Hollinger: LeBron James’ scoring record won’t be unbreakable. But it’ll be pretty close

When LeBron James breaks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA scoring record in the coming days, he’s not going to just walk off into the sunset at 38,388 points. James might be 38, but he’s still one of the best players in the league — recently named an All-Star Game starter while cruising toward an inconceivable 19th All-NBA selection.

That brings up two obvious questions: Where will this record end up? And once he’s finished, what are the odds somebody breaks it?

Projecting the record’s final number is an interesting project. This isn’t some washed veteran limping over the finish line. Whether James is the best player in NBA history is a separate debate, but James is also making a strong case to be the best old player in NBA history.

Wilt Chamberlain made his last All-NBA team at 35 and was done playing at 37. Michael Jordan retired a second time at 35. (Those Wizards years never happened.) Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles at 34. John Stockton was good until he was 40, but he was never in LeBron’s stratosphere as a player. Karl Malone makes for a better comp, but still falls a bit short; the Mailman won an MVP at 35, made All-NBA at 37 and was an All-Star at 38 before trailing off.

James, meanwhile, averaged 30.3 points per game at 37, the second-best mark of his career, and is threatening to surpass it this season at 38 (He entered Tuesday at 30.2.) He made third-team All-NBA in his age -37 season, and was second in MVP voting while winning MVP of the NBA Finals at 35.

His best rival in this category is the player he’s chasing for the scoring record. Abdul-Jabbar was MVP of the finals at 37, made first-team All-NBA at 38 and was arguably the second-best player on a championship team at 39, averaging 21.7 points per game in the finals.

NBA Top 5 scorers

Player Points

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


LeBron James


Karl Malone


Kobe Bryant


Michael Jordan


James is tracking to be better than all of them, although he probably needs one more elite season after this one to decisively leave Kareem in the dust. That’s an important thing to remember as we ponder this record. We’ll see what plans Father Time has, but a Tom Brady-esque trajectory doesn’t seem inconceivable if James wants to pursue it. We know that James has said he wants to stay in the league long enough to play with his son Bronny, which would extend his career to 2024-25 at a minimum.

With James averaging 30.2 points per game, he could easily add 600 points or more to his record just over the final two months of this season. If he breaks the record Feb. 7 against Oklahoma City and sits out every back-to-back the rest of the season, he would get in 24 games. Let’s assume random nicks and bruises take him out of a couple more, and call it an even 600 for the rest of the season.

The question is how much more can he pad his soon-to-be scoring record? James hasn’t played more than 67 games in a season since 2017-18, but even if he plays 60 next year and sees a modest dip in his scoring average to 25 points per game, we’re looking at 1,500 more points, which would make him the first player to clear the 40,000 barrier. If he plays one more year after that to get in his run with Bronny, that would likely add another 1,500 or so and set the record at 42,000 points.

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, he shuts it down there. Would the record be unbreakable? And if not, how much longer would he need to play to make it unlikely somebody could touch it?

Here’s the interesting part: How many games will players play in the future? James is trending toward a career total between 1,500 and 1,600; he will pass Jason Terry (!) for 10th on the all-time list soon but he has 205 left to catch Robert Parish for the top spot. He’d have to play until 2025-26 and stay relatively healthy to catch him.

Most NBA Games Played

Player Games

Robert Parish


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


Vince Carter


Dirk Nowitzki


John Stockton


Karl Malone


Kevin Garnett


Moses Malone


Kevin Willis


Jason Terry


LeBron James


Tim Duncan


Jason Kidd


Reggie Miller


Clifford Robinson


James needed 20 seasons to get to that total. If he ends up playing 65 games this year, he’ll have averaged 71.6 games per season.

That seems notable given the current trend in player rest, especially for the league’s most important players. Of the league’s top 20 scorers in 2021-22, precisely zero of them played more than 76 games. Of the top 20 scorers so far this season, all except Jayson Tatum, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and DeMar DeRozan have already missed at least five games.

In other words, breaking LeBron’s record will probably require averaging more points per game than he did, because playing as many games in this era will be extremely difficult. (It’s also possible the league shortens the schedule at some point.)

Additionally, James got an extra year at the beginning of his career relative to today’s players because he came to the league straight from high school, which is not possible at the moment. The league could potentially reverse its position di lui, of course, but for now it’s another impediment to any potential record-breaker. James got a 1,654-point lead on the field that 2003-04 season in Cleveland.

To give you an idea how hard it will be for James’ contemporaries to catch him, consider that Kevin Durant has the same career scoring average as James, but would need to average roughly 2,000 points a season every year until he’s 41 to get in the ballpark of 42,000. Only six players eclipsed 2,000 last season; this year, we’re on track for five. Durant wasn’t one of them either year.

