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Breaking down LeBron James' pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record

A closer look at how LeBron James' has put himself in position to challenge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record as the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

LeBron James climbed to second on the NBA’s all-time scoring list on March 19 against Washington.

One more climb. Just 1,364 more points. The summit of the mountain is now in sight. That once daunting number of 38,387 career points that seemed insurmountable now appears attainable.

It’s no longer a debate about if LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leader scorer. Now it’s just a matter of when he will do it.

LeBron’s pursuit of Kareem’s record

  • Points needed to break record: 1,364
  • Games needed based on career scoring average (27.1 ppg): 51 games
  • Games needed based on current scoring average (30.1 ppg): 46 games

On March 19 in Washington, LeBron scored 38 points in a Lakers’ loss to the Wizards to pass Karl Malone for second place on the all-time scoring list. Malone had held the No. 2 spot for over 21 years — since he passed Wilt Chamberlain on Dec. 5, 2000.

Sixteen years earlier, it was Abdul-Jabbar that passed Chamberlain to become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader on April 4, 1984. Chamberlain had held the all-time scoring record since Feb. 14, 1966 when he topped Bob Pettit in just his seventh season. Chamberlain held the record for 18 years and Abdul-Jabbar has held it for nearly 38 years, but he may not make it to 39 before being caught by James.

“I will not allow myself to think about it,” James said when asked about breaking the all-time record after passing Malone for second place. “I’ve always just played the game the way I’ve been playing it over the years, and these things have just happened organically by just going out and playing the game the right way. Hope to accomplish that at some point in my career, but I won’t think about it too much.”

Year-by-year breakdown of scoring from LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

While this record marks the leader in total points scored, it is James’ consistent scoring average over the course of his career that has been key to his chase of the Abdul-Jabbar’s mark. James enters Friday’s game against New Orleans as the league’s leading scorer at 30.1 points per game — a mark that is unheard of for a player in their 19th NBA season. It is more than double Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring average of 14.6 ppg in his 19th season, which was the penultimate of his 20-year career.

What will ultimately set James apart from the other legends of the game is his battle against Father Time. Simply put, no player in NBA history has ever been this good for this long.

James is set to post the highest scoring average of any player in his 19th season or later by a huge margin — Kobe Bryant will be second at 17.6 ppg during his 20th and final season in 2015-16. He averaged 22.3 ppg during his 19th season but did not play enough games to qualify as a league leader. This will also be LeBron’s 18th consecutive season averaging at least 25 points per game. No other player has more than 11 such seasons.

The chart above illustrates how LeBron’s career trajectory (follow the red line) has not followed the same pattern as the other members of the NBA’s top five in scoring. James is on pace to match or beat the second-highest scoring season of his career in his 19th year. At this point, his scoring average should be falling off a cliff. Instead it is rising to a level he has not reached in more than a decade.

James’ scoring peaked in his third NBA season at 31.4 points per game — Michael Jordan (37.1 ppg) and Abdul-Jabbar (34.8 ppg) also peaked in season three — and he won his lone scoring title two years later (30 ppg in 2007-08). Fourteen seasons later, James is averaging 30 ppg again and is in the middle of a historically close three-player race to capture his second career scoring title. The largest gap between scoring titles by a player is currently five years (Paul Arizin 1951-52 to 1956-57, Shaquille O’Neal 1994-95 to 1999-00 and Stephen Curry 2015-16 to 2020-21) — he has a chance to nearly triple that mark.

LeBron never hit the peaks of most of the scoring legends he passed on his climb up the mountain. But scoring has always been just a part of James’ game. Earlier this month, he became the first player in NBA history to achieve the career triple-quintuple — 10,000 points, 10, 000 rebounds and 10,000 assists.

With this pass to Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James made some NBA history.

When might James surpass Abdul-Jabbar?

Despite the thousands of points, rebounds and assists, James’ most indelible NBA moment remains his famous chase down block during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals as he led Cleveland to its first NBA title. The term “chase down” can also apply to his pursuit of the NBA’s all-time scoring record as he has chased down some of the most legendary scorers of all time over the past four years.

Abdul-Jabbar is now the only player left for James to chase down in career scoring. The question that remains is how long it will take “The King” to pass “The Captain.” It definitely won’t happen this season, as the Lakers have only seven games remaining in the regular season.

If we use James’ career scoring average of 27.12 points per game — the fifth-highest all-time behind Jordan (30.12), Chamberlain (30.07), Elgin Baylor (27.36), Kevin Durant (27.16) — he would need 51 games to pass Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time record. If he can carry over his current season scoring average into next season, he would need only 46 games to break the record.

