It’s the holy grail of NBA records: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 points, the scoring record he’s held since his retirement in 1989.
The only player to come remotely close to match Abdul-Jabbar’s output has been Karl Malone, who scored 36,928 points but retired at age 40 after an injury-plagued season in 2004. But a healthy and rejuvenated LeBron James could put Abdul-Jabbar’s mark into peril. Just don’t expect it to happen soon.
James will enter this season after an injury-marred first go-round with the Lakers, in which he averaged 27.4 points but played only 55 games, missing 18 of those games with a groin injury. That was the most significant injury of his career. James has been remarkably durable as an NBA player, averaging 74.9 games per year, with an additional 14.9 playoff games per season.
He has 32,543 points to his credit thus far, leaving him 5,844 points shy of Abdul-Jabbar.
How LeBron James Can Catch Abdul-Jabbar
That’s a significant hill. James’ scoring average figures to dip as the Lakers hand the offensive burden to new star forward Anthony Davis, and should dip more as he ages. Still, it’s reasonable to expect 23-24 points or so per game from James this season. If James stays healthy, he will probably miss about 10 games.
For 2019-20, then, at 23.5 points per game for 72 games, James would add 1,692 points to his total, moving him 4,152 points behind Abdul-Jabbar.
In 2020-21, if he can do much the same thing at age 36—let’s call it 23.0 points over 72 games—James would tack on another 1,656 points. He would pass the 35,000-point plateau late in the season.
In 2021-22, James will be 37 for most of the season and in the final year of his Lakers contract, unless he opts out and re-signs the previous summer. James should still be productive even as he likely deals with more minor injuries and requires more rest.
If James can average 20.0 points over 67 games, that’s another 1,370 for him. With his previous two projected totals, he’d be at 36,379 points. That would still be 549 points behind Malone and 2,008 points behind Abdul-Jabbar.
This is where the question of how James sees his future comes into play. It’s possible that 2021-22 will be James’s last year as he turns to focus more on his entertainment empire. That’s why he signed with the Lakers, after all—he wanted to set up his business and family for his life after basketball.
If he stops there, he will have a shot at catching Malone but no chance at reaching Abdul-Jabbar’s mark. But if he’s willing to play into ages 38 and 39, without significant injuries, Abdul-Jabbar’s record will be vulnerable.
For 2022-23, at age 38, if James plays 67 games and averages 18 points, he will pass Malone and wind up the season with 37,585 points. He’d be only 802 points behind Abdul-Jabbar at that point.
Even if James only chipped in 12 points per game as a role player at that stage, much like Dirk Nowitzki did in Dallas, James would pass Abdul-Jabbar in his 67th game of the season. That would likely be some time in April 2024.
It could happen, then, within five years but with a few must-haves. James would need to avoid a season-ending injury, an unpredictable factor for a player who has been fortunate to dodge that kind of injury over 16 years. By the math here, he would play 69 games per season over five years.
He’d also have to maintain a pretty high level for a player in his late 30s with the wear-and-tear he has endured. Averaging 16.9 points per game over 345 games as you approach 40 is no easy thing.
But it’s not unreasonable for James to get there. If there’s a path for him to topple Abdul-Jabbar, it would likely look something like that.