At some point soon — likely sometime next week — LeBron James will make one of the most historic field goals or free throws in NBA history. As the shot falls through the goal, the superstar will beat 38-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the league’s all-time leading scorer.
That remarkable feat was brought to you by an incredible combination of scoring talent and durability that we haven’t seen in pro basketball since Abdul-Jabbar, who has been one of the league’s best players for nearly two decades.
James was No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, and for 20 seasons in the NBA, he has improved and developed as a scorer, and shot his cards to tell the story of how a teenager who comes in without a league on a certain jump shot will end up scoring more points than anyone who has set foot in the NBA put in the court
2003-04: Rookie Year
Despite winning honors as the league’s best rookie in 2003-04, while averaging 21 points per game, James struggled to mix scoring volume with efficiency.
Of the 46 players who attempted at least 1,000 field goals this year, James ranked 41st in effective field goal percentage.
His rookie year shot off the charts for a young player who was a below average jump shooter and pedestrian in the paint. Abdul-Jabbar’s passing did not matter.
Three rookie states from his first campaign stand out as examples of how far James is from the scorer we now know:
James ranked 72 out of 74 NBA players who attempted at least 200 3s, converting 29.0% of his attempts. Only Jason Richardson and Antoine (“because there are no 4s”) Walker were less effective from the city.
James ranked 119 out of 126 NBA players who averaged at least 200 shots, converting 33.2% of his attempts.
James was 72 out of 114 NBA players who attempted at least 200 shots in the restricted area, converting 57.5% of his attempts.
As a rookie, James posted what would become career roars in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. but to improve quickly.
2004-05: A small step forward
In Year 2, James looked to show what would eventually become a signature force as a scorer: his incredible paint production.
James’ ability to score in the paint is the biggest reason Abdul-Jabbar is bound to pass. In his rookie year, he numbered 11th in the league in points in the paint; in Year 2, third. That helped increase the scoring average from 20.9 to 27.2, which turned out to be a career scoring average. In his third year in the league, with a career-high 31.4 points per game, James was second in the NBA in points scored, trailing only Shaquille O’Neal, who still plays some of the most dominant interior basketball in the league. history
2007-08: Scoring champ
From the running back’s perspective, the long climb to “LeBron’s peak” involved learning how to use his speed, strength and skill to get good looks at the rim and turn them into buckets.
When he won his only scoring title 23 years ago in 2007-08, 55.4% of his league-leading 794 buckets came inside the restricted area. He had the scoring crown and a trip to the Finals under his belt, but he still didn’t have a definite jersey. This season, he converted only 33.1% of 964 jumpers.
By the time he left Cleveland, James realized his potential as a unique player. He won two consecutive MVP awards coming out of the door, in part because those Cavaliers rosters were so thin and James had to do everything. During the 2008-09 season, he led his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. It’s strange, but he also just proved that he needs more help.
Taking talents to the South Shore
When James first came in, he took his talents to Miami for much better basketball, and that was the next peak of LeBron James.
It didn’t happen overnight, but as James got used to playing on Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, he learned to string up tough jump shots and trust his teammates, and his efficiency numbers soared.
His final two seasons in Miami marked the only two years in his career in which James averaged fewer than 18 shots per game. He became obsessed with efficiency, especially in 2012-13, when he helped the Heat snap a 26-game winning streak in the regular season en route to their second consecutive NBA championship. From a purely efficiency point of view, this chart would be his masterpiece.
It was still a threat on the edge, but the jumping numbers were stronger. That remains the only time he made more than 40% of his 3s on the season, but his average numbers were also high. He capped that season with his second title, and — aside from Ray Allen’s memorable corner 3 — the biggest shot of that legendary Finals win over the San Antonio Spurs was arguably James’ Game 7 19-foot jumper with 27 seconds left to give Miami an insurmountable 4-point lead. . He capped a game in which he went 5-for-10 on 3s and 4-for-10 on 2-point jumpers; They dared to strike James from the outside with his spurs, and he did.
