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Wednesday, February 08, 2023

LeBron James Breaks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Regular Season Career Scoring Record

The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the L.A. Lakers 133-130, but that score will be a historical footnote, because the main story is that LeBron James hit a fadeaway jumper with 10.9 seconds remaining in the third quarter to score his 38,388th career regular season point, and surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to claim the number one spot on pro basketball's regular season career scoring list. After James made that shot, the game was stopped, and James was joined at midcourt by his mother, wife, two sons, and daughter. Commissioner Adam Silver congratulated James for breaking a record that many thought would never be broken, and then Abdul-Jabbar presented a basketball to James before Silver, James, and Abdul-Jabbar posed for a picture. Then, James and Abdul-Jabbar posed for a picture together. At times, James seemed overcome with emotion, covering his face with his hands and trying in vain to hold back tears. It is not difficult to figure out that at least some of the thoughts and emotions racing through his mind focused on his incredible, improbable journey from being raised by a teenage single mother in Akron to becoming a world famous athlete. James has often said, "I am not supposed to be here," and there is no disputing that his journey is a remarkable story. The fact that he has accomplished so much in the public eye without ever making a serious public misstep says a lot about him not only as an athlete but also as a person.

Abdul-Jabbar had held the career scoring record since April 5, 1984, breaking a mark that Wilt Chamberlain had held since February 14, 1966. Prior to Chamberlain, the career scoring record was held by Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Ed Macauley, George Mikan, and Joe Fulks. TNT posted a nice graphic honoring each of the players who held the career scoring record:

Chamberlain owned the record for almost as long as all of his predecessors combined, and Abdul-Jabbar stayed on top for a longer period than all of his predecessors combined. It will be interesting to see how big of a lead James builds, and how long he holds the record; there is a decent chance that many of us who watched James set the record will not live long enough to see James' record broken--if indeed it is ever broken.

James scored 23,119 points in his two stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers (2003-10, 2014-18), and he added 7,919 points in his four seasons with the Miami Heat (2010-14). After scoring 38 points versus the Thunder, he has scored 7,352 points in his five seasons with the L.A. Lakers (2018-23).

Before delving further into the historical context, it must be said that this game was a microcosm of the Lakers' season: James put on a scoring show, the Lakers did not offer much defensive resistance, and a squad with three future Hall of Famers--James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis--lost to a team that has spent recent seasons openly tanking but is improbably ahead of the Lakers in the standings, a circumstance that would be considered unacceptable for any other franchise featuring such a talented and accomplished trio. After breaking Abdul-Jabbar's record, James scored just two points the rest of the way, and in the closing moments of the game he was on the bench; he spoke about winning the game, but he was not on the court when Russell Westbrook led a fourth quarter rally that came up short.

Of course, this game--and this season, for that matter--are footnotes to the history James made. That being said, now that James is pro basketball's all-time leading scorer will the "experts" finally admit that James is not a "pass first" player? While it is true that James ranks fourth on the all-time career assists list behind only John Stockton, Jason Kidd, and Chris Paul--three players who are unquestionably "pass first" players--James is the most prolific scorer in pro basketball history, and he is the only player in pro basketball history to post 18 straight seasons averaging at least 25 ppg (he is on pace to accomplish that feat this season as well). James has ranked in the top five in scoring 13 times, including six third place finishes, three second place finishes, and winning the 2008 scoring title. Only Karl Malone (12) and Michael Jordan (11) had more 2000 point seasons than James (10). Durability is obviously essential for setting the career scoring record, but James did not set the record just by sticking around for a long time--his 27.22 ppg career scoring average ranks fifth on the ABA-NBA career list, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg), Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg), Elgin Baylor (27.36 ppg), and Kevin Durant (27.28 ppg).

It is worth noting that James ranks first in ABA-NBA career playoff scoring (7631 points, nearly 1700 points ahead of Michael Jordan), and sixth in ABA-NBA career playoff scoring average (28.69 ppg).

I am not sure why so many people are so insistent on calling James a "pass first" player. Perhaps this is because James thinks of himself that way and describes himself that way, so media members who crave access to him do not want to contradict him. Perhaps this is because media members believe that it is somehow more impressive to set the career scoring record while allegedly not having a scorer's mentality, with the implication being that James is so great that he set this record without even really trying; that notion is absurd, because James has been trying very hard to score throughout his career, and he has been trying even harder to score for at least the past two seasons when it became apparent that (1) the record is within reach and (2) the Lakers have no realistic chance to win, so there would be no serious criticism of James for averaging 30 ppg while his team loses.

To be clear, I don't blame James for being focused on scoring during his career; any objective review of my coverage of his career would conclude that I have sometimes criticized James for not being aggressive enough in key playoff situations, but I have not criticized him for scoring a lot. In fact, when James finally became aggressive in key playoff games with the Miami Heat I praised him for being a dominant scorer when his team needed him to do that.

