What LeBron passing Kareem means to NBA, 'greatest ever' debate
It’s about to happen. LeBron James is finally on the brink of passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA’s career scoring record, the torch getting passed from one member of the Los Angeles Lakers to another.
James is 35 points away from Abdul-Jabbar’s total of 38,387. The record-breaker could come as early as Tuesday when the Lakers host the Oklahoma City Thunder or Thursday in Los Angeles against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Here’s the significance of James passing Abdul-Jabbar:
WILL THIS RECORD BE BROKEN AGAIN?
Perhaps, but no time soon.
James is on pace to eclipse the 40,000-point mark next season and is under contract for one more season after that as well. And even then there’s no guarantee that he won’t continue playing; he has said many times he would like to stay in the NBA long enough for his son, LeBron James Jr. — he goes by "Bronny" — to get to the league, something that won’t happen until 2024-25 at the earliest.
LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center on January 22, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
The closest player currently in the NBA to James on the all-time list is Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, who has 26,684 points. Durant would probably have to play at least another six or seven seasons just to catch Abdul-Jabbar’s mark — and who knows how far James will raise the bar by then.
Philadelphia’s James Harden and the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook are just over 24,000 points apiece. Both of them are all-time greats, but they’re not going to catch James.
Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging 27.4 points per game so far in his career. But for as great as Doncic is, he’ll need to average that many points for another 14 seasons or so before he gets to the 38,000-point mark.
So unless the NBA adds a 10-point shot, the record won’t be broken for a very, very, very long time.
HOW DID JAMES GET TO THIS POINT?
James entered the NBA straight out of high school; Abdul-Jabbar had a college career before he was eligible to join the league. James was 18 when he scored his first NBA points; Abdul-Jabbar was 22.
It took Abdul-Jabbar 20 seasons to get to 38,387. James will catch him in his 20th season.
James has been durable, especially over the first three-quarters of his career. He missed only 71 games in his first 15 seasons. Since joining the Lakers 4-1/2 seasons ago, he has missed nearly 100 games. But he has always avoided major injury; part of that is just good luck, but much of it is because he reportedly invests more than $1 million annually on his body.
For almost the entirety of James’ career, keeping The King fit has fallen on the shoulders of Mike Mancias, one of the most-trusted members of James’ inner circle. Mancias never wants any credit for his work; he shuns limelight the way James blows past defenders. But in 2019, when James was revealed as The Associated Press’ male athlete of the decade for the 2010′s, Mancias shed a tiny bit of light on James’ work ethic.
"He does whatever it takes when it comes to fulfilling his commitments to everything," Mancias said, "especially his game and his craft."
DIDN’T JAMES BREAK THE RECORD LAST YEAR?
Official NBA records are based solely on regular season games. Playoff games are in their own category. That’s why the record, for almost 39 years now, has been Abdul-Jabbar with 38,387 points. But when adding postseason games to that total, Abdul-Jabbar actually retired with 44,149 points.
And that’s the figure James — again, when adding in his playoff points — eclipsed on Feb. 12, 2022, in a Lakers loss against the Golden State Warriors. So while that is "a" record, it’s not "the" record.
DOES THIS SETTLE THE ‘GOAT’ DEBATE?
For those unfamiliar with the acronym, ‘GOAT’ is shorthand for Greatest Of All Time.
James may very well be the GOAT, based on his longevity, his accomplishments, how no one in NBA history has been so hard to stop for 20 years and counting. Abdul-Jabbar should be in the conversation as well; his sky hook — a one-handed shot released high over his head, impossible for any defender to stop without the use of a stepladder — is one of the most dominant weapons basketball has ever seen.
Michael Jordan won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls on his way to becoming a global icon and might have been the greatest competitor in the sport’s history. Golden State’s Stephen Curry is the most prolific 3-point shooter the game has ever seen and still going strong. The Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Boston’s Larry Bird had a rivalry that brought them both multiple championships and might have saved the NBA in the 1980′s. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan spent nearly two decades in the league and was maybe the most fundamentally solid player ever.
Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game and once averaged 50 for an entire season. Kobe Bryant had an 81-point game, finished with five championships and spent years being simply unstoppable. And Bill Russell won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics.
This record doesn’t even settle the debate on greatest scorer ever. James is passing Abdul-Jabbar for the most points — but Jordan still averaged the most, his 30.12 per game pace over the entirety of his career ranking just ahead of Chamberlain’s 30.07. James averages around 27 per game; Abdul-Jabbar averaged around 25.
The answer to the GOAT debate is there isn’t one. There are many. Personal preference prevails.