Between James’ head start as a teenager and his impressive durability, he built up almost a 200-game advantage on Durant by the end of his age-34 season. Durant would have to play deep into his 40s to make up that gap.

We can look at this more scientifically, though. Baseball writer Bill James once modeled baseball records’ breakability in terms of “league-leading seasons,” as in how many league-leading seasons from the current year would it take to catch the record. That’s an effective way to capture changes in the game that might make an era more or less friendly to breaking a record. For instance, Cy Young’s record for complete games seems safe unless baseball radically changes how it handles pitchers.

We don’t have anything quite in the Cy Young category of unbreakable among the NBA career marks. The most unassailable is probably Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 23,924 rebounds; it would take 23.5 seasons of current league-leading performance to break that.

For some perspective, there are no active players even halfway to Chamberlain’s mark. The closest recent player, Dwight Howard, turned pro out of high school, played in the NBA until he was 36, led the league in rebounding five times and still finished nearly 10,000 boards short of Chamberlain.

It would also take 23.6 league-leading seasons to break Stockton’s mark of 3,265 steals. Steal totals have quietly fizzled from a high-water mark in the mid-80s; of the top 15 steal seasons, none have come after 1991-92. Stockton himself only led the league twice, but his career-high season of 263 would have doubled every player in the league except Dejounte Murray last season. Chris Paul still trails Stockton by 769, or about five league-leading seasons. At the 37-year-old’s current trend line of about 100 a year, he’d have to play until he was 45. Only two other active players are even halfway to Stockton.



LeBron’s pursuit of the scoring record: When will he pass Kareem?

If youre looking for a breakable record, on the other hand, it would take a mere 10 years of league-leading performance to catch Russell Westbrook’s record for triple-doubles, although he’s still adding to it. That record is likely to fall victim to the ongoing trendline in how the game is played. Nikola Jokić, in particular, is about halfway to Westbrook’s record and is only 27, while Luka Dončić is hot on his trail.

Stephen Curry’s records for 3-pointers made (3,290) and attempted (7,695) are similarly vulnerable, even as he adds to them. The game is changing enough that somebody from the next generation will almost certainly own these marks by 2050.

James’s scoring record falls somewhere in between rebounds and triple-doubles. If James gets to 42,000, we’re looking at 19.5 years of league-leading performance. That’s gettable, but it would require an all-time great player with unusual durability and a favorable era for offense.

The pathway here is scoring brilliance, something akin to James Harden’s 2019-20 season but extended over multiple years. Playing as many total games as James will be difficult, but James’ scoring average on a per-game basis is “only” fifth all time. The current heliocentric era is likely to push him down the list further: Eleven players this season have averages exceeding James’ career mark of 27.2, including James himself.

Two players in particular warrant watching: Dončić and Tatum. Dončić is averaging 33.4 points per game this season, while Tatum is at 31.1. As with James, their size and playing styles should allow them to thrive well into their 30s if they take care of themselves and can avoid any serious injuries (*taps wood*). Tatum looks like he’ll finish his age-24 season right around 10,000 points, while Dončić is tracking to finish his age-23 season around 9,300.

Already, you can see what an uphill challenge it will be to catch James’ record if he plays two more seasons beyond this one: Tatum and Dončić are less than a quarter of the way to our 42,000-point target. Additionally, they’re playing from behind because of the one-and-done rule; at the same age, LeBron had banked 1,200 more points than Dončić and almost 3,000 more than Tatum.

Both players can make up ground, even if they only play 72 games or so a year, by continuing to average in the 30s, and both would seem to have a window of eight years or so to rack up a ton of points this way. If Dončić plays 70 games a year and averages 32.5 points per game over the next six seasons, he will catch up to LeBron’s trendline by the end of his age-29 season. Tatum has a tougher climb: he’d have to average 35.5 while playing 70 games a year to match LeBron’s trendline by the close of his age-30 campaign. Of course, catching up to James’ pace through his prime years is only half the battle; did I mention that nobody this old has ever played this well?

Nonetheless, the outlines of what James’ scoring record might look like are forming: We can set the over/under around 42,000 points for where it ends up, we can establish that it will be difficult but not impossible to break, and we can identify the one active player with the best shot at it is Dončić, though the Mavericks superstar has shown no real desire to play as long as LeBron has.

The more likely scenario, however, is that the record-holder isn’t in the league yet … and won’t be until the league changes the one-and-done rule.

(Photo of LeBron James: Paul Rutherford / USA Today)


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