Assuming he plays all of Los Angeles’s final six games this regular season, James would need between 40 and 45 games next season to break the record. LeBron has never played fewer than 45 games in his career — his lowest mark coming last season when he appeared in 45 of L.A.’s 72 games (62.5%). So far this season, LeBron has played in 55 of L.A.’s first 76 games (72.4%).

An untouchable milestone?

While James’ pursuit of the regular season scoring title will have to wait until next season, there is one other scoring leaderboard that he can still climb. LeBron is already the all-time leading scorer in the playoffs (7,631 points) and the All-Star Game (413 points), but he is second in scoring in The Finals (1,562 points), trailing only the legendary Jerry West (1,679).

The Lakers entered the season as the favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals, but this season has not played out to expectations. The Lakers are 11th in the West and will need to use the Play-In Tournament to secure a playoff berth before they can even think of another title run. However, with Anthony Davis looking to return on Friday — along with LeBron, who missed the past two games with an ankle injury — the Lakers are still a team no top seed would want to meet in the first round.

If James reaches another Finals, he would need to score 118 points to pass West as the all-time leading scorer in Finals history. In 55 career games over 10 trips to the Finals, LeBron has averaged 28.4 points per game. At that rate, he would need just five games to pass West.

Should James pass Abdul-Jabbar in regular season scoring next season — his 20th in the league — then another set of questions will need to be discussed: What mark will James set for others to chase? Will he become the first player to reach 40,000 points? How long can he continue to defy the odds and play at an All-NBA level? Is there a player currently in the league that will challenge the record?

NBA All-Time Regular Season Scoring Leaders — Active Players Only

Through games played on March 31, 2022

LeBron James 1,365 37,024 27.12 19
Carmelo Anthony 1,258 28,262 22.47 19
Kevin Durant 934 25,365 27.16 14
James Harden 937 23,398 24.97 13
Russell Westbrook 1,018 23,231 22.82 14
Chris Paul 1,151 20,895 18.15 17
LaMarcus Aldridge 1,074 20,558 19.14 16
Stephen Curry 826 20,064 24.29 13

These are the only eight active players that have reached the 20,000-career points threshold and only seven players ever have reached 30,000 career points. Meanwhile, LeBron just surpassed 37,000 points on March 27 and continues to increase his already massive lead on this field.

Remember, James has scored at least 10 points in an NBA-record 1,095 consecutive games — a streak that dates back to Jan, 6, 2007. The next longest active streaks belong to Kawhi Leonard (175 games), Luka Doncic (162), Devin Booker (128), De’Aaron Fox (109) and Donovan Mitchell (100). This is just another example of James’ incredible consistency when it comes to scoring.

Finding an active player that has a realistic shot at passing James may not come from the group of veterans listed above — all of whom are in their 13th season or later. Perhaps the younger generation — as in any players 25 or younger — might have the potential to chase whatever mark LeBron makes?

Top 10 Scorers – 2021-22 Season, Age 25 or Younger

Through games played on March 31, 2022

Trae Young 23 28.2 25.2 6,921 275
Luka Doncic 23 28.1 26.3 6,803 259
Ja Morant 22 27.6 21.2 3,940 186
Jayson Tatum 24 27.0 20.9 7,540 361
Devin Booker 25 26.4 23.4 11,111 474
Donovan Mitchell 25 26.1 23.9 8,170 342
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 23 24.5 18.2 4,421 243
Jaylen Brown 25 23.2 16.4 6,515 398
De’Aaron Fox 24 23.2 19.1 6,148 322
Brandon Ingram 24 22.8 18.5 6,751 365

The two names that jump out from this list are Trae Young and Luka Doncic, who both own career scoring averages above 25 points per game. Both are 23 years old and in their fourth NBA season, giving them plenty of time to rack up points. But consider this: at the end of his fourth NBA season, LeBron was just 22 and already owned a career scoring average of 26.7 ppg (through 316 career games).

So, Trae and Luka are already behind where LeBron was at this point in his career. Plus, James has yet to see the type of dramatic drop-off in productivity that nearly every other player has faced as they near their 20th season. As he continues to add to his already massive scoring total in the final years of his career, will he put the mark out of reach for any player in this current generation to challenge?

Chamberlain held the all-time scoring record for 18 years. Abdul-Jabbar has had it for 38 years. Assuming James stays healthy and passes Abdul-Jabbar next season, how many years (or decades) will he hold the record?