LeBron James will be 36 points away from breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record when he steps on the court Tuesday night as the Lakers host the Oklahoma City Thunder in a game with a surprising amount of value in the Western Conference play-in race.
The Lakers are a half-game back of the Thunder for 12th in the West standings, and a win would pull them within a game of the Utah Jazz in the 10th and final play-in spot. As such, there’s plenty of drama and intrigue surrounding this game, which is why TNT flexed it into their national TV slate at 10:00 p.m. ET — along with Bucks-Lakers on Thursday night. Should LeBron go off for 37 or more, Stan Van Gundy will be on the call for TNT as history is made, and on Monday we got to talk with Van Gundy about LeBron’s pursuit of the all-time record.
As Van Gundy notes, he understands the GOAT debate is all subjective, but he believes there is no case for any player who has ever been more accomplished in his career than LeBron. We dug into that, the challenge of coaching through the trade deadline when players see rumors flying, and why the Oklahoma City Thunder are enjoying the best kind of season a team can have.
With LeBron approaching the record and breaking it here this week, this is one of those things that people thought was going to be one of the unbreakable records in sports. Yet here we are, on the precipice of it being broken. What stands out to you the most when you think about what LeBron has been able to do to get to this point?
Well, I think first of all, it’s very hard to even get to the NBA. I mean, we’ve been around what 76 years, and fewer than 4,400 people have ever even played a single game. So it’s an elite group of people to begin with, and then out of that group, to do what LeBron has done he’s going to become the all time leading scorer, he’s fourth in assists, top 10 in steals, third in minutes played and then number one in playoff scoring and it just goes on and on and on. Look, I’ve said to people that you know there will always be arguments among fans and the media, even other players and coaches and things on who’s the best of all time. Who is the best player of all-time? That’s a subjective thing, but I think if you look at LeBron’s accomplishments, accolades, stats, honors, his longevity, and his team’s success. I don’t think there’s any question in fact, I don’t even think you can make a case that anyone else has had a career as accomplished as his. So the subjective part of it, yeah, go ahead and stay you think Michael was better or, you know, Kareem was better, or Wilt was better. That’s fine. Everybody’s entitled to their opinions and we get all these subjective things. But no one can make a credible case that anyone’s had the career that LeBron has had. 20 years still doing what he’s doing at 38 years old, I mean it’s phenomenal. This is the most accomplished player ever to play in our league.
Yeah, I mean, you’ve seen him from the beginning coaching in the league and coaching against him and now commentating on games that he’s doing and from where he was to where he is, what’s the thing that that you’re most impressed by his development? Obviously, he came in as the guy that was supposed to be the heir apparent, and he’s lived up to that, but he’s grown his game so much. What are the things that most impressed you about here he is in year 20? And the things he’s able to do now that he didn’t necessarily have as part of his game in 2003 when he entered the league?
Yeah, well, there’s a couple of things. I think the first thing is to me the most impressive thing about LeBron James, and this doesn’t speak directly to your question which I will get to, but I think the most impressive thing is this guy has been in the national spotlight for over 20 years, since before he came in the league. In an era where everybody with a cell phone is a reporter and we’re in a gotcha type of environment where people are just looking to catch somebody doing the wrong thing. This guy’s been in the spotlight for all that time, and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing on him. This guy is such a great representative of the league. It’s phenomenal. I mean, now he’s older and more mature and the whole thing but as we go back to coming into the league, with all the spotlight on him and all the hype, to never step out of line. Never? I mean that’s amazing.
Then I think as a player, you know, I think the big step he made after first few years in the league was the improvement as a shooter. He came in the league, he really had to get the ball to the basket. He really didn’t shoot the ball. He could pass and make plays, but he improved a great deal as a shooter. He was one of the best defenders in the league. I still think probably the biggest accomplishment in terms of the team, everybody always talks about championships, but to me the 2007 Cleveland team that he got to the Finals I thought was phenomenal, when you take a look at what that roster was around him. I think as he went on to get where he is today, he has done such an incredible job with his conditioning. You know, as you get older, it gets harder for most people, and he has broken down a little bit more but in terms of his ability to go out and play in high level and play big minutes. I mean, it’s phenomenal and I think what he’s done with his body to keep himself in shape, o that we can go out there, I think it’s unbelievable.