LeBron James is a tremendous all-around player, but his best skill is being a volume scorer who is also efficient. There is nothing wrong with that, and there is nothing wrong with stating a simple, obvious truth. We know that James was coached from his earliest playing days to respect his less-talented teammates, to share the ball with them, and to keep them involved; it is admirable that he was coached that way, and that he accepted that coaching--but that does not change the reality that in the NBA he developed into a tremendous scorer.

I only saw Abdul-Jabbar's career from afar watching TV as a young fan, but I had the privilege of seeing James in person on many occasions--including two NBA Finals games--as a credentialed reporter. The first time that I saw LeBron James in person in a regular season game was November 29, 2003, when the Memphis Grizzlies defeated James' Cleveland Cavaliers. Rookie James, in his 17th career NBA regular season game, scored a team-high 33 points on 14-28 field goal shooting while also grabbing 16 rebounds, dishing for seven assists, and committing eight turnovers while logging 54 minutes. That was the first 30 point game of James' career. Pau Gasol scored a game-high 37 points for the Grizzlies.

I covered LeBron James' first playoff game, a 97-86 Cavaliers home win versus the Washington Wizards during which James produced 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists while playing all 48 minutes. I covered all three of Cleveland's home games in that series, culminating in Cleveland's 121-120 overtime win in game five as James poured in 45 points, which stood as his playoff career high until his legendary 48 point performance versus the Detroit Pistons in game five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavaliers won game six in Washington to advance to the second round for the first time in James' career. I covered all three of Cleveland's home games versus Detroit in the second round. Cleveland lost game six at home by two points, and then lost game seven in Detroit.

In 2007, James led the Cavaliers to the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance, and I covered many of James' home games in the regular season, playoffs, and NBA Finals. James scored 25 points in his first home game in the NBA Finals, but he shot just 9-23 from the field and committed five turnovers as the San Antonio Spurs won 75-72 to take a 3-0 series lead. In game four, James led Cleveland with 30 points and 10 assists, but he shot 10-30 from the field and candidly admitted, "I have to be 10 times better."

It took a few years for James to understand what it takes to win championships, but he won four of them from 2012-2020, and he led each of his three teams--Cleveland, Miami, L.A.--to at least one title, which is remarkable considering how his career began: some of James' high school games were shown on national television, and he entered the NBA straight out of high school shouldering high expectations that might have destroyed a lesser person/lesser player, but he proved to be one of the few athletes who not only matches the hype but exceeds it. While there is no question that it is easier to score now in the NBA than it was in any other era, there is also no question that scoring as efficiently and productively as James has over such a long period of time is amazing. For over a decade, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, and Julius Erving were the only players in pro basketball history who had scored at least 30,000 career points. After Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant broke down physically while still several thousand points shy of Abdul-Jabbar's record, it was reasonable to believe that no player would match Abdul-Jabbar's total--but James has not only accomplished this but he has a realistic shot at becoming the first pro basketball player to score 40,000 career regular season points. 

LeBron James is not a "pass first" player, but he is an incredible scorer in addition to being a great all-around player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 AM



At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 4:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good post as always.

The 'pass-first' narrative has been labeled wrong for a long time, but like you said media members and his fans believe in the narrative and I would argue that it's mostly due to him saying it publicly over the years.

Tonight's game proved that James cares all about his stats (but his fans and media never believed that he pads/chases stats). He was more aggressive than usual trying to score the ball and break the record, but once the record was broken, he was way too passive and ended up on the bench. This is the part that irritates me the most is that he puts up amazing numbers, but they don't always translate into winning. I would think if Bryant or Jordan was in this situation they would have prioritised winning and let the record come naturally whether it's this game or the next one. This is one of the reasons to me he has not surpassed Bryant or Jordan.

Nevertheless, his fans and media will always only look at numbers to argue that he either doesn't have enough help or he is trying his absolute best because the numbers show it.

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 4:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very conflicting feelings about this.

It is a tremendous achievement to still be playing at this level after 20 seasons and at age 38, whichever way you look at it.

But, on the other hand, the NBA has been ruined by the quest for profit maximization. It's not just the NBA -- everything around us has been commodified and crappified by unfettered neoliberal capitalism and the mandate to maximize profits at all costs.

But one would have naively thought some time ago that sports would be immune to that, because the goal is to win.

Well, it is supposed to be that, but in reality it is not quite that when you have a franchised league, no relegation and promotion, and everything is controlled by the cartel of owners.

Including the rules of the game.

Which they can manipulate however they want if it is going to make the "product" more "attractive".

And one of the ways to do that is to make playing defense very hard. Which is how the rules have been so thoroughly bastardized that now it is easier to score than ever before.

