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Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Greatest Scoring Machines in Pro Basketball History

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the January 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

When discussing the greatest scorers in pro basketball history it is only natural to look at career scoring average. Once a player scores 10,000 points or participates in 400 regular season games he is eligible to be ranked among the career points per game leaders. The list of career ppg leaders often combines retired veterans with active players in the prime of their careers. For example, from 1973 until 1975 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranked first in career ppg. After Abdul-Jabbar averaged 27.7 ppg in the 1975-76 season the retired Wilt Chamberlain "passed" Abdul-Jabbar and remained on top until Michael Jordan came along. Is it really meaningful to compare Kareem's scoring average after his first few seasons with Wilt's scoring average from a 14 year career? This is not meant to criticize the 10,000 point/400 game standard—some type of minimal requirements are necessary and these numbers are reasonable. The point is that evaluating the greatest scorers based solely on career scoring average can lead to an "apples/oranges" comparison of one player's best seasons with another player’s finished body of work.

It is much more informative to broaden the discussion to include other relevant statistics. The accompanying chart compares 18 of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history at various stages of their careers. This article will focus primarily on three of these players: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.

At the start of the 2001-2002 season, Wilt Chamberlain is third on the career scoring list (31,419 points) and second in career scoring average (30.1 ppg), but he holds numerous scoring records that will simply never be broken and will likely never even be approached. Wilt's 100 point game on March 2, 1962 is one of the most famous records in all of sports. Even more impressively, Wilt averaged 50.4 ppg in the 1961-62 season. No one else has ever averaged even 40 ppg—except for Wilt, who scored 44.8 ppg in 1962-63. Wilt also had a 78 point game, two 73 point games, a 72 point game and a 70 point game; no other player in history has multiple 70 point games (David Thompson’s 73 points on April 9, 1978 are the best non-Wilt total). Wilt's 32 60-plus point games, 118 50-plus point games and 271 40-plus point games are all records; second place totals are four 60-plus point games (Jordan*), 30 50-plus point games (Jordan) and 165 40-plus point games (Jordan).

In his first five seasons Wilt scored 16,303 points in 391 games—41.7 ppg, a figure that likely will never be equaled in a single season, let alone a five year stretch. Wilt won scoring titles in each of his first seven seasons, never averaging less than 30 ppg, and his 21,486 points (39.6 ppg) were the highest total in NBA history at that time. From his eighth season on, Chamberlain voluntarily reduced his scoring for the betterment of his teams (his previous coaches had encouraged him to score as much as possible); he won one assists crown and his teams captured two league titles in this phase of his career. After ten seasons Wilt still had a 34.4 ppg average. Even Michael Jordan averaged more than 34.4 ppg in a season only twice, so a ten year run of 34.4 ppg is not going to be surpassed any time soon.

In his first autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, Wilt notes that when critics would suggest that he was not the scorer or player that he had been earlier he would respond by posting a few high scoring games, just to show that he could still do so at will. He lit up the Cincinnati Royals for 58 points on February 13, 1967 and scored 68, 47 and 53 points in three consecutive games in December 1967; Wilt's team won all four games. In January 1969, Wilt notched a 60 point game and he had a 41 point game in January 1971. He was not shooting wildly from all angles, either; Wilt led the NBA in field goal percentage a record nine times (Shaquille O'Neal is next with five**). Wilt is clearly the most unstoppable scoring machine in pro basketball history.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the career scoring record with 38,387 points. As indicated above, after his first five seasons Kareem temporarily wrested the career ppg title from Wilt by scoring 12,262 points in 402 games (30.5 ppg). After his seventh season Kareem maintained a 30.0 ppg average (16,486 points in 549 games) and at the ten year mark he still boasted a robust 28.6 ppg average (22,141 points in 773 games). Kareem won two scoring titles early in his career and had four 30-plus ppg seasons. His career scoring average of 24.6 ppg does not rank in the top ten all-time and reflects the fact that he played until age 42, failing to average 20 ppg in his last three seasons. It is worth noting that Kareem averaged 22.0 ppg at age 38 in 1984-85, making Second Team All-NBA and winning Finals MVP honors; the next year he scored 23.4 ppg and made First Team All-NBA. Kareem’s legacy is his longevity and his unstoppable "skyhook," which was the ultimate weapon in pro basketball for many years.

