Is LeBron James the greatest of all time after breaking the scoring record?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 07: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ceremoniously hands LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers the ball after James passed Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer, surpassing Abdul-Jabbar's career total of 38,387 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena on February 07, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 07: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ceremoniously hands LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers the ball after James passed Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer, surpassing Abdul-Jabbar's career total of 38,387 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Arena on February 07, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

Now that LeBron James has passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, does that mean he is the greatest player of all time?

The answer to that sort of question in any sport is highly speculative. That’s because comparing players from different eras is subjective and dependent on the criteria utilized. Let’s look at various methods that might be used to determine the GOAT.

1. Longevity

When comparing great players, how much priority should be given to the guy who has consistently excelled for the longest period of time?

LeBron James has unquestionably played at a high level longer than anyone else ever has in the NBA. Historically, there have only been a few athletes in any sport that have played as well at age 38 as he is currently performing for the Lakers.

Consider some other all-time NBA greats. Bill Russell retired at age 34, Wilt Chamberlain at 36 and Kobe Bryant at 37.

Michael Jordan, meanwhile, sat out his age-30 season and most of the following year to play baseball. After returning to basketball for four more seasons, he “retired” again at age 34, this time for 3 years. When he returned to play two final seasons at ages 38 and 39, he was no longer the dominant force in the NBA.

Magic Johnson retired at age 31 when he tested positive for HIV. He returned for one final season five years later, when he recorded his lowest averages in most categories. Kareem played through age 41 but in his final three seasons, he was a shadow of his former self. Even in the prior four years, his game had shown slippage.

James is currently averaging 30 points per game, a figure he’s topped only twice in his 20-year career. He is blessed with a body that hasn’t sustained any major injuries and features an incredible and unmatched combination of strength, speed, and agility.

In his earlier playing days, LeBron relied predominantly on his bull drives to the hoop, where he nearly always overpowered the opposition and either converted his shot or a foul was called on the defender. Officials seemed to give him every benefit of the doubt, much as they do today with Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He has never been a natural shooter but eventually, he developed enough of an outside shot to keep defenses honest. It isn’t the prettiest shot to watch, and at times his misses look downright ugly, but it’s been effective enough to allow him to remain an elite scorer and to continue to be one of the league’s top players during the twilight of his career..

So if you consider durability to be the #1 factor in determining the GOAT, then James deserves your vote.

2. Peak performance

Prior to this season, LeBron James averaged over 30 points per game three times in 19 seasons with a high of 31.4 points per game in his third year and has topped the NBA in scoring average just once. His highest single-game output is 61 points.

By comparison, Michael Jordan averaged over 30 points eight times, including seven straight years, led the league 10 times and had a high average of 37.1 in year three. The most points he scored in one game was 69.

Wilt Chamberlain, meanwhile, averaged over 30 each of his first nine years, including twice over 40, with an incredible high of 50.4 ppg in his third season, when he scored an amazing 100 points in one game and was atop the NBA seven times. And Kareem, who led the league in scoring average twice, scored over 30 ppg four times including his high of 34.8 his third season. His highest point total for a game was surprisingly “only” 55.

Lakers fans know that Kobe once scored 81 points. Other high games among all-time greats included David Thompson at 73, Elgin Baylor and David Robinson at 71, Pete Maravich, 68, Rick Barry, 64, Jerry West and George Gervin, 63, Steph Curry, 62, and Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone, 61.

Of course, points scored are not the sole criteria for greatness. But other greats compiled some stats and awards that LeBron can’t match.

Wilt averaged 23 rebounds a game and led the league 11 times. He was voted Most Valuable Player 4 times. Neither the All-Defensive teams nor the Finals MVP existed for most of his career, but he was on the former twice and was the Finals MVP once.

MJ was the league leader in steals in three seasons, was a 5-time MVP, was on 9 All-Defensive teams and won 6 Finals MVPs. Magic averaged 11.2 assists for his career, leading the league four times, and was a 3-time MVP in both the regular season and the Finals.

Kareem, meanwhile, topped the association in blocks four times, was a 6-time MVP, was on 9 All-Defensive teams and was twice Finals MVP.

James led the league in assists one time (the 2019-20 title year with the Lakers). He’s a 4-time regular season and Finals Most Valuable Player and was on 6 All-Defensive teams (for the curious, the last time was in 2014).

If the criteria to measure a player’s greatness is based primarily on his peak performance then LeBron James probably falls a tad short of being the GOAT.

