By the time LeBron James played in four consecutive NBA Finals during his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he had already cemented himself as a global icon with multiple NBA championships, MVP awards and annual All-Star appearances. But his coach at the time, Tyronn Lue, saw more. He envisioned James becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
“We talked about it, that he had a chance, and he was like, ‘Oh whatever,’ ” Lue said, chuckling. “Now look at his 20th year. He’s right here.”
James is indeed right there. He needs just 63 points to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) for first place on the league’s all-time scoring list. The Lakers play at New Orleans on Saturday (6 ET, ESPN2).
“I never thought I could catch Kareem in scoring,” James told reporters recently. “That’s never been something that has been on my mind.”
Rarely has it been for some of James’ most influential former head coaches, which include Lue (Cleveland, 2014-18), Erik Spoelstra (Miami, 2010-14) and Mike Brown (Cleveland, 2005-10).
All three spoke to NBA.com about James’ upcoming milestone, the criticism he has faced for his scoring approach, his most impressive scoring performances and more.
Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversations took place separately throughout the 2022-23 season. They have been edited and condensed.
Did you ever envision LeBron James becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer?
Mike Brown: Anything he accomplishes doesn’t surprise me. He’s that good. It’s a huge deal to get the scoring title. But this is LeBron James. There’s nothing he’s going to do that’s going to make me say, ‘He did that?’ There’s all types of records he could break, if he put his mind to it.
Tyronn Lue: I didn’t even think about it 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 ’Bron as a pass-first guy. To be the all-time leading scorer is just crazy.
Erik Spoelstra: I certainly wasn’t paying attention to that 10 years ago. I thought that would be untouchable. But I definitely didn’t think about the context or perspective of it. It’s really incredible that LeBron is going to be the all-time leading scorer and arguably the most skilled passer. I think he could play until he’s 50 and break both of them [the scoring and assists records]. I think it would be amazing if he could break (John) Stockton’s record. He could do that as long as he plays long enough [laughs].
Where do you rank LeBron’s upcoming milestone in relation to the rest of his accomplishments?
Brown: This is huge. It’s up there. You’re talking about a scoring title in the history of the game. This doesn’t surprise me because of who he is and how focused he is at being the best. The scoring title is up there, but I’m more floored by how well he’s taken such good care of the people around him off the floor and how he has contributed to them having their own successful individual careers.
That’s almost a bigger deal than anything he’s done on the basketball court because he’s touched peoples’ lives in a way that no one else has done. I’m amazed by how he’s handled himself off the court, with his community work, where Maverick [Carter] is sitting and where Rich Paul is sitting. He’s so loyal and thoughtful with his approach. It’s not just about him and making money. It’s about him, his immediate family and his community. He’s uplifted the group like no other. That’s just as impactful as the scoring record.
Lue: This has to be No. 1, seeing how long Kareem has held this record (since 1984). I know LeBron has his championships and MVPs. But to be the all-time leading scorer in NBA history, considering all the great players that have come through this game? That’s a big-time accomplishment.
Spoelstra: It’s pretty incredible to go down as the all-time leading scorer. I’m still a coach and think you need to make the right plays and share the game and share the ball. But this game is also about putting the ball in the basket. To be the all-time best at putting the ball in the basket, that’s something.
What do you think of the criticism LeBron has received throughout his career that he’s too unselfish or unwilling take the big shot?
Brown: It’s bull—-. He’s a basketball player that knows how to win championships and lead his team. More importantly, he knows how to make the right play. You can have a lot of disgruntled teammates if you don’t know how, or choose not to make the right play at the right time. We wouldn’t have advanced against Washington (in the 2006 NBA playoffs) if he didn’t hit Damon Jones for a wide-open jumper in the left corner. Stuff like that not only won us games, it won us playoff series and brought our team closer together.
That helped us win series over time because of the respect and trust you need to have with a team to be great. So, it’s bullshit. He’s just a guy who is going to make the right play. He’s more than capable of winning games for you on a last possession. He’s hit game-winners. He hit one for us in a playoff game against Orlando at the top of the key [in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals]. He’s not afraid to do it. But he’s going to make the right play at the right time. As a coach, I can live with that.
Lue: He’s still averaged 28 points a game [laughs]. People are always going to try to critique his game. But some things are ridiculous. The man averaged 28 points a game (during his career). I don’t get it. He knows when to turn it up and turn it on and when to get guys involved and get guys shots. He’s mastered that.
Spoelstra: I thought it was stupid and silly. 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.