Michael Jordan’s "third coming" raises three interesting questions: (1) Will Jordan maintain the highest career scoring average? (2) Can Jordan pass Kareem and become the career scoring leader? (3) Would he have passed Kareem if he hadn’t retired twice previously? If Jordan plays all 82 games this season and next, he needs to average a little over 22 ppg to stay ahead of Wilt for highest career scoring average. Entering the 2001-2002 season, Jordan trailed Kareem by 9110 points; if his comeback lasts two seasons, he would have to score 55.5 ppg to pass Kareem. If Jordan decides to play as long as Kareem did, he could pass Kareem by averaging 27.8 ppg for four years. Jordan's two retirements caused him to miss 82 games in 1993-94, 65 games the next season and 214 games the past three seasons. If he had played in all of those contests he would have needed to average 25.2 ppg to break Kareem's record. It is impossible to say if the extra mileage would have worn him down, but it seems safe to suggest that he probably would have passed Kareem by now.

Whether or not Jordan passes Kareem in total points or slips behind Wilt in career scoring average, he will be remembered for what he did in his peak years. Jordan averaged 32.6 ppg in his first five seasons (11,263 points in 345 games) and was still at 32.6 ppg after seven seasons (16,596 points in 509 games). He only dipped slightly to 32.2 ppg after 10 seasons (21,998 points in 684 games, including an 18 game season in 1985-86 due to a broken foot and a 17 game season in 1994-95 after his first comeback). Jordan has bested Chamberlain in two areas: 30-plus ppg seasons (eight to seven) and scoring titles (ten to seven).

Jordan will likely join Kareem, Wilt, Karl Malone and Julius Erving in the elite 30,000 point club this season. Karl Malone averaged 24.9 ppg in his first five seasons and increased his career ppg to 25.9 by the end of his seventh season. After ten seasons Malone was at 26.0 ppg and his 16 year career average entering the 2001-2002 season is 25.9 ppg. He averaged 29.0 ppg during his best five year stretch (1987-88 until 1991-92) but his trademark is durability and consistency. He has one 30-plus ppg season and no scoring titles. If Malone plays through 2003-2004, he will need to average a little over 22 ppg to pass Kareem on the career scoring list.

Julius Erving and Jordan are the only "mid-size" players of these five. Dr. J averaged 28.7 ppg in his first five seasons, all in the ABA. He won three scoring titles, once topping 30 ppg. His career average stood at 26.6 ppg after seven seasons and 26.1 ppg after ten. He finished his career with 30,026 points in 1243 games (24.2 ppg). Erving reduced his scoring in his first two NBA seasons (21.6 ppg in 1976-77 and 20.6 ppg in 1977-78) as the Philadelphia 76ers spread the ball around to other scorers such as George McGinnis, Doug Collins and World B. Free. After Billy Cunningham replaced Gene Shue as 76ers coach in 1977-78, Cunningham noted that the 76ers had "too many chiefs and not enough Indians." McGinnis and Free were traded away the next year and from 1978-79 through 1981-82, Cunningham focused the offense around Dr. J, who averaged 24.7 ppg and led the Sixers to three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and two NBA Finals appearances during this period. In 1982-83 the Sixers acquired Moses Malone; that season Erving and Malone both scored less than they had in the previous season, but the Sixers won the NBA title.

Several of the great scoring machines sacrificed individual numbers in order to help their teams challenge for championships by becoming more balanced offensively: Wilt, Dr. J, Moses Malone, Oscar Robertson, Adrian Dantley—but no one exemplifies this more than Bob McAdoo, a three time scoring champion who became a sixth man for the Showtime Lakers and played on their 1981-82 and 1984-85 championship teams.