Absolutely. Something I wanted to ask you about is, for Darvin Ham in his first year as a head coach, to be coaching through this stretch where you’ve got LeBron chasing a record, you’re approaching a trade deadline where there’s tons of chatter around the team and what they need to do and how they need to make roster upgrades and all of this. What’s the biggest challenge as a coach in navigating a stretch like this where there’s so much talk about everything but what’s happening on the floor for the team and how do you kind of do the old coaches saying of keep the main thing, the main thing in this period of time?
Yeah, I think that is the challenge. That starts with you yourself as a coach to just stay focused on what it is you can control. A lot of the stuff you’re talking about, the hype surrounding LeBron, excitement about Anthony Davis coming back, the trade deadline, all of that, out of your control. So you just got to stay focused on you know, today and tomorrow, preparing your team to play the Oklahoma City Thunder and getting ready for the stretch run of the season. And then the second part of that is carrying that over your team and doing everything you can do to keep them focused on basketball. And I think that’s gotten harder and harder in the league anyway, even without these extraordinary events. With social media and everything one of the biggest ways coaching has changed since I came in as an assistant in the mid 90s is these guys hear so many different voices and have to deal with so much negativity and stuff on social media that it’s really difficult. And to try to just get everybody focused on the task at hand and getting better, it’s not an easy thing to do. I think Darvin’s demeanor is perfect. Darvin is very, at least from the outside looking in, very even keel, even tempered, and looks like he’s the same every day. When they were struggling early in the year to when they went on a good run and won five in a row without AD, you just didn’t notice a difference in him. He’s just gonna bring that same thing every day, and I think that is certainly helped their team. .
You mentioned the social media and guys can see you know so much about them but especially during this trade deadline period when you know, they don’t even have to seek it out. You can see a Shams tweet, a Woj tweet, a Haynes tweet, and find yourself in these rumors. And do you ever address those rumors with guys and with your team? Or do you try to just keep it keep it as basketball focused as possible?
Yeah, I think to me, it’s always been that you have to address it. That’s just my opinion. Like, it’s out there, and so you can’t pretend it’s not. Sometimes you don’t have a lot to say to guys, but I think you need to address it. And I think it starts with this, I think that every player in the league has to understand, but particularly on a team like the Lakers, you know who’s under .500 and in 13th place right now in the Western Conference, yeah, of course we’re going to do everything possible to make our team better. I mean, being in 13th place is not where we want to be as a franchise, so everything’s on the table. Let’s just be honest about that. But the only thing you can count on in pro sports and in the NBA is change. It happens all the time, and we’ve got to understand as professionals that every day we’re in here together, we need to be working towards being as good a team as we can. And we can’t worry about things that may or may not happen. If they happen, then we deal with that change as it comes. I mean, to me, it’s pretty simple. I think players understand that and I do think if there’s a positive to all the social media stuff is that guys are used to it now with all the trade rumors and stuff. They know what comes up this time of year.
And then I think the other point you can make to them is, and I think it’s true. I mean probably less than 1 percent of every deal that is presented as a possibility ever comes to fruition. So, you know, most of what is out there in terms of rumors is not going to come true. So I think players can deal with that pretty well, but this is a challenging time more so for some teams than others and I think everybody — coaches, GMs, players — breathes a sigh of relief when the deadline passes on Thursday. You know there’s still gonna be the buyout market coming and we’ll get into the summer, but for the most part, once we get past Thursday, you look around your locker room and say okay, these are the guys we’re going down the stretch with now let’s get it together as quickly as we can and play the best basketball we can. And it becomes more like the beginning of the year where you can just get down to basketball. Outside stuff you can put away a little bit.
