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How LeBron James Broke An NBA Record That Was Once Considered Unbreakable

While it has been far from a banner season for the Los Angeles Lakers, one bright spot has been LeBron James’s pursuit of an NBA record that was once considered unbreakable: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring mark of 38,387 career points. After James notched 27 points against the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday, his lifetime tally of 38,352 sits just 35 points shy of Abdul-Jabbar’s record. 

Since James has scored at least 35 points in 11 of the 43 games he’s played this season (about 26 percent of the time), there is a decent chance he ties or breaks the record Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder — and he is all but certain to break it by Thursday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks.1 Although NBA players are usually measured more on championships and per-game output than raw totals, the scoring record will regardless be one of the shinier items on James’s long list of career accomplishments — one that truly underscores his longevity, durability and continued production, even at age 38 (and counting).

One way we can see this is by comparing James’s career points with Abdul-Jabbar’s over time, through each game of their careers. It may surprise contemporary fans to know that Abdul-Jabbar had more points through each and every game of their respective careers up until Game No. 1,120; the 33 points LeBron scored then, on Feb. 25, 2018, finally allowed him to overtake Abdul-Jabbar’s pace — and he’s never looked back since. While Abdul-Jabbar’s point total followed a gently arcing path during the late stages of his career, reflecting the normal career trajectory that sees a player’s production tail off as he ages, James’s total has steadily increased along roughly the same straight line it always has, perhaps even getting steeper in recent seasons as he approached the record number.

Thanks to his remarkable ability to defy Father Time, James should be able to chase down Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring mark in about 150 fewer games than it took the great sky-hooking big man to originally compile it.

There is another important explanation for the difference in scoring pace between the two legends, however. By virtue of being able to skip college basketball and leap straight to the pros out of high school in 2003, James also got a sizable head start on Abdul-Jabbar, who played four years at UCLA (three on the varsity team) before being drafted No. 1 by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969.challenged the NBA’s draft eligibility rules in court during the early 1970s, prospects had to wait until four years after their high school graduation to join the NBA.

">2 By the time James was the age Abdul-Jabbar was on the day of his NBA debut (22 years and 185 days), LeBron already had 8,439 career NBA points.

That’s also why, by the time Abdul-Jabbar got to James’s current total of 1,409 games, he was nearly two and a half years older than James is now, and his production was seriously slowing. But the head start of skipping college wasn’t exactly an automatic record-breaking cheat code for James, either. It’s worth pointing out that other preps-to-pros stars — such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Dwight Howard — ran out of steam well before the age at which LeBron is currently maintaining his greatness. (Bryant was 37 years and 234 days old on the date of his 60-point career finale — about six months younger than James is right now.)

And besides, if his place on the timeline of basketball history gave James an advantage earlier generations lacked, it also gives him an opportunity. LeBron is currently averaging 30.0 points per game this season — well above his career average of 27.2 — and presumably has a number of good years left in the tank, especially if he plays into his 40s the way Abdul-Jabbar did. That will give him a unique chance to push the NBA's all-time scoring record to even greater heights: If Abdul-Jabbar left it in the stratosphere, James might leave it in the mesosphere or even the thermosphere. And that means this time, the record really, truly might be unbreakable for future generations of NBA stars.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.


  1. The two worst scoring games of the season for LeBron combine to tally 36 points, which is exactly what he needs to break the record.

  2. Until Spencer Haywood challenged the NBA’s draft eligibility rules in court during the early 1970s, prospects had to wait until four years after their high school graduation to join the NBA.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.


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