“My motivation,” LeBron James once told Sports Illustrated, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.” Wednesday night, he caught him. With 32,311 career points, LeBron James now sits in fourth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list. Michael Jordan is fifth.
The problem was that the milestone came in the middle of this disastrous Lakers season. L.A. lost to the Nuggets Wednesday, and the Lakers were down 18 points in the first half when LeBron bullied his way past Nikola Jokic and finished through a Torrey Craig blocking foul. When his runner fell through the hoop and the record was broken, James stood triumphantly on the baseline and raised his arm four times—fourth all-time. Then he moved back to the court to hug Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Then it was onto quick hug-handshakes with the other Lakers sharing the court with him: Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, and Javale McGee.
The Nuggets blowout continued through the rest of the half. At one point, ESPN announcer Mark Jackson asked, "Is this a summer league game?" To which his partner Dave Pasch replied, "That might be a shot at summer league. I think the defense is better there.”
We've all spent a decade living through a neverending argument about where LeBron ranks historically, but on this point, everyone should agree: Last night was depressing.
If you believe LeBron is the greatest player of all time, he deserved a night that would allow the whole world to admire and appreciate what he’s accomplished. And even if you don't think LeBron is better than Jordan, it's clear that he's one of the five greatest players ever. It felt wrong to watch him overtake Jordan in front of fans who missed his entire career, with teammates he barely knows, in a game he lost in the first half, during a season that's been getting progressively more demoralizing for almost eight weeks now.
"There's a lot of stuff that I've done in my career," James said afterward. "This ranks right up there at the top. For a kid from Akron, Ohio, that needed inspiration, MJ was that guy for me. I wanted to be like MJ. Shoot fadeaways like MJ. Stick my tongue out like MJ. I wanted kids to look up to me like MJ. It's crazy, to be honest. It's beyond crazy."
I can't blame him for saying the right things and doing his best to honor the moment, but the night just felt off. Wednesday should have been a crowning achievement, but it didn't quite translate on TV. Anyone who actually watched the game saw a grim reminder of how complicated LeBron's final chapter could be.
With the score mostly secondary and announcers trained on every move LeBron made, the first half was like watching Kobe during his final year. The problem, obviously, is that LeBron has another three seasons to play in L.A. For now, the Lakers have lost eight of 10 games in the middle of what was once a playoff push. "At the end of the day we're still struggling," James said postgame Wednesday. "I hate that for our franchise. I hate that for our fans. I hate that for myself."
It's not that passing Jordan on the scoring list is some watershed moment that was always going to define his career. If the game itself wasn't as satisfying as it could've been, that's fine. There are dozens of other memories that James will be remembered by regardless. But in the smaller moments we saw Wednesday, I couldn't help imagining how much more enjoyable that night would have been in Cleveland.
If LeBron had never left the Cavs, he would have been beloved all over Ohio, and probably throughout most of the league. Even if he failed to recruit superstars to join him for his twilight, an entire generation of fans would have been rooting for him to cheat death and continue to dominate the East each spring. As the years passed, he would have failed more often, and outsiders would definitely mention his lack of titles in any Jordan conversation. But there would have been a bigger group scolding those critics, worshipping him regardless, cursing Kevin Durant's decision, and lamenting the level playing field that LeBron never had over the final few years at his peak.
And this is important: LeBron didn't stay in Cleveland because he would never have been satisfied with life as a sentimental favorite. Regardless of whether any of us should care about ranking legends, LeBron does, and always has. He wants to be better than Jordan. He decided that he wouldn't be able to recruit superstars to Ohio for the final stretch of his career and that the title window had closed in Cleveland. Living year-round in L.A. came with a chance to build an entertainment empire, but unless you think LeBron just punted the end of his career, the basketball case was every bit as important. The Lakers were offering cap space for additional stars, trade assets, and the chance to spend the next few years building one more title contender with the entire world watching.
“My career is totally different than Michael Jordan’s,” James said in 2016. “What I’ve gone through is totally different than what he went through. What he did was unbelievable, and I watched it unfold. I looked up to him so much. I think it’s cool to put myself in position to be one of those great players, but if I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”
He's in position now. He will never have six titles and the impossible myth that Jordan cultivated over the course of his career, but LeBron has faced tougher competition than Jordan ever did. He's revolutionized the way players wield power and manipulated the league in a way that Jordan never could. He’ll likely retire as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Couple that with almost 20 years of dominance, and LeBron’s individual numbers will be every bit as staggering as anything Jordan ever did. If he can build a fourth championship team on top of all that, he’ll have succeeded in three radically different situations, with the final triumph coming on the biggest stage basketball has to offer. Plenty of NBA fans, probably a majority, would say he’s better than Jordan in that scenario. All of that is still on the table.
It remains genuinely shocking how poorly this has gone in the meantime. LeBron has lost to the Clippers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pelicans in the past two weeks. A Klutch-backed Anthony Davis power play failed miserably. The locker room has been fractured ever since. Veterans free agents were handpicked by LeBron or the front office (or both), and they have been disastrous. The defense has been horrendous. Lakers fans are restless. The season is lost.
In the final minute Wednesday, James had left the game and the Nuggets were back up by 18 points after surviving a shortlived Lakers comeback. ESPN caught Rondo sitting in courtside seats, 20 feet from his teammates on the Lakers bench. As Pasch said to Jackson, "You made the point when the Lakers were giving up 43 points in the first quarter, who's caring right now? Who's holding who accountable?" And Jackson replied, "Who's caring? Who’s leading?”
If chasing Jordan and chasing titles is the goal in L.A., the past few months have made lots of fans wonder how we’ll remember any of this if LeBron never gets close to the latter. Last night’s game didn't provide any answers, but it was a three–hour reminder that the question isn't going away.