For an unselfish player — which LeBron has been his entire career — there were too many instances during our time together that he was criticized for being too unselfish. To say that about the all-time leading scorer in the history of the game? It shows that even with his talent and ability to score, he always wants to play the right way. He wants to get everybody involved. He wants his teammates to score and feel like they have a role in it. That’s what I feel is most remarkable.
What was LeBron’s best scoring performance when you coached him, and what do you remember about that specific game?
Brown, on LeBron’s 48-point performance against Detroit in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals: In that game, he had 25 points in a row for us (from 2:16 left in the fourth quarter through two overtimes). We were one of the first teams that started playing spread pick-and-roll. That’s one of the reasons we got Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall and Daniel Gibson. We knew LeBron liked the ball at the top of the floor. We knew that he was unstoppable when he had the ball there. We spread guys out, let him go downhill and make plays.
Our offense was not tricky. Everyone knew what was coming, but people still couldn’t stop it. When he wasn’t as great a shooter as he is now, for him to be able to score that many points in a row in a playoff game against a top-five defense? The veterans, size and length they had on that team was absolutely remarkable. I just wanted to make sure we got the hell out of his way.
Lue, on LeBron’s playoff career-high 51 points against Golden State in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals and his 57-point effort against Washington on Nov. 3, 2017: That 51-point game he had against Golden State in the Finals was so easy. It wasn’t loud. At the end of the game, I was like, ‘Damn, he had 51?’ The 57 against the Wizards was very loud. He had a lot of dunks and 3s. The fans were really into it. He loves playing in Washington, and the fans were going crazy. There are times I’ve seen him where he has that look. Then I know tonight is going to be a great night. He’s always been able to put together those type of games where his back is against the wall. If he needs to be a scorer, he will do that.
Spoelstra, on LeBron’s regular-season career-high 61-point performance against the Charlotte Hornets on March 3, 2014 and his play against San Antonio in the 2013 NBA Finals: The way [the Hornets] were scheming, they were trying to take away everything else. That was a perfect example of them trying to limit our ball movement and trying to get everyone else involved. LeBron just said, ‘Okay, if that’s the coverage, then I’m going to annihilate that coverage until you make an adjustment.’ They did, but he still ended up going for 61. I still keep the box score 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. That’s sometimes becoming a foreign concept in this league.
When we played San Antonio in the Finals (in 2013 and 2014), that was definitely one of their schemes. They wanted to limit all of the role players and force LeBron and Dwyane [Wade] to make a bunch of perimeter shots. That showed the improvement of LeBron’s game at that time. Now, he’s a brilliant 3-point shooter. He’s going to kill you no matter what the coverage is. But back then, that still was the game plan. It was to force him to shoot long jumpers and do whatever you had to do to keep him from getting into the paint and to keep him from involving other players. San Antonio did it better than anybody with trying to set out to limit the role players. Fittingly in Game 7 (in 2013) LeBron had to knock down two big jump shots under pressure to seal the series down the stretch to help us win that championship.
How has LeBron evolved as a scorer?
Brown: If he had a quote-unquote weakness back in the day, it was him consistently making shots from the outside. But you knew with his work ethic that he would get to the point where he would be one of the better 3-point shooters in the game. He’s at the point now where you can’t disrespect his ability to shoot the ball. You can’t play him soft and can’t play under pick and rolls. With his intelligence, feel, size, strength and vision and passing ability, he’s almost impossible to guard. With his work ethic alone, you knew he would have no weaknesses at a certain point in his career. That’s how he’s been able to get the records he has now, particularly the scoring record. It takes a toll on your body to have to get downhill and score through traffic on every play. Your game has to be versatile. He is at the forefront of it.
In order to be able to score at the level he’s scored at, you also have to have teammates that are willing to get you the ball at the right time. Part of what goes into that is having teammates that trust you and feel confident you will get them the ball back if they are open. To be able to be that unselfish and still score at the level he’s capable of scoring at, that’s a testament to him being a great teammate.
Lue: He’s always been a scorer, but he’s always been the type of guy that will make the right play. You see a lot of great scorers that are shooting over double- and triple-teams and doing what they can to take tough shots. He just takes the right shot. If it’s the end of the game and two are on him when he has the ball and a guy is wide open, the guy is going to get the basketball. That’s what makes him different.
Spoelstra: LeBron is arguably the best mimic in the history of the game. He would watch somebody’s move and say, ‘I like that, I want to put that in my toolkit.’ He worked on it for two or three weeks and then it became a weapon immediately. He applied it in games under pressure. By year two or three, we needed him to be a post-up threat and be a force. He couldn’t just be a passing threat. He had to be somebody that had a go-to move in his game. Pat [Riley] had talked to him about developing a little bit of a running hook like Kareem and Magic [Johnson]. LeBron said, ‘That’s kind of interesting.’ He worked on it and all of a sudden it became a weapon.
