NBA

Will We Ever See Another NBA Player Reach 40,000 Points Like LeBron James Just Did?

By Scott Kacsmar

The NBA has its first 40,000-point scorer in LeBron James after the King reached the milestone over the weekend. But the real question is will we ever see another NBA player reach 40,000 points?

James continues to play at a high level in his 21st season at 39 years old, averaging 25.3 points per game for the Lakers this year. While he has slowed down in some areas, he is shooting 40.8% from 3-point territory, which would be the best season of his career. James is on pace to average at least 25.0 points per game for the 20th consecutive season – a truly absurd feat.

Last season, LeBron broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record of 38,387 points, an impressive feat given Kareem retired in 1989. The next-closest player to these two was Karl Malone, who scored 36,928 points before retiring after his age-40 season.

Is LeBron just one of a kind, can anyone else realistically surpass him in our lifetime, and what about the odds for someone like rookie phenom Victor Wembanyama? We look at the path to 40,000 points in a variety of ways.

LeBron’s Age Advantage

Expectations were super high for LeBron James going back to when he was 17 years old and still playing high school basketball in Akron, Ohio. A Sports Illustrated cover story introduced him to the world, and he still managed to exceed those expectations in the NBA.

But as the No. 1 draft pick by Cleveland in the famed 2003 draft, James did have an advantage with the rules at the time where players could be drafted right out of high school into the NBA. No college ball necessary. This led to some incredible picks such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, and Amar’e Stoudemire.

This trend really started with the 1995 selection of Garnett, who was the first player in 20 years drafted right out of high school. But the success only lasted a decade as there were fears too many high school kids were viewing the NBA as their path to success, so the new collective bargaining agreement changed for the 2006 draft to make it where this was no longer possible.

Currently, the rules are that a player must turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft, and they must be at least one NBA season removed from their high school graduation class.

This made the “one-and-done” trend popular where an elite prospect would play one year of college basketball before jumping ship to the NBA draft. But it did create an advantage for James to accumulate points at a younger age. While he does have a December 30th birthday, James was 18 years and 303 days old when he made his NBA debut on October 29, 2003. He scored 25 points against the Kings that day.

Someone like Paolo Banchero, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft by Orlando, was 19 years and 341 days when he made his NBA debut after a spending a season at Duke.

The top prospects spending a year in college will typically be a year older than James was when they debut in the NBA now. International players share a similar adjustment as someone like Luka Doncic was 19 years and 231 days when he debuted in 2018. Nikola Jokic was 20 years and 251 days old when he debuted in 2015, and someone like Jokic needed multiple years to develop in the NBA before becoming a superstar.

Even in Doncic’s case, he just turned 25 years old last week and averages 28.5 points per game, the third-highest average in NBA history. But with 10,892 points in his career, he would have to average 27.7 points per game while averaging 70 games per season for the next 15 years to reach 40,000 points. Smart money would be against that as Luka has not played in more than 66 games since his rookie season.

The fact is not many rookies can average 20.9 points per game like a 19-year-old LeBron did, but the 1,654 points he scored before his 20th birthday helped him get off to a historic start. In fact, the only player to score more points in their age-19 season than James was draft classmate Carmelo Anthony, who had 1,725 points in 2003-04.

But the dominance of James was already apparent by his second season when he scored 2,175 points, making him to this day the only age-20 player to drop 2,000 points in a season.

James also has the most points by an age-21 player (2,478). Being able to start with his age-19 season and being so great so quickly, this is how James has been able to set the “most points through age x” record for every age of 20 and above.

Would Kareem (22-year-old rookie) and Michael Jordan (21-year-old rookie) have been able to reach 40,000 if they got to start in the NBA as 19-year-old rookies instead of sticking around for successful college careers? Maybe.

But not everyone is built to succeed right away at that age.

LeBron’s Durability and Consistency

An argument Michael Jordan fans love to hold over LeBron fans is that Jordan won 10 scoring titles (highest points-per-game average) compared to just one for James, which is true. There were also 11 seasons where Jordan scored the most total points in the league compared to just one for James.

