LeBron Is Running to the Scoring Crown at Full Speed

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There is only one reliable way to make LeBron James feel his age on a basketball court: casually inform him, in the course of play, that he once competed against your dad. Houston Rockets rookie Jabari Smith Jr. provided the most striking example of this approach—not only because of the trivia that his father, Jabari Sr., was on the opposing team for LeBron’s NBA debut in 2003, but also because Smith revealed that information to James as the 38-year-old was en route to a 48-point night, buzzing through Houston on his way toward the league’s all-time scoring record.

In the imminent future—and maybe as soon as this weekend—James will overtake Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the highest-scoring player in NBA history. And he’ll do it in the most inexplicable way possible, streaking into the record books with one of his highest-scoring seasons, the twilight of his legendary career in full Technicolor.

So let’s say it together now as James rounds the bend toward what many considered to be an unbreakable record: None of this is normal. A 38-year-old should not be averaging 30 points per game, putting up a fight for the single-season scoring title in his 20th go around the league. No one does this. Even when superstars do stick around deep into their 30s, they become washed-out versions of the players they used to be—with the same basic outline but none of the vivid detail. Jason Kidd went from full-court dynamo to standstill facilitator. Tim Duncan shifted from franchise-altering centerpiece to the fifth option in the Spurs lineup. The miracle of LeBron isn’t that he stuck around long enough to finally catch Kareem. It’s that when he does, he’ll still be LeBron—fully in command, and scoring at will.

His record will stand as a testament to incomprehensible longevity, a run of thousands of games and tens of thousands of minutes, including the most graceful and dominant decline the sport has ever seen. LeBron is a very different player now than he was at 28, and certainly than he was at 18. Yet here he is, older and wiser and noticeably slower, still getting buckets on the next branch of the family tree.

“Kenyon Martin Jr. was out on the court tonight as well. I played against his dad,” James told reporters after the game against Smith and the Rockets in January. “Gary Trent Sr. I played, and now obviously his son, in Toronto. Gary Payton and his son.” And that’s not all. There’s Rick and Jalen Brunson, Glen Rice Jr. and Sr., Glenn Robinson Jr. and III—the list goes on. By 2024, James could even share the court—or a team—with his own son. Forget the idea of a generational athlete; LeBron is multigenerational, dominating for so long he’s provided a through line for the lineage of the sport.

There’s no question that James has come to play a more perimeter-oriented game, as aging veterans often do. Yet the reason his prime seems to extend indefinitely is because he still manages to get to the basket—pushing past and through opponents in what amounts to an athletic impossibility. He pounds the post. He attacks out of bread-and-butter pick-and-rolls. He cuts backdoor and takes every opportunity in transition. Not only has LeBron averaged more shots at the rim this season than any other player 35 years or older on record—more than Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and even Michael Jordan—but his only real competition is himself.

Easy Living at the Rim

Season Player Team Age Rim FGA Rim FG%
Season Player Team Age Rim FGA Rim FG%
2022-23 LeBron James LAL 38 8.7 75.3
2021-22 LeBron James LAL 37 8.6 75.3
2019-20 LeBron James LAL 35 8.3 68.7
1996-97 Dominique Wilkins SAS 37 7.0 51.7
2008-09 Shaquille O'Neal PHX 37 6.7 73.3
2020-21 LeBron James LAL 36 6.4 75.6
Data via NBA.com

Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. LeBron always has made the most difficult parts of the game look easy, so why wouldn’t the same be true when it came time to grapple with his athletic mortality? Every other player in LeBron’s age bracket is fading fast—battling injuries, propped up by minutes restrictions, or filling smaller, supporting roles. Then there’s James, dribbling straight through players almost 20 years his junior to give a broken Lakers roster the lifeline it so desperately needs.

In his younger years, James leaped into the air and returned to the ground on his own schedule. There’s hang time, and then there’s this—enough lift to make plays, right wrongs, and occasionally limbo under the arms of a defender in midair and still follow through for a dunk. LeBron still has springs, but so much of his game today is built on flying forward rather than upward.

