NEW YORK — LeBron James will head to Philadelphia ready to reach another NBA milestone, one that will justifiably receive loads of attention, since it involves passing Kobe Bryant on the NBA scoring list.
Still, the version of LeBron James that will enter the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night to face the 76ers is much different this year, and both he and the Lakers are thriving. That has been a big story, as well.
Even though he is listed as a frontcourt player on the NBA All-Star ballot, James is the Lakers’ point guard. Over the years, he has been a de facto point guard, and his passing ability is legendary.
This season, he is the point guard: bringing the ball up the court all the time, running the offense, and seeing his assists total, and his team’s wins total, soar.
The Lakers, who incredibly did not qualify for the postseason the previous six seasons, are back in the NBA-championship conversation. They are 36-9 with the best record in the Western Conference and the second-best in the NBA, behind the Milwaukee Bucks (39-6). The Lakers also are second to the Bucks in The Inquirer’s latest NBA power rankings.
The addition of All-Star forward-center Anthony Davis has made a huge difference, as expected. But James’ taking control of the point also has been a major factor in the Lakers’ success.
“Me being a facilitator for this team at the point guard position or being at my natural position at the three [small forward], or just being out on the floor, that is enjoyable to me because I am still playing the game I love to play,” the three-time NBA champion said after Wednesday’s 100-92 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Now in his 17th season, James, 35, has a chance to accomplish something he has never done before: lead the NBA in assists per game. He is averaging a career-high 10.8 assists, tops in the league. He already has more assists, 464, than he did last season when he had 454 in 55 games during a frustrating campaign in which he missed 27 games because of a groin injury. The Lakers couldn’t overcome his absence.
First-year Lakers coach Frank Vogel, a 1991 graduate of Wildwood High School and a former Sixers assistant coach, felt strongly that James would thrive as the point guard, especially with the addition of Davis.
“To me, he has played that position his whole life. It is just a matter of not having another true point guard out there while he was doing it,” Vogel said. “We wanted to see how it looked.”
Vogel and his staff liked what they saw.
“To me, he has really excelled with the lineups we have had out there,” Vogel said. “He is leading the league in assists, he is having the best passing game of his career, and so far, so good.”
James’ all-around ability has long put him in the discussion of the all-time NBA greats. While scoring gets all the attention, he is one of nine players in NBA history with at least 9,000 assists. James is eighth all-time with 9,126.
Shooting guard Danny Green is happy to be reunited with James after signing with the Lakers following a season in which he won the NBA title with the Toronto Raptors. Green played with James in Cleveland as a rookie in 2009-10.
“He makes the game easy for everybody around him. He is a great facilitator. He will find you on time, on target,” Green said. “When he finds you, he usually wants you to shoot it right there and then because you are probably wide-open.”
Vogel says the supporting cast has made it a smooth transition for James to be a full-time point guard.
“This team is no different than any team,” Vogel said. “A quarterback has to have wide receivers.”
Davis is more like a tight end and he has provided the biggest target for James, but the Lakers might not be finished adding talent. They are expected to acquire another shooter/scorer by the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
Whether they make moves or not, the Lakers and James will make a grand return to the postseason.
Before last season, James had competed in the NBA Finals for eight consecutive years. Last season also snapped a string of 13 consecutive years for James in the playoffs. He has played in 239 playoff games, the equivalent of nearly three full regular seasons.
The move to point guard hasn’t affected his scoring much. James still is averaging 25.2 points, although it is his lowest since he averaged 20.9 as a rookie in 2003-2004.
Still, his scoring is the subject of the latest media attention. James needs 18 points against the Sixers to pass Bryant for third on the all-time NBA scoring list. James has 33,626 points. Ahead of Bryant (33,643) are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) and Karl Malone (36,928).
Asked about passing Bryant, James, a noted NBA historian, said, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it too much.”
James was more than happy to talk about Bryant, whose career spanned 1996-2016. Like James, Bryant also went from high school (Lower Merion) directly to the NBA.
“He is a guy I looked up to when I was in high school,” James said. “He came right out of high school and is somebody who has been an inspiration.”
James and Bryant were teammates on the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic teams that won gold medals. Both have been big winners, with Bryant having five NBA rings, but they arrived at their success using different styles.
“I am more of a facilitator, and he is a natural-born scorer," James said, "[but] we would have worked well together, as you saw on the Olympic team.”
Now, the two have another thing in common that James is proud of.
“Just to be able at this point of my career to be able to share the same jersey that he wore, he was so [great] for the franchise,” James said. “Representing the purple and gold, Kobe is a legend. That is for damn sure.”
Vogel is often asked to compare the two superstars, but he stays away from any comparisons.
“They are both all-time greats and I am happy for LeBron that he can continue to achieve these milestones,” Vogel said. “We want to put him in the best position we can to continue to do that.”