But here are the reasons Jordan ranks fifth all time with 32,292 points and never seriously threatened the scoring record:

  • He was a 21-year-old rookie.
  • Injury limited him to 18 games in 1985-86 (second season).
  • He tried baseball for a couple of years at the height of his career after the first three-peat in 1993.
  • He only played in 17 games when he returned to the Bulls in 1994-95.
  • He retired again after his sixth championship after his age-34 season in 1998.
  • He returned for a couple of lackluster years at ages 38-39 with the Wizards in 2001-03.

So, maybe without the baseball interruption, and if he stayed hungry after the last ring, 40,000 points was on the table for someone who was a more dominant scorer like Jordan. LeBron’s game is more of the all-around effect he has on the game than just scoring.

James did not get to 40,000 points by being historically dominant as a scorer. Jordan was a better scorer. Kobe Bryant at his peak was a better scorer. Someone like Steph Curry is certainly a better shooter, especially from 3-point territory.

But James still going strong in Year 21 is a testament to his durability and longevity despite playing a physical style of basketball as few have been better at getting to the basket.

For the most part, James has avoided serious injuries. How many times have you watched him get hurt, it looked serious on replay, but then he just ties his shoe tighter, gets up, and plays like nothing happened? That is signature LeBron.

While he has only played in one full 82-game season in his career (Jordan had nine), LeBron has 13 seasons with at least 74 games played (Jordan had 12). With one more game this season, LeBron will have played in at least 55 games in every season of his career except 2020-21 when he was limited to 45 games with the Lakers.

That was also a 72-game season due to COVID. There have been three seasons during LeBron’s career that were shorter than 82 games due to various reasons:

  • The 2011 NBA lockout reduced the 2011-12 season to 66 games.
  • The 2019-20 season was interrupted by COVID-19 in March 2020, resuming in August with select teams in the bubble, so teams played anywhere from 64 to 75 games that regular season.
  • COVID again shortened the 2020-21 season to 72 games for every team.

Added all together, that’s only about half a season lost to scheduling or league issues, so that’s not bad over 21 years. But if someone gets to play a nonstop streak of 82-game seasons for 20 years, that could be a way to play more games than LeBron has.

LeBron’s Peers Will Not Catch Him

Of course, staying healthy is the main issue here.

Ask a star like Joel Embiid, who was working on a third-straight scoring title, how hard it is to stay healthy. He has yet to play 70 games in any of his seasons since he was drafted in 2014. Embiid ranks No. 4 all time with 27.85 points per game, but he’ll never sniff 40,000 because of the injuries.

Kevin Durant is another LeBron peer who may be a better natural scorer. Durant is No. 6 in history with 27.31 points per game, and James is No. 7 with 27.13 points per game, so they are very close together. Durant led the NBA in points scored in five straight seasons in 2009-14. But a series of injuries, especially since he’s turned 30, have severely limited his scoring potential.

The 35-year-old Durant ranks No. 9 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 28,372 points, the next-closest active player behind James. But to get to 40,000 points, he would need to play 426 more games averaging his career average of 27.3 points. That’s another 5.2 seasons, which would put him in his 40s, and that’s without missing a single game for a player who has played 47, 55, 35, and 0 games over the previous four seasons. That’s just not happening.

Durant at least has a better shot than Steph Curry, who only has 23,254 points in his career. He turns 36 in 10 days. He hasn’t played 70 games in a season since he was 28. Getting 30,000 points would be a nice achievement for the best 3-point shooter ever. But with a slow start to his career and some injuries, he won’t sniff 40k.

James Harden (25,628 points) and Russell Westbrook (25,098 points) are the only other active players above 25,000 points. Harden is 34 and Westbrook is 35. Their best days are clearly behind them as they share duties on the Clippers right now where neither is the team’s top scorer (Kawhi Leonard is).

Speaking of Leonard and the Clippers, load management might be another reason to think future NBA stars are unlikely to rack up huge numbers like 40,000 points. Not if they are taking games off for rest and routinely missing 10-plus games a season for that reason. But it remains to be seen if that’s just a fad that is proving not to be that effective given all the big-name injuries we have seen in the last few postseasons.

But for LeBron to get to 40,000 points despite playing one 82-game season and winning one scoring title, it does speak to how he’s been able to sustain greatness for so long. A possible 20 straight seasons of averaging 25 points per game is absurdly consistent.

It does leave some room open for a more elite scorer to eclipse him. Jordan (30.12) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07) are the only players to average more than 28.5 points per game in NBA history, so we know 30 points per game is possible for a long career.