Then he worked diligently with Coach [David] Fizdale on his turnaround jumpshots like Michael [Jordan] on either shoulder. He became so deadly that teams were forced to do what they didn’t want to do. That was to put two defenders on him in the post. Now arguably one of the top passing threats in the history of the game can get everybody involved. It took that work to be able to get some go-to shots that were so incredibly valuable for us. It really speaks to his work ethic. He was really committed to his development.
He also started watching Ray Allen and his whole shooting routine. I think that was the genesis with what you’re seeing now with his 3-point game. He’s so deadly behind the 3-point line. He would watch Ray. Whatever Ray’s routine was, LeBron would do it. We never played LeBron like that. He wasn’t really using it with us. He would just do Ray’s routine and eventually, that became what he could do right now. He would also watch Dwyane with his cuts and off-ball movement. Then LeBron would say, ‘I’m going to do all of that.’ LeBron would watch [Chris] Bosh and take his flares and pick and rolls and how he got to the rim. It became a big part of our system, especially when we were playing him at the 4. Whatever any great player is doing, he’s going to watch it and add it to his tool kit.
What have you seen in LeBron’s training and diet regimen that has helped him play this long?
Brown: You talk about pre-practice work or post-practice work, he’s getting it in. A lot of guys usually pick one or the other. But at a young age, he was doing both. After we got knocked out in the  Eastern Conference Finals, I was at the office three days later and I brought my son, Elijah, with me when he was in middle school. We were in my office, and Elijah told me he wanted to go shoot. After going to the gym, he comes back to the office seconds later and says, ‘Dad! LeBron’s here! He’s in the weight room!’ He wondered, ‘What’s he doing here, we just lost! Shouldn’t he be in the Bahamas on vacation?!’
I laughed. I said, ‘Buddy, everybody thinks LeBron just walks into this phone booth and comes out as Superman. They don’t understand how hard he works to be who he is.’ When he’d go on vacation, he’d always take one of our player development coaches with him. He was one of the first guys to hire a personal trainer in Mike Mancias to get ahead of the curve on taking care of his body. Mike knew his body from the beginning. He knew how he could grow as a person and player. He was ahead of the curve on the things a lot of players do today.
Lue: The work he put in with his body. No matter what time we landed or got in, he always did his activation with Mancias. Even if we get in at 2 o’clock in the morning, at 7 o’clock he’s still doing his activation and taking care of his body. That’s the biggest thing. If you take care of your body, you can play for a long time. He has done that and produced at a high level for the past 20 years.
Spoelstra: I always saw somebody who was committed. All the young players come in and always want to know about LeBron’s routine. It’s one of our favorite things to talk about. No. 1, he was always one of the first in our building and always one of the last to leave. His locker was always immaculate. You can say it doesn’t matter. It does to us. He folded his own clothes and kept everything pristine. He didn’t want anybody’s locker next to him being messy. He was very organized.
He would have his routine in the weight room doing body work. Then on the court, he would do his player development work. He was ahead of his time in terms of nutrition. Once he left the building, he was doing extra yoga classes, pilates, lifting and extra conditioning. He constantly was doing another shooting workout in the evening. Probably one of the most beneficial things he has ever done is he never got out of shape during the summer. Some players will take two or three months off, and then they are spending the next six weeks just working to get back into shape. LeBron would maybe take two or three days off. It’s not like he’s doing training camp workouts. But he never would get out of shape. When he needed to get to that next level, it would only take a week. That’s an incredible lesson that we always try to pass along to our young guys coming into the building.
Twenty years from now, what do you think you’ll remember most about LeBron?
Brown: Probably his intelligence. He’s the most intelligent player that I’ve been fortunate, blessed and lucky to be around. That is the first thing that comes to mind. Then the second thing is his ability to pass the basketball is second to none. Is he better than Magic? I don’t know. But I know he’s right up there with Magic.
Lue: His greatness overall, his longevity and being on top for so long. He came in [to the league] and became way better than people thought he could be. He came in at 18 years old with that kind of pressure. But from Day One to the 20th year in his career, he’s still been on top.
Spoelstra: I don’t know. I’m just extremely grateful we all had an opportunity to collaborate and come together and do something special. There were so many of us that were just along for the ride [laughs]. That’s a great life experience. My kids right now have no idea about any of that. They just think it’s amazing that I know the person that is in “Space Jam” [laughs]. They wanted to come to our last Lakers game not to see LeBron James, the basketball player. They just wanted to see the dude in “Space Jam.” They think it’s really cool.
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