LOS ANGELES — LeBron James passed his idol Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list Wednesday night to move into fourth place overall. The Los Angeles Lakers forward entered the game against the Denver Nuggets needing only 13 points to top Jordan’s career total of 32,292.

“Any time I’m mentioned with one of the greats, if not the greatest that ever played this game, it’s crazy to me,” James said at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte last month. “It really is. [Jordan] is somebody I looked up to and always believed was the greatest. It’s pretty cool. I have no idea how I’ve been able to do it.”

James, who has a career scoring average of 27.1 points per game over 16 seasons, passed Jordan in his 1,190th game. Jordan, who played 15 NBA seasons, retired in 2003 with a career scoring average of 30.1 points per game over 1,072 games.

At 34 and with three more seasons remaining on his current contract, James will next take aim at the three players ahead of him on the scoring list: Kobe Bryant (33,643 points), Karl Malone (36,928) and all-time leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387). At his current scoring pace, he should pass Bryant, another Lakers legend, during the 2019-20 season if he maintains good health.

(The Washington Post)

LeBron James is currently the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history, 19 points ahead of Michael Jordan, who holds the No. 5 spot with 32,292.

The top three point scorers of all time are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant, respectively.

Only 139 NBA players have scored more than 15,000 points, and just seven have crossed the 30,000 mark. Of those, only LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki — the seventh-highest scorer all time — are still playing. Nowitzki, 40, is in his 21st season. James is in his 16th season and, at 34, likely has several years left.

Michael Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game over his career — the highest in NBA history. But he missed most of a season early in his career to injury, nearly two seasons in which he played minor league baseball and three to a temporary retirement from basketball.

James’s career trajectory is closer to that of the top scorer of all-time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Both had consistently high scoring outputs and very little time missed to injury, with Abdul-Jabbar only notably missing two months in 1977, having broken his hand while punching Milwaukee Bucks center Kent Benson in the jaw.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Abdul-Jabbar also started playing later, at age 22, because of stricter NBA eligibility rules at the time. This age difference could give James more time to catch up to his record.

Other younger players look as if they could also cross the 30,000-point threshold. While he’s missed more playing time because of injury, Kevin Durant averages the same number of points per game as James and has scored more than 22,000 points in his 12 NBA seasons.

James would have to play in nearly 60 games at his current scoring pace to pass Kobe Bryant, at 33,543 points. Like James, Bryant missed very little time to injury until the end of his career, even playing with a fractured finger for most of a season.

Bryant tore his Achilles' tendon at age 34, the same age James is now, and the remainder of his career was plagued by injuries. James recently missed 18 games due to a strained groin muscle — the longest break of his career.

From there, James would have to play several more seasons to score the more than 3,000 points it would take to get within striking distance of Malone and Abdul-Jabbar. Both players had long, high-scoring careers: Malone retired at 40, Abdul-Jabbar at 42.

Keep scrolling to see how long it could take James to catch up to their records.

Hover over a line for more detail

Will LeBron James become the all-time scoring leader? It depends what the rest of his career will look like, and how long he continues to play.

“LeBron is probably going to pass Kareem and we don’t even think of him as a scorer,” said Sacramento Kings color commentator Doug Christie, who defended James during his 2003 pro debut. “Scoring might not even be his best skill. It’s mind-blowing.”

While his career average of 27.1 points per game ranks fifth all-time, on a list led by Jordan, James won’t take offense to Christie’s characterization. As he prepared to pass Jordan for the most postseason points in NBA history in 2017, James himself declared: “I don’t want to be labeled as a scorer. I’m a playmaker.”

Numerous players who defended both Jordan and James agreed with this distinction. While Jordan’s brain zoomed in to calculate the precise moment and method to beat his defenders, James’s zooms out to survey for weaknesses that someone on his team — maybe him, maybe not — could exploit.

