LeBron James is about a week away from usurping Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to seize the NBA’s career scoring crown. His 38,388th regular-season point will represent a monumental achievement, both because of the record’s simple magnitude—the goal of basketball is to score the most points; LeBron will have the most points—and because of the rarity of a new record in the NBA.
Sure, Steph Curry set the career 3-point mark just last season, and the odd single-season record—James Harden for most turnovers, José Calderón for highest free throw percentage—falls every now and then.
But in terms of the big five box score numbers—the counting stats that anyone can track in any basketball game from grade school up through the NBA—any new names atop the career leaderboard are less frequent than a playoff appearance from the Sacramento Kings.
The points record has changed hands just once since 1966; Abdul-Jabbar has held it since before LeBron was even born. The rebounds record hasn’t budged in half a century. And the assists, steals, and blocks record holders have all rested comfortably since the mid-1990s.
Yet even that historical summary undersells the extraordinary nature of career records in the NBA. It’s not only that the four big non-points records have gone unchallenged for decades; it’s that they still won’t be challenged for decades more, if ever.
After all, even before LeBron mounted his climb up the leaderboard, Karl Malone came much closer to breaking the points record than anyone else has come to any of the others.
NBA Career Records
|Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387)
|Karl Malone (36,928)*
|Wilt Chamberlain (23,924)
|Bill Russell (21,620)
|Hakeem Olajuwon (3,830)
|Dikembe Mutombo (3,289)
|John Stockton (3,265)
|Jason Kidd (2,684)
|John Stockton (15,806)
|Jason Kidd (12,091)
So let’s examine those other four records and why the gaps are so extreme—and thus why we should make sure to appreciate LeBron as he completes his conquest of Abdul-Jabbar’s hallowed mark. Barring an extreme change to NBA rules or statistical definitions, we may not see another such record chase in our lifetimes.
Pop quiz: Which active player has the most career rebounds?
The answer is LeBron, remarkably—but he’s less than halfway to Wilt Chamberlain’s total. The mere 11 percent differential in the chart above masks the de facto gap between Chamberlain and anyone who might challenge his record. Take out Bill Russell, Chamberlain’s contemporary and rival, and the next man on the career rebounds list is Moses Malone, who retired 34 percent short of Wilt’s mark. (That count includes Malone’s two seasons in the ABA.)
The main lesson Chamberlain’s rebounds crown teaches is that records are contextual. As baseball writer Sam Miller observed, “records get set in extreme environments,” and in MLB, the career doubles leader retired in 1928, the career triples leader retired in 1917, and most career pitching records haven’t been touched for more than a century. In MLB’s dead ball era, home runs were so scarce that the sport produced lots of other hit types and even more impressive pitching lines.
The early days of organized basketball offer clear parallels. I wrote a few years ago about the reasons no modern player has a prayer of approaching Chamberlain’s various rebounding records, and the chief reason is the league’s extreme pace-and-no-space environment at that time. In short: Teams used to shoot a lot more and with much lower accuracy than they do now, which produced in the range of 40 extra rebounding opportunities per game. And Chamberlain was in a great position to inhale those extra boards because he played almost every minute of every game.
Thus, the top 18 single-season rebounding totals in league history belong to either Chamberlain or Russell. In fact, since Chamberlain retired, only one NBA player has exceeded 1,490 rebounds in a season: Dennis Rodman, with 1,530 in 1991-92. Chamberlain reached that mark in every single season of his career (other than one in which he played just 12 games).
With modern rules and strategies, it’s inconceivable that anyone might even think about possibly one day attempting to broach a challenge to this record. Tim Duncan has the most career rebounds for anyone since Moses Malone, and he didn’t even get two-thirds of the way to Wilt. This century, the highest single-season rebounding total belongs to Andre Drummond, who gobbled 1,247 boards in 2017-18. If a newly drafted player replicated that same season 19 times in a row, he’d still fall short of the record.
This section starts with a caveat: Blocks weren’t officially recorded until the 1973-74 season, so it’s possible that Chamberlain or Russell would blow the field away in this statistic, too.
But let’s not give short shrift to Hakeem Olajuwon, whose name is now attached to the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award, because his record is just as untouchable. Serge Ibaka is the active career blocks leader, and he’s less than halfway to Olajuwon’s total.
Or, to illustrate the distance to Olajuwon another way: To catch him, a would-be swatter would need to average more than 200 blocks per season for 19 years. But nobody’s reached 200 blocks in any single season since Rudy Gobert in 2016-17. Olajuwon, for context, exceeded 200 in each of the first 12 seasons of his career, peaking at a mind-boggling 376.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that individual block totals have declined since the mid-2010s, as the NBA has fully embraced 3-pointers. While teams still attempt roughly the same proportion of shots in the paint that they used to, they’ve traded most of their long midrange shots for 3-pointers—and midrange attempts are blocked about three times as often as 3s this season, according to analysis of Second Spectrum data.
Block Rate by Shot Location
But the rise of 3-pointers isn’t the only factor that explains Olajuwon’s dominance in this category. The two-time Finals MVP was a generational defender—he’s also 11th in career steals—but even generational talents benefit from contextual help. In this case, it’s important to consider the statistical influence of the NBA’s deepened talent pool, thanks to factors like the mass arrival of international players over the past quarter-century, the rise of the G League, and unprecedented performances of undrafted players.