Yes, games were very high scoring and a few players posted incredible numbers back in the 1960s (very few though -- Wilt, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, and also Bill Russell on rebounds), and then again in the 1980s (though while games were high scoring then, only one player posted absurd numbers). But it wasn't easier to score than now, it's just that the game was very fast paced at the time. Other than that, very serious defense was being played.

Today, not so much -- it has been nearly outlawed by rule changes.

And that makes current scoring achievements very dubious.

James Harden averaging 36 PPG and then 34 PPG? Absolute joke.

This year there are 7 players averaging 30+ PPG and 43 players averaging 20+ PPG. When has that happened before?

Not even in the relatively free scoring 80s and accounting for subsequent expansions of the league -- you might get to the equivalent of 35 players averaging 20+ (again, accounting for expansion) if you go back to the 1980s, but there were still only one to at most three players averaging 30 in the whole league.

Because averaging 30 is hard -- if scoring goes up overall, it gets distributed so that there are more 20+ PPG scorers, but it is still very hard for an individual to be good enough to average 30.

Now there are seven (7) of them. Seven...

Including a 38-year old LeBron.

So how are we supposed to look at that?

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 2:06:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

on the one hand it is remarkable achievement, on the other it doesn't feel right, as majority(?) of it was just stat padding in no defense era

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 7:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you!

Imagine the media reaction if Kobe Bryant had scored 36 points in three quarters to set a scoring record, and then disappeared in the fourth quarter as his team lost a winnable game against a team that has been tanking for several seasons. No more needs to be said about the double standard.

James is a great player who has accomplished a lot. There is no denying that, and I have written about that for 20 years. There is also no denying--for those of us who are objective--that James is missing something that Jordan, Bryant, and a very select few others had.

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 8:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Capitalism is the worst economic system--except for every other economic system that has been tried. I am not sure that I would draw a direct line between the NBA's current flaws and capitalism.

That being said, I agree with your specific point that rules changes have promoted scoring, made defense more difficult, and thus render comparisons between today's bloated scoring averages and the scoring averages of previous eras suspect at best.

Regarding LeBron specifically, he is an outlier even in this era, so his numbers are not solely a product of rules changes softening the game. He is an all-time great, even if he is not definitively the greatest player of all-time as so many insist that he is.

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 9:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you care to post a link to articles from media members who have stated that LeBron is a "pass-first" player?

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 9:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I stated above, LeBron is an outlier even in this era, so I disagree with the notion that his scoring totals are solely the product of rules changes. I agree with you to some extent about the stat-padding, because LeBron often seems more focused on his individual numbers--not just scoring, but also assists and field goal percentage--than on team success. I would rather have a great player who takes the initiative and takes over a game even if the numbers say that he is not being efficient than have a great player who limits his field goal attempts to boost his field goal percentage.

At Wednesday, February 08, 2023 9:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Is that a serious question, or are you being sarcastic? If you are serious, a simple Google search will satisfy your curiosity, because LeBron has always called himself a pass first player, and media members not only accept but promote that narrative. If you are being sarcastic, I am not sure what your point is.

At Thursday, February 09, 2023 12:31:00 AM, Blogger Tristan said...

Tremendous achievement, something that almost seemed unattainable, until LeBron kept on playing and averaging 25-30 ppg. I was not thrilled that he was about to surpass Kareem, and I previously hoped that Kobe (RIP+) would be the one to do it, but I had to do a double fist-pump when James did it. Historical.

Does being #1 all-time unequivocally cement James as the undisputed greatest player ever? If the previous record holder who was arguably the most dominant figure at all levels (preps, college, NBA) could not even be acclaimed as such for the longest time (starting w/ the Jordan era), then, no, LeBron cannot automatically be the GOAT for scoring the most points.

Durability and sustained scoring production are key to even approach this historic feat; and LeBron has exhibited both aspects at such a high level. Abdul-Jabbar breaking
Chamberlain's then-record in only 15 years compared to James's milestone in Year 20 is still more impressive, given that Kareem played 4 years at UCLA before turning pro.

I don't agree that James is the "best" scorer, compared to the other contenders / franchise players. Wilt / Hakeem / Shaq / Robinson (to name a few) were more dominant / versatile on the block and some midrange jumpers. Kobe / Jordan / King / Dantley (to name a few) were also more versatile in their offensive skill sets, not to mention their footwork seemed more fundamentally sound.

I agree about the ridiculous "pass-first player" trope not being consistent with James's career point / FGA averages, and his status now as the all-time points champ. The other explanation about rules changes being more favorable to scoring more points is also valid.