“If I needed two points to win a title, I’d take Jordan,” said Bruce Bowen, an eight-time all-defensive team selection who played in the NBA from 1997 to 2009. “He would get the bucket or get free throws. Nothing was ever going to deter him, sometimes to a fault. The way Michael scored the basketball wasn’t always good for his team. He had to dial it back to win his titles.

“A lot of it was ego. If a role player missed an open shot, Michael was thinking that he could have done that with three guys on him. LeBron is just the opposite and I say, bravo. Most of the players who criticize LeBron for passing instead of shooting, especially when it’s time to take the last shot, are speaking from their own abilities, not his. I wouldn’t change LeBron’s approach at all.”

A statistical comparison reveals that peak Jordan dominated the ball more, shot more and scored far more than peak James. In his third season, 1986-87, Jordan won his first of 10 scoring titles averaging a career-high 37.1 points per game, shooting 27.8 times per game and using 38.8 percent of his team’s possessions. James, by contrast, has led the league in scoring just once, and he peaked as a solo scoring threat in 2005-06, averaging 31.4 points per game and 23.1 shots per game while using 33.8 percent of his team’s possessions.

()

JAMES VS. JORDAN

50.4

49.7

FG%

32.7

34.4

3PT%

73.7

83.5

FT%

27.1

30.1

PPG

(stats through March 5)

JAMES VS. JORDAN

50.4

49.7

FG%

34.4

32.7

3PT%

73.7

83.5

FT%

27.1

30.1

PPG

(stats through March 5)

JAMES VS. JORDAN

50.4

49.7

FG%

34.4

32.7

3PT%

73.7

83.5

FT%

27.1

30.1

PPG

(stats through March 5)

Lakers President Magic Johnson, who faced Jordan in the 1991 NBA Finals and signed James as a free agent last summer, said that the two greats scored “in different ways,” but shared a willingness to spend hours fine-tuning their games. Jordan would challenge Johnson to endless free throw contests and games of H-O-R-S-E when they were teammates on USA Basketball’s 1992 Dream Team. “Everything we did, we had to bet,” Johnson recalled. “He had to have something on the line because that drove him.”

Similarly, Johnson praised James’s key evolutions throughout his career: honing his three-point shooting, mastering his responses to various defensive schemes, and varying his team’s style of play to get the most out of his teammates. Like Jordan, whom Johnson said displayed a maniacal work ethic during Dream Team workouts and practices, James has fully committed to his craft, spending an estimated $1.5 million per year to maintain his body.

“The only time Michael and LeBron did it the same was when they had lanes to the basket,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Both of them would dunk on you. Their goal was to dominate you. I don’t know how you can choose one or the other.”

According to Jordan’s former opponents, his trademark relentlessness fostered a constant paranoia. Wings had to track his every movement and battle for position before the ball arrived. Bowen recalled how Jordan would bend into a “Crouching Tiger” stance as defenders approached, preparing to burst into a move or shot. “There was no rest,” Bowen said. “Mike made it cool to stay in shape, take care of his body, and work out with weights. Guys were smoking cigarettes at halftime in his early days.”

If Jordan got to his preferred spots, he could set up his trademark turnaround. If he got a half-step of separation, he could slice into the paint for acrobatic layups. On the defensive end, he would pounce on ballhandlers, aggressively double the post and jet into passing lanes for steals.

“He played both ends at the highest level,” Christie said. “He’d read newspapers on road trips looking for something to fuel his fire. He challenged himself to score eight points each quarter so that he could get to 32 for the night. No one ever broke it down to that type of science.”

Guarding James represented a different challenge because, at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, he was taller and heavier than Jordan, who was listed at 6-6 and 218 pounds, his target weight toward the end of his career. “In LeBron’s first game, they threw the ball to him in the post,” Christie said. “I banged him and he didn’t move. I’m thinking, ‘What the hell? There’s no way this kid is 18 years old.’ ”

In addition to his more imposing physique, James has surpassed Jordan in other ways. As a point forward, he initiates the offense more often, requiring defenders to pick him up farther away from the basket. His ability to find the open man makes it difficult to double-team him on the perimeter, forcing wing defenders to play him in single coverage. And he’s aged gracefully by becoming a much more effective and prolific outside shooter.

