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As LeBron James passes Kobe Bryant, a once-unthinkable mark is in play

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA's all-time scoring list Saturday night in Philadelphia. (Washington Post illustration; photos by Associated Press)

LeBron James has methodically ascended the NBA’s all-time scoring list, displacing basketball’s biggest names along the way.

In 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers forward surpassed Shaquille O’Neal — the self-proclaimed “Most Dominant Ever.” In 2018, he passed Wilt Chamberlain — owner of the NBA’s only 100-point game. In 2019, it was Michael Jordan — James’s chief competition for the “Greatest of All Time” title. On Saturday night, James passed Kobe Bryant, the iconic post-Jordan scoring sensation, to claim third on the all-time list.

James entered the 108-91 loss at the Philadelphia 76ers needing 18 points to move past Bryant. To celebrate the occasion, James decorated his black-and-gold Nike sneakers with Bryant’s initials, jersey numbers and a reference to his “Mamba” nickname. The milestone basket came midway through the third quarter, when James slashed through the paint for a right-handed layup.

The Wells Fargo Center crowd saluted him with a standing ovation at the next stoppage, and Bryant offered his congratulations on Twitter: “Continuing to move the game forward. Much respect my brother.” James finished with 29 points, putting his career total at 33,655. Bryant finished with 33,643.

“He had zero flaws offensively,” James said of Bryant. “Zero. He could shoot the three. He could go around you. He could shoot the midrange. He could post. He could make free throws. That’s something I admired as well. Just being at a point where the defense would always be at bay, where they couldn’t guard you, where you just felt you were immortal offensively because of your skill set and work ethic. I’m just happy to be in any conversation with Kobe Bean Bryant, one of the all-time great basketball players.”

These milestones have come so frequently and with such consistency that they have started to blur together in a haze of inevitability. When James passed Jordan, his childhood hero, he was met with applause from the home crowd at Staples Center but not an overwhelming ovation. The muted reaction was influenced by his newcomer status in Los Angeles but also by his distance from basketball mortality. Nostalgia and wistfulness weren’t in play because his retirement wasn’t yet in sight.

Now 35, James continues to compile points with no major signs of slowing down. He’s averaging more than 25 points for the 16th consecutive season, and he has played in all but two games this season. Passing Bryant was only a matter of time, and the milestone is a reminder that James could one day dethrone Kareem ­Abdul-Jabbar at the top of the list.

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Since Abdul-Jabbar’s retirement in 1989, his career total of 38,387 points has loomed as one of basketball’s untouchable records. During a 20-year career, the 7-foot-2 master of the skyhook averaged better than 20 points per game in 17 seasons and played at least 74 games in 18 seasons.

Like James, Abdul-Jabbar was a machine that churned through both opponents and time. He left no margin for error to his subsequent challengers.

Jordan jeopardized his chances of surpassing Abdul-Jabbar with his first retirement and forfeited them with his second. O’Neal’s physical decline in his 30s kept him from mounting a serious push, and Bryant’s 2013 Achilles’ tendon tear effectively dashed his hopes. Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone came the closest, finishing with 36,928 points during a 19-year career, but he hit a wall at 40 and had to settle for second.

The hurdles that felled Abdul-Jabbar’s previous challengers have yet to knock James off course. After suffering the first major injury of his career last season, James has rebounded. He led the Western Conference in all-star votes and is one of the league’s top two MVP candidates. James needs 4,733 points — which amounts to averaging 20 points per game for about three more seasons — to surpass Abdul-Jabbar. That’s a lofty bar but an exceedingly reachable one.

James is under contract for two more seasons and has shown every indication he can be an effective contributor for another half-decade. Perhaps more importantly, he has expressed a strong desire to share an NBA court with his oldest son, Bronny, a 15-year-old high school freshman.

If, as expected, the NBA removes the one-and-done rule and allows high school players to bypass college, Bronny would be eligible for the 2023 draft and could begin his career in the 2023-24 season. James would enter that season at 38, still younger than Abdul-Jabbar and Malone when they retired. Remember, James skipped college to enter the NBA in 2003 at 19, while Abdul-Jabbar and Malone each played three years of college basketball and ­debuted at 22.

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That head start is only one of James’s advantages in this chase. While Abdul-Jabbar made just one three-pointer during his career and Malone hit only 85, James has evolved into a proficient threat from beyond the arc, hitting at least 100 three-pointers in six of the past seven seasons.

Those extra points add up over time, as do the physical benefits of being able to efficiently score without drawing contact or driving into the paint. James’s reliance on the three-pointer has increased dramatically as he has gotten deeper into his 30s — peaking at six attempts per game this season — and that will continue to be an essential aspect of extending his career.

Aside from his consistency, good health and skill development, James has benefited from a scoring boom. NBA offenses are significantly faster and higher-scoring than they were during Bryant’s heyday. In 2010, when Bryant led the Lakers to the title, teams averaged 100.4 points and 92.7 possessions per game. This season, teams are averaging 110.7 points and 100.3 possessions. Even if James’s scoring efficiency and physical tools slip, he will benefit from playing in an era in which points are easier to come by.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, Bryant struck a gracious tone, saying he was “so happy for ’Bron” and that he would call to congratulate James on his achievement. What Bryant didn’t do, though, was concede that James was a superior player or a better scorer. Instead, he sidestepped those questions by saying, “We appreciate each other, and we don’t participate in that stuff.”

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Coincidentally, Jordan was asked about James during a rare media appearance this week, and he similarly refused to give an inch.

“We played in different eras,” Jordan said at a Paris news conference, according to the Athletic. “He’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world. . . . When you start the comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a standard of measurement. I take it with a grain of salt.”

James, like Bryant and Jordan, is a ruthless competitor who understands that respect must be seized — especially from his legendary peers, who have him beat in the rings department.

The priority for James’s legacy always will be adding to his total of three championships. Beyond that, the No. 1 spot on the scoring list is the most significant line item remaining.

No one should expect Bryant and Jordan to defer to James, even if he claims bragging rights in the NBA’s most fundamental and prized act. Yet the court of public opinion might have other ideas if he succeeds in toppling Abdul-Jabbar and rewriting the record books.

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The death of Kobe Bryant

Here’s what you need to catch up on what happened in Calabasas, California.

Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26. The NBA legend and sports icon was 41 years old.

Nine people, including Bryant, were killed in the crash. Gianna Bryant, the former player’s 13-year-old daughter, was among the dead.

Memorial service: Los Angeles honored Kobe Bryant, his daughter and the victims of the crash with a memorial at Staples Center. Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, spoke at the memorial, as did NBA legend Michael Jordan, among others.

Obituary: Bryant was an individual whose tirelessness and competitive drive were as notable as his versatility and ambition.

Photos: Bryant’s milestones | Kobe through the years | The scene as people mourn in L.A.

Commentary: Bryant accomplished so much, sports columnist Jerry Brewer writes. “Yet his story still feels disturbingly incomplete, and that’s why so many are taking his death so hard.” Barry Svrluga writes: “Lives are not clean. Legacies are messy. Memories are personal. It’s worth talking through.”

Read deeper:

Kobe Bryant’s beautiful game was built on grace, intensity and confidence

• For LeBron James, Bryant’s death provided a powerful reminder of life’s priorities

• Bryant was a storyteller in search of perfection. The most vexing tale was his own.

Media coverage of Bryant’s death was a chaotic mess, but there were moments of grace