LeBron James is about to become the NBA's unlikely scoring king

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the incomparable career of LeBron James, who's about to break the NBA's all-time scoring record without really setting out to do that.

The 4-time MVP has always prided himself on a more rounded game

A basketball player holds possession of the ball with both hands.
LeBron James is poised to break the NBA's all-time record for regular-season points. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

It's very likely that, at some point this week, LeBron James becomes the highest scorer in NBA history. The 38-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star needs just 36 points to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular-season record of 38,387.

That could happen as soon as tonight, when the Lakers host the Oklahoma City Thunder, though James is listed as questionable with a sore ankle. If he doesn't do it tonight, James could get the record either Thursday at home vs. Milwaukee or Saturday in San Francisco against the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

The funny thing about LeBron being on the verge of breaking the all-time scoring record is that he's not really thought of as a "pure" scorer. That designation is more often applied to greats like Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant who were more focused on getting buckets. James has always strived to be more like Magic Johnson — that is, someone who puts a premium on efficiency, making the players around him better and doing the non-scoring things that win championships.

Mission accomplished. James, a four-time NBA champ, recently passed Canadian Steve Nash (one of basketball's greatest playmakers) for No. 4 on the all-time assists list. As for efficiency, LeBron has made more than half his shot attempts during his career — common among the top-scoring big men in history, but unheard-of for a player who operates on the perimeter as much as James does. Though he could never match Jordan's skill as a stopper, James was, in his physical prime, an eager and capable defender who earned five consecutive NBA All-Defensive First Team honours. The signature play of his career was a defensive one — the chasedown block of a layup try by Golden State's Andre Iguodala in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals that delivered an improbable championship to Cleveland.

James' pursuit of the all-time points record has raised another round of LeBron vs. Jordan: who's the GOAT? debates. For basketball fans of a certain age (mine), Jordan will always be the greatest. Despite playing hundreds fewer games than anyone ahead of him (and in an era when the NBA was far more physical and points much harder to come by than today), Jordan ranks fifth on the all-time scoring list. He won five regular-season MVP awards, was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year for 1987-88 and made the All-Defensive First Team nine times.

Most importantly, Jordan's singular will and competitive spirit powered the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and Jordan to six Finals MVPs as he never lost a championship series. Along the way, Jordan's unique blend of passion, artistry and charisma transcended his sport, making him a worldwide cultural icon on a level we'll probably never see again from a basketball player — despite LeBron's best efforts to match him there too.

But you can't simply dismiss those (mostly younger) fans who claim James is the greatest basketball player ever. Along with the regular-season scoring record that will soon belong to him, James is already the all-time playoff points leader by a huge margin. Along with his four NBA championships (with three different teams), he's captured four Finals MVPs and four regular-season MVPs. All this in an era when basketball has become a truly global sport (thanks largely to Jordan, but still), the talent pool is much deeper and the sport is played with far more skill than ever before.

Just as Jordan basically invented the modern corporate athlete with his iconic commercials and lucrative endorsement deals, James has made a significant impact on the business of basketball. His unwillingness to let a franchise control his destiny — starting with his televised Decision to ditch Cleveland for Miami in 2010, then a reversal of that move four years later — is credited with ushering in the NBA's so-called "player empowerment era," for better or worse.

Also, LeBron is far from done. This season, his 20th in the NBA, James is averaging 30 points per game — good for seventh in the league. He's said he'd like to stick around long enough to play alongside his oldest son, LeBron Jr., a high school senior who's weighing offers from college programs and is thought to have a shot at a pro career in a few years.

But the chances of LeBron adding two more championships to match Jordan's six are looking increasingly unlikely. Since winning the title in 2020 in the Disney bubble, the Lakers have gotten worse and worse. They lost in the first round in 2021, missed the playoffs last year and are now mired in 13th place in the West at 25-29. The team just struck out on a potential trade for Kyrie Irving — a desperation move that LeBron hoped could lift L.A. into the playoffs in a relatively weak conference.

For now, though, the focus will be on LeBron's record chase. If he passes Abdul-Jabbar tonight, a Canadian star could be on the court for the historic bucket. Oklahoma City guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is outscoring James this season with 30.8 points per game, tied for fifth in the NBA. The Thunder have another Canadian guard in Lu Dort, who's averaging 14 points, but he'll reportedly miss tonight's game with a bad hamstring.

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