In Miami, James was the entire focus of the offense. He learned to play ball. He made his training more selective and focused with his choice of shots. It was a luxury that came with great football. Sometimes effectiveness has as much to do with the circumstances of the players as it does with their individual abilities. As the numbers soared to new heights, those who studied James at the confluence of lower custom, higher efficiency, and higher reading intelligence were most interested. Just check out what the respected American LeBronologist, Brian Windhorst, wrote back in May 2013 after James was awarded his fourth MVP:
“Less bad shots, more good shots, more attempts from places he learned he was good at shooting against defensive traps, less attempts against schemes that were meant to bait bad decisions. … He was often released like a hot streak. Or from a bunch of dunks. This was so much deeper than that. James applying his understanding of a decade in the NBA and merging it with his talent.”
Peak LeBron manifested when his brain, his body and his athleticism all changed in Miami.
However, as long as those years have been, James left Miami in 2014 as an 11-year veteran with 23,170 points. He won four MVP awards and two NBA championships, but was still 15,217 points shy of Jabbar’s record.
Return to Cleveland
As a scorer, James may be second in Miami, but the descent from that peak has been modest. An incredible ability to sustain his health and the number of interior scores that he has in a precipitous history nine years after the Heat left.
In a span of 10 seasons from 2008-09 through 2017-18, James led the NBA in scoring in tight ends six times. In his last season in Cleveland, he converted an amazing 534m field goals in the critical zone.
It was the greatest number of LeBron’s career; no player had scored as many buckets since MVP-level Shaq put up 571 in 1999-00, when everyone knew Shaq was the most dominant interior scorer on the planet.
While Stephen Curry and James Harden were exchanging basketball for an unusual amount of 3-point field goals, James was competing with Abdul-Jabbar with a sure and true basketball formula: dominating the interior.
While James will never come close to matching Curry’s tally — though he is ninth in NBA history with 2,222 career 3-pointers — it doesn’t matter much. The interior status quo for James and Curry remains the area of strength.
LeBron as a shark
Late-era James is a different kind of scorer. This season, James still ranks sixth in the league in points per game, and while those paint buckets still drive overall success, his jump-shooting behavior has changed dramatically since 2003.
As the league has evolved, so has James turned back on those non-fat 2s that replaced more than a third of his field goal attempts in the early days and replaced a steady diet of 3-point attempts.
The average distance of James’ jumpers in his rookie season was 15.7 feet, in the middle of the midfield. Last season that number was 22.5 feet, much closer to the 3-point arc.
James enters Tuesday’s game against the New York Knicks (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) averaging 29.9 points per game, good for sixth in the NBA. Since James is 38 years old, what he is doing is not only unheard of — the previous high for a player 38 or older was 23.4 by Abdul-Jabbar in 1985-86 — but it also proves that James has a lot of fuel. In the lake
James has not been effective in recent days to break the record. Like Curry did to Allen’s 3-point record last season, James is blown away by Jabbar’s milepost at 100 mph. In his first 11 games as a 38-year-old, James averaged 36.1 points per game. This isn’t Abdul-Jabbar barely reaching double digits in his 20th season or even Michael Jordan limping to 20 games with the Washington Wizards in 2002-03. James, with unusual prudence, must exorcise this testimony.
This chart shows that no active players even come close to James in either minutes played or points scored. This record is as much about age as it is about scoring. In 76 seasons, only seven players – including James – have logged at least 50,000 minutes on the NBA court. While players like Kevin Durant, Harden, and Curry may be gifted scorers more than James, none of them have held up to the slip and tear for basketball nearly as much as James has.
By the end of his career, James will not only likely have the NBA record for points scored, but also a new record for minutes played (he’s 3,854 shy of Abdul-Jabbar). Any superstar trying to eclipse his scoring record will also need the unusual ability to remain healthy and productive beyond two decades. It is hard to believe that this is happening, especially in a time of burden management.
Among the top 29 players in minutes played in NBA history, James ranks first in points scored per 36 minutes. He scored more than 2,000 points in 10 seasons. His lowest total in a season was 1,126, when injuries and the pandemic schedule limited him to 45 games.
Unless he says it sooner than expected — he’s under contract for at least one season, and holds a player option for 2024-25 — it’s fair to assume James will hit 40,000 points next season.
Yes, Father Time is unbeatable, but like Tom Brady, James appears to be extending his window of superstardom beyond 20 years, and that extension will likely push the league’s bar into uncharted territory.
Matt Williams of ESPN Stats & Information reported this story.