As Ringer colleague Ben Lindbergh wrote about MLB, as integration and an infusion of Latin American stars raised the league’s overall talent level, “competition has filtered out the players who clearly don’t belong and made it more difficult for stars to separate themselves from the pack.”
For MLB, that democratization cut down on outlier statistics like hitting .400; in the NBA, it’s helped prevent individual seasons with, say, 300 blocks because there are fewer weak links for the best players to target.
The NBA expanded rapidly during Olajuwon’s career, from 23 teams when he was a rookie to 29 by the time he set the blocks record. But it hasn’t added any new teams, or diluted the talent pool, in nearly two decades.
Compared to the others on the list, this record doesn’t seem like it should be that unreachable. Steals are only a bit less common in the modern NBA than in Stockton’s heyday (about one less per team per game), and Stockton wasn’t especially dominant in this statistical category on a year-to-year basis, with two steals titles in his career versus nine assists titles in a row. And yet, nobody’s ever come close.
Like with blocks, no modern defender is recording sufficient steals even in one season to approach a record-setting pace, let alone repeating it year after year. The last player to reach 200 steals in a season was Chris Paul in 2008-09; the last player to reach 180 was Ricky Rubio in 2013-14.
But the real reason this record is so remote is Stockton’s tremendous longevity, which highlights another reason that modern players won’t sniff any of these career marks. In 17 of his 19 seasons, Stockton played a full 82 games (or a full 50, in the 1999 lockout season); in his other two campaigns, he missed just four and 18 games, respectively. That consistency meant he essentially maximized his potential to rack up counting stats.
For comparison, Paul leads all active players in steals, and he’s a hair away from Stockton’s steal rate on a per-game basis (2.1 versus 2.2). But Paul has played 1,186 career games just past the midpoint of his 18th season, while Stockton was up at 1,422 games by the end of his 18th season. All those lost games mean that Paul is 769 total steals away from the record; if he repeats his previous 6.5 seasons over the next 6.5 seasons, all the way through his age-43 campaign, he still wouldn’t make up that gap.
No other modern player is on a better trajectory than Paul, given age and track record. The only other active players who are even halfway to Stockton’s steals total are LeBron, Andre Iguodala, and Russell Westbrook, who are in their mid-to-late 30s as well. The top under-30 thief is—stunningly—Drummond, with just 998 career steals, less than a third of the way to the record.
Stockton, to be fair, is an outlier on the health front, as nobody else in NBA history played so many seasons without missing a game. Contextual explanations can only go so far; it’s not as if any of Stockton’s contemporaries came close to his records, either.
But if anything, the NBA is trending even further away from granting modern players the opportunity to match his totals, as team medical staffs normalize the concept of load management and prominent NBA voices advocate for 72-game schedules instead of 82.
Those changes make sense to keep players healthy and competitive for championships—but they’d summon the opposite effect for record chases. If LeBron had played with 72-game regular seasons for his whole career, he’d still be about 4,200 points away from Kareem.
Finally, we come to assists, where Stockton combined his longevity with per-season dominance to craft a truly ludicrous lead. We could add up the assist tallies for the last 19 season leaders—in other words, add Trae Young’s 2021-22 assists to Russell Westbrook’s 2020-21 assists, and so on, all the way back through Stephon Marbury’s 2003-04 assists—and still not reach Stockton’s career total.
In part, that’s because Stockton played for so long; Magic Johnson averaged more assists per game, but played 60 percent as many games as Stockton did. But no modern player is coming close to Stockton’s single-season assist figures, either: Out of the nine 1,000-assist seasons in NBA history, Stockton has seven—and nobody’s reached that threshold even once since he did in 1994-95.
Note that while his lengthy pick-and-roll partnership with Karl Malone certainly aided Stockton’s supreme assist totals, contrary to popular myth, friendly home cooking from Utah’s scorekeepers did not. Stockton’s career advantage over second-place Jason Kidd is actually higher on the road (34 percent more assists) than at home (27 percent more), and the Jazz guard had a smaller per-game home-court assist advantage than the average player.
Like with other statistical categories, modern strategies are pushing point guards further away from this record. Stockton’s career usage rate was 18.9 percent, never climbing above 21 in any season, which placed him right in line with most of the top passers of his era. But in today’s heliocentric environment, the NBA’s assist leaders are regularly flirting with 30 percent usage rates and higher—which cuts down on their opportunities to rack up assists, if they’re creating more shots for themselves than their teammates.
And while scoring has risen to its highest point since 1969-70, which could theoretically help modern players make a push toward Stockton, made field goals haven’t meaningfully increased. An assist for a 2-pointer counts the same as an assist for a 3-pointer, so the recent scoring boom doesn’t provide a substantial benefit.
Career statistics have never mattered much in the popular NBA consciousness. Before LeBron’s challenge—heck, maybe even now—most fans probably didn’t know the number 38,387 off the tops of their heads, and when’s the last time SportsCenter acknowledged any player’s 10,000th rebound or 2,000th steal?
So it’s not a catastrophe if none of these records ever receive another challenge. Modern NBA stars still receive ample historical due. If anything, this probability makes LeBron’s current quest even more compelling.
Because by the time LeBron retires—by the time the man currently averaging 30 points per game in his age-38 season finally slows down—the career points record should be well north of 40,000, and possibly just as untouchable as any of the others. The NBA’s most meaningful records are mostly etched, unchanging, in stone. LeBron might have the last realistic chance to make any alterations.