-time,” Rivers said. “I think he’s already had it. I think Michael [Jordan] is the greatest of all-time, but that doesn’t take anything away from LeBron. LeBron’s had the greatest career.”


Long before James became a star, he was focused on longevity.

“Even when I was younger, you can ask any of my best friends growing up: before I went to sleep, I would stretch,” James said. “As soon as I would wake up, I would stretch. This is, like, I was 10 years old.

“In high school I was one of the few guys that would ice after the game. And my rookie year, I was icing after the game as well. But as I got older and older and older, I started to figure out other ways that I could kind of beat Father Time by putting in more time on my game and putting in more time on my craft — but, mostly, on my body and my mind.”

Lue, who coached James to three straight Finals from 2016-18, said the way the star took care of his body was what impressed him most.

“No matter what time we land, what time we get in, he’s always going to do his activation with [trainer] Mike Mancias,” said Lue, the current LA Clippers coach. “If we get in at 2 a.m., at 7 a.m., he’s doing his activations and taking care of his body.”

For James, taking care of his body has long been a priority.

He tries to get 12 hours of sleep a night. He’s religious about taking naps, even using an app to cue him when it’s time to nod off. He takes regular ice baths. He does yoga. He meditates. He arrives at the arena around five hours before tip-off to properly warm up his muscles.

It has all proved deeply necessary.

James has played in 10 NBA Finals, including eight consecutively from 2011-18. That adds up to well over another two seasons of extra mileage on top of his already 20 seasons in the league.

After Lue took over the helm of the Cavaliers midway through the 2015-16 season, he believes James’ incredibly rare combination of physical stamina and mental fortitude led to one of the most impressive feats in the game.

James led the Cavaliers to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 Finals, the only team in league history to accomplish that type of comeback in the championship round. And he did it against the Golden State Warriors, who finished that regular season with the best record ever (73-9).

“I think that was really his biggest accomplishment of his career,” Lue said.

Lue started doing the math during that time, realizing that the superstar could surpass Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record. He even brought it up to James, but the star dismissively shrugged that off at the time.

“I never thought that I could catch Kareem in scoring,” James said. “It’s never been something that was on my mind.”

But now that day has almost arrived. And Lue, who has seen what it has taken behind the scenes for him to get here, won’t miss it for the world. In fact, Lue said even if it meant he had to cross multiple time zones and miss coaching one of his own games, he’d do whatever it takes to be at that arena when James breaks the scoring record.

“I want to fly to wherever they’re playing and go to that game,” Lue said. “That’s a very, very special moment that you want to be a part of, something that could not be broken for a long, long time in this league.”

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has long marveled at James’ skillset after facing him in three NBA Finals (2007 against the Cavaliers, and 2013 and 2014 against the Heat).

There’s the amazing passing. The rebounding. The clutch shooting. The lockdown defense. And above all else, his ability to roar through lanes.

“He’s still like a locomotive coming down the court,” Popovich told reporters. “Nobody seems to want to get in front of him. Maybe that’s a life wish, that they want to continue life.”

But what Popovich finds most impressive about James has nothing to do with any of that.

Popovich can’t believe how well James has managed the immense pressure he has been under since he first entered the league. He doesn’t think any NBA player has experienced anything like it.

“Nobody,” Popovich said. “Nobody. No player even [was] close, it was constant – it didn’t matter what he did, somebody wanted more.”

When James attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High, so many scouts and fans attended his games that they had to be moved to the University of Akron to accommodate the thousands of people in the stands. As a junior, James was labeled “The Chosen One” by a 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story. And when he was selected by the Cavaliers as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, the attention — and scrutiny — skyrocketed to unprecedented levels.

During that time, no matter what James did, he was criticized.

“It used to anger me when he first came in,” Popovich said. If he made a pass, somebody said he should’ve shot it. And if he shot the ball, he should’ve passed it. It really would anger me because they would just deal with the negative. And it was sort of a fake negative in a way.”

Popovich even began standing up for James.

“Whenever I’d be around him or whenever I would have a chance, I would say it publicly, like, ‘Why don’t you guys talk to him? He did this or he did that,'” Popovich said.

Popovich believes James navigated the crushing pressure with incredible grace.

James kept his head down and worked hard. He didn’t get into trouble. In fact, the biggest controversy he may have had over the last 20 years was when he announced he was joining the Heat in free agency in 2010 in an over-the-top nationally televised ESPN special called “The Decision,” which was universally criticized.

All in all, despite being under a microscope for so long, James has flourished.

Other players may have crumpled while having their every move picked apart since they were a teenager. But James just kept surpassing every expectation.

For Popovich, that’s what stands out.

“The way he handled himself in the middle of all of that,” Popovich said. “Because all of us, we don’t know what that is to have that kind of attention and those kinds of demands. For somebody like him, I can’t even fathom. And he was super.”

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If there’s one opposing coach who has thought about LeBron James the most over the past eight years, it’s very likely Kerr. His Warriors faced James’ Cavaliers in four straight Finals from 2015-19, winning three championships.

Kerr believes that James is unlike any player he’s ever seen.

“To me, he was like a combination of [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen,” Kerr said, referring to his former teammates on the Chicago Bulls. “Pippen was always a point-forward who loved to run the offense and get the ball to other people. And that’s what LeBron reminds me of, but with the ability to go get 40 [points] any time like Michael. Very different and unique.”

When asked how much real estate James has taken up in Kerr’s brain, he chuckled.

“He takes up space in every single aspect of what you have to game plan for, whether it’s his scoring or his passing but also his defense,” Kerr said. “He’s really smart, so he sniffs out plays late-game. He understands what teams are trying to do. So, that’s a huge part of it all. You’re constantly factoring in where he’s going to be, what he’s thinking, where he’s going to attack.”

For Kerr, nothing exemplified that more than Game 1 of the 2018 Finals when James had 51 points in 47 minutes on 59.4 percent shooting, eight rebounds and eight assists in the Warriors’ 124-114 overtime win.

At that time, James didn’t have a great supporting cast. In fact, it may have been the worst team he has taken to the Finals other than the 2007 Cavaliers.

But even without much help, James nearly single-handedly carried his team past what was considered one of the greatest rosters ever assembled in Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the biggest of stages. (If it weren’t for a late-game mistake by J.R. Smith and a disputed foul that involved James, the Cavaliers might have even won that contest.)

“He was just stunning,” said Kerr, whose Warriors swept that series. “He really was.”

Those heated battles against James over the years were the ultimate chess match for Kerr. How do you stop a player who needs to be double-teamed, but also has laser court vision to find the open man?

For Kerr, that’s what makes James so special. In a league in which many players look at scoring as the ultimate form of success, James’ love for playmaking really stands out. That’s the beautiful irony of it all. James can score whenever he wants, and often does, prolifically. But his game is so much more than that.

“I think his favorite thing to do is to get a great assist,” Kerr said. “When you factor in he’s about to become the all-time leading scorer in league history and he doesn’t even really fashion himself a scorer? That’s nuts.

“I think it’s a reminder of how unique he is. There’s literally moments every single night he plays that are jaw-dropping.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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