James’s all-around playmaking polish led Christie to throw out prepared scouting reports, focusing instead on keeping a running checklist of James’s shots. If James missed from a particular spot early on, Christie would try to steer him back there as the game unfolded. “The analytics don’t really help because LeBron’s so complete,” he said. “Most of the time, I was just settling for contesting his shot.”

(The Washington Post)

LeBron now scores more from

behind the arc than from

the line

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws for each season in LeBron’s career.

CLE

MIA

CLE

LAL

80%

68%

60

2-pts.

58%

40

3-pts

23%

21%

20

Free

throws

19%

11%

0

2004

2010

2014

2018

Note: Data as of Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

LeBron now scores more from behind

the arc than from the line

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws for each season in LeBrons career.

CLE

MIA

CLE

LAL

80%

68%

60

2-pts.

58%

40

3-pts

23%

21%

20

Free

throws

19%

11%

0

2004

2010

2014

2018

Note: Data as of Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

LeBron now scores more from behind

the arc than from the line

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws for each season in LeBron’s career.

Cleveland

Miami

Cleveland

L.A. Lakers

80%

68%

2-pts.

58%

60

40

3-pts.

23%

21%

20

Free

throws

19%

11%

0

2004

2010

2014

2018

Note: Data as of Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

LeBron now scores more from behind

the arc than from the line

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws for each season in LeBron’s career.

Cleveland

Miami

Cleveland

L.A. Lakers

80%

68%

Two-pointers

58%

60

40

Three-pointers

23%

21%

20

Free throws

19%

11%

0

2004

2010

2014

2018

Note: Data as of Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

LeBron now scores more from behind the arc than from the line

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws for each season in LeBron’s career.

Cleveland

Miami

Cleveland

L.A. Lakers

80%

68%

Two-pointers

58%

60

40

Three-pointers

23%

21%

20

Free throws

19%

11%

0

2004

2018

2010

2014

Note: Data as of Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

Meanwhile, Jordan and James presented different problems for big men such as Joe Smith, a 6-10 power forward whose NBA career spanned from 1995 to 2011. Against Jordan, Smith was expected to “freelance” off his man at a moment’s notice to provide help. “Whenever he touched the ball, I tried to get it out of his hands,” Smith said. “But he was so good at taking your heart away.”

Against James, though, he often trapped immediately so that he wouldn’t get caught in no man’s land. “Once LeBron faces up to see the defense, you’re doomed,” Smith said. “He’s great at baiting the defense and making plays for his teammates. Jordan didn’t bother to bait anyone. He just punished you.”

In response to Jordan and James, frustrated opposing coaches resorted to unconventional tactics. Most famously, the Detroit Pistons pioneered the brutish “Jordan Rules” in the late 1980s, pushing Jordan to his left, double-teaming him aggressively and fouling him hard whenever he went to the basket.

“There were the Jordan Rules, but there’s no LeBron Rules because you can’t be that physical anymore,” said Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell, a strong-minded point guard who won two titles with the Houston Rockets during a playing career that spanned from 1993 to 2008. “We were trying to kill Michael Jordan and he would just get up and make his free throws.”

When it came to reliability at the line, Jordan (83.5 percent) clearly outpaced James (73.7 percent). The NBA has instituted numerous rules changes in the post-Jordan era aimed at increasing scoring, curbing physical play and encouraging freedom of movement. Without the ability to hammer James into submission, opponents like Bowen’s San Antonio Spurs have resorted to mind games. In the 2007 NBA Finals, and again in the 2013 Finals after Bowen’s retirement, Coach Gregg Popovich instructed the Spurs to back way off James, limiting his passing windows and driving lanes. Daring James to shoot proved effective for stretches because it caused James to overthink.

