NBA Fact or Fiction: The unbreakability of LeBron James’ career scoring record

Each week during the 2022-2023 NBA season, we’ll dive deeper into some of the league’s biggest storylines, trying to determine whether the trends are based on fact or fiction.

[Last time on Fact or Fiction: Are the New York Knicks actually building something?]

When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook broke Wilt Chamberlain’s career scoring record on April 5, 1984, legendary Los Angeles Lakers announcer Chick Hearn announced“This man did something that I don’t believe in – and I say this sincerely – I don’t think it will ever happen again.”

However, 39 years later, LeBron James eclipsed Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 points five years after Hearn claimed the record was as close to unbeaten as the NBA can get. Like his predecessor, James recently told reporters, “I’m going to be in this league for at least a few more years,” which could raise the standard well above 40,000 if he maintains his late-career averages.

The conventional wisdom is that if Abdul-Jabbar’s record can be broken, then James can, but that would require a sustained level of performance that would be unfathomable if we hadn’t seen him twice already.

Hearn couldn’t have foreseen the extent to which the NBA was using the three-point shot. Lakers and Utah Jazz combined for three long distance attempts (all misses) on the night Abdul-Jabbar set the record in 1984. James himself scored six tries (making four of them) in his record-setting Tuesday performance as the Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder scored 31 tries on 65 tries (48 3P%).

Stephen Curry broke the NBA record for three points to the point that ten years ago it seemed absurd. Of the highest single-season 3-point totals, the Golden State Warriors star owns seven of them, including a career-high 402 at his peak. Curry has shot from 43% on average nine times per game over 14 seasons, and he’s maintained that same level of efficiency in a dozen attempts per game over the past five years.

Arguably the best shooter that ever lived, who also turned out to be quite a finisher, is currently 17,207 career points behind James (roughly the equivalent of Steve Nash’s total career points).

The amount needed to capture James is unbelievable and it will only get bigger.

Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James celebrates Tuesday as he sets an NBA career scoring record.  (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James celebrates Tuesday as he sets an NBA career scoring record. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When Abdul-Jabbar set his standard, he compared it to Hank Aaron’s home run record. “They are both signs of consistency” He said. “To catch up with Aaron, you need to hit 35+ home runs in 20 years, or average 25 points per game over 16 years to match that record. Well, it does something.”

He was on the money with this math as long as this man played 79 games in a season. By the time Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, he had complicated the equation, claiming an average of 25 points per game and nearly perfect health over 20 seasons. James’ ability to average 27 points per game over two decades has allowed him to catch up with Abdul-Jabbar by playing 72 games per season in the load management era.

Only 62 players in NBA history have averaged 27 points per game in 72 or more games in a single NBA season. About half of them (34 people) reached these figures for the second time. 11 people who have done it five times make a fine list of the greatest scorers of all time: Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, Bob Pettit, George Gervin, James Harden, Karl Malone, Oscar Robertson. and Jerry West.

Now quadruple the performance of these legendary scorers in five years. This is LeBron James. Except that only 10 people in history lasted 20 seasons in the NBA, so all you have to do to break the record is be one of the greatest scorers and remain one of the most resilient players.

Take Bryant, for example. He was an All-Star at 19, was never afraid to shoot, shooting 20 shots a game for two decades, peaking at 35.4 points per night in his prime, and his overall scoring is nearly 5,000 points behind James’ current standard. . — or three more average Bryant seasons — and the score is up.

Jordan won the scoring title every full season he played from 1986 to 1998, earning three crowns more than anyone else in NBA history and scoring 37.1 points per game, more than anyone since then. since Chamberlain last surpassed that figure 60 years ago. And James could finish with 10,000 more points than Jordan.

The requirements for the next scoring king, if there ever is one, are almost beyond imagination, but we’re starting to see elements that could come together in such an extraordinary mixture of succession. The NBA is taking efficiency to the next level, with seven players averaging 30 or more points per game as a result, more than any other season in league history. If more players raise their averages above 33 per game, as Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid are currently doing, the likelihood of someone seeing James’s career average and raising it by a few points per game will increase, simply by making better use of the most effective shots.

Durability is a problem. Doncic averaged 28.8 points per game in his second season, which increased to 33.4 in his 23-year season. His career average of 27.4 points over five seasons is much better than James at the same stage of his career. Except that Doncic has already missed 55 games since joining the league in 2018. James did not miss the 55th game of his career until the 2015 All-Star break when he was 30 years old. As a result, at the same age as Doncic now, James had almost 3,000 points more.

Let’s say James ends his career with 42,500 points, which is a realistic end point. With Doncic’s current career-high of 27.4 points per game and 70 games in a season, he could have reached that mark during the 2041 All-Star break at age 42. It is theoretically possible, even if Doncic himself made it impossible last month.

“If you’re talking about me, it’s impossible,” he told reporters, “because I don’t play that much.”

Magic Johnson made the same comment after Abdul-Jabbar won the 1985 Finals MVP. “I won’t play at 38 – no one else willJohnson, 26, said at the time. “No one has the same mood and body as he does. He is the most handsome athlete in the sport.” Abdul-Jabbar played four more seasons.

But athletes today play later in their careers. Of the 14 All-Star talents whose careers continued uninterrupted into their 40s, nine have played in the past decade, and of the 10 players who have played at least 20 seasons, seven have played as recently as 2015. Durant, averaging 29.7 points per game. at the age of 34, despite three foot surgeries and a torn Achilles tendon, is a miracle of modern medicine.

Can anyone enter the NBA as a scoring scorer, score 35 points per game in a healthy span of their prime, and end a 20-year career averaging 30 points per game and 72 games per season? This is 43,200 points. This is plausible. Good luck to Victor Vembanyama, the 19-year-old phenomenal player who is averaging 25 points in 36 minutes in France’s top league and will be number one overall in June.

However, it’s more likely that the next NBA scorer king hasn’t been born yet. Remember, James entered this world eight months after Abdul-Jabbar broke Chamberlain’s record. It took basketball a lifetime for the game and its players to evolve to the point where the impossible became inevitable. There are no unbeaten records, but James set a record for basketball that the sport may never see again until those of us who saw it are long gone.

Definition: Fiction. A new NBA scoring record won’t last forever, but it could outlive us.

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Ben Rohrbach is the Senior NBA Columnist for Sportzshala Sports. Any advice? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach


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