Other contextual factors are the number of games that other legends have missed due to injury / other circumstances, and also the change in scoring responsibilities for some, which reduced their potential season / all-time totals. If Wilt hadn't been hurt for almost one full season, or had he kept on piling the points, how much more than 31K points could he have done? If MJ hadn't retired even just once (never mind twice) in his prime / gotten sidelined for most of 1985-86, how many more scoring titles would he have won / points could he have scored?

On a tangent, the Lakers have two more years after this one, of the "King" James Experience / maybe Retirement Tour. I feel bad for Westbrook being the scapegoat when he's not being allowed by James / the coaching staff to maximize his effectiveness as the primary playmaker, and--to a lesser extent--Davis, for not being the focal half-court option, although his durability and toughness have persistently been doubtful.

At Thursday, February 09, 2023 3:14:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay here's your Google search:


LeBron has indeed often referred to himself as a pass first player, but who are the media members who have not only accepted but promoted that narrative? Do you have any names on this? You seem to think you're boldly going against the grain on this issue when there's nobody in the media actively disagreeing with what you're saying.

I look forward to seeing what Russell Westbrook does now that he's no longer shackled to LeBron. (That actually was sarcasm.)

At Thursday, February 09, 2023 3:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Even with the contextual factors considered, it is a tremendous achievement.

I agree with you that holding the career scoring record does not necessarily make LeBron the greatest scorer. Similarly, Emmitt Smith is not the greatest running back even though he holds the NFL's career rushing yards record.

The Lakers got rid of Westbrook, so they can't blame him for whatever happens next (though it is already obvious that some people will still blame Westbrook, at least indirectly, by stating that trading for him and his contract supposedly caused irreparable harm), and it will be very interesting to see how the Lakers do down the stretch.

At Thursday, February 09, 2023 4:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your Google search contains multiple headlines of articles in which the author either called LeBron a pass first player or agreed with his contention that he is a pass first player. Mike Wilbon promotes this narrative all of the time during his ESPN appearances (not sure if he has written an article stating this, but he does not write much anymore because he is on TV so much). Brian Windhorst promotes the LeBron as pass first player narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a TV or radio commentator who does not endorse/promote that narrative. This has been true since the start of LeBron's career, but if you think otherwise then you are entitled to your (incorrect) opinion. I have no intention of debating that with you.

Turning around your sarcastic question, are you impressed with how LeBron has elevated the Lakers during his tenure there? He has one "bubble" title plus a first round loss and two years in which the Lakers failed to make the playoffs. Kobe carried Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the playoffs two years in a row in a tough Western Conference, but LeBron is struggling to keep the Lakers in the top 10 while paired with Anthony Davis. We are told every day that LeBron is the greatest player ever. Something does not add up here.

In all seriousness, how the Lakers do without having Westbrook as a scapegoat will be quite illuminating. Westbrook seemed like the only Laker who cared about winning the OKC game. LeBron checked out (literally) after setting the record, and Davis was invisible the whole game.

At Tuesday, February 14, 2023 5:13:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just adding onto your response relating to the above comment from Anonymous who did not believe the 'pass-first' narrative was out there. If you have been following the Lakers this season, you would have noticed that James picks and chooses which games he sits out due to supposedly a leg injury. He has missed most of the games against the top teams and played in the games against the bottom teams, as he knows he can score big and pad his numbers against them.

He has been out due to injury since breaking the record, but he looked damn fine for the first 3 quarters against OKC. If you still don't think he is 'scoring first' and loves his stats, then you are really delusional.

At Tuesday, February 14, 2023 10:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you!

I try to avoid calling people names, but the Anonymous who acts as if no one has ever called LeBron a pass first played made a comment that was

Mistaken, and against the
Better judgment of anyone who follows the NBA.

I considered not even posting his comment because it is so off the wall, but I decided to let it through as an example of why I emphasize certain points, and why I write multiple articles addressing the same or similar topics. Clearly, one article is not enough to help some people understand what is happening, so if the subject is historically significant enough then it is worth repeating until most people get the message. It's not like the pass first crew just made the incorrect assertion once and never repeated it; they say it every time they talk about LeBron.

Fun quiz:

Name the great Laker of the past 20 years who averaged 19.5 field goal attempts per game during his career, and name the great Laker of the past 20 years who averaged 19.7 field goal attempts per game during his career. One of these players is a "gunner" and the other is "pass first."

If you guessed that Kobe "gunner" Bryant averaged 19.5 field goal attempts per game during his career and that LeBron "pass first" James averaged 19.7 field goal attempts per game during his career then you win! LeBron also averaged slightly more free throw attempts per game, though of course not every free throw attempt is the direct result of an attempted shot.

Mike Wilbon, Brian Windhorst and the rest of the ESPN talking heads have access to "ESPN Stats and Information" yet they still manage to consistently make statements unsupported by the facts, and they get paid millions of dollars per year to do this. As Don King would say, "Only in America!"


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