“The Spurs took one of LeBron’s biggest strengths — his brain — and used it against him,” Bowen said, adding that the strategy had its limitations. “If Pop had done that against MJ, he would have just scored 40.”

As a result of the rule changes, an increase in pace, and a rise in the prevalence of three-pointers, NBA teams are averaging 110.9 points per game this season , up dramatically from 95.1 points per game in 2002-03, Jordan’s final season and the last before James joined the league.

(The Washington Post)

Rule changes have led to a different game

Percentage of total points scored from

three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws

for the top five scorers in NBA history.

Three-point

Two-point

Free throws

Kareem

Abdul-Jabbar

1969 - 1989

Michael Jordan

1984 - 2003

Karl Malone

1985 - 2004

Kobe Bryant

1996 - 2016

LeBron James

2003 - current

0

25

50

75

100%

Rule changes have led to a different game

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers,

two-pointers and free throws for the top five scorers

in NBA history.

Three-point

Two-point

Free throws

Kareem

Abdul-Jabbar

1969 - 1989

Michael Jordan

1984 - 2003

Karl Malone

1985 - 2004

Kobe Bryant

1996 - 2016

LeBron James

2003 - current

0

25

50

75

100%

Rule changes have led to a different game

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-

pointers and free throws for the top five scorers in NBA history.

Three-point field goals

Two-point field goals

Free throws

Kareem

Abdul-Jabbar

1969 - 1989

Michael Jordan

1984 - 2003

Karl Malone

1985 - 2004

Kobe Bryant

1996 - 2016

LeBron James

2003 - current

0

25

50

75

100%

Rule changes have led to a different game

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and

free throws for the top five scorers in NBA history.

Three-point field goals

Two-point field goals

Free throws

Kareem

Abdul-Jabbar

1969 - 1989

Michael Jordan

1984 - 2003

Karl Malone

1985 - 2004

Kobe Bryant

1996 - 2016

LeBron James

2003 - current

0

25

50

75

100%

Rule changes have led to a different game

Percentage of total points scored from three-pointers, two-pointers and

free throws for the top five scorers in NBA history.

Three-point field goals

Two-point field goals

Free throws

Kareem

Abdul-Jabbar

1969 - 1989

Michael Jordan

1984 - 2003

Karl Malone

1985 - 2004

Kobe Bryant

1996 - 2016

LeBron James

2004 - 2019

0

25

50

75

100%

That scoring boom has left Jordan’s former defenders wondering how many points he might score in today’s NBA. Christie estimated 40 points per game. Or “44, easily,” guessed Cassell. “I’d put him near 50,” said Smith, adding that Jordan could have played for 20 seasons if he absorbed less contact throughout his career.

When asked to weigh Jordan against James as scorers, opponents who guarded both kept returning to the mind-set issue: Jordan was the superior scorer, they argued, because he was more consumed by the act.

“Remember when LeBron scored 25 straight points?” Cassell asked, referring to a 2007 playoff game between James’s Cavaliers and the Pistons. “That was a special day for LeBron. That was Michael Jordan every night.”

Christie, Cassell and Smith all agreed with Bowen that Jordan, not James, should get the ball with the season on the line. Davis agreed, too, with a twist that neatly summarized these two greats’ differing approaches at this historic crossing.

“I’d let LeBron take it out of bounds and bring it up,” Davis quipped. “Then, I’d have him give it to Jordan and let Jordan go to work.”

Ben Golliver

Ben Golliver joined The Washington Post as the National NBA Writer in 2018. Previously, he was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated covering the NBA. An Oregon native, he lives and works in Los Angeles.

Armand Emamdjomeh

Armand Emamdjomeh makes data visualizations, maps and graphics. Before coming to The Post, he was Deputy Director of Data Visualization at the Los Angeles Times and an alum of the L.A. Times Data Desk.

Source: basketball-reference.com
Credits: Illustrations by Tomasz Usyk. Design and development by Virginia Singarayar. Aaron Williams contributed to the graphics.

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Originally published Feb. 14, 2019.

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