LeBron James became the youngest player in NBA history to reach 30,000 career points on Tuesday, demolishing Kobe Bryant’s previous mark by more than a year. The record-setting feat is worth a moment of reflection and appreciation, and it raises two obvious questions. Where will James’ assault on the scoring list take him next? And does anyone have a realistic chance at besting his latest accomplishment?
Cleveland’s All-Star forward reached 30,000 points at the age of 33 years and 24 days with a deep jumper late in the first quarter against the Spurs. Bryant, by comparison, reached the marker at 34 years and 104 days, more than a year ahead of Wilt Chamberlain (35 years and 179 days), who was third-fastest. Michael Jordan, long a James target in the Greatest of All-Time conversation, didn’t reach 30,000 points until 38 years and 321 days, due in large part to his two mid-career retirements.
James, who entered the NBA straight from high school, reached 30,000 points in his 15th season and his 1,107th career game. He is the seventh player to reach 30,000 career points, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Bryant, Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Dirk Nowitzki. Bryant, another preps-to-pro player, needed 17 seasons and 1,180 games to reach the milestone in Dec. 2012.
Youngest to 30,000 points
- James: 33 years, 24 days | 1,107 games | 15 seasons | 27.1 PPG
- Bryant: 34 years, 104 days | 1,180 games | 17 seasons | 25.4 PPG
Both James and Bryant enjoyed remarkable health en route to 30,000 points: Prior to hitting the mark, Bryant appeared in 92 percent of the Lakers’ regular-season games and James enjoyed 94 percent availability. In James’ case, he’s never sustained a major injury—despite logging nearly 43,000 regular-season minutes and an additional 9,000+ postseason minutes—and has missed more than eight games in a season just once.
Bryant is widely regarded as the purer scorer of the two players, he owns more scoring titles (two to James’ one), and his career-best 35.4 PPG in 2005-06 easily surpasses James’ most prolific scoring campaign. He also made his debut at a younger age (18 years, 72 days to James’ 18 years, 303 days).
But James was nevertheless able to reach 30,000 points more quickly than Bryant because he hit his scoring stride earlier in his career. James’ scoring average in his rookie season (20.9 PPG) surpassed Bryant’s averages in his first three seasons; James reached 30 PPG in his third season while Bryant, playing second fiddle to Shaquille O’Neal, didn’t get there until year seven.
The following chart shows how James and Bryant progressed as scorers from year to year.
Note that James’s age-33 tally won’t be complete until Dec. 2019, giving him 11 more months to build his lead over Bryant.
What’s striking about James’ progression is its near-perfect steadiness: He’s enjoyed great health and scored points like an assembly line produces widgets. James has averaged at least 25 PPG in 14 of his 15 seasons—every year except his rookie season—even as he’s changed teams in free agency on multiple occasions. Back in 2012, SI.com extrapolated James’ scoring at the time and projected that he would reach 30,000 points “early in the 2017-18 season” around “his 33rd birthday in Dec. 2017.” James’ consistency has been so extraordinary that he only missed that projection—which was made more than five years ago -- by roughly three weeks. That superhuman reliability is worth celebrating, as James did with a self-congratulatory Instagram post.
Like Bryant before him, James will now set his sights on Jordan, whose 32,292 points rank fourth all-time. Despite suffering multiple season-ending injuries, Bryant was able to climb from 30,000 points past Jordan’s mark in two calendar years, from Dec. 2012 to Dec. 2014.
For James, history suggests a quicker ascent. If James maintains his 2017-18 scoring rate of 26.8 PPG and appears in 91% of his team’s games—his availability rate over the past four seasons—he should surpass Jordan on the all-time scoring list shortly after the 2019 All-Star break. Doing so on that timeline would move him past Jordan at age 34. If one prefers a more conservative estimate, James could surpass Jordan early in the 2019-20 season as long as he averages 20 PPG and appears in at least 65 games per season. James would still only be 35 in this version of events. In other words, Jordan’s legion of diehard fans better start bracing for the inevitable.
The number one spot?
The Bill James projection system, which aims to project career totals based on a player’s age and recent performance, views James as a virtual lock to move past Jordan – and beyond – on the NBA’s scoring list. The system gives James a 97% chance at passing Jordan and a similar shot at passing Bryant for third on the all-time list.
- Chances to reach Wilt Chamberlain at 31,419 points: 97%
- Chances to reach Michael Jordan at 32,292 points: 97%
- Chances to reach Kobe Bryant at 33,643 points: 97%
- Chances to reach Karl Malone at 36,928 points: 88%
- Chances to reach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 38,387 points: 64%
For what it’s worth, the Bill James system really, really respects James’ production, projecting James to play five more seasons and finish with 39,537 career points. To reach that lofty height, James would need to average 25.4 PPG and play 75 games per year before retiring at age 38 after 20 years. At first blush, that seems overly ambitious, even for James. His current pace is already defying age-related decline expectations; it seems unreasonable for that to continue for another half-decade. As Bryant’s twilight proved, once the wall hits it hits hard.
But the Bill James projection system neatly lays out the history that likely awaits James. He will almost certainly finish his career as one of the league’s top three scorers of all time—ahead of both Jordan and Bryant—and he has a very real shot of unseating Malone at No. 2. To get there, he needs to average 20 PPG and appear in 68 games per year over the next five seasons. That will be difficult—but not impossible—given that his scoring output and availability easily clear those standards currently.
It’s worth noting, in conclusion, that everything is on the table for James at this point. If he is willing and physically able to keep playing until he turns 40, James can absolutely threaten or surpass Abdul-Jabbar’s mark, even if his scoring pace slows considerably as he adjusts to a secondary role and fewer minutes later in his twilight.
Can anyone match LeBron?
In addition to James’s ascent, there’s been another major development in the NBA’s all-time scoring race since SI.com looked at Bryant’s run to 30,000 points in 2012. At that time, then-Thunder forward Kevin Durant wasn’t far behind James in the race up the charts, even though he didn’t have the luxury of making the preps-to-pro leap and had to spend one season at Texas.
Fast-forward five years: Durant, now with the Warriors, just became the second-youngest player to reach 20,000 career points – behind James – when he hit that mark earlier this month. But significant injury issues in 2014-15 and 2016-17 knocked Durant (29 years, 103 days) more than a year behind James (28 years, 17 days) when it came to scoring 20,000 points.
The following chart shows how Durant has fallen off James’ pace.
Given James’ scoring over the last five years, it will be virtually impossible for Durant, 29, to become the youngest player to reach 30,000 points. He would fall short of James even if he averaged 32 PPG – his career-high mark – and never missed a game over the next three-plus seasons. For what it’s worth, the Bill James model projects that Durant will eventually enter the 30,000-point club, projecting him to finish his career with 31,120 points.
Here’s the truly scary thing: if Durant can’t mount a real challenge to James, no other active player has a chance. Most of Durant’s major scoring contemporaries – guys like Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins -- all ramped up too slowly early in their careers. Ditto for the 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, perhaps the top candidate to eventually overtake James as the East’s best player. Health concerns have held back Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, and figure to limit Kristaps Porzingis, too. Devin Booker, who made his NBA debut at 18 and has averaged 25 PPG in his third season, is a name to watch … but he’ll need to keep up his current career-high scoring for at least five more years to really compete with Durant, let along James.
When one considers the NBA’s age-limit rule and modern ideas about limiting minutes and strategically resting stars, it gets harder and harder to fathom that someone will be able to reach 20,000 or 30,000 points more quickly than James. For a guy who likes to claim he’s “not a scorer,” James has set a truly incredible standard.