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AD is LeBron's secret weapon in GOAT debate

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Is LeBron James finally the greatest of all time? 

I weighed in on the topic in May when Michael Jordan's adulation reached full-tilt as “The Last Dance” hit its crescendo, and warned everyone not to count out James. After all, throughout his career, James has always seemed to get the last word.

Doubted The Chosen One cover in Sports Illustrated? James took his team to the Finals at 22 years old, won the scoring title at 23 and won his first MVP at 24. 

Doubted The Decision? James won back-to-back titles in Miami and two Finals MVPs.

Doubted Cleveland would ever love him again? James ended the city’s 52-year title drought in epic fashion and won a championship against a 73-9 team.

Doubted he’d ever top Jordan? A fourth title, with a third team no less, makes the debate more interesting going forward.

During his postgame press conference Sunday, James smoked a celebratory cigar on stage and said he uses the doubt as motivation -- though he didn’t mention Jordan by name.

"I think, personally, thinking I have something to prove fuels me," James said. "And it fueled me over this last year and a half since my injury.

"It fueled me because no matter what I've done in my career up until this point, there's still rumblings of doubt, or comparing me to the history of the game, and, 'Has he done this? Has he done that?' So, having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, 'Why not still have something to prove?' I think it fuels me."

 

With four championships, four Finals MVPs and the all-time scoring record within reach, James is running out of things to prove, if he hasn’t already. But James’ best chance at overtaking Jordan isn’t with rings. It’s with records. Topping Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the career points leaderboard would deliver James’ best argument for greatest player of all-time status.

And Anthony Davis may be his ticket to getting there.

* * *

First, a personal story. In my sophomore year of high school, I knew our beloved family dog Dillon was on his last legs. He was a 10-year-old yellow labrador and his hips were giving out. Our friends warned us about this degenerative condition with yellow labs. When the hips go, everything goes. We knew we didn’t have much time left.

And then Riley burst onto the scene. When my older brother was a sophomore at college, he decided to get a yellow labrador puppy named Riley. He quickly discovered that wasn’t the best idea. Riley was tireless and needed constant attention. When he didn’t get attention, he chewed my brother’s apartment to pieces. Eventually, my brother tapped out and Riley came home to our house.

It was the best thing to ever happen to Dillon. The energetic Riley gave Dillon new life. When Riley got up to walk to the window to see what that noise was in the driveway, Dillon, with unending delight, tagged along to see. Meals used to be a chore, but soon Dillon leapt to the dog bowls with Riley and gulfed it all down. Dillon’s muscles strengthened and relieved his aching hips. At annual checkups, the veterinarian couldn’t believe Dillon’s improvement. 

It turned out, Dillon wasn’t at the end; he was just starting the back nine. Thanks to Riley’s presence, Dillon was with us until he was 17. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it turns out you can give him new life. 

* * *

On the basketball court, Davis is extending James’ prime. Lost in the raging debate about whether Davis is the best teammate James has ever had (I’ve weighed on that, too) is the fact that Davis is entering his prime and is almost a decade younger than James. The Brow is 27 years old -- a few months younger than Shaquille O’Neal when he won his first title with the Lakers in 2000. Starting in that age-27 season, O’Neal proceeded to wreck everyone in the NBA over the next few years, earning the 1999-00 MVP and three straight Finals MVPs.

Peak Davis is here and will be here for a while. That’s bad news for the rest of the NBA but the best news possible for James. From a prototype standpoint, Davis is tailor-made for easing James’ burden. A two-way dominant big man, Davis’ presence on both ends of the floor will relieve James of the heavy lifting and extend his career past the age of 40.

 

Above all, Davis gets stops, and if you get stops, you get LeBron easy buckets -- simple as that. Even at the age of 35, James is a freight train in the open court who led all players this postseason in transition baskets, per Synergy tracking. He shoots a blistering 67.9 percent in transition, which is second among qualified players (only Kawhi Leonard at 68.6 percent was higher). This postseason, LeBron registered more field goals in transition (57) than Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo combined (54) despite James playing in fewer overall games. 

