When done, James will be Top 10 in points and as­sists

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS -

ca­reer av­er­age. But he’s above his ca­reer av­er­ages in re­bounds (8.0), as­sists (8.8), field-goal per­cent­age (55.4) and three-point per­cent­age (38.0). He’s shoot­ing a ca­reer-high 77.8 per­cent from the foul line.

James is also third in the league in min­utes at 36.9 a game. Not bad for an old man. When I asked Cavs coach Ty­ronn Lue if he would start mon­i­tor­ing LeBron’s min­utes as he looked to the play­offs, he an­swered a flat, “No.”

There’s no slow­ing James down (though he’s not the de­fen­sive player he once was). It’s not as if the most pow­er­ful player in the NBA is go­ing to al­low a coach to re­duce his play­ing time. In his 15th sea­son, he’s still the king, still look­ing to add to his re­mark­able legacy.

Lately, peo­ple have com­pared him with Tom Brady, and the par­al­lels are strik­ing. Like LeBron, Brady got bet­ter later in his ca­reer, putting up num­bers in the last five years that are bet­ter than his ca­reer norms. At 40, Brady is likely to win an­other MVP.

James has made it to eight NBA Fi­nals, in­clud­ing seven in a row, and won three ti­tles. Brady is look­ing to reach an eighth Su­per Bowl and win a sixth cham­pi­onship. He’s gun­ning for a sev­enth straight AFC ti­tle game ap­pear­ance.

Brady is seven years older than LeBron, and in rar­efied air as an elite quar­ter­back at 40. But hoop fans would ar­gue that it’s more phys­i­cally de­mand­ing to play NBA ball at the high­est lev­els for 100 games, in­clud­ing the post­sea­son, at an ad­vanced age.

“His age is not re­ally a fac­tor,” Lue said. “The 15 sea­sons since he came out of high school is the big­gest dif­fer­ence. Back in the day, when guys played 15 sea­sons, they were 36, 37 years old.

“Peo­ple would ap­pre­ci­ate it if they saw ev­ery day how he takes care of his body, the way he eats and con­di­tions and gets his work in. It runs with the elite. I see Kobe (Bryant) and (Michael) Jor­dan and those guys did the same thing. The most im­por­tant thing is tak­ing care of your body.”

At 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, James is a phys­i­cal freak, a point guard in a power for­ward’s body. He’s been de­scribed as part Magic John­son, part Karl Malone.

James is cur­rently 12th on the NBA’s ca­reer as­sist list with 7,832 and will one day be­come the only player in the Top 10 in scor­ing and as­sists.

James is sev­enth on the NBA’s ca­reer scor­ing list with 29,927 points. He’s on pace to reach 30,000 at home against Ok­la­homa City a week from Satur­day, join­ing Ka­reem Ab­dulJab­bar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jor­dan, Wilt Cham­ber­lain and Dirk Now­itzki.

“I’ve al­ready went fur­ther than I thought I would go,” James said. “So, ev­ery­thing else at this point is ex­tra credit. I’m at 15 years in, I’ve been in this spot­light for half of my years, maybe more. I’m 33 now, this (na­tional ex­po­sure) started when I was 15, so yeah, more. Eigh­teen years I’ve been in this light, so I’ve ex­ceeded ev­ery­thing I’ve ever dreamed about.”

That hardly means he’s con­tent. James wouldn’t be per­form­ing at such a high level if he wasn’t driven to even fur­ther achieve­ment. It’s win­ning that mat­ters most. He gets crit­i­cized for los­ing five times in the Fi­nals, in the way Brady is di­min­ished for los­ing two Su­per Bowls and four AFC ti­tle games.

But James is build­ing a strong case as the best ever to play. He might be­come the NBA’s all-time scor­ing leader, and he’s never been seen pri­mar­ily as a scorer. He’s al­ways thought of him­self as a fa­cil­i­ta­tor first and a scorer sec­ond. Top 10 on the as­sist and scor­ing lists tells you a lot.

He’s a bas­ket­ball junkie, and he knows he’s chas­ing Michael Jor­dan’s legacy. Jor­dan won six Fi­nals and didn’t lose any. He was the MVP and scor­ing cham­pion at 32, 33 and 34. But at some point, sus­tained great­ness can sur­pass cham­pi­onship per­fec­tion. James is to Jor­dan as Brady is to Joe Mon­tana.

James is a fiercely com­pet­i­tive man. After win­ning two ti­tles in Mi­ami, he re­turned to his na­tive Ohio and willed the Cavs to the 2016 ti­tle, snap­ping Cleve­land’s 52-year cham­pi­onship drought. Months later, he signed a three-year, $100 mil­lion con­tract, which has an opt-out clause after this sea­son.

It’s un­clear where he goes after this sea­son. There’s talk of him go­ing to a ma­jor city like LA or New York to pol­ish his legacy. Maybe a su­per team in Hous­ton, or stay­ing in Cleve­land. James said he wants to “break the mold” that says NBA play­ers can’t get mon­ster con­tracts when they reach their mid-30s.

But he has more ur­gent busi­ness. The Cava­liers, who won 13 in a row and 18 of 19 ear­lier this sea­son, have lost seven of their last nine (eight games on the road) go­ing back to a loss at the War­riors on Christ­mas Day. That in­cludes the first back-to-back, 25-point losses of James’s ca­reer, cul­mi­nat­ing in a 133-99 beat­down in Toronto.

Early in the day, James said the lull was typ­i­cal of the Cavs in re­cent years, but bris­tled at the sug­ges­tion that they were a team that could sim­ply “flip the switch” be­cause they gen­er­ally hit their stride at play­off time.

“No, no. I didn’t say that,” James said. “I didn’t say about hit­ting a switch. I didn’t sug­gest any­thing. I don’t play around with hit­ting the switch. That’s not how the game is played. You don’t cheat the game like that.”

LeBron was in a snarky mood after the Thurs­day night hu­mil­i­a­tion on TNT (he even ques­tioned my de­fense when I asked about theirs). Dur­ing a time­out, he had been seen scream­ing at an as­sis­tant coach on the Cavs’ bench – sort of like Brady ream­ing out his of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor dur­ing that game in Buf­falo.

“Lis­ten, we all got to be ac­count­able for our ac­tions,” James said after the loss. “We have to be ac­count­able for how we play, how hard we play, what we do for one an­other. There’s just some plays that you should come up with, that you should make. When you’re los­ing, you tend to not want to make those plays.”

A year ago, the Cavs went 10-14 to fin­ish the reg­u­lar sea­son. They won their first 10 play­off games and even­tu­ally lost to Golden State in the Fi­nals in five.

The Cavs are strug­gling right now. Their de­fense has been abom­inable. But if LeBron’s team­mates tend to coast now and then, con­fi­dent that he’ll be his usual dom­i­nat­ing self in the post­sea­son, who could blame them?

Come play­off time, James has a way of ris­ing to the mo­ment. How­ever this chap­ter ends, he prob­a­bly has sev­eral more in him. He talks about break­ing the mold, but when they made LeBron, they threw away the mold.

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