LeBron James is officially atop the record book.
The King put up 38 points against Thunder on Tuesday to bring his regular season career total to 38,390 points, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the process. James accomplished the feat – 38 years in the making – in 150 fewer games than the Captain.
So, naturally, we’re setting our sights on the next record-breaker.
There’s two sides to this coin – the established stars and the up-and-comers with time on their side. There’s no shortage of young talent rising through the ranks, but there’s a reason it’s taken nearly four decades for Abdul-Jabbar’s record to fall.
For perspective, James, who has never missed more than half of a season in his two decades in the league, is 11th all-time in games played with 1,409 appearances. He was also part of one of the last draft classes that included players directly out of high school, having the advantage of additional time to stretch his career.
Throughout that 20-year period, James has never finished a season averaging less than 20 points per game and has a career stat line of 27.2 PPG, 7.3 APG and 7.5 RPG. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of James' game is that he continues to exceed almost all his statistical averages at 38 years old.
Simply put, talent, health and a bit of luck have to align for any player to even have a fighting chance at breathing this rarefied air.
Here’s a look through the crystal ball at some potential active players that could contend with the King.
James’ ability to play at such a high level this far into his career continues to defy logic so there’s little use trying to predict his ceiling. For the sake of this exercise, we’re going to use 38,390 as the threshold.
Without getting too far into the weeds, I used the list of top-100 scorers to get a sense for the changes in the NBA over time. Chief among them is longevity. The 27 players on this list that retired in the last 15 years (2008 and beyond) averaged 11.98% (144.56) more games than the 62 players that retired pre-2008.
This gave me the framework to isolate active players and use their current point total as a base and add a projected future points using a combination of total number of games, average points per game and total number of potential games set against the average with consideration for an 11.98% increase in the number of games available.
Now that we’ve covered the math, let’s get into it.
Where else to start a list than James’ biggest contemporary competitor. In fact, were it not for their competitive history – and the seemingly insurmountable luxury tax this duo would incur -- it’s hard to believe they’ve never teamed together, considering their penchant for super teams.
That aside, Durant is single handedly James’ most legitimate threat to the scoring title. He already has 26,684 points under his belt and is currently projected to finish with 36,865 points. He has struggled with injuries, most notably an Achilles tear that caused him to miss an entire season and a half, but his graceful style of play seems built to go the distance.
On the other hand, Doncic has fewer proven seasons but is more statistically concerning to James.
He’s currently projected to collect 37,063 points, making him the lone player on this list to top 37,000 points. His career average of 27.4 points per game is just a hair ahead of James’ 27.3 points and Durant’s 26.3 points through their first five seasons.
Doncic has only made over 70 games per season once in his short career and he carries the burden of Dallas’ offense on his shoulders. It’ll be interesting to see how the addition of Kyrie Irving impacts him, but there’s no denying he’s a proven scorer at just 23 years old.
Ah, the Luka counterpart. It’s only fitting that Young would land on this list.
As someone who saw Trae Young play in high school, I can assure you there’s never been any secret to Young’s artistry – he’s a scorer, plain and simple. He’s certainly delivered for the Atlanta Hawks, scoring 8,346 points in less than five seasons.
He’s currently on pace to score 34,485 points, but with a healthy track record and a history of finding a way to score, he could certainly stretch that into the high 30s.
The Dark Horses
Tatum might seem like an obvious, but the numbers disagree. He’s currently projected to finish just under 30,000 career points. In this case, however, his longevity and health might undersell his potential.
He’s already scored over 9,000 points at the age of 24. He also has remained healthy, averaging 73 games a season. It’s easy to imagine Tatum enjoying a long career, so there’s certainly a path – albeit small – for him to climb the leaderboard.
This might seem like a stretch, but let’s be honest this whole list is a stretch and SGA’s numbers as of late at least season demand consideration among the longshots.
He’s averaging 30.8 points per game in his fifth season in the league and already has three 40-plus point performances on the year. The Thunder offense runs through him and he is making the most of the opportunity.
The algorithm isn’t as kind to him – estimating a career total of 27,434 points – but with minimal history of serious injury and his 25th birthday still ahead, you have to think he’d be the beneficiary of the increase in games played by recent players.
Much like Gilgeous-Alexander, Morant has been the go-to guy for some time in Memphis. His 5,162 points and counting might seem modest compared to the rest of this list, but back-to-back seasons averaging over 27 points earns at the age of 23 earns him a place on this list.
Joel Embiid comes in right behind Doncic and Durant as the most likely to surpass James’ scoring total with an estimated total of 36,246 points, so how come he ends up in this category? Simply, time is not on his side.
After a rough start to his NBA career, the 28-year-old has established himself as a perennial MVP contender and the backbone of this 76ers era. But those two years that he missed due to injury are too much to overcome. Furthermore, in the six complete seasons since Embiid debuted in 2016, he’s averaged less than 55 games per season and is yet to eclipse 68 games in a season.
Embiid has bested LeBron in points, rebounds and overall record in head-to-head matchups, but this is one battle he’s not going to win.
I hate to condemn a young star like Williamson to this fate so soon, but much like Embiid, his history of injury is too relevant to ignore.
At 22, Williamson has shown flashes of greatness, but his young career continues to be defined by injuries. He missed the entirety of last season with a foot injury and has already missed over a month with a hamstring strain.
It’s a shame because he was anointed as the second coming of LeBron out of Duke and the numbers seem to agree – with a projected 34,857 points – but he just hasn't demonstrated the ability to stay healthy and reach the necessary number of games to get there.
No disrespect to The Joker, but the numbers aren’t on his side. After a modest start to his career as a second-round pick, Jokic has burst on the scene in recent years, winning back-to-back MVP awards and terrorizing the league in the paint.
That said, his dominance doesn’t necessarily lie in his point scoring. At 27, he’s currently 40th on the list of active players with 11,505 points. He’s projected to finish 27,129 points, and, no matter how you slice it, that’s nowhere near close enough to catch The King. He is, however, in position to three-peat for the MVP, something James has never done.
At first glance, Harden fell in line with Durant, Doncic and Young. But…upon further investigation, he’s just a sheep in wolf's clothing.
That might have been a bit hard and dramatic, but Harden isn’t going to pull it out. Statistically, he’s on pace to put up 33,479 points, but his best days are behind him. Compared to most of the players on this list, Harden’s career got off to a slow start. But once he made the jump to Houston, he was an offensive weapon, averaging 36.1 points per game in the 2018-19 season, the most in a single season by any player not named Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan.
Ultimately though, it wasn’t sustainable, and his last couple seasons have dipped into the low 20s.