Forget about Michael Jordan, LeBron James may actually have his eyes set on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
And no, it’s not because the legendary center stands at 7’2, it’s because James has a legitimate shot at surpassing him as the greatest scorer in NBA history.
In fact, if things continue along the way they have been, it may end up being a walk in the park for King James.
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While we were watching LeBron James finish up his high school career on ESPN, the world could only imagine how his talents would translate to the NBA. Many were believers from day zero, while some thought there was a very real possibility that he’d never live up to the hype. So much for that.
One of the sad truths about life is that we often fail to revere those that deserve it while they’re around. When we grow up seeing things every day or subliminally feel that we could if we wanted, we tend to take them for granted. That’s exactly why a fair amount of New Yorkers (including myself) have never visited the Empire State Building. It’s the same reason why Michael Jackson was the butt of jokes prior to his death and universally celebrated as a musical genius afterward. We take things for granted when they’re right in front of our face.
At this point, if we began rattling off James’ career accomplishments and pointing out how many things he did before any other NBA superstar, we’d be sitting here all day. So let’s just start with the most obvious: James wasn’t the first youngster to make the quantum leap from high school to the pros. The long list of those who made the jump includes serviceable pros such as Monta Ellis, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Tyson Chandler and Al Jefferson. A few former All-NBA talents are within the bunch, as well: Jermaine O’Neal, Tracy McGrady, Amar’e Stoudemire and Dwight Howard. The cream of the bunch, obviously, is Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant.
In theory, a player entering the league at the young age of 18 years old should have a greater opportunity to accomplish highly. Beginning one’s career earlier essentially means additional years of eligibility. However, the trend that we’ve seen with most of this generation’s high school stars is that it most often takes years to learn how to become effective at the NBA level. And then, in most instances, the pinnacle of their effectiveness isn’t near what their high school accomplishments suggested they could be.
Consider that of all the players mentioned above, only Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are among the top 20 scorers in NBA history. After them, Tracy McGrady clocks in at number 62. Nobody else is even worth mentioning.
Nobody, of course, except LeBron James.
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With the world watching, the 18-year-old James began his reign.
Back in 2003, Mike Bibby and his Sacramento Kings weren’t far removed from being an NBA power, but even they had their hands full with the young phenom. Although the Kings defeated the young forward in his first ever NBA game, his 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists and four steals reverberated quite loudly across all league circles.
Immediately, everyone saw that LeBron was the real deal.
Since then, James has steadily improved to the point where we have developed a separate scale by which we judge him. Over the years, while a great many of his peers would be applauded for a 20-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist effort, those types of stat lines no longer impress us as it relates to him. His greatness has become so unobtainable that other players aspire to be as productive as he is in what would be considered an off night.
As a first-year player, James joined Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan as just the third rookie in league history to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. As an 18-year-old, that productivity was an omen of what was to come. That the only other two men to accomplish the feat before him each played three years collegiately said a lot. Now, 14 years, we know that well.
Truth be told, the only two contemporaries to whom we can measure James—considering his leap from high school to the pros—are Bryant and Garnett. But Garnett didn’t become a 20-point per game scorer until his fourth year in the league, while Bryant didn’t even become a full-time starter until his third.
Objectively speaking, one could easily make the case that no player that made the quantum leap hit the ground running as effectively as James. And now, after becoming the youngest player in NBA history to eclipse 27,000 career points, it’s time to start talking about the only other goal—aside from more championships—that is still worth his interest: Kareem’s scoring title.
The current generation of NBA fans have seen a fair number of promising careers either cut short or severely limited due to injury. Of all of his gifts, LeBron’s health has been the greatest.
Thus far, James has played in 12 82-game seasons and has averaged 77 games played. Over the course of the 13 complete seasons he has played thus far, James has played in 987 of a possible 1,050 games—94 percent.
In terms of longevity and productivity, Bryant is a good model. He recently ended a 20-year career that saw him begin playing at 18 years old. When it was all said and done, Bryant had amassed 33,643 points, which is third-most in history.
At the ripe age of 34 years old—despite playing in his 17th season—Bryant was able to average over 27 points per game. Had he not suffered injuries in the final years of his career, he would have probably had a legitimate shot to run down Kareem’s record. For the duration of his career, Bryant was widely regarded as a tough player who often played hurt and took pride in putting on his hard hat, especially in the years following his divorce with Shaquille O’Neal.
For comparison sake, compare the first 12 82-game seasons of Bryant’s career with that of James. Bryant managed an average of 75 games per year—slightly less. And when directly comparing the first 13 seasons of their careers, Bryant played in 948 of a possible 1,034 games. That’s 91 percent.
By either measure, through 13 years, James has been more durable.
What remains to be seen is if James can be nearly as productive (and fortunate) as he creeps up upon the infamous 1,000 games played mark. Historically, that’s when perimeter players begin to show signs of being worn down. But Bryant, somehow, was able to remain a 27-point per game scorer well after playing 1,200 games.
Still, what is most jarring in comparing the two is the difference in their cumulative point totals through 13 years played. After 13 seasons, Bryant had scored a total of 23,820 points. James’ total is a staggering 26,833.
Unlike Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, LeBron James has always been regarded as a “pass first” player who lacked the “killer instinct” reminiscent of the other score-first gunslingers.
Meanwhile, James has been quietly chasing down the greatest scorers in league history in a way that makes his Iguodala block seem like just another play.
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During last season’s playoff run, James surpassed Shaquille O’Neal as the fourth leading scorer in NBA postseason history, and on his way to the locker room, was surprised to run into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As the two exchanged pleasantries, who would have thought that James was embracing a ghost that he had quietly been chasing for the better part of his basketball career?
As James enters play on November 13 with 27,020 points, he is the 10th leading scorer in NBA history. If he averages a mere 22 points per game for the entire season, he would finish up with about 28,600 points, meaning that he would have surpassed Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal. That would leave him as the seventh leading scorer in league history.
Entering his 15th season, Kareem would still sit far away at 38,387, but those 11,787 points may seem further away than they actually are, especially if James continues to average anywhere near the 27.2 points per game he has over the course of his career.
Realistically, though, as James has aged, he has been accumulating fewer points, evidenced by the 25 points per game he has scored over each of the past two seasons. That number will continue to modestly decline as he both ages and hands the reigns over to Kyrie Irving.
In the end, two questions need to be asked: First, as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, how many points per game will LeBron score? And second, how much longer can we expect him to continue playing?
What is for sure, though, is that if James averages 25 points per game this season, he would enter next season about 10,000 points away from eclipsing Kareem. At that point, if he maintained a scoring average of somewhere between 22 and 23 points per game, he would start to sniff Kareem in another three years and surpass him (as well as Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant) within the next five or six.
Agreed, LeBron has a lot of mileage on his odometer, but to this point, he has proven to be more durable than Bryant and has accumulated more points. So long as he continues to be exactly who he has been—including the gold standard of a healthy superstar—he will certainly have an opportunity to surpass Kareem as the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Just imagine, for all these years, we’ve been comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan.
Meanwhile, all along, beneath our very noses, he’s been quietly chasing the biggest giant of them all.
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