3. Career averages

For his 20-year career, LeBron James has averaged 27.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists, all outstanding numbers. He’s made 19 all-star teams, including this season. Here are the comparable statistics for 15 other greats:

  • Jordan’s averages for his 15 seasons were 30.1/6.2/5.3, 14-time all-star
  • Kareem’s over 20 seasons were 24.6/11.2/3.6, 19-time all-star
  • Magic (13 seasons): 19.5/5.5/7.2, 11-time all-star
  • Kobe (20 seasons): 25.0/5.2/4.7, 18-time all-star
  • Oscar Robertson (played 14 seasons, retired at age 35): 25.7/7.5/9.5, 12-time all-star
  • West (also played 14 seasons and retired at age 35): 27.0/5.8/6.7, 14-time all-star
  • Baylor (12 full seasons, bits of 2 others, retired at 37): 27.4/13.5/4.3, 11-time all-star
  • Larry Bird (13 seasons through age 35): 24.3/10.0/6.3, 12-time all-star
  • Wilt (14 years): 30.1/22.9/4.4, 13-time all-star
  • Bill Russell (13 years): 15.1/22.5/4.3, 12-time all-star
  • Shaq (19 seasons, retired at 38):  23.7/10.9/2.5, 15-time all-star
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (18 seasons, retired at 39):  21.8/11.1/2.5, 12-time all-star
  • Tim Duncan (19 seasons, retired at 39):  19.0/10.8/3.0, 15-time all-star
  • Kevin Durant (in his 15th season):  27.3/7.1/4.3, 12-time all-star
  • Russell Westbrook (in his 15th season):  22.5/7.3/8.4, 9-time all-star

The averages of some players above were negatively impacted by injury while others faded late in their careers. It is to LeBron’s credit that neither has happened to him.

A list of postseason production wouldn’t affect the ranking of players a great deal. For example, MJ averaged 33.5 points per game in the playoffs, Durant 29.4, West 29.1, James 28.7, Baylor 27.0, Olajuwon 25.9, Kobe 25.6, Westbrook 24.6 and Kareem and Shaq, both 24.3. The biggest surprise is that Wilt only averaged 22.5.

Try picking those stats apart and arguing whose are better and you’ll probably go nuts. Suffice it to say that all of the greatest NBA players had tremendous statistical careers.

4. Championships

Despite what many fans seem to think, winning a championship is a team accomplishment rather than an individual achievement. But of course, great players heavily influence those victories. The more titles a player’s team wins, the better the player is often rated by some.

The teams of Bill Russell won 11 titles, the most of any other NBA player. Russell, however, was far from a one-man team. He had more future Hall of Fame Celtics teammates playing alongside him than any other superstar. That included at least 3, and sometimes as many as 5 HOFers every title season (except one year when he “only” had two HOF teammates). That includes Sam Jones, who played with Russell in 10 of those seasons, Tom Heinsohn 8, and Bob Cousy and John Havlicek 6 each.

Russell’s teams went 11-1 in the NBA Finals. Jordan’s Bulls were 6-0. Kareem’s Lakers and Bucks went 6-4, Magic’s Lakers 5-4, Kobe’s Lakers 5-2 and Duncan’s Spurs were 5-1. LeBron’s teams in Cleveland, Miami and Los Angeles have gone to 10 Finals, winning 4 and losing 6.

Fans who place a large value on titles shouldn’t forget that Robert Horry’s teams (the Rockets, Lakers and Spurs) went undefeated in the Finals, winning 7 titles. Of course, it didn’t hurt that in Houston, while Jordan played baseball, Horry played alongside Olajuwon for both titles (and Clyde Drexler for one) and that his other teammates included Kobe and Shaq in LA and Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, Wilt’s teams only won two titles in 6 trips to the Finals, West’s and Oscar’s teams one each (Jerry in 9 tries, the Big O in 2), and Elgin’s teams lost all 7 of their Finals in which he appeared.

Elite players can go a long way toward pushing their teams to win a championship but falling short should not diminish their greatness. Still, if leading a team to titles is your top criteria for determining the GOAT, LeBron falls short.

5. Clutch moments

This category doesn’t get mentioned as often as it should. After all, winning games is what the NBA is all about. It makes sense, therefore, when naming the GOAT, to consider selecting the player who can best help his team win.

Think of it this way: If you’re coaching a team in the NBA Finals, and you’re down by one point in the waning seconds of game 7, what one player would you most want to have the ball in his hands?

Of course, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to that question, nor is there a single best response. But to this coach, there are six players who separate themselves from all the rest and who most deserve to have the ball. They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar- the unstoppable sky hook
  • Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant- both cold-blooded shot-makers, confident to the max
  • Magic Johnson- who seemingly always found a way to win
  • Michael Jordan- probably the best one-on-one scorer in NBA history and
  • Jerry West- after all, he earned the nickname Mr. Clutch

It is the opinion here that LeBron James is NOT the guy in that most important of all situations who is the best choice to make sure your team wins.

So, is LeBron James the greatest of all time?

When you put it all together, LeBron James gets credit for his exceptional longevity and endurance.

As impressive as his peak performance and career averages are, they don’t distinguish him from most other elite superstars, and in some cases fall just a bit short.

Driving his teams to 10 Finals is laudable, but winning only 4 is not, especially in comparison to other greats.

And he is not among the top echelon of players you’d want to have the ball with the game- or the league championship- on the line.

The subjective conclusion here is that although LeBron James is an undeniably great player, he is NOT the greatest of all time. That honor belongs to either Michael Jordan or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.