James can’t outrun everyone forever, but Davis also gives James an extra gear in the halfcourt thanks to every team’s worst nightmare: James-Davis pick-and-rolls. This two-man game was especially effective this postseason with Davis shooting 55.2 percent on long 2s and 38.3 percent on 3s. With instant alley-oop potential and a deadly jumper, Davis is the perfect screening partner for James. Davis also frees up extra real estate for LeBron to get to his spots. With Davis in the fold, James scored more points in the pick-and-roll than he has ever logged in any regular season, per Synergy tracking. And that was with a shortened season. 

But the biggest relief that Davis offers James is in the minutes department. It’s no coincidence that James averaged the fewest minutes per game of his career (34.9) as soon as Davis came around. Remember, in his last season in Cleveland in 2017-18, James led the league in minutes per game. This season, he ranked 17th. The postseason splits are even crazier. In the 2017-18 postseason, he averaged an insane 41.9 minutes per game. This postseason, that same figure is 36.3.

This story may seem familiar to Lakers fans. Magic Johnson, who was 12 years younger than Abdul-Jabbar, took the mantle and led the Lakers in his prime as the Hall of Fame center crept toward his 40s. Abdul-Jabbar no longer had to do everything; Johnson was there to do the heavy lifting. Every minute James saves now is another minute he can give to chasing Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time scoring crown.

* * *

Even the most devout James fans will concede that Michael Jordan’s “perfect” 6-0 Finals record is hard to overcome. In May, I laid out all the reasons why 6-0 shouldn’t be the end-all, be-all in the GOAT debate. If he wants to be known as the greatest ever, LeBron should focus on the all-time scoring leaderboard, not Larry O’Brien trophies.

And what better way to encapsulate James’ greatness than him becoming the all-time scoring leader when passing is his best skill? 

James has scored 34,241 points in his NBA career, more than Jordan, more than Kobe Bryan, more than Wilt Chamberlain. Only 4,146 points stands between him and the all-time record, held by Abdul-Jabbar (Karl Malone is 2,687 points ahead of James, but let’s zero in on Mr. Skyhook).

James can get there, but it’s not a guarantee. Over the last three seasons, James has scored 5,454 points, which means he just needs to replicate his previous three seasons over the next three seasons and he’ll clear Kareem’s number by over a thousand points. 

 

Though it might not seem like it, James will be dealing with Father Time at some point (right? RIGHT?). James has averaged 1,818 points over the last three seasons. If we nudge that down to 1,500 points per season (he’s never scored that few in a season), he’ll need four more seasons at that level to eclipse Abdul-Jabbar.

Malone and Abdul-Jabbar were the most ageless scorers we’d ever seen and yet, James is scoring better than both in their twilight years by a sizable margin. This season, James averaged 25.3 points per game in his age-35 season, far outpacing Malone (23.8) and Abdul-Jabbar (21.8) in their age-35 seasons.

Basketball Reference

Malone played five more seasons after his age-35 season. Abdul-Jabbar played six. James may only need three seasons to surpass both. 

The tools are there. With incredible size, speed and basketball IQ, James wields more than enough shooting and passing to keep the defense honest and allow him to age gracefully. If Davis can keep James fresh over the next few years and continue to open up scoring opportunities, James will have a real shot at being the all-time greatest scorer.

To try to match Jordan in rings would be an admission that James is playing by Jordan’s rules. Even if James reaches Jordan’s total of six championships, James’ place at the top of the scoring leaderboard would be the true game-changer in the GOAT debate -- the thing that Jordan can never hold over him.

Time and time again, James has shown he’s not interested in that. James doesn’t abide by someone else’s playbook; he writes his own. LeBron James, all-time leading scorer could be the angle no one saw coming, and Davis can help him get there better than anybody.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for the latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.