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When Will LeBron Become the Career Scoring King?

James passed Karl Malone on the all-time points leaderboard and now has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the reigning champ, in his sights. When will LeBron claim his throne? And can he ultimately reach 40,000 points? 45,000 points?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This season is lost for the Lakers. Despite entering the season as the Western Conference favorite, the Lakers are now 30-41, tied for the West’s ninth-best record, and with only a 13 percent chance to even make the playoffs, per The Ringer’s NBA Odds Machine. Even if they manage to win consecutive elimination games to advance out of the play-in bracket and into the playoffs proper, the league-best Suns will be waiting, ready to knock out the Lakers for the second spring in a row.

But this season is not lost for LeBron James. In his age-37 season, the four-time MVP is enjoying his best scoring average, at 29.8 points per game, since he led the league with an even 30 points per contest all the way back in 2007-08. Yes, 2007-08—so long ago that LeBron’s competitors for this season’s scoring title either hadn’t started playing basketball yet (Joel Embiid) or had only just begun (Giannis Antetokounmpo).

LeBron’s scoring surge hasn’t helped the Lakers climb the Western standings, but it has helped him personally climb another list. On Saturday, he passed Karl Malone for second place on the NBA’s career points leaderboard, and he’s now less than one full season away from unseating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time scoring king.

Throughout his career, LeBron’s scoring has remained incredibly consistent—he hasn’t dipped below 25 points per game in any season since he was a rookie. The career record is now in his sights, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either. So with Malone now in his rearview mirror, three big questions emerge: When will LeBron pass Kareem? Can he reach 40,000 points? And who else might join him at the top of the scoring leaderboard?

1. When will LeBron pass Kareem?

Soon! LeBron trails by 1,440 points, and with 11 games left on the Lakers’ schedule, he should end this season between 1,100 and 1,200 points away, depending on how many of those games he plays.

LeBron has exceeded 1,440 points—let alone 1,200—in every season of his career except 2020-21. And even last season, when injuries cost him 27 games, LeBron would’ve easily surpassed 1,200 points if the NBA had played with an 82-game schedule rather than the COVID-shortened 72-game campaign.

Prepare for a new scoring champion next season, then. If LeBron stays relatively healthy, he’ll reach Abdul-Jabbar between mid-January and mid-February; if not, he’ll aim for sometime after the All-Star break.

2. Will LeBron become the first 40,000-point scorer?

Four years ago, I applied the “favorite toy” formula—invented by Bill James for baseball and adapted by John Hollinger to the hardwood—to estimate LeBron’s career points, rebounds, and assists totals, and his chances of passing various Hall of Famers in those statistical categories. Let’s update the points calculation with four more years’ worth of data.

Back in 2018, favorite toy estimated that LeBron would finish with an average career total of 39,847 points, with a 48 percent chance to reach 40,000. Now his average career total has nudged up to 41,255—and because he’s on such a consistent track, he now has a 95 percent chance to become the NBA’s first 40,000-point scorer.

And it’s possible that in an era of dominant older athletes—see: Tom Brady, among others—LeBron will just keep scoring, and scoring, and scoring. He’s already achieved unprecedented heights, as his 29.8 points per game this season are more than six better than the next-best season for a player his age.

Note that every season on this list belongs to LeBron, Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, or Michael Jordan—there’s a reason they’re four of the top five scorers in league history.

20-Plus Points Per Game in Age-37 Season or Older

Player Age Points Per Game
Player Age Points Per Game
LeBron James 37 29.8
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 38 23.4
Karl Malone 37 23.2
Michael Jordan 38 22.9
Karl Malone 38 22.4
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 37 22.0
Karl Malone 39 20.6
Michael Jordan 39 20.0

Yet as he’s aged, LeBron’s potential career range has also probably narrowed. That’s because while he’s scoring more points per game as a Laker than he did in his second Cleveland stint, he’s missed more than a quarter of possible games in L.A., compared to an absence rate below 10 percent in all of his previous stops.

LeBron James’s Scoring and Absences

Stint Points Per Game Games Missed
Stint Points Per Game Games Missed
Cleveland (2004-10) 27.8 5%
Miami (2011-14) 26.9 6%
Cleveland (2015-18) 26.1 8%
Los Angeles (2019-22) 26.9 26%

That difference comes out to about an extra 55 games missed as a Laker, or roughly 1,500 lost points—meaning if he hadn’t been hurt more than usual in L.A., he would have passed Abdul-Jabbar already. And given LeBron’s age, it’s more likely that he’ll keep missing games than return to full health.

So while he’s more certain to reach closer milestones like Abdul-Jabbar’s total or 40,000 points now than he was four years ago, he’s also less likely to reach further-away heights. When I ran this exercise in 2018, LeBron had a 13 percent chance to reach 45,000 career points; now he’s at just 2 percent to reach 45,000.

Of course, only with LeBron could a failure to reach 45,000 career points seem like a letdown. His average career total, per this calculation, would be 8,963 points ahead of Jordan’s final tally. There are Hall of Famers—like Bobby Jones and Dennis Rodman, or Bill Walton and Ralph Sampson—who never reached 8,963 points in their careers.

3. Who else might join LeBron at the top of the scoring leaderboard?

Earlier this season, Stephen Curry passed Ray Allen to become the NBA’s new 3-point king, but Curry won’t be the only active player to eclipse Allen and Reggie Miller’s previously untouchable totals. The league has changed, so peers like James Harden, Damian Lillard, and more will follow Curry’s lead in the years to come. (Harden just passed Miller for no. 3 this month.)

But that dynamic doesn’t appear likely with LeBron and the points record: While Harden and Lillard also boast better than a 90 percent chance to break Allen’s 3-point mark—or, at least, Lillard did before missing most of this season with an abdominal injury—no active player other than LeBron is above even 11 percent to catch Abdul-Jabbar in points, according to favorite toy. (I will reveal the identity of that 11 percent player at the end of this piece. Get your guess in now!)

The 30,000-point mark is more attainable for the highest-scoring active players. Besides LeBron, 12 others have at least a 20 percent chance to reach that many career points. (The rest of this piece will focus only on players with at least three NBA seasons, to ensure there’s enough of a sample to analyze properly.)

Active Players With a 10 Percent Chance at 30,000 Career Points

Player Age Current Points Total 30,000 Probability
Player Age Current Points Total 30,000 Probability
LeBron James 37 36,947 100%
Carmelo Anthony 37 28,218 94%
James Harden 32 23,264 60%
Kevin Durant 33 25,176 57%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 27 14,077 44%
Russell Westbrook 33 23,120 43%
DeMar DeRozan 32 19,584 35%
Jayson Tatum 23 7,391 30%
Luka Doncic 22 6,663 28%
Devin Booker 25 10,946 28%
Nikola Jokic 26 10,033 28%
Trae Young 23 6,716 20%
Stephen Curry 33 20,064 20%

Beyond high points totals, two key factors influence these probabilities. The first is age: Harden is a year younger than Curry, for instance, which theoretically gives him an extra season to score points at the end of their careers. This factor also explains why a high scorer like Donovan Mitchell, who was in Jayson Tatum’s draft class and has more career points than the Boston wing, has a much lower chance to reach various thresholds: Mitchell entered the NBA in his age-21 season rather than as a teenager, so he has only a 6 percent chance to reach 30,000 points, versus Tatum’s 30 percent.

More important than age is health. Lost games can prove extremely costly when trying to match a player, in Abdul-Jabbar, who missed just 5 percent of the total possible games in his career.

Consider the case of Kevin Durant. At the end of the 2018-19 season, favorite toy said Durant was likely to pass Wilt Chamberlain, Dirk Nowitzki, Jordan, and Kobe Bryant to move to fourth on the all-time scoring list, with decent odds to pass Malone and Abdul-Jabbar as well. But then he tore his Achilles and missed all of the 2019-20 season, more than half of last season’s schedule, and nearly half of this season’s schedule. All that missed time dropped his estimated career total by nearly 4,000 points.

Kevin Durant’s Career Points Probabilities, Then and Now

Player to Pass Odds After 2018-19 Odds Now
Player to Pass Odds After 2018-19 Odds Now
Wilt Chamberlain 81% 32%
Dirk Nowitzki 79% 30%
Michael Jordan 69% 21%
Kobe Bryant 54% 10%
Karl Malone 30% <1%
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 22% <1%
Average Career Total 34,067 30,306

Small amounts of missed time also add up, even if they aren’t as debilitating as a full missed season. Harden and Curry were in the same draft class and have almost the same career scoring average: 25.0 points per game for Harden, 24.3 for Curry. But Harden has played 105 more career games than Curry due to the latter’s more extensive injury history, so he has an advantage of more than 3,000 career points.

For players still in their 20s, future health is harder to forecast, so those players have a much greater gap between the floors and ceilings of their potential career totals. Because he’s so close to 30,000 points, for instance, Carmelo Anthony has a high floor, thus a 94 percent chance to reach that milestone—but because he’s already 37 years old, he has less than a 1 percent chance of reaching Malone or Abdul-Jabbar. On the other hand, a younger player like Tatum has a smaller chance to reach 30,000, because he has much more room to go—but he also has a better chance of reaching Abdul-Jabbar because the uncertainty extends in both directions.

Besides LeBron, then, the only players with meaningful chances to match the current record are all in their 20s, while a couple players in their early 30s have a slight chance at matching Malone’s mark. Here is every active player with at least a 1 percent chance to catch the top players on the career leaderboard—those with the highest potential ceilings, if production and health both cooperate for the next decade and beyond.

Active Players With a 1 Percent Chance at Catching the Top Scorers

Player Current Points Total Malone Probability Abdul-Jabbar Probability
Player Current Points Total Malone Probability Abdul-Jabbar Probability
LeBron James 36,947 100% 98%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 14,077 15% 11%
Jayson Tatum 7,391 11% 9%
Luka Doncic 6,663 10% 7%
Nikola Jokic 10,033 7% 4%
Devin Booker 10,946 7% 4%
Trae Young 6,716 4% 2%
James Harden 23,264 3% <1%
DeMar DeRozan 19,584 1% <1%

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who like LeBron won two MVP awards by age 25, tops the list. Giannis won those awards—and a title—in large part because of his two-way play, but he’s an elite scorer in and of itself: Over the last three seasons, Giannis has averaged 29.1 points per game, best in the league.

Giannis also entered the league young, at age 18, and though he didn’t score much as a rookie, he surpassed 1,000 points in his age-20 season for a solid start to amassing a large career total. He’s also remained relatively healthy thus far—which is the reason Luka Doncic, who scored more points as a young player, isn’t atop this potential list. Despite his youth, Luka has already missed 15 percent of his possible career games. Giannis and Tatum are much closer to young LeBron at just 8 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

But is Giannis a potential threat to LeBron, wherever the soon-to-be scoring champ finishes his career? Just like Harden and Lillard aren’t liable to catch Curry in 3-pointers, neither is any active player remotely likely to catch LeBron. Plug LeBron’s average career estimate of 41,255 into the favorite toy formula, and Giannis’s odds of matching him register at just 5 percent. LeBron should exist in a points stratosphere of his own for a long, long time.

Stats through Saturday’s games.