Interestingly, others continued to score at or near their best numbers while their teams battled for titles: Kareem, Karl Malone, Jordan, Rick Barry, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Bob Pettit and Shaquille O’Neal. Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin and Alex English never played in the NBA or ABA Finals.

* Kobe Bryant has since passed Jordan by scoring 60-plus points in five regular season games.

** O'Neal has since passed Chamberlain by winning a total of 10 field goal percentage titles.

6/18/09 Note: Jordan's second comeback lasted for two seasons. He finished third on the career scoring list with 32,292 points and remained narrowly in front of Chamberlain on the career ppg average list, 30.12 to 30.07. Karl Malone finished with 36,298 points and a 25.0 ppg career scoring average. Shaquille O'Neal has moved up to seventh on the NBA/ABA career scoring list (he ranks fifth on the NBA list). I have reproduced the chart below as I submitted it to Basketball Digest for the January 2002 issue--omitting for formatting purposes one column of "miscellaneous notes" about each player--because the data for the players at various stages of their careers is still valid and interesting, even though the career rankings have changed slightly as indicated earlier in this note.

Top Six NBA/ABA Scorers

Career Totals PPG/1st 5 Years PPG/1st 7 Years PPG/1st 10 Years
Player Points Games PPG
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38,387 1560 24.6 30.5 30 28.6
Karl Malone 32,919 1273 25.9 24.9 25.9 26
Wilt Chamberlain 31,419 1045 30.1 41.7 39.6 34.4
Julius Erving 30,026 1243 24.2 28.7 26.6 26.1
Moses Malone 29,580 1455 20.3 18.4 21.1 22.7
Michael Jordan 29,277 930 31.5 32.6 32.6 32.2

Selected Others

Oscar Robertson 26,710 1040 25.7 30.3 30.4 29.3
Dominique Wilkins 26,668 1074 24.8 25.1 26 26.2
George Gervin 26,595 1060 25.1 22.2 24.1 26.2
Alex English 25,613 1193 21.5 14.8 18.4 21.4
Rick Barry 25,279 1020 24.8 30.3 29.1 27.9
Jerry West 25,192 932 27 26.9 27.8 27.9
Adrian Dantley 23,177 955 24.3 23.8 25.2 26.5
Elgin Baylor 23,149 846 27.4 32 30.2 28.1
Larry Bird 21,791 897 24.3 22.6 23.9 25
Bob Pettit 20,880 792 26.4 24.9 25.5 26.6
Bob McAdoo 18,787 852 22.1 28 27.4 25.3
Shaquille O’Neal 16,812 608 27.7 27 27.1 NA

* Statistics reflect career totals prior to the start of the 2001-2002 season.

* Players listed in order of total career points.

* The players with the 6 highest point totals in NBA/ABA history are listed first; the "Selected Others" category includes several Hall of Famers, former scoring champions and players with high ppg averages.

* Statistics for Erving, M. Malone, Gervin & Barry include ABA seasons.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM



At Saturday, June 20, 2009 9:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


1. wilt 2 jordan 3. kareem 4. kobe 5. oscar robertson these aare the best 5 scorers mike is the best all time player wilt was a better scorer than he was though.

At Sunday, June 21, 2009 1:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


This article was originally written in 2002, which is why Bryant was not listed among the career leaders. My main point is that career scoring average can be a deceptive way to rank scorers because at times you end up comparing an active scorer's peak average with the averages of retired players who played their last few years with reduced roles.

At Thursday, September 10, 2009 7:56:00 AM, Blogger Hank said...

Well, i really don't know how can Rick Barry miss this List..scoring titles in NBA,ABA,NCAA..against Wilt Chamberlain at his scoring top (in that years), he take Warriors to the top without noone,only scoring.

At Thursday, September 10, 2009 3:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Rick Barry is on the list; check out the chart at the end of the post. Space limitations--this article is reprinted from Basketball Digest--prohibited me from mentioning every single player in the body of the article but I included Barry and other players in the chart so that you can compare various players using the methods that I described in the article.


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