James might not rev up the way he used to, but a player this strong and this resourceful is almost impossible to slow down. Defenders glance off LeBron at every turn. Those who try to stay in front of him find out quickly that being in the vicinity as he drives is never enough—not when he can so easily shrug off a contest and turn best efforts to dust. Those who aren’t in the perfect position are irrelevant. Those who try to take a charge often wind up fouling instead. James distinguished himself over the years through his uncanny ability to see the whole board as a playmaker, down to every piece and every move. It’s easy to forget, in admiring that sort of vision, that he generally put his plans into action by overwhelming the defender right in front of him. He still does.

That sort of advantage ages well, particularly when it’s harnessed by a basketball genius. Part of the reason LeBron’s prime has lasted so long—longer, in fact, than most players’ entire careers—is that it started early; his understanding of the game and how to manipulate it caught up to his extraordinary physical gifts in no time flat, giving him a jump start in self-actualization. At this stage in his career, that same brilliance allows him to make up for the step he’s lost. In all, he’s spent almost 20 years at the absolute pinnacle of his profession.

The NBA has seen dominant bigs and superstar wings extend their careers through reinvention. James is different. He’s never had to reimagine his game or how he controls the action. He hasn’t had a moment of reckoning when he had to give up the ghost of the player he used to be. While so much has changed over LeBron’s two decades in the league, the arc of his career has come from finding enough new tools to dictate the game in the same fundamental ways.

There is an idea percolating in the world of sports that top athletes—through the diligence of proper nutrition, improvements in training methods, and significant medical advances—are playing better for longer than ever before. LeBron is often cited as evidence of a new wave because of all the ways he invests in his athletic performance, and because this is not what 38 typically looks like:

The reality, however, is that NBA players aren’t thriving deep into their careers. LeBron is.

Over the past four seasons—since James turned 35—the average NBA player has been younger than during any other stretch in NBA history. Any advances that have been made in extending players’ careers have been eclipsed by the growing demands of the game itself. Basketball in the ’90s was a battlefield, hand checks into body blows into hard, dangerous fouls. Basketball in the 2020s is a war of attrition—not against an enforcer eager to send you to the floor, but against unrelenting pace and space. There’s no quarter for veterans, who used to hide out in the muck of the game and survive on guile and old-man strength. If you can’t cover ground, you’re as good as gone. If you’re not running the break, the league will leave you behind.

None of that has been a problem for LeBron, who was an athletic marvel in his first game in the league and remains one to this day—as extraordinary playing against Jabari Smith Jr. as he was playing opposite Jabari Smith Sr. “It’s just a unique thing that I’ve been able to withstand the test of time as long as I’ve been playing, to compete now versus fathers and sons,” James said. “It’s the same as what [Tom] Brady is doing. You look at Asante Samuel, and now his son’s playing. Patrick Surtain, he played against the dad, and now he’s playing against the son. I’m just trying to keep up with the Bradys, I guess—not the Joneses.”

And now, after Brady announced his (second) retirement from the NFL this week, LeBron stands alone. There’s a reason James had to look outside basketball for the closest comparison. Everyone else from his draft class has come and gone. While LeBron closes in on Kareem, Dwyane Wade is shaping the future of the Jazz through ownership. Luke Walton is filing scouting reports. Kendrick Perkins is doing, y’know, what Kendrick Perkins does. Boris Diaw is probably still floating somewhere in the Mediterranean.

The longer that James continues to play at this level, the harder it is to argue that any of today’s stars could really be considered his peer. Kevin Durant is the closest active player behind LeBron in career scoring, with 26,684 career points to his name. He still trails LeBron by more than 10,000 points. What LeBron has done in taking such a meticulous approach with his body and his game is create the illusion that a career like his is attainable—that he is the marker in a trend, a vision for the future of the sport. But LeBron is not a bellwether or a role model. He’s a historical aberration.

Soon James will have the record to prove it—and more points than any other player in NBA history, an exceptional distinction for an exceptional career. Unofficially, he probably has more drives to the basket, too. More reads. More pure in-game processing than anyone to ever play the game. At this point, LeBron has seen everything: Eras come and go, contenders rise and fall, fathers give way to sons.

“You feel old, don’t you?” Smith joked in his back-and-forth with James after taking the future Hall of Famer back to a memory from 20 years ago.

LeBron confessed as much after his exchange with Smith, and that feeling is surely unavoidable now—when every night out comes in the shadow of history. Young men don’t chase Kareem and a record like this one. Breaking it, however, is the difference between being old and being timeless.

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