COMMENT: LeBron James makes GOAT debate even harder with mind-boggling record

He strengthens case to be picked over the likes of Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson after setting all-time scoring mark

NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) hands LeBron James the ceremonious ball after James passed him to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer.
NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) hands LeBron James the ceremonious ball after James passed him to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer. (PHOTO: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — The debate on whom the basketball GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) is just got a whole lot tougher, thanks to LeBron James.

Already a strong candidate in the debate, he is now the owner of one of the most mind-boggling basketball statistics of all: the all-time NBA career points total.

With 38 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday (7 February, Wednesday Singapore time), James has finally eclipsed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's long-standing mark of 38,387 points, in the 20th season of the 38-year-old's extraordinary career.

It is a testament to James' consistency and durability that he was able to scale this mountain of points accumulation. In this category, he had decisively powered past GOAT candidates such as Michael Jordan (32,292 points) and Kobe Bryant (33,643 points).

And now he has finally done it, breaking a record that had stood since 1989 and looked unbreakable. Fans are even wondering if he can break the 40,000-point mark by the time he hangs up his sneakers.

Along with this staggering feat, that long-standing basketball question is being bandied around again: Is LeBron James the indisputable basketball GOAT?

Far more versatile scorer than Abdul-Jabbar

Certainly, this recording-breaking feat puts James firmly in any GOAT talk. No one can ever dismiss his inclusion from here on.

To put up a scoring average of 27.2 points per game for 20 years - through all the physical wear-and-tear of 20 NBA seasons, through all the various defences set up to stop him, and finally through the sands of Father Time - is testament to James' dedication to his sport and his desire to keep finding ways to put the ball through the basket.

Abdul-Jabbar also played 20 seasons, until he was 42, and he was also an unbelievably durable basketballer like James.

He had one unstoppable shot: the skyhook. Once he launched this beautiful hook shot over his 7-foot-2 frame, no one could block it, and he got most of his 15,837 field goals with this formidable weapon.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers centre was also one of the first NBA players to employ yoga's meditative and recuperative benefits to great effect, extending his career in what was usually a position of short-lived productivity. Few big men could last over 10 years of physical battles in the low posts, until Abdul-Jabbar showed how.

Nevertheless, he still slowed down in the final three years of his career, averaged a career-low 10.1 points in his final season in 1988/89. Still, what a career it had been for Abdul-Jabbar: six NBA titles, six Most Valuable Player (MVP) honours, and until Tuesday, that all-time points total record.

By comparison, James is a far more versatile scorer. Built like a tank since he came into the league in 2003, he could comfortably overpower most defenders in his forward position and drive into the lane for easy dunks and lay-ups.

But he can also shoot the three-pointer reasonably well, making 2,232 of them throughout his career (compared to just one three-pointer from Abdul-Jabbar). Throughout his career, James could launch accurate shots from almost anywhere inside in the three-point line, and his free-throw percentage is reliable enough for him to punish defenders who resort to hacking him down.

Here's another insane stat: at age 38, James is still averaging 30.1 points per game this NBA season, still jostling with younger rivals at the top of the scoring chart, still good enough to earn his record-tying 19th All-Star appearance.

If he carries on at this pace until he is 42 - the same age as Abdul-Jabbar when he retired - he would have comfortably crossed the 40,000-point mark.

LeBron James (left) and Michael Jordan at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game.
LeBron James (left) and Michael Jordan at the 2022 NBA All-Star Game. (PHOTO: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Not just a great scorer, but also a great team player

But basketball is not an individual sport, and while scoring is the ultimate goal in a game, there are other aspects of playing in a team sport that can define what makes a great basketballer.

And arguably, what makes James an outstanding candidate for being the basketball GOAT is the fact that he is not only a great scorer, but also a great team player.

There's one statistic which defines his uniqueness: 10,351 career assists - making that final pass to a scoring teammate. That is the fourth-most total in the NBA, behind John Stockton (15,806), Jason Kidd (12,091) and Chris Paul (11,246).

Those three ahead of him are point guards who specialise in running plays and passing to teammates in position to score. Paul has the highest career scoring average among them - at 18.1 points per game.

James, on the other hand, does the bulk of his team's scoring, and still finds a way to involve his teammates throughout his career. It is this special trait of unselfishness and inclusiveness that sets him apart from GOAT candidates like Abdul-Jabbar (who focused more on rebounding) as well as Jordan and Bryant (individualistic scorers who had to be coached into becoming team players).

"When I say I'm not a scorer, I say it in a sense of, it's never been the part of my game that defines me," James has said earlier this month.

"The scoring record was never, ever even thought of in my head, because I've always been a pass-first guy."

Indeed, through three NBA teams, nine head coaches and 90-odd teammates in his 20-year career, James has never forsaken the team ethos to pad up his scoring statistics. That's why he won NBA titles with all three of his teams - Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers - with defenders unsure whether to focus on stopping James from scoring or preventing him from making decisive passes.

In short, since he arrived in the NBA at the age of 18, James has been the perfect basketballer to build a team around. Just bring in the right personnel pieces, and you are almost guaranteed a successful play-off run with James.

LeBron James holds up the Larry O'Brien trophy after winning the 2016 NBA Finals with Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron James holds up the Larry O'Brien trophy after winning the 2016 NBA Finals with Cleveland Cavaliers. (PHOTO: MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

Hindered by NBA titles, Finals performances

Ironically, success is what stops James from being the outright basketball GOAT. Because while he holds plenty of statistical records, he lags behind some of the greatest basketballers in the most important metric of an NBA player's success - NBA titles.