If someone entered the league at 19 and averaged 30 points per game and 70 games per season for 20 years, they would have 42,000 points and be able to retire before their 40th birthday.

Absolutely tall task, but at least it’s within the realm of doable in the future. It’s just hard to find someone we can name to do it, because so far all the other challengers have either started too slowly and/or were injured too much.

Does Victor Wembanyama Have a Shot at 40,000 Points?

This reminds me of writing an article in 2011 about anyone being able to catch Jerry Rice’s receiving records in the NFL. Larry Fitzgerald was the favorite at the time to do so, and my conclusion was you were better off betting on a rookie that year (Julio Jones or A.J. Green) or someone not even in the league yet to do it than Fitzgerald.

Sure enough, Fitzgerald never did catch Rice. Similarly, since we’re writing off everyone from Durant to Curry to Doncic, we might as well give Victor Wembanyama the best shot of anyone active. Even someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is already 29, had a slow start, and is only at 18,099 points.

Wembanyama was a couple months shy of 20 years old when he made his rookie debut this season, so this goes down as his age-20 season. That docks him a year from LeBron’s start, but we can still work with this.

Wemby is averaging 20.7 points per game for a bad Spurs team. It’s not going to rewrite the record books, but it is in the ballpark of the 20.9 points per game LeBron averaged as a rookie on a bad team.

The question is will Wemby ever grow into a dominant scoring center like Embiid, or is he going to be more of a rebounder and blocks specialist if the Spurs build a better team around him?

The good news is he’s only missed 6 games this season, so durability has not been too bad so far. But at 7’4”, you do have some concerns about his long-term durability even if he’s built much differently from someone like Yao Ming, who was often hurt.

I would bet against it happening as I just think the center position is not the way of the future in the NBA, but Wemby probably has a better shot at 40k than the veterans who are already cooked from doing that.

Is NBA Scoring Going Up?

One more thing to consider is if the NBA is becoming a higher-scoring game. LeBron broke into the league at a time where things were very physical and a little hard to watch if we’re being honest.

In LeBron’s 2003-04 rookie season, NBA teams only averaged 93.4 points per game, the third-lowest average in the shot-clock era (since 1954-55).

Eventually, the success of the Phoenix Suns pushing the ball with Steve Nash led to more offense in the 2000s, then the dominance of the Warriors with the 3-point shooting changed the whole league. Now everyone shoots the 3 often, and scoring has gone way up.

In fact, the progress throughout LeBron’s career is fascinating. His rookie season was 93.4 points per game and this season is up to 115.2 points per game, an increase of 21.8 points per game over his career.

The last two NBA seasons have been the highest-scoring seasons in the NBA since 1970. Only eight seasons in the 1960s when the Celtics were dominating, and Wilt Chamberlain was putting up absurd numbers in high-possession games had more points per game than 2022-23 and 2023-24 in the NBA.

But LeBron’s first 15 seasons were played in an NBA where the league average never exceeded 106.3 points per game. It was only in 2018-19 when the league got drunk on the 3-ball and scoring hit 111.2 points per game. Things are only trending up from there.

So, it is reasonable to think a higher-scoring league going forward will be favorable to newer players being able to score 40,000 points. But you better have a solid 3-point shot in your bag if you are going to get there in this new NBA. That was never a strength of LeBron’s game, but it is amusing to see him shooting over 40% from distance, a career best, this year.

Conclusion: LeBron’s Not Finished

We focused on another player reaching 40,000 points, but one thing we didn’t question is if someone will score more points in the NBA than LeBron James. The fact is he clearly is not finished. He still has some games this season, and you can all but guarantee he will be back next year regardless if it’s with the Lakers or someone else.

James has made it known he wants to play with his son Bronny in the NBA. That’s a major goal for him, so we’ll see if that can happen or not. But he is still playing at a high level and has not shown any sign he’s ready to hang them up.

If Vince Carter can play until he’s 43, who is to say James can’t do the same and really push this scoring record out of reach for anyone in our lifetime?

Chances are someone will score 40,000 points again. But it may be a kid waking up to go to 2nd grade today than any of the names you think it will be. Given how long this process takes, many of us may have just seen LeBron do something we’ll never see done again.

Enjoy his greatness while it lasts.

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