How LeBron James Outscored Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and All the N.B.A. Greats

No one thought LeBron James would overtake Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the N.B.A.’s career scoring leader when he came to the league as an 18-year-old. It didn’t seem like anyone could.

The 250 top scorers in N.B.A. history

Line chart showing career points for the top 250 scorers in N.B.A. history. The line for LeBron James is just past the 38,387 points scored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Abdul-Jabbar, the former center for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks, held the record for nearly 40 years. He set the record in 1984 and finished his career five years later with 38,387 points. It was the basketball equivalent of Cal Ripken’s streak of games played in Major League Baseball or Jerry Rice’s N.F.L. receiving yards total: seemingly unreachable.

But James, with 38,390 points, has broken Abdul-Jabbar’s record at 38 years old, an age long after most players are done scoring any points, much less the 30.2 points per game James is averaging this season. He shares that durability, plus creativity and talent, with Abdul-Jabbar, who played from 1969 to 1989. Their basketball eras have looked so different that they might as well have been playing different sports. The lines on the court have had different dimensions, and referees let Abdul-Jabbar endure body blows from opponents that today would easily earn James a chance at free throws. (Well, maybe.)

Abdul-Jabbar and James had divergent paths to setting one of basketball’s most coveted records, a reflection of how the N.B.A. has developed over the last 50 years.

How They Scored Their Points

The N.B.A. introduced the 3-pointer in the 1979-80 season, halfway through Abdul-Jabbar’s career. For the next decade, the shot was considered a novelty, a “break glass in case of emergency” kind of heave. Abdul-Jabbar hit just one 3-pointer in his career. James is ninth in career 3-pointers after relying more on long-range shooting as he aged (it’s usually easier on the body) and as 3-pointers soared in popularity.

Table showing the scoring totals for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lebron James, broken down by type of shot.

LeBron JamesKareem Abdul-Jabbar
Total points38,39038,387
Free throws8,0476,712
Total shots22,10022,549

During Abdul-Jabbar’s 10 seasons with the 3-point line in use, teams averaged between 2.0 and 6.6 3-point attempts per game. This season, dozens of players take more than that by themselves each game. Teams now structure their offenses to get 3-point shots. They used to focus on getting the ball to tall players like Abdul-Jabbar or Shaquille O’Neal near the basket for a dunk or layup. Now, they are more likely to have smaller, faster players stand outside the 3-point arc to set screens and take deep shots.

Some of the strategy is because teams in the 21st century use analytics to determine the most probable way to score the most points, typically with 3-pointers or dunks. Rule changes designed to give players freedom of movement throughout the court mean defenders can’t try to stop James from scoring with some of the more aggressive moves they would have been allowed to use against Abdul-Jabbar.

Share of types of shots for all players

Chart showing the share of 3-pointers, 2-pointers and free throws by all players over time. Few 3-pointers were taken in the N.B.A. during Abdul-Jabbar’s career, while they have been a much larger part of the league during James’s career.

In James’s rookie season, 2003-4, he took 2.7 3-pointers a game. Last season, the number was about three times that.

Abdul-Jabbar took at least one 3-pointer in each of his 10 seasons with the shot at his disposal. But he never tried more than three in a single season and he made only one: in 1986-87. It came on the road against the Phoenix Suns on his only 3-point attempt of the game.

Types of shots scored by Abdul-Jabbar and James, per game

Chart showing the share of 3-pointers, 2-pointers and free throws by Abdul-Jabbar and James over time. Abdul-Jabbar took one 3-pointer in his career; 3-pointers made up a much larger share of James’s output.

Though James has leaned into 3-point shooting along with the rest of the N.B.A., part of what makes him such a fantastic offensive player is that he can score from all over, whether through dunks, relentless drives to the basket, postups or mid-range fadeaways.

Lisa Leslie, the retired W.N.B.A. star, said James can do some of everything.

Leslie described James as “the most dominant point guard, two-guard, small forward and power forward all in one” because of his size, speed, explosiveness and overall basketball I.Q.

Chart showing percentage of each player’s made shots that were 3-pointers and 2-pointers for the 250 top scorers in N.B.A. history.

Of the top 250 scorers, share of each player’s made shots that were …


Abdul-Jabbar accumulated many of his points by perfecting his signature shot, the sky hook. In 1984, when he broke the career scoring record, then held by Wilt Chamberlain, another former Lakers star, he did so with a sky hook. No one has been able to consistently replicate his shot.

I think everyone in our generation knows Kareem almost as a myth because we probably never watched him play,” said Diana Taurasi, who holds the W.N.B.A.’s career scoring record with nearly 9,700 points. “So to get to see LeBron throughout his whole career and to be able to surpass someone like Kareem, who’s more of a symbol of freedom for the United States of America, I mean, it’s saying something.”

How James Still Dominates at 38

Regular-season scoring average by age for top 250 scorers

Chart showing the regular-season scoring average by age for the 250 top scorers in N.B.A. history. LeBron James is averaging around 30 points per game in his age-38 season; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged around 23 points in that season, and he fell off sharply afterward.

Note: Ages given are the players’ ages on Feb. 1 of that season.

James had a head start on catching Abdul-Jabbar because he was drafted out of high school, which wasn’t allowed in Abdul-Jabbar’s day. Then known as Lew Alcindor, Abdul-Jabbar first spent four years at U.C.L.A., where he was one of the most dominant college basketball players in the country.

Career points by age for top 250 scorers

Line chart showing career points for the top 250 scorers in N.B.A. history. The line for LeBron James is just past the 38,387 points scored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

James, at 38, is one of the oldest players in the league and in his 20th season. When Abdul-Jabbar was 38, he was in just his 17th professional season. By the time he hit his 20th year, he was no longer as dominant as he had been. James, with the good timing of being able to start this journey at 18 years old, is still proving every day just how much he has left, scoring 40 points on several nights this season and almost reaching 50 in a January game against Houston. He could be the first player to score 40,000 points.

He’s not doing it by scoring 12 points a night and just hanging on,” said Philadelphia 76ers Coach Doc Rivers, adding, “It’s just an extraordinary record and it’s an extraordinary way that he’s gone about it.”

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