While his four NBA rings are undeniably an impressive achievement, it pales in comparison to Boston Celtics great Bill Russell's staggering 11 NBA titles amassed in the 1950s and 1960s.

While you can argue that Russell belongs to a different NBA era, James also trails his biggest GOAT contemporaries - Jordan (six titles), Bryant (five) or even Tim Duncan and Magic Johnson (all with five).

And here's the biggest bone of contention: James has made it to 10 NBA Finals, including a stunning stretch of eight consecutive Finals from 2011 to 2018. Yet, he had come up short in six Finals, and his winning rate of four out of 10 is way short of Jordan (six out of six), Russel (11 out of 12) or Duncan (five out of six). His four Finals MVP honours also lags behind Jordan's six.

Jordan, in particular, holds a strong argument against James as the basketball GOAT. Not only did he win more NBA titles, but he also holds the highest career scoring average (30.1 points per game in his 15-year career). Add the intangibles - dozens of last-gasp winning shots, an iron will to succeed, and being a global icon for the sport - and few would argue against Jordan's GOAT credentials.

And if you want to further nit-pick on James, then you might argue that he didn't really change the landscape and trajectory of the NBA.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird certainly did, dragging the league out of its doldrums in the 1980s and making it a popular sport to watch. Jordan definitely did, lifting the NBA into the stratosphere as a global phenomenon.

James, at best, only kept the popularity of the sport chugging along - through no fault of his own, since his career coincided with the NBA already at an all-time high in terms of global visibility.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 20:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat makes a three-pointer over Danny Green #4 of the San Antonio Spurs in the second quarter during Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 20, 2013 in Miami, Florida. 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 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
LeBron James makes a three-pointer in Game Seven of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. (PHOTO: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

So many great GOAT candidates in basketball

So, in a roundabout way, we come back to the biggest, most subjective question of them all: Is James the basketball GOAT?

My answer: Not mine, but if it's your pick, then you have made a great choice and I totally get it.

James is the perfect symbol of this generation of inclusiveness. He shoulders the scoring responsibility, yet will not hesitate to make the right pass and let others shine. That's why he succeeded in three NBA teams, adapted to nine different coaches, and is beloved by most of his teammates.

Jordan is a symbol of dominant success, but he was notoriously disdainful of teammates who were not at his level of commitment, and didn't win a title until legendary coach Phil Jackson convinced him to share the ball more. The late Bryant was also wired similarly.

Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Duncan are icons of stoic calm and reliability in the midst of exacting pressure, but all three big men were notoriously reticent and shunned the spotlight during their playing days.

Magic (my choice) and Bird were perhaps the most influential figures in the NBA, and were as inclusive as James and bloody-minded as Jordan in their heydays. However, both of them had their careers shortened through injury (Bird) and the HIV virus (Magic).

James is like a catch-all net, absorbing the best traits of all the other GOAT candidates, and exhibiting them at an extraordinarily high level for 20 long seasons. Durability, reliability, winning mentality, inclusiveness... you name it, he has it in abundance.

For 20 seasons, he has generally conducted himself well, steering clear of bad conduct. There were a couple of tone-deaf missteps - such as his "not one, not two, not three" announcement of his arrival in Miami Heat in 2010 - but nothing too serious to damage his reputation.

LeBron James congratulating his son Bronny James after his team won The Chosen - 1's Invitational High School Basketball Showcase in 2021.
LeBron James congratulating his son Bronny James after his team won The Chosen - 1's Invitational High School Basketball Showcase in 2021. (PHOTO: Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

It's okay to have different GOATs in the sport

This all-time scoring record, in a way, is a fitting representation for James. Taken as it is, it is a testament to him as a supreme athlete with an unquenchable desire to be at the top of his game, year in year out.

But taken altogether with his other career statistics and intangibles, and James is the ultimate role model for any young kid with aspirations of becoming a professional basketballer. Others may win more, but no one matters more to a basketball team than James.

He is unquestionably the greatest basketball player of this generation. This is the easy part. The harder part is whether you would rate him as greater than either Jordan, Russell or even Magic.

The truth is, even with the bevy of statistical records available to basketball fans, choosing the GOAT remains infuriatingly subjective, mainly because every fan has a "greatest" player who is his sentimental point of entry to the sport.

Yet, in this age of inclusiveness, it is perhaps perfectly fine that we have more than one deserving candidate to be the basketball GOAT. Every fan has his own unique set of values , and there is a suitable GOAT for everyone.

If you are someone who values accolades, victories and dominance, Jordan would be the obvious pick for you. His supreme skills are wedded to an unquenchable desire to beat every rival in his way - and he did it with remarkable grit and grace.

If you are someone who values triumph over adversity, then Russell's mountain of NBA titles, won in an era of civil and racial prejudices on African-American athletes, is a monumental representation of courage.

If you are someone who values winning with style and influencing the world in a good way, then Magic could be your GOAT with his no-look passes, mile-wide grin and perennial positivity.

And if you choose James as your basketball GOAT, you would value his durable excellence, his natural unselfishness, and his willingness to use his talents to make everyone around him better.

These are traits which are hard to come by in this age of individualism and flash, but James has embraced them unstintingly throughout his 20 seasons. As an icon of the sport, he transcends the remarkable all-time scoring record which he can now call his own.

James has said that he wants to play in the NBA until his son Bronny joins him in the league. It would be a fitting conclusion to his remarkable career, with his legacy of inclusiveness being passed down to the next generation.

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