There was no Instagram post celebrating the achievement in advance this time. There was relatively little buildup from the news media. It was an event that might have dominated the news cycle in years’ past, but when LeBron James passed Michael Jordan on the N.B.A.’s career scoring list on Wednesday night, it was a triumph that somehow had been reduced to a footnote.
James came into the Los Angeles Lakers’ game against the Denver Nuggets needing 13 points to surpass Jordan for fourth place on the all-time list. Five minutes 38 seconds into the second quarter, he managed to force his way to the basket for a layup, giving him 14 points for the game and 32,294 for his career. For good measure, he was fouled on the play.
After a short stoppage to acknowledge the moment, play resumed as the Lakers, clinging to the last shreds of their playoff hopes, tried their best to overcome a huge early deficit at home against a heavily-favored opponent.
The Lakers, led by an unlikely group of bench players, did make a run at Denver, reducing a 17-point deficit at halftime all the way to 2 points with 8:37 left in the fourth quarter. But the Nuggets regained their footing and ran away with a 115-99 victory, spoiling a night in which James contributed 31 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, looking far more energized on both ends of the court than he had in recent weeks, and finishing the night with his career point total up to 32,311.
James, who has taken the brunt of the criticism for the Lakers’ failings in a difficult first year in Los Angeles, had acknowledged the pending accomplishment in a tweet shortly before the game, but was measured when discussing it with reporters earlier in the day.
“I take all accomplishments as they come,” he said. “Any time I’m in the breath with any other greats — and obviously M.J. being the guy that I looked up to my whole life, the guy I admired as a kid — I think it’s going to be pretty cool.”
One would hardly have guessed that James, who has been chasing the legacy of Jordan since he was in high school, was on the verge of surpassing his idol’s career point total. The inability to truly celebrate the moment was yet another indignity in a season full of them.
It was a little more than a year ago when James had seemingly settled into a groove. He scored his 30,000th point — a feat he congratulated himself about on Instagram hours before he actually accomplished it — and, thanks to his championship runs in Miami and Cleveland, his march toward challenging Jordan, then Kobe Bryant, then Karl Malone and maybe even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the N.B.A.’s career scoring leader, seemed as if it would come without the criticism that had followed him earlier in his career.
A decision — a loaded word when it comes to James — to move to an ill-prepared Lakers team in the off-season has changed the calculus altogether. The team was predicted by most to struggle to make the playoffs in the West thanks to its collection of too-young players and veterans who do not complement James. Nevertheless, many have labeled the year as a disappointment by virtue of the team’s struggles despite having James, a player whose presence has seemingly guaranteed a finals appearance for close to a decade.
As a result, James and the people around him have not been able to take much joy in his accomplishments. Just last week he passed Andre Miller to move into 10th place in career assists, thus making him the only player currently in the top-10 in both career points and assists. That feat — one that going back to the days of Bob Cousy had only even been temporarily attained by a handful of players — was met with a collective shrug.
It is a reality of James’s life that he acknowledged on Wednesday.
“I haven’t really appreciated anything I’ve been able to accomplish because I’m so engulfed in what’s next,” he said. “How I can continue to get better; how I can help this franchise get back to where it needs to be.”
An occasional season of missing the playoffs is not unusual for most players — even the great ones — but to capture how truly rare it would be for a James-led team, consider that he has played double-digit playoff games in each of the last 13 years. He has appeared in nine N.B.A. finals — winning three — and as a result his rankings among all-time playoff performers come off as outrageous even for someone as accomplished as James.
Those rankings almost certainly will not improve this year. But among the more interesting aspects of James’s current predicament is the opinion among many Lakers fans that the team’s struggles have resulted in James’s failing to live up to Bryant’s legacy. Those criticisms ignore the fact that the Lakers’ current six-year run of missing the playoffs included three seasons in which Bryant was still with the team.
In fact, when Bryant passed Jordan on the career scoring list in 2014 — a feat considered a big enough deal at the time that a road game in Minnesota was stopped for several minutes so the crowd could give him a standing ovation and the Timberwolves’ owner could present him with the game ball — the Lakers were only 8-16 and, partially a result of a season-ending injury to Bryant later in the year, were on their way to a 21-61 record.
But in one of the endless parallels between the careers of Jordan and James, players who will be debated long after both are gone, Jordan, who passed Wilt Chamberlain for No. 3 on the career scoring list in 2003, also found little joy in what should have been a huge accomplishment, largely because his Washington Wizards were a .500 team at the time.
“The thing about stats is they define you when you’re 10 or 20 years past the game,” Jordan said when asked to sum up his feelings on the accomplishment. “While you’re playing, what matters is wins.”
James, who wears No. 23 because of Jordan, put a wristband on his forearm because of Jordan, learned to shoot fadeaways because of Jordan and pitches sneakers for Nike just like Jordan does, may want to heed that advice from Jordan in terms of coming back on his accomplishments later even if they have to be put aside for now.
The Lakers could never win another game and James, a player who still refuses to label himself a scorer, will always have more points than Jordan, the player that served as his inspiration on a path to greatness.
“I gotta carry it on to the next kid,” James said after the game, finally letting his emotion truly show. “Hopefully I can inspire the next kid like myself.”