LeBron James is on the verge of becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, surpassing the monumental, graceful Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We knew this day was coming, and here we are. The LeBron haters will pollute the air with their imbecilic hissing. The LeBron worshipers will declare that he’s the Greatest of All Time, refusing to listen to dissenting opinions.
Me? I’m going to enjoy watching history being made, admire LeBron’s grandeur, and appreciate the momentousness of this landmark occasion.
James needs 36 points Tuesday night when his Los Angeles Lakers host Oklahoma City. If LeBron doesn’t ascend to the No. 1 spot tonight, he’ll almost certainly reach the apogee in Thursday’s home game against Milwaukee.
In the realm of individual accomplishments, this qualifies as the most celestial achievement in the sport. Abdul-Jabbar has held this record for more than 38 years, setting the new standard in April 1984, eight months before LeBron James was born.
For the longest time, Kareem’s career magnum opus was considered untouchable, safely beyond the grasp of potential challengers. But along came King James to make this improbable moment possible by creating a dazzling waterfall of points during 20 seasons of sustained excellence and endurance.
“I always thought Kareem was like on another planet with that particular record,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, the winningest NBA coach of all-time, in a recent conversation with reporters. “LeBron’s commitment to the game, and to what he has to do, has allowed him to be in this position.”
I’ll decline to get into the usual molten-take arguments pitting Michael Jordan devotees vs. LeBron loyalists in the exhausting debate over the best-ever player in NBA chronicles.
First of all, James scored a high percentage of his points during a period of rules changes that shifted the game to a pro-offense competition. The 3-point shot wasn’t available – or as prevalent – to past-generation stars. The game has evolved through the years, and it makes little sense to compare generations.
And there’s this: James isn’t done. His career is very much in progress. At age 38 he’s averaging 30 points per game this season and is ranked tied for fifth among NBA players with an average of 36.5 minutes per game. No player at age 38 has done what LeBron is doing this season: the combination of 30 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game.
I think a strong case can be made that LeBron James is putting together the greatest career in NBA history if we combine elite talent, longevity, individual achievements, and team success. Feel free to disagree; that’s OK with me. This doesn’t mean he’s the greatest player; I don’t think anyone could top the career-peak version of Jordan. And I think Abdul-Jabbar gets overlooked in these discussions. Bill Russell is in a separate category: pioneer, most invincible leader, most championships won and perhaps the greatest defensive player to play in the NBA. But again, I’m talking about an overall career and who did the most.
Let’s consider the scope of LeBron’s career:
– Most points in NBA history. (Soon.)
– Ranks fifth all-time with an average of 27.5 points per game in the regular season. That average is just a fraction away from No. 3.
– Fourth-most assists in league history.
– All-time leading scorer in NBA postseason history.
– No. 2 in career postseason assists, and No. 6 in postseason rebounds.
– Four NBA most valuable player awards; finished second in the voting in four other seasons.
– 18 All-NBA selections including nine on the first team.
– A six-time selection to the All-Defensive team.
– NBA Rookie of the Year.
– No. 1 all-time in the Value Over Replacement metric.
– No. 3 all-time for best offensive efficiency.
– He’s the only NBA player with 38,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists.
– Won four NBA championships with three different franchises, Has led his teams to 10 NBA Finals overall including a remarkable run of eight in a row from 2011 through 2018.
James doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his skills as a playmaker and creator. We think of him as a scorer, and obviously he’s a prolific scorer. But among hundreds of NBA players that have competed in at least 750 games since the 1976-77 merger, James ranks 15th with a career assist rate of 7.3 per game. Just about as many as Mugsy Bogues, and more than Gary Payton, Steph Curry, Doc Rivers, Anthony Parker, Mo Cheeks, John Lucas and Anthony Parker. And Michael Jordan.
According to Basketball Reference, James’ teams have scored 24,333 points on LeBron’s assists. Which also raises another aspect of LeBron’s total value. He’s capable of handling any position on the court.
While he’s played 54% of his career minutes at small forward, don’t think about boxing him in.
Over two recent seasons (2019-20, and 2020-21) James played 63 percent of his minutes at point guard.
Last season he played 50% of his minutes at center. This season he’s spent 23% of his minutes at center, and 77% at power forward.
And in one two-season period covering 2019 through 2021, James played an estimated 30% of his minutes at shooting guard.
How many NBA players have done that? And how many NBA players have played all five positions – clocking heavy minutes with elite-level scoring, rebounding and assists – at age 35 or older?
“The guy is the greatest to ever play the game,” Dallas Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said recently. “So what does he mean? He’s always delivered. He’s won multiple (four) championships. He’ll break a record that a lot of people don’t think will ever be broken.”
LBJ’s value encompasses a lot more than just scoring points. And a short time from now, he’ll have more points than anyone who played in the NBA. But there’s so much more to his game.
James’ impact hasn’t been limited to the basketball court. He’s changed young lives with his “I Promise” School in his hometown (Akron, Ohio.) He’s exerted his influence to raise awareness for social justice. He has nearly 200 million combined followers on social media. He started a production company in Los Angeles and has been a producer of record on 52 films, with five more on the way. He has an HBO show “The Shop.” He won a prime-time Emmy award for the show “Becoming.” He became the first active NBA player with a net worth of at least $1 billion.
This range of activities haven’t reduced his hunger to be the best player there is. He just won’t back off. His disciplined training regimen is legendary. After every team flight, he does an intense stretching routine with a team trainer. Other parts of his basketball wellness program includes regular ice baths, yoga, and meditation. He gets to the arena some five hours before tip-off of every game to put his muscles through a comprehensive stretching-warmup plan. Injuries have been a factor in recent seasons – but haven’t defeated him or slowed him down much.
Asked what made him go so hard in his 20th NBA season, James told Fox Sports that it was, “Just my drive to be the greatest to ever play this game and inspire kids all over the world and also put myself in a position to win championships. I feel like that’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve had in my career, to be able to hoist that (championship) trophy. So, that’s a motivating factor for me still to this day.”
A championship is highly unlikely this season, but James will play for at least two more years after this. He still has the energy and the talent to accomplish anything. Becoming the league’s all-time scoring leader is a fantastic way to begin the final phase of the greatest all-around career in NBA history.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from Basketball Reference and NBA.com
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.