The Pursuit of Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has sat at the top of the NBA’s All-Time Points Scored list for almost 28 years. Since his retirement in 1989 Kareem has cast a watchful eye from his throne as history’s greatest players, and greatest scorers, have come up short in their quest to dethrone him. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan to name just a few, have all succumbed to the altitude in their attempts to climb basketball’s Mount Everest. We should be able to add Dirk Nowitzki’s corpse to the pile at the conclusion of this season.

Here’s the list as it currently stands:

  1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar      38,387
  2. Karl Malone                         36,928
  3. Kobe Bryant                         33,643
  4. Michael Jordan                    32,292
  5. Wilt Chamberlain               31,419
  6. Dirk Nowitzki                       29,725
  7. Shaquille O’Neal                 28,596
  8. LeBron James                       27,803
  9. Moses Malone                      27,409
  10. Elvin Hayes                           27,313

If Kareem keeps more than a watchful eye on this list, and what sort of record holder wouldn’t, then #8 on this list is making him nervous. He’s starting to get worried. You might look at this and think “Lebron is over 10,000 points behind, it’s not even close at the moment!”. Let’s see if you feel the same way if we change the list to points scored at the conclusion of each season at age 32, LeBron’s current age, projecting LeBron’s total based on him completing this season at his current averages:

  1. Lebron James                        28,773
  2. Kobe Bryant                           27,868
  3. Wilt Chamberlain                27,098
  4. Michael Jordan                      24,489
  5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar         24,175
  6. Shaquille O’Neal                   23,943
  7. Karl Malone                            23,343
  8. Dirk Nowitzki                        22,795
  9. Moses Malone                        21,703
  10. Elvin Hayes                             19,460

That’s right, by age 32 nobody had scored more points than LeBron (thanks to entering the league at 19 he would only trail Jordan by 250-300 points had Jordan not taken his 18 month baseball sabbatical!). So now it’s just a matter of longevity, exactly how long does LeBron need to play for to reach the summit and claim Kareem’s throne? Let’s find out:

Lebron’s current career average is 27.1ppg however over the last 2.5 seasons he’s averaged a shade over 25. With further decline and his advancing age let’s be generous and say he’ll average 24.0ppg for the next few seasons as he chases the record, playing 77 games per season (his career average), that leaves us with the following equation:

9,615 points required @ 24.0ppg = 400.6 games or 5.2  LeBron seasons, meaning he would break Kareem’s record early in the 2022/23 season, just before his 38th birthday. Can we realistically see Lebron still playing at 38? It’s definitely on the table. Can he keep dropping 24 every game until then? Well, Jordan (22.9ppg at age 38), Kobe (22.3 at age 36), Karl Malone (22.4 at age 38) and Kareem (23.4 at age 38) tell us it’s really, really tough but shouldn’t be discounted. Had Kobe’s body not broken down to play only 41 of a possible 164 games spanning seasons 2013/14 and 2014/15 he may have ousted Kareem from the summit already.

Kareem is looking down from the top of that mountain to see Lebron pulling himself up quicker than anybody has before. The chase is on.

P.S: Should Kareem somehow survive Lebron he’ll also need to keep an eye on Kevin Durant who currently sits 58th all-time with 18,665 points. If we apply the above equation we used with Lebron then:

19,723 points required @ 25.0ppg = 788.9 games or 10.25 Durant seasons, meaning the throne would be his towards the end of season 2026/27 at age 38.