LeBron James – who bounded into the NBA two decades ago as a teen prodigy with a gift for passing and a passion for team play, an unconventional star who would be “more Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan” – claimed the league’s career scoring title Tuesday night.
With a fadeaway 15-foot jump shot in the third quarter of the Lakers’ game against the Thunder, James scored his 39,388th point, pushing him past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, breaking what once seemed to be an unbreakable record.
Abdul-Jabbar had held the scoring title for nearly 39 years – more than half of the NBA’s 76-year existence.
Like Abdul-Jabbar, James flashed his star potential as a teenager, long before arriving in the NBA. Like Abdul-Jabbar, James reached this pinnacle with a rare combination of talent, relentlessness, good health and good fortune. The record is as much a testament to longevity as skill.
Abdul-Jabbar was 36 years old and in his 15th NBA season when he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s record on April 5, 1984, and kept extending it for five more years. James, 38, is in his 20th season and has shown no signs of slowing down. His current averages – 30 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists – are all close to or above his career marks. He still ranks among the 10 best active players in the league.
And James plans to keep playing for as long as his body holds up, which means he might crack the 40,000-point mark before he’s done.
Like Abdul-Jabbar, James perfectly symbolizes the era he’s dominated. In Abdul-Jabbar’s time, giants ruled the game, battling for position near the basket and scoring the vast majority of their points in and around the paint. Between Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, 7-footers held the scoring title for 57 consecutive years.
But James came of age in an NBA where the three-pointer now reigns supreme, where big men increasingly play like guards and where traditional positions are losing all meaning. At 6’9”, James is the shortest career scoring champion since Bob Pettit (also 6’9”), who ceded the title to Chamberlain in 1965.
Heading into his record-breaking night, James had scored 6,699 points on three-pointers, a shot that didn’t exist in the NBA until 1979 and was judiciously used through the 1980s and ’90s.
But what truly sets James apart is that scoring was never his primary mission, or at least not the way he defined himself. As a high-school phenom in Akron, Ohio, James dominated as much with his passing and playmaking as he did with his scoring, taking joy in the success of his teammates.
When James and Carmelo Anthony, then a Syracuse freshman, entered the NBA draft in 2003, pundits debated who would have the better career, with Anthony’s supporters citing his superior scoring skills. A memorable shoe commercial featuring James, then 19, cast him as a basketball prophet who asked not for hops or slick handles but for court vision, who “wanted glory for the team.” From the moment he arrived in the NBA, James was cast as “more Magic than Michael,” a characterization that Magic himself repeatedly endorsed, even as James blossomed into a dominant scorer.
“He’s still more me than Michael,” Johnson told Bleacher Report in 2017, citing James’s ability to control the game like a point guard, even as James passed Jordan that spring to become the NBA’s all-time leading playoff scorer.
It was an honor that left James with conflicted feelings, even in the moment. Jordan was his idol. But Johnson was his model.
“Nope, nope, nope,” James said then. “I’m not a scorer, man. I’ve worked too hard in my career to have that label, from the beginning. I want the right play, I’ve always loved the success of my teammates — and so, I’m not a scorer. I’m fortunate to be No. 1 in all-time playoff points. But I think that’s just a byproduct of me just playing the game the right way.”
Those virtues never waned, though James would average at least 25 points per game every season from his second year in the league through the present – including a scoring title (30 points per game) in 2007-08. Still, true to his team-first philosophy, James has averaged 7.3 assists per game for his career, including an assists title (10.2 per game) in 2019-20. He recently moved into fourth all-time in career assists, passing legendary point guards Steve Nash and Mark Jackson.
Along the way, James has collected four MVP trophies, four championships, 19 All-Star appearances, 18 All-NBA nods, six All-Defensive team selections and now what once seemed like the unlikeliest title of all: the most prolific scorer in NBA history.