Five truly unbreakable NBA records now that LeBron has passed Kareem

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James ended Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 38-year run as the NBA's all-time scoring leader, but there are several other major records that will continue to stand the test of time. (Harry How/Getty Images)
11 min

LOS ANGELES — When Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unseated Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with a jump hook from the right baseline against the Utah Jazz on April 5, 1984, he exchanged hugs with his parents and teammate Magic Johnson before NBA Commissioner David Stern stopped play to honor him as “one of the greatest athletes ever to play our game.”

As the Las Vegas crowd roared its approval, legendary Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn suggested that Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring tally, which would balloon to 38,387 before his 1989 retirement, was an unbreakable record.

“The new king of scoring has ascended his throne,” Hearn said. “This man has accomplished something that I don’t believe — and I mean this sincerely — I don’t think this will ever happen again.”

More than 38 years after that declaration, Lakers star LeBron James, who wasn’t yet born when Abdul-Jabbar passed Chamberlain, has claimed the NBA’s scoring crown midway through his 20th season. Surely by the time James retires, his own scoring tally, which should easily surpass 40,000 points, will be regarded as an unbreakable mark.

How the NBA scoring record evolved from Wilt to Kareem to LeBron

There are, however, several NBA records that are even more bulletproof. When weighing whether a mark might one day be threatened, it’s important to consider the evolving nature of the sport, its major rule changes and strategic developments. For example, Chamberlain played before the NBA had a three-point line, and Abdul-Jabbar made only one three-pointer during his career. Meanwhile, James has made more than 2,200 three-pointers, and he has rapidly increased his reliance on the long shot in recent years.

With that in mind, here are five records that should continue to stand the test of time, even if the NBA’s ongoing scoring boom accelerates in the years to come.


Wilt Chamberlain’s 50.4 points per game in 1961-62

Chamberlain’s record of 100 points in a single game is one of the sport’s most hallowed marks, and it has never been seriously challenged. Kobe Bryant came the closest with 81 points in 2006, and the highest tally by an active player came this season when Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell poured in 71 points.

Still, in this era of ball-dominant superstars who sink three-pointers with ease and parade to the free throw line, it’s at least possible to imagine someone scoring 101 points. That’s especially true when players such as David Robinson and Devin Booker have reached 70 points thanks to their teams force-feeding them the ball in an attempt to push their individual tally as high as possible.

What’s inconceivable is any player maintaining the consistency and dominance necessary to match Chamberlain’s average of 50.4 points per game in 1961-62. That season, Chamberlain scored a record 4,029 points, nearly 1,000 points more than Michael Jordan’s most prolific scoring season in 1987-88.

The closest that any player, besides Chamberlain, came was Elgin Baylor’s 38.3 points per game in 1961-62. Jordan’s 37.1 points per game in 1986-87 remains the high-water mark of the three-point era. Even when James Harden was at the peak of his powers and had near-total control of the Houston Rockets’ offense, he averaged “only” 36.1 points per game in 2018-19.

Chamberlain’s height (7-foot-1) and athleticism advantages over the opponents of his day are seemingly impossible to replicate in the modern era, where NBA players hail from all corners of the globe and have the benefit of strength programs and player development coaches from an early age. Shaquille O’Neal, perhaps the most physically dominant center since Chamberlain, never averaged more than 30 points per game during his 19-year career.

What’s more, the league’s shift from the interior-dominated offenses of the 1960s to an outside-in approach should help Chamberlain’s record endure. Three-pointers are a more volatile source of offense than dunks, layups, finger rolls and free throw attempts. It would take a radical change such as shortening the 24-second shot clock or adding a four-point line to create the necessary conditions for someone to rival Chamberlain.

Similarly, Chamberlain’s major rebounding records — 27.2 per game and 2,149 total for the 1960-61 season, plus 23,924 for his career — will continue to stand unless there are fundamental changes to how the sport is played. No wonder Chamberlain downplayed Abdul-Jabbar breaking his scoring record.

“Well, it’s only one of about 90 [records] I held,” Chamberlain said in 1984. “I must be in a world by myself.”


Wilt Chamberlain’s 48.5 minutes per game in 1961-62

One other major reason Chamberlain’s single-season scoring record is so safe? Load management and the modern approach to playing time in general.

Remarkably, Chamberlain played more than 48 minutes per game in his record-setting scoring campaign because he never fouled out, played at least 48 minutes in 79 of his 80 appearances and logged more than 50 minutes in seven games that went to overtime.

Of course, modern players are never subjected to such a heavy workload. Jordan averaged 40.4 minutes per game in 1987-88, James topped out at 42.5 minutes per game in 2005-06, and Allen Iverson topped all players during the three-point era with 43.7 minutes per game in 2001-02.

In the past decade, when teams have been much more careful in managing their players’ minutes, Carmelo Anthony’s 38.7 minutes per game in 2013-14 led the way. No star player averaged even 38 minutes per game last season. Unless the NBA extends the length of its games or injury-prevention technology dramatically improves, Chamberlain should hold on to this record for at least another 60 years.


John Stockton’s career total of 15,806 assists

Stockton lacked Chamberlain’s flair, Abdul-Jabbar’s size and James’s physicality, but the 6-1 point guard nevertheless set a record that has never been approached in the two decades since his retirement. The smaller half of a devastating tandem with Karl Malone, the Utah great led the NBA in assists nine straight seasons and enjoyed nearly impeccable health.

Stockton missed just 22 of a possible 1,526 games from his 1984 debut to his 2003 retirement at age 41, giving him an astonishing 98.6 percent availability rate across 19 seasons. Along the way, he set the NBA’s single-season record with 14.5 assists per game in 1989-90 and posted five of the top six seasons by total assists in league history.

That combination of peak production and durability has put him in a category by himself on the career assists list, with a 3,715-assist lead over runner-up Jason Kidd and a 4,000-plus cushion over Chris Paul, who is tops among active players at age 37. To catch Stockton, Paul would need to average 10 assists per game and play 75 games per season for six more seasons. Of course, Paul hasn’t actually played 75 or more games in a season since the 2014-15 campaign, and he hasn’t topped 10 assists per game in six of the past seven years.

Similarly, James is more than 5,000 assists behind Stockton. To make up the gap, James would need to play 75 games per season and maintain his current seven assists per game average for more than a decade. A rookie who entered the NBA next season would need to average 10 assists per game and play all 82 games until midway through the 2042-43 season to catch Stockton. Untouchable.

“I’m not thinking about [passing Stockton] at all,” James said in late January. “That man played, like, 19 seasons, and [16] of them he played 82 games, or some crazy stat like that. I’m good on that.”

The rise of score-first point guards such as Damian Lillard and do-everything point forwards such as Luka Doncic should play to Stockton’s benefit. A pass-first point guard, Stockton focused most of his attention on playmaking for his teammates and never averaged more than 17.2 points per game. Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are the only players in the last decade to have averaged more than 11 assists per game for a season, in part because lead ballhandlers now customarily look for their own offense first.

Stockton has sometimes faced accusations that his home scorekeepers were overly generous in crediting him with assists. Whether that was true, the prevalence of video review in the modern era and the NBA’s layered scorekeeping system theoretically make it more difficult to execute a concerted effort at stat-padding.

One footnote: Stockton’s career record of 3,265 steals also leaves him miles ahead of all challengers.


Bill Russell’s 11 championship rings as a player

The NBA permanently retired Russell’s No. 6 jersey upon his death last summer as a nod to his status as the greatest winner in league history. Indeed, Russell won 11 titles during his 13-year career. To match Russell’s standard, Victor Wembanyama, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft, would need to win the 2024 title as a rookie, win eight consecutive titles from 2026 to 2033 and then bank two more in 2035 and 2036 before hanging it up.

Modern superstars haven’t come all that close, as Russell’s ring count exceeds those of Jordan (six) and James (four) combined. Among stars who didn’t play for the Celtics during and shortly after Russell’s era, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Bulls forward Scottie Pippen are the only players to reach six championships.

Expansion has certainly been a factor, as Russell won his first title in an eight-team league compared with the modern 30-team landscape. The proliferation of basketball talent across the world has also made it harder for a single player to win at the highest level for a decade straight. Other issues such as the salary cap, luxury tax system and free agency have made it more difficult for teams, even deep-pocketed ones such as the Golden State Warriors, to retain and tweak championship rosters.

Robert Horry, a valued role player who won titles with the Houston Rockets, Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, tops all three-point-era players with seven championship rings. Even if a current player were to follow the Horry model and bounce from contender to contender, he would need to have extraordinary luck to approach seven rings, never mind Russell’s 11. That’s true even if he were able to play for 20 years like James, Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki.

No active NBA player has more than four rings. What’s more, the five players with four — James, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala — are all at least 32 years old. Russell has nothing to worry about.


Muggsy Bogues as the NBA’s shortest player at 5-foot-3

This one really deserves more attention. The 5-3 Bogues, a 1987 first-round pick by the Washington Bullets, enjoyed a 14-year career despite having the shortest list height of any player in NBA history. The Baltimore native was a starter for much of his career, and he compensated for his lack of size with quickness, good passing instincts and an intense competitive spirit.

There hasn’t been anyone like Bogues before or since. According to Basketball Reference, the next shortest players during the three-point era were Earl Boykins (5-5) and Spud Webb (5-6). Since Boykins’s retirement in 2012, the NBA hasn’t had any players listed at 5-8 or shorter, though Isaiah Thomas made the 2016 and 2017 all-star teams with the Celtics while standing 5-9.

With the NBA game trending toward a positionless style with interchangeable players capable of dribbling, passing and shooting, players whose physiques put them on the margins will probably have a harder time finding a role. This phenomenon doesn’t solely apply to diminutive guards, as heavyset centers are less common in the modern game than they were even 10 years ago. Scouting developments have prioritized wingspan and versatility, and coaching strategies have made it easier for teams to isolate players who are too small or too slow to play defense.

According to a census published in 2010, only 3.7 percent of American males in their 20s are 5-4 or shorter. With the NBA’s average height hovering around 6-6, any player hoping to follow in Bogues’s footsteps would need to beat incredibly long odds. That won’t stop everyone from trying, as Darnell Rogers started for the University of Maryland Baltimore County last season at a list height of 5-2.

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