LeBron James: All Time Leading Scorer?
Having just begun his 14th NBA season, LeBron James is one of the greatest and most accomplished players ever. On the short list of LeBron’s accomplishments are his four regular season MVP awards, three Finals MVP awards, and three NBA Titles. Although LeBron has racked up a litany of achievements and stockpiled tons of statistics, he is still climbing. The question now is: how far can he climb?
As of right now, LeBron sits at number 11 on the NBA’s all-time regular season scoring list. The leader of that list is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 38,387 career points, which is 11,535 more points than LeBron’s 26,852.
The point differential of 11,535 doesn’t seem like a lot for LeBron considering he scored over 12,000 points his first six years in the league. However, age and attrition might come into play. The reason I say might is because I’m still not 100% sure LeBron is human yet. He once completely cleared an opposing player on a dunk attempt, so the notion that he’s from outer space and will last forever does hold a little bit of weight. On a serious note, eventually LeBron’s immense workload and age will catch up to him. However, no one knows when that’s going to be.
It is tough to pinpoint a prototype to base the rest of LeBron’s career off of for a couple of reasons. First off, science has changed. Any player you base LeBron’s career off of might not have had the same advances existing in today’s world. Second, there has never been a player like LeBron. Magic Johnson is close, but even he is far from mirroring LeBron due to era, situation, and mindset.
Since predicting the future is impossible and there is no prototype to base the rest of LeBron’s career off of, we have to go out on a limb when projecting LeBron’s final point total and his chances at passing Kareem.
Let’s take a look at the trajectory of LeBron’s career PPG:
“LeBron is declining!”
“He’s never going to break Kareem’s record!”
Slow down. Yes, LeBron’s PPG have tapered off since his early Cavs days but it is not because of a decline; LeBron’s role has changed. LeBron’s move to Miami brought a system that was rooted in efficiency. In LeBron’s last two years in Miami, he was an efficiency aficionado. He played 82 percent of his plays at power forward and shot 56.6 percent from the field his last two years in Miami. It was a far cry from his early Cavs days when he was the entire team and needed to stuff the box score to pick up wins. In addition, his minutes reduced. LeBron’s early Cavs days had him averaging 40+ minutes. In Miami, he wasn’t even touching 38 by his final two years.
LeBron’s return back to Cleveland brought another role change. LeBron saw his percentage plays at power forward drop from 82 percent to 23 percent. He also saw his minutes decline further from 37.7 his final year in Miami to 35.6 this past year. If you think LeBron declined, you’re not looking hard enough at the numbers. Don’t simply look at the casual statistics. Dig deep into the numbers and watch the games. Hell, if you think LeBron declined I’ll kindly direct you to full game tapes of Games 5, 6, and 7 of this year’s Finals.
We now know LeBron hasn’t necessarily declined but his role has changed. The thing is, while we don’t know when age and attrition will cause a decline, we also don’t know exactly how his role will continue to change. Will he take on more of a point guard role and let Kyrie Irving be the Cavaliers’ primary scorer? Will he add weight and go to a full time power forward role? Or will LeBron continue to play the same until the game forces him to adapt?
My guess is that he will continue to play his current role of “point-forward” which allows him to take advantage of his size and athleticism but also to utilize his otherworldly passing skills.
Now that we know the trend of LeBron’s PPG in addition to his most likely role, it is time to go out on that limb and make some predictions. I look forward to these blowing up in my face in 10 years.
These projected games are just educated guesses considering that’s all anyone without a crystal ball can make. (Figure 2.) LeBron’s games will fall off steadily as he ages until he reaches his 20th and final season. I suspect LeBron will go into the season knowing it’s his final season, much like Kobe Bryant did. He will try to gut out as many games as possible for the fans that have supported him since he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16-years-old.
Much like LeBron’s games played I suspect his minutes will steadily decline with age. (Figure 3.) LeBron really has nothing left to prove in the regular season. It is more of a tune up for him. He knows he will be judged based on playoff results, so whatever team he is playing for will most likely try to keep him fresh for May and June.
LeBron’s PPG, like his minutes and games played, will most likely taper off with age. (Figure 4.) It is just the way it goes. LeBron will still have nights where he wows you with his scoring ability, but he will not be relied on as heavily as he has been in the past, especially in the regular season.
These numbers come from multiplying LeBron’s projected PPG by his projected games played. (Figure 5.)
As you can see, based on my projections LeBron will just miss Kareem’s record. (Figure 6.) I used 2023 as the year of LeBron’s retirement for a couple of reasons. First off, that’ll be right around the time that LeBron’s oldest son, LeBron James Jr., will be heading off to college. LeBron Jr. could possibly be playing basketball for a Division 1 school. We have already seen LeBron at many of his kid’s games and he has voiced how much of a family man he is. Second, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan just polished off their 21st, 20th, and 19th seasons respectively. Yes, I said there is no prototype but 20 appears to be the average seasons played for a superstar level player.
There you have it. LeBron will come extremely close to touching Kareem’s record but ultimately will fall just short. You never know though, I’m wrong a lot and LeBron has shocked the world before. Just ask the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors.