What LeBron James Setting the All-Time NBA Scoring Record Means in the Enduring GOAT Debate

LeBron James

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after scoring to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

LeBron James has captured the NBA’s all-time scoring record, surpassing the mark set by NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984 and once again reigniting the heated debate over who holds the title as the greatest player of all time.

The 38-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star achieved the feat in the final seconds of the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday, sinking the record-setting basket with his signature fadeaway.

“To be in the presence of such a legend and great as Kareem, it means so much to me. It’s very humbling,” James said, standing next to Abdul-Jabbar, 75, as the game was paused for a brief ceremony at centre court. “To everybody who’s ever been a part of this run with me the last 20 years, I just want to say thank you so much.

James needed 36 points to surpass the record of 38,387 points. He finished with 38 on the night.

“To the NBA … I thank you guys so much for letting me be part of something I’ve always dreamed about. I would never, ever in a million years dreamed it’s better than what it is tonight.”

The achievement has stoked the flames of the enduring GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate, with those who grew up watching the self-professed King over his two-decade long career using the new record as definitive proof he’s secured the coveted title.

But it isn’t just the scoring title that puts him in the conversation. While age 38 is hardly old off the court, James’ continued domination in year 20 of his career is unheard of and sets him apart from even the most-decorated NBA players. In fact, this year, he’s putting together one of his best scoring seasons, hovering around an impressive 30 points per game.

And although James is a few years behind Tom Brady, who logged his final season this year at the age of 45, the NBA star may match his longevity when it’s all said and done. James has set the mind-boggling goal of playing with his son, Bronny, an All-American senior high school phenom, who, at 18 years old, could hit the NBA as early as 2024.

“I need to be on the floor with my boy,” James told ESPN recently. “Either in the same uniform or against him.”

For his part, James hasn’t been shy about putting his name in the ring. After the game on Tuesday, he sent out a cheeky tweet that read, “Maybe it’s me,” presumably in reference to the heated GOAT debate.

That he achieved the record wearing a Lakers uniform could also cement him as one of the greatest to play for the storied franchise. And while diehard Lakers fans were initially reluctant to welcome a new star into the fold, the Akron, Ohio native received a warm welcome from Kobe Bryant. According to James, the late Lakers legend, who passed away in a helicopter crash in January 2020, sent him a simple three-word text after he signed with the team: “You family now.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s support of James on Tuesday wasn’t strictly ceremonial either. In a blog post, the Lakers great went out of his way to show his support for the newly minted record holder.

“This is all about LeBron doing something no one else has done, about scoring more points than anyone has been able to in 75 years,” he wrote of James. “There are no ‘yeah, buts,’ just praise where it is rightfully and righteously due.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s teammate Magic Johnson, the engine that powered the Showtime Lakers of the ’70s, also chimed in on Twitter after seeing LeBron break the long-standing record.

“Wow, never in my lifetime did I think I would see two NBA athletes score over 38,000 points! I still remember when my Showtime teammate, the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, broke the record,” he tweeted. “It was an honour to be the guy to pass it to him and cement his legacy!

Meanwhile, each generation bestows GOAT status to a different NBA legend with absolute certainty.

Depending on the era you were watching, candidates for the title include, Wilt Chamberlain, the aforementioned Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Johnson, Michael Jordan or Bryant, each of whom have a qualifying resume.

Russell’s 11 championships over a 13-season career in the 1950s and ’60s speaks for itself, while Chamberlain, the scoring machine who dominated the NBA throughout the ’60s and ’70s, holds the seemingly untouchable single-game scoring record of 100 points. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar, earned six championships and six MVPs during a 21-year career beginning in the mid-’70s.

Despite a career that was cut short by an HIV diagnosis, Johnson guided the Lakers to five championships and revolutionized the point guard position with his dazzling passing in the ’80s. Michael Jordan, who transformed the game in the ’80s and ’90s, is the only player to three-peat (win three championships in a row) two separate times, earning five MVP awards and the fifth spot on the all-time scoring list.

And Bryant, who modelled his game after Jordan, secured five championships and established himself as one of the most prolific scorers the game has ever seen.

Of course, it’s numbers that often hurt James’ case. His four MVPs trail Russell and Jordan (five) and Abdul-Jabbar (six), while his championship count of four trails many of the greats.

Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers head coach and a former NBA player, split hairs when comparing Michael Jordan and LeBron James, differentiating between the greatest career and the greatest of all time.

“I think he’s going to have the greatest career of all time,” he said of James after a game in January. “I think he’s already had it. I think Michael [Jordan] is the greatest of all time, but that doesn’t take anything away from LeBron. LeBron’s had the greatest career.”

Still, there’s an argument to be made that comparing eras in basketball, or any sport for that matter, just doesn’t make any sense.

For instance, Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring title might be even more impressive than James’, considering the big man sky hooked his way into the record books with the help of only one career three-pointer.  At the time, it was unheard of for a big man to shoot threes.

Also, rule changes, like the one made in the 2004-05 season outlawing hand checking — a defensive manoeuvre that saw defensive players use their hands to impede an offensive players progress — have made it easier for players like James to score. Where would Jordan sit on the all-time scorers list without those pesky mitts all over him?

And then, there’s the difference innovations in sports medicine have made on the game, producing stronger and more durable athletes than those from bygone eras. Would players like Chamberlain, Russell and Jordan face stiffer competition in today’s NBA?

And what about that three-year period in the ’90s, when the NBA moved the three point line up from 23 feet nine inches to 22 feet in an attempt to increase the leagues average points per game? Should players from that era be docked a few triples?

With so many variables at play, perhaps it’s time we recalibrate the acronym to the “Greatest of a Time.” That way each generation can have its own GOAT.