NBA Fact or Fiction: The unbreakability of LeBron James' career scoring record
Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
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As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook broke Wilt Chamberlain's career scoring record on April 5, 1984, legendary Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn declared, "This man has accomplished something that I don’t believe — and I mean this sincerely — I don’t think this will ever happen again."
Yet here we are, 39 years later, and LeBron James has eclipsed Abdul-Jabbar's career total, which settled at 38,387 points five years after Hearn claimed the record was as close to unbreakable as it gets in the NBA. 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 past 40,000 points if he maintains his late-career averages.
Conventional wisdom considers, if Abdul-Jabbar's record could be broken, so too can James', but it will require a sustained level of scoring prowess that would be unfathomable if we hadn't seen it twice already.
Hearn couldn't have foreseen the degree to which the NBA has leveraged the 3-point shot. The Lakers and Utah Jazz combined for three long-distance attempts (all misses) the night Abdul-Jabbar set the record in 1984. James attempted six himself (making four of them) in his record-breaking performance Tuesday, when the Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder totaled 31 makes on 65 attempts (48 3P%).
Stephen Curry is shattering the NBA's 3-point record to a degree that seemed ludicrous a decade ago. Of the highest single-season totals for 3-point makes, the Golden State Warriors star owns seven of them, including a record 402 at his apex. Curry has shot 43% from distance on an average of nine attempts per game for 14 seasons, and he has maintained a similar level of efficiency on a dozen attempts per game the past five years.
The indisputable greatest shooter to ever live, who also happens to be quite the finisher, currently trails James by 17,207 career points (roughly the equivalent of Steve Nash's career total).
The requisite numbers to catch James are incredible, and they are going to become only more so.
When Abdul-Jabbar set his standard, he likened the achievement to Hank Aaron's home run record. "They're both marks of consistency," he said. "You'd have to hit more than 35 home runs for 20 years to catch Aaron, or average 25 points a game for 16 years to equal this record. Well, that's doing something."
He was on the money with that math, so long as that person played 79 games per season. By the time Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, he had made the equation more difficult, requiring an average of 25 points per game and near-perfect health over 20 seasons. James' ability to sustain an average of 27 points per game for two decades allowed him to catch Abdul-Jabbar while 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) reached those figures a second time. The 11 who did it five times make for a nice list of the greatest pure scorers ever: 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 production from the five-year peaks of those legendary scorers. That is LeBron James. Except only 10 people in history have lasted 20 seasons in the NBA, so all you have to do to break the record is become one of the greatest scorers ever and maintain as one of the most durable players ever.
Take Bryant, for example. He was an All-Star at age 19, never once afraid to shoot, attempting 20 shots per game over a two-decade period that peaked with 35.4 points per night in his prime, and his total trails James' current standard by nearly 5,000 points — or three more of Bryant's average seasons — and counting.
Jordan won the scoring title every full season he played from 1986 to '98, earning three more crowns than anyone else in NBA history and peaking with 37.1 points per game — more than anyone has recorded since Chamberlain last eclipsed that figure 60 years ago. And James could finish with some 10,000 more points than Jordan.
The demands on the next scoring king, if ever there is one, are almost beyond imagination, but we are beginning to see the elements that could meld into such an extraordinary concoction of consistency. The NBA is pushing efficiency to new heights, and the result is seven players averaging 30 or more points per game — more than any other season in league history. If more players push their averages north of 33 per game, as Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid are now, odds become more likely that someone could see James' career average and raise it several points per game, simply by better leveraging the most efficient shots.
Durability is the problem. Doncic averaged 28.8 points per game in his second season and has pushed that number to 33.4 in his age-23 season. His career average of 27.4 through five seasons is a hair better than James' at the same point in his career. Except Doncic has already missed 55 games since entering the league in 2018. James did not miss the 55th game of his career until after the 2015 All-Star break, when he was 30 years old. As a result, at the same age Doncic is now, James had almost 3,000 more points.
Let's say James finishes his career with 42,500 points, a realistic ending point. At Doncic's current career clip of 27.4 points per game and 70 games per season, he could hit that mark around the 2041 All-Star break at the age of 42. It is theoretically possible, even if Doncic himself rendered it an impossibility last month.
"If you’re saying me, there’s no way," he told reporters, "because I'm not playing that much."
Magic Johnson commented similarly after Abdul-Jabbar captured 1985 Finals MVP honors. "I won't be playing at 38 — no one else will," a 26-year-old Johnson said at the time. "No one has the frame of mind and body that he does. He's the most beautiful athlete in sports." Abdul-Jabbar played four more seasons.
But athletes today are playing later into their careers. Of the 14 All-Star talents whose careers spanned into their 40s uninterrupted, nine have played in the past decade, and of the 10 players who 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 ruptured Achilles, is a marvel of modern medicine.
Might someone enter the NBA as an immediately impactful scorer, spike to an efficient 35 points per game for a healthy stretch of his prime and finish a 20-year career with averages of 30 points per game and 72 games per season? That is 43,200 points. It is plausible. Good luck to Victor Wembanyama, the 19-year-old phenom who is averaging 25 points per 36 minutes in France's top league and will be the No. 1 overall pick in June.
More likely, though, the NBA's next scoring king has not yet been born. Remember, James entered this world eight months after Abdul-Jabbar broke Chamberlain's record. It took a basketball lifetime for the game and its players to evolve to the point that the impossible became inevitable. No record is unbreakable, but James has given basketball one the sport might not see again until those of us witnessing it are long gone.
Determination: Fiction. The NBA's new scoring record will not last forever, but it might just outlast us.
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Ben Rohrbach is a senior NBA writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach