James

But the number 38,387 still stands out. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has managed to score so many points in a career, leaving him and his famed skyhook alone atop the all-time scoring leaderboard.

LebronPlenty of NBA standouts have attempted to dethrone the legendary center. Most recently, Kobe Bryant (32,617) seemed to have a chance, but a plethora of injuries knocked him well off the pace, dooming him to a likely finish behind both Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone (36,928).

A number of other veterans have claimed impressive places on the leaderboard, but age won’t let them make serious runs at becoming the all-time leader. Dirk Nowitzki (28,323) has moved into the top seven, but his scoring output is declining, and he’s already celebrated his 37th birthday. Tim Duncan (26,099), Kevin Garnett (25,977) and Paul Pierce (25,955) are all in the top 16, but no member of that trio will move too much further up the hierarchy.

If any active member of the Association has a legitimate shot at rising up to No. 1, it’s LeBron James. He’s the lone player who has the perfect combination of a high scoring total (25,213), relative youth (he’s 30) and a set of skills that should allow him to sustain an impressive points-per-game average for a number of years.

James’ Current Pace

If James is going to have any sort of realistic shot at the top spot, he can’t experience a significant drop-off in the near future. He’s still over 13,000 points behind Abdul-Jabbar, and that gap can’t be closed in just a few years. For perspective, Chamberlain and Michael Jordan are the only players in league history to top 3,000 points in a single season.

Fortunately, there aren’t many signs James’ scoring output will suddenly fall of a cliff. On the contrary, he’s going steady during his 13th professional season:

Though the four-time MVP only averaged 20.9 points during his rookie campaign, he’s topped 25 in every go-round since. Assuming he doesn’t suddenly go inexplicably cold in 2015-16—which there’s been absolutely no indication of—that will give him 12 such seasons.

No one in NBA history can top that, and only six have even hit double digits:

LeBron James, 12 seasons
Kobe Bryant, 12
Karl Malone, 12
Michael Jordan, 11
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 10
Allen Iverson, 10

Though there’s no precedent for this, let’s assume James does manage to keep scoring at his current rate (27.3 points per game) for the rest of the season, then puts up exactly 25 per contest in each campaign for the foreseeable future. We’ll also guess he makes 72 appearances per season, seeing as he entered this year averaging 75.9 per season but only hit 69 last year.

Using those numbers, it wouldn’t take him an excessive amount of time to surpass Abdul-Jabbar:

Does that really seem too far out of touch with reality?

With the exception of James’ two-week hiatus during the 2014-15 campaign, he’s always been a remarkably healthy individual, and there is no reason to suspect a severe impending decline in his scoring ability. Even as his athleticism fades, he has the requisite touch from the perimeter and skills with his back to the basket to keep throwing up gaudy point totals on a regular basis.

By the end of the 2022-23 season, James will be 38 years old with plenty of wear and tear on his tires. But while there’s not any precedent for a forward dominating the scoring column so late in his career, we’re also talking about a player who’s defied convention throughout his entire professional tenure.

Plus, we’re also being a bit safe with one of the assumptions. If we treat last season as an anomaly and let James play in 76 games per campaign—he’s on the record as saying he wants to play all 82 this year—and assume he keeps scoring 27 points in the typical outing, he’ll get to Abdul-Jabbar even quicker:

In this situation, James is moving past the all-time leader one season sooner, giving himself the opportunity to become No. 1 before he hits 38. And if you’re thinking that’s still an awfully lengthy stay in the NBA, it might make you feel better to remember that, back in December 2013, James told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick he might play until he’s 40:

“We still got to live our life. A long life too. I started this life when I was 18, I’ll be done by 40. So I got 50 more years to live, man. So, we all, as a group, can’t worry about what people say about us.”

Wait. What?

Roll that back.

What did he say about himself?

Done by 40?

“Yeah,” he said, laughing while he walked away. “That is the age, right? I don’t know. S–t.”

The length of his ongoing career is only one part of the assumption.

We also have to worry about his ability to maintain such a ridiculous scoring rate, and that may actually be the tougher part. The toughest, however, might end up being James’ chances of suiting up over 70 times per season when the years start piling up.

If you feel comfortable predicting James will be able to score at least 25 points per game when he’s 37 years old, that’s perfectly fine. We haven’t exactly had a chance to witness what such a supremely athletic, cerebral and skilled player can do at such an advanced NBA age, and it’s within the realm of possibilities to claim he’ll be able to do what no similar standout ever has.

But let’s use historical precedent to our advantage. We’ll still give James the benefit of the doubt by assuming he remains near the top of each age-filtered scoring leaderboard, but we won’t let him exceed the limitations set forth by his predecessors.

For our purposes, let’s figure James maintains his current scoring rate for the rest of the 2015-16 campaign, which happens to be his age-31 season—as determined by his age on Feb. 1 of the go-round in question. After that, we can turn to these leaders of yesteryear:

Qualified Scoring Leaders by Age
1 2 3 4 5 Weighted Average Percent Decline
Age 32 Jordan (30.4) English (29.8) Wilkins (28.1) Olajuwon (27.8) Baylor (26.6) 28.7 N/A
Age 33 Wilkins (29.9) Jordan (29.6) English (28.6) Bryant (27.9) Malone (27.4) 28.7 0 Percent
Age 34 Jordan (28.7) King (28.4) Bryant (27.3) Malone (27.0) Wilkins (26) 27.5 4.18 Percent
Age 35 English (26.5) Malone (23.8) Abdul-Jabbar (21.8) Nowitzki (21.7) Wilkens (20.5) 22.8 17.09 Percent
Age 36 Malone (25.5) Abdul-Jabbar (21.5) Olajuwon (18.9) English (17.9) O’Neal (17.8) 20.5 10.09 Percent
Age 37 Malone (23.2) Abdul-Jabbar (22) Wilkins (18.2) Green (16.7) Havlicek (16.1) 19.3 5.85 Percent
Age 38 Abdul-Jabbar (23.4) Malone (22.4) Parish (14.1) Duncan (13.9) Hill (13.2) 17.4 9.84 Percent
Age 39 Malone (20.6) Jordan (20) Abdul-Jabbar (17.5) Stockton (13.4) Parish (12.6) 16.8 3.45 Percent
Age 40 Abdul-Jabbar (14.6) Parish (11.7) Stockton (10.8) Willis (4.2) Mutombo (3.1) 9.0 46.43 Percent
Basketball-Reference.com

Seeing as James hasn’t averaged more than 30 points per game since the 2007-08 season, it would be too much of a stretch to assume he just becomes the new No. 1 finisher at each age.

But while it’s still a stretch, we can grant him the average scoring numbers of those listed and see what would happen to his pursuit of Abdul-Jabbar while playing in 72 games per season:

The other way to look at this is applying the percentage decrease from one age to another. That allows James to average 27.3 points per game during the current campaign, the subsequent one and his age-33 go-round before his figures slowly taper off.

This provides an even more realistic picture, even if it’s not good news for the pursuit:

The main issue here isn’t that the new pace requires James to play into the 2023-24 season before he passes Abdul-Jabbar. That could be problematic, sure. The bigger concern is the complete absence of margin for error.

There’s no realistic possibility James exceeds this projection by a significant amount. He’s not going to shatter scoring records deep into his 30s. Nor will he be playing in nearly every contest for an entire season. If he’s going to diverge from the path, it’ll be in the negative direction.

Whether he’ll admit it, James’ back appears to be on the verge of becoming problematic. Thus far in 2015-16, he’s fighting through it admirably, but it has to be concerning his two-week sabbatical last year was triggered by a dire need for rest and relaxation. Plus, he needed injections before this season began.

One team doctor, via Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, has already provided us with a cautionary outlook:

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. William Pakan, who serves as team doctor for Kent State University, told the Northeast Ohio Media Group that an athlete who receives multiple back injections in the span of 10 months, generally speaking, is “probably suffering from a degenerative change in his back, to some extent.”

Pakan has not treated James and agreed to speak generally about back injuries and injections. But he said that if an athlete such as James needed a third shot “over the next six months, it’s a likely sign of perhaps a small disc degeneration or bulge.”

“At that stage, he may need to have something done [surgically], and when you start doing that, it’s never like it was,” Pakan said.

“We have it set up to where if I need it, we can do [an injection] again,” James told Vardon, who also noted the Cavaliers insist the second round of treatment was purely preventative. “Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but it’s a possibility, but that’s all part of the process. It’s there if we need it.”

Even if we assume the back woe was a one-time malady that will never pop up again—something you’d typically hesitate to do when dealing with uber-athletic professional basketball players—it’s tough to foresee James keeping an entirely clean bill of health. Though the Cavaliers superstar has always seemed so healthy he could pass for a robot, Father Time has a way of keeping everyone, well, human.

It wasn’t a lack of production that knocked Kobe Bryant off Abdul-Jabbar’s pace; it was a set of season-ending injuries. If one of those should hit James—knock on wood—his attempt at this particular type of history will basically become extinct. If he needs to take a significant amount of time off during a few seasons, it’s going to make the pursuit nearly impossible.

Absolutely. He’s still scoring at an incredibly high level, has the tools necessary to remain effective as his athleticism inevitably declines, has stayed quite healthy throughout his career and has expressed the desire to spend a lot more time in the Association before he retires.

Unfortunately, the question of whether he will take over as the all-time record-holder is an entirely different one.

Unless he suddenly becomes a scorer capable of averaging 30 points per game in the next few seasons, there’s too little margin for error in too many areas to realistically predict he finishes anywhere higher than No. 2 on the all-time leaderboard.

Source: Adam Fromal

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