LeBron James: ‘The pass-first guy’ without a signature shot who scaled the NBA’s points mountaintop

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had his skyhook. Michael Jordan had his iconic fadeaway jump shot. So did Kobe Bryant. Steph Curry has those audacious pull-up three-pointers that he could probably swish into the basket without leaving the locker room in the Chase Centre. But when time comes to run the highlight reel on LeBron James’ career — the man who will end his career as the all-time top-scorer in the NBA, ahead of Kareem, Jordan, Bryant, Curry and everyone else to have played in the league — people might have to scratch their heads a little as they ponder the question: just what was James’s signature shot?

That is the question that will puzzle even the most devout fan of the 38-year-old, who on Wednesday overhauled Abdul-Jabbar’s longstanding record (the record was a few months older than James) of 38,387 points with an efficient performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He made it to the milestone in the third quarter, shooting 12-18 in 26 minutes of play and went to the free throw line ten times, making eight of those attempts. He reached the record with a fadeaway jumper.

For an athlete who has been closely monitored for every second he has been on the hardwood floor over the last 20 seasons as a basketball professional there are a handful of moments stuck in the mind that come close to providing the answer. There is that famous photograph from his Miami Heat days where James is suspended mid-air, about to dunk the ball into the net, while Dwyane Wade, on the floor arms outstretched, is already celebrating the move behind him.

So, is the dunk the shot that defines James? Maybe. But when people talk about James’ career highlight reel, the moment that has to be on top of the charts is one that is not even an attacking move: his chase-down block on Golden State Warriors’s Andre Iguodala in the NBA Finals, the series where he took the Cleveland Cavaliers from a 1-3 deficit to the title in seven games.

In an interview with ESPN earlier this year, James was asked what he considered to be his signature shot. It was a question that caused even him some trouble.

“I don’t know. It’s not like I have a signature one-legged Dirk (Nowitzki) fadeaway. Or a Michael Jordan fadeaway. Or a Kareem skyhook,” he said before conceding: “The only signature shot people talk about when they talk about me is the tomahawk dunk I have in transition.”

“When I say I’m not a scorer, I mean that’s never been the part of my game that defines me. I always wanted to be a triple threat: to rebound, assist and be able to score as well,” he added.

James has seen his role as an on-court quarterback. So much so that he sometimes gets flak for passing the ball rather than taking the shot himself.

“The guy makes the right play. That’s what a lot of players don’t do, particularly with this new AAU generation that are shoot-first and touch-first players. They just want to impact the game with having the ball in their hands and shoot, while everything else in secondary. LeBron viewed everything through a different prism and lens. He would use his talent and exceptional IQ to make the best offensive play for the team. He could dominate by scoring or by passing. There were games where he absolutely dominated the game just by passing and setting up his teammates,” Erik Spoelstra, who coached James at Miami Heat, told NBA.com earlier this year.

For Spoelstra, James ending a game with an eye-catching points total was so rare, that when he scored 61 points against the Charlotte Hornets in March 2014, Spoelstra preserved the box score sheet of that game.

“You know why I kept that? Because it was so unusual for LeBron to get 61 (points). Typically, he plays the game to involve everybody and to make the right basketball play,” he said.

Even coaches who have seen James’ ambition first-hand were taken aback when they realised that he had reached within touching distance of Abdul-Jabbar’s record.

Tyronn Lue, who coached him at Cavaliers, said: “I didn’t even think about the record until I started hearing the talk about how close he was. Last year, they were talking about if he averaged 20 something points through these many games this season … I thought, ‘Damn that’s it? You usually look at LeBron as a pass-first guy.”

That pass-first guy, who doesn’t really have a go-to, signature shot is now the all-time top scorer in the NBA.

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