Barring some sort of catastrophic injury or a sudden desire to stop playing the sport that’s made him a household name around the globe, LeBron James will break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record sometime before the All-Star Break in mid-February.
Once James scores his 38,388th point on a dunk (+700 at FanDuel to be the type of shot that clinches the record), a 3-pointer (+370), or some other form of trajectory on Feb. 9 (a +115 favorite to be the date on which he does it) or thereabouts, people will begin wondering about two things. First, how much longer will James keep playing to pad his record? And second, who will be the person who breaks it one day?
In all likelihood, this mystery player is not a household name at this point. In fact, he could still be in diapers or not yet born. Whoever he is, he’ll need to benefit from the unique confluence of health, durability, consistency, and excellence that makes LeBron LeBron, or made Kareem Kareem.
For this thought experiment, Sports Handle enlisted NBA analysts David Lieberman of Caesars Sportsbook and Kyle Shields of WynnBET, asking them to consider the record-breaking prospects of a handful of players and, if they were so willing, to assign hypothetical odds to their respective quests.
James only has one scoring title to his credit, while Steph Curry has two. But whereas Curry has scored 2,000 points in a season only twice, James did it for seven straight seasons after his rookie year and has done it 10 times overall.
Kevin Durant has four scoring titles and has eclipsed 2,000 points six times. Yet despite the fact that Curry and Durant — the latter of whom is second among active NBA scorers, but still more than 11,000 points behind James — are considered two of the most talented bucket-getters of their generation, neither 34-year-old stands much of a chance of catching the 38-year-old James.
“Durant would have to play into his 40s and stay relatively healthy,” said Lieberman. “He could do it, but the [odds] of him playing that long at that high of a level are pretty high.”
Making things all the more difficult is the simple fact that James’ fellow 30-something stars have been more injury-prone than he has.
“LeBron has been such a workhorse his whole career,” observed Lieberman. “He’s stayed relatively healthy, especially when he was younger.”
Farm over fame?
Eliminating older stars from the pool of potential record setters brings us to a trio of relative youngsters who, like James, each started their NBA careers at age 19: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Jayson Tatum. Of these three, both Lieberman and Shields are inclined to toss Antetokounmpo, 28, who didn’t average 20 points per game until his fourth year in the league.
That narrows the field of favorites to the 23-year-old Doncic and the 24-year-old Tatum, with Lieberman preferring the former and Shields the latter.
“I think Luka is maybe the most realistic out of anyone,” said Lieberman. “He’s only 23. If he does it for another 10 years, he’ll have a realistic shot as long as he stays healthy. It also depends on how much longer LeBron plays for. Doncic has already missed a lot of time, so I guess the true odds would have to be pretty astronomical, but if I had to put a price on it, it would have to be 500/1. It’s hard to imagine anyone playing at LeBron’s kind of level for that long.”
Doncic is nimbler than he’s often given credit for, but his scoring is more attributable to craftiness than athleticism, which should also bode well for his chances of passing James.
“It just comes down to health with him,” said Lieberman. “He’s scoring at a pretty insane rate. LeBron wasn’t putting up quite the gaudy numbers that Doncic is right now.”
Yet while Shields thinks Doncic is a phenomenal scorer, he doesn’t believe the Dallas Mavericks superstar has much of a chance. Why? Because Doncic recently told ESPN he’d “rather go back to my farm in Slovenia” than mount a 20-year career in pursuit of James.
“If you’re saying me, there’s no way because I’m not playing that much,” Doncic added.
Tatum, then, is Shields’ favorite, with the analyst assigning him hypothetical odds of 1000/1 to break James’ all-time scoring mark.
“He’s coming into his prime right now, he’s shooting more threes, and he’s stayed relatively healthy,” said Shields, who then half-jokingly noted that Tatum “would need to play like 30 years at his current pace” to bypass James.
The biggest unknown
At hypothetical odds of 1500/1, Minnesota Timberwolves swingman Anthony Edwards is Shields’ second favorite to shatter James’ record.
“He’s a high-volume 3-point shooter, he’s stayed healthy, and the pace of play, he has a chance,” Shields said of the 21-year-old.
After Edwards comes a trio of players — Paolo Banchero, Devin Booker, and Victor Wembanyama — that Shields prices at 2000/1 apiece.
“Paolo is on pace to be right around where LeBron was his rookie year,” said Shields. “So if he develops a 3-point shot, he could have a chance.”
But Lieberman isn’t sure Banchero will ever develop into a pure enough scorer to chase LeBron’s record, saying, “I don’t know if I see him as a 30-point guy.”
Both analysts agree, however, that Wembanyama, a 7’2”, 19-year-old wunderkind from France who is considered a lock to be the top pick in June’s draft, holds the most intrigue — and uncertainty — of the bunch.
“He’s supposed to be generational,” said Lieberman. “I’d still put the odds super high until I saw him play a couple seasons in the NBA. If anyone’s gonna do it, it might be him just because of how good he is at such a young age.”