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LeBron’s path to No. 1 in NBA Career Points: While We’re Waiting

(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

On Tuesday in San Antonio, LeBron James became the seventh player in NBA history to reach the 30,000 career points mark. It was an astounding accomplishment. To reach such an earth-shattering number of points is a testament to incredible skill and longevity.

The only names remaining ahead of LeBron now are a who’s who of the NBA’s history books: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Karl Malone. Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan. Wilt Chamberlain. Dirk Nowitzki. Sure, even before LeBron’s return to Cleveland four seasons ago, he was already on track to becoming a top-5 player ever. But reaching such specific milestones helps us appreciate the rarified air of his career.

The 33-year-old from St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School has averaged a breezy 27.1 points in 38.8 minutes per game in 1,107 career games. His only season under 25 points per game was his rookie year back in 2003-04. His only full seasons under 2,700 total minutes were the strike-shortened 2011-12, and his first season back in Cleveland when he had a three-week absence.

LeBron has done it all as he crosses the halfway point of his 14th season of the NBA. He’s also one of only three players ever with 7,500 career assists and 7,500 career rebounds (he beats out both Oscar Robertson and Jason Kidds in career points). And – besides the much-maligned poor run of Cavs play recently, especially on the defensive end – there’s no exact sign he’s slowing down just yet.

To commemorate the occasion, I’ve built out a dashboard using Tableau Desktop and published it to Tableau Public to share with the world. The dashboard initially displays the current leaderboard of all-time career NBA points. But by toggling with the parameters, you can project and customize where LeBron James will end up by his career’s end:

To get LeBron to the No. 1 spot, there are a multitude of different avenues. Almost four more seasons at his career average of 27.1 points per game? Or just over five additional seasons at 20 points per game? Or, as Michael Bode pointed out on the WFNY Slack, eight more seasons at only 13.5 points per game?

As I’ve said for a long time though – including my last such Tableau-oriented exercise in April 2017 and way back in November 2015 at WFNY – I’m of the mind that LeBron finishes up No. 2 in his career. There shouldn’t be much of a problem surpassing No. 4 Kobe Bryant, which may happen close to the end of the 2018-19 season. But then it’ll be a long, long stretch anyway to catch up with No. 2 Karl Malone.

Say that LeBron plays an additional four seasons after this one. Assuming he also sits out at least a solid handful of games each year (as opposed to all 82 games), I’m gonna go with approximately another 320 games remaining. With this total, he’d need to average only 21.6 points per game to surpass Malone. It’s certainly in play! A decline may start to happen eventually. And to me, this is far more attainable and realistic than going all, all the way to Kareem Abdul-Jabaar.

So, besides LeBron, who else might have any shot at reaching point-scoring immortality? The first and foremost person that should come to mind is Kevin Durant:

Durant, at only 29, has thus also averaged exactly 27.1 points per game in his career. Because he played a year at Texas and missed significant time in the 2014-15 season, he will presumably be slightly older than LeBron James when he reaches the 30,000-point mark.

It may not be surprising – since LeBron is already only the seventh player to do so and thus this rarely ever happens – but there may not be any other active NBA player with a legitimate shot at coming close. Below are some top candidates, their ages and where they stand now:

  • Kevin Durant, 29.3 years old, 20,157 pts in 743 games (needs 5-ish more seasons)
  • Carmelo Anthony, 33.7 years old, 24,970 pts in 1,022 games (needs 3-ish more seasons)
  • Russell Westbrook, 29.2 years old, 16,328 pts in 715 games (needs 7-ish more seasons)
  • James Harden, 28.4 years old, 14,810 pts in 653 games (needs 7-ish more seasons)
  • Stephen Curry, 29.7 years old, 13,998 pts in 607 games (needs 8-ish more seasons)
  • Anthony Davis, 24.7 years old, 8,565 pts in 375 games (needs 10-ish more seasons)
  • Kyrie Irving, 25.8 years old, 9,341 pts in 426 games (needs 10-ish more seasons)
  • Damian Lillard, 27.5 years old, 9,887 pts in 436 games (needs 10-ish more seasons)
  • Andrew Wiggins, 22.9 years old, 5,886 pts in 294 games (needs 12-ish more seasons)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, 23.1 years old, 5,920 pts in 360 games (needs 12-ish more seasons)
  • Karl-Anthony Towns, 22.2 years old, 4,544 pts in 213 games (needs 12-ish more seasons)

Melo is darn close, but given his age, decline and current role on the OKC Thunder, it seems like a long-shot these days. That means besides Durant, there’s a whole heck of a lot of long-term projecting going on. Durant’s former teammates Westbrook and Harden could have a shot … if they’re this good going into the mid-2020s. Stephen Curry’s college years and slow start to his NBA career have him way back on the career points leaderboard. And there are then some super-young high-scorers who have some chances if they can dominate the league for a full extra decade to come.

Hitting 30,000 points is an insane, once-in-a-generation kind of accomplishment. It’s easy to get excited about what may come next. And in so doing, hopefully it helps just to take in a little bit more and realize that LeBron James is such a special, special basketball player.