Sometime next week, when LeBron James is expected to supplant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the most prolific scorer in NBA history, his case as the greatest player ever could be made by a creative series of simple facts.
More points than Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
More assists than Magic Johnson.
More rings than Larry Bird.
It has a nice ring to it, if you will, for those trying to elevate James and his four championships above Jordan and his six.
But on the subject of his assists — James is about to hurdle Mark Jackson and Steve Nash for fourth all time — LeBron’s willingness to share the ball has always distinguished him, and could make for an appealing free-agent option for Irving if he leaves Brooklyn this summer. Though James is obviously not a distributor in the same league with Magic, whose career was shortened by HIV, he has been a relatively selfless superstar for most of his 20-year career.
That truth makes Kyrie Irving’s decision to divorce him more than five years ago as confounding as anything he’s ever done. And that’s saying a mouthful.
Monday night in Brooklyn, the Nets point guard didn’t get a chance to face his former teammate, not after James was ruled out with left ankle soreness and a bruised psyche caused by that foul call the refs admitted blowing in Saturday night’s overtime loss to the Celtics. Irving scored 26 and the Nets beat the Lakers’ scout team, 121-104, while James wore a stylish sweater as he sat at the end of the bench next to Anthony Davis.
In the third quarter, James stood and mimicked some spin moves for Davis. That was all the action he would deliver for a Barclays Center crowd — including thousands of Lakers fans — who didn’t get what it paid for.
“We gave the keys to the whole entire business to an 18-year-old kid and now he’s 38 years old and he’s still dominating,” Irving said. “I don’t think we should be surprised. … I’m enjoying the show and I wish we could’ve gotten a chance to play against one another. But who knows what can happen down the line?”
Was that last line a hint of a potential reunion to come, with a wink? Or just a throwaway press conference line from a point guard who can dish with the best of ’em?
LeBron left quickly after the game, stopping in the loading dock for small talk with the likes of Victor Cruz before heading with his security detail into the night. James could afford to miss this game, especially since Kevin Durant remains out with an MCL injury and especially since his Lakers are scheduled to play Tuesday night in his favorite gym — Madison Square Garden. The King isn’t about to sit out that one after getting himself suspended for last year’s Garden trip.
The lack of available star power in Brooklyn naturally put the spotlight on Irving, whose old partnership with James won a championship for the Cavaliers in 2016, ending a title drought among pro sports teams in Cleveland that lasted more than half a century.
At the time, it appeared the 31-year-old James and 24-year-old Irving could dominate the Eastern Conference and win another few rings together by doing their Jordan-and-Scottie-Pippen, Batman-and-Robin thing. At least until Irving starting hunting for a team that wouldn’t ask him to defer to James or anyone else.
Ultimately the burden of being The Man with the Celtics weighed on Irving and negatively impacted his relationships with teammates. Irving would call James and apologize for, in his words, “being that young player who wanted everything at his fingertips.”
“I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader,” Irving said. “I wanted to be all that, and the responsibility of being the best in the world and leading your team is something that is not meant for many people.”
This admission was filed under too little, too late. Irving left the Celtics and tried to recreate what he had with James by signing with the Nets and teaming up with another bigger, better player in Durant. It hasn’t worked.
Maybe James would have left for Hollywood in 2018 with or without Irving, maybe not. Either way, Kyrie’s fast break out of Cleveland guaranteed he’d never again play with someone as gifted as James, or more willing and able to get him the ball.
James has averaged 7.3 assists per game for his career, or 2 more than Jordan, 2.6 more than Bryant, and 3 more than Durant. In their final hours together in Cleveland, after Irving averaged 1.5 shots per game more than James, LeBron reportedly opposed management’s decision to trade him.
As a free agent this summer, Irving could rejoin James and try to make up for lost time. If nothing else this year, after committing so many unforced errors on so many fronts, Irving has reminded everyone of all he can do when focused on his job.
He’s also reminded everyone of just how special his career could have been had he found happiness as a young star by LeBron James’s side.