Yeah, I do want to ask about the Thunder because I think they’re in an interesting spot where they are one of those teams that not many people had expectations for them to be even in the play in hunt. And when you’re in a position like that as a team is that I guess is that as freeing a feeling as there is where, you know, you’re playing above expectations, you’re winning games, they’re in close games it seems every night, you have a star emerging and Shai. What is it like being on the team that that is playing above expectation and just seems to be playing with that kind of freedom that they seem to have?
Yeah, look probably the most enjoyable times for most teams is when you’re a team on the rise, on the way up, expectations are low. Everything you do well is treated as a great success, as it should be, and if you go on a three-game losing streak no one is pounding you with negativity on it. So it becomes a very positive year and a positive experience for the players. But look, those don’t last long, because if you have a good year then expectations rise, and then things become a little bit different. And you can see that every year with certain teams.
Dallas had the great run last year and now when you go to the Western Conference Finals, which is a bit of a surprise, now all of a sudden everybody wants to know what’s wrong this year. Well there’s really nothing wrong. They’ve had some injuries, whatever, but this is probably about where they belong. So those things come up and that’s not as enjoyable a time. So yeah, for now the Oklahoma City thing is great, you’ve got all these guys on rookie contracts. Eventually Sam Presti has to make decisions on what to do with all of these players and assets and everything else. Like everybody assumes wow look how young they are, they’re going to be together for so long. No they’re not. Because you have to start paying people. So some people stay, some people go. I mean go back to when they were in the NBA Finals and everybody thought they were on the verge of a dynasty with KD and Westbrook and Harden off the bench and Serge Ibaka, but then they were faced with the decision, are we gonna keep Harden or Ibaka — they didn’t have the money to keep them both — and they chose to trade James Harden and there was no dynasty. Those are the tough realities that all of these young teams building, where you see multiple good young players and think like, wow, all we’ve got to do is keep these guys together for four or five years. Well, good luck with that. Unless your owners are willing to go wait into the luxury tax, you’re going to have to start paying guys.
So it’s always interesting to watch the development of those teams, but I will say that Oklahoma City is far ahead of where anybody could have expected them to be. I know he won’t be a candidate for coach of the year but Mark Daigneault, what he’s done has been incredible. I think two things to me really stand out that you never see with young teams. You’ve got all these young guys and they’re seventh in the league in fewest turnovers. To play with that kind of discipline. And then they’re right on the verge of being a top 10 defensive team and 11th as we speak here today. Those are things that usually take time. Usually what you see is flashes of brilliance, and a lot of inconsistency and you don’t see that with this team. I think you see pretty consistent from night to night and how they play. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s been incredibly consistent, maybe as consistent as any star in the league, and his teammates have followed along. I mean you get pretty much the same thing out of them every night. Of course some nights you shoot better than others, but the way they play is very, very consistent. And the only thing you would really look at with them and say okay, that’s the sign of a really young team, one of the youngest in the history of the league, is they foul too much. That’s really the only thing you can look at where you say, man, they look like a young team. When I watch them, I know how young they are, but they don’t look like a young team to me. Their attention’s great, their unselfishness is great, their discipline, other than the fouls, their discipline offensively to space the floor and move the ball. It’s all great. And so I think they’ve not only found a core of good young players, but I think that they found the right coach for that group too.
And let’s not forget the number two pick in the draft [Chet Holmgren] has sat out the entire year and there’s nothing that Oklahoma City needs more than for somebody to slot in as a starting center. You know they’ve played around with that spot all year with Jaylin Williams and [Mike] Muscala started the other night, they’ve had Kenrich Williams play some at the five, which is all great and you want the flexibility, but they need somebody to just slot in there and he’s sitting over there on their bench. You know and they haven’t had [Aleksej] Pokusevski for quite a while now, another guy with great size and potential and to me they’re ahead of all the rebuilding teams. I would put them first, probably Orlando second, but I put them at the top and a lot of it is not just the talent just the way Mark’s been able to get them to play. They don’t look like a young team.