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Somewhere along his path toward becoming the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, LeBron James reached the ultimate state of being as an offensive force: unguardable.
“Early on, it was a lot of just speed and jumping and then figuring it out,” James said in January, looking back at his career the day after he joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only other player in league history to put up 38,000 career points. “And you get smarter and smarter, you say, ‘Teams know they can key on these things, so how can I make sure that I am unguardable and can always put myself in position where I do what I want to do and not what the defense wants me to do?'”
Through regular-season losses and playoff-series exits when opposing defenses targeted the holes in James’ game, the eventual four-time MVP and four-time champion was handed a cheat sheet to know what to work on.
“There were times where I didn’t really have a low-post game — I wasn’t a low-post threat,” James told ESPN. “There were times when I wasn’t a threat from the midrange. There were times when I wasn’t a threat from the outside. There were times when you literally could just try to bait me into doing things that I wasn’t great at.
“I’ve evolved into where I do what I want to do on the floor. And I take the shot that I want to take.”
As much as James’ game has evolved as a scorer in the 20 seasons he’s spent in the NBA, consider the dramatic transformation of professional basketball as a whole. When the league launched in November 1946, the Boston Celtics had more players on their roster shorter than 6 foot (three) than it had taller than 6-6 (two). There was a narrower lane. No dunks. No 3s. The official box score didn’t even tally rebounds, assists, blocks or steals.
But it always kept track of the points — and who was responsible for them. As James marches toward the scoring summit — needing fewer than 300 points to set the record — here’s a look at the seven players to hold that torch before him.
Note: The years listed for each player are the years he was atop the scoring list.
Joe Fulks: 1946-1952
He was the first to wear the NBA scoring crown, winning back-to-back scoring titles in his first two seasons in the league with the Philadelphia Warriors. The two-time All-Star and 1947 champion scored 8,003 points in his eight-year career, playing power forward and standing 6-5, 190 pounds.
The league was a different place then, evidenced by Fulks winning the scoring title his sophomore season with a 22.1-point average on 29.3 field goal attempts per game. There are 23 players averaging more than 22.1 points per game this season but no players even coming close to Fulks’ shot attempts. Luka Doncic is No. 1 with 22.7 attempts per game, followed closely at No. 2 by James’ 22.6 attempts.
George Mikan: 1952-1957
The NBA markets itself through its stars, and Mikan was its protostar, winning five rings in seven seasons and removing Fulks from his perch for good on Nov. 8, 1952, after the two of them played hot potato with the record, going back and forth four times in March of that year. Mikan was more than horned-rimmed glasses, strong handshakes and a funky No. 99 jersey. The 6-10 center averaged more than 27 points in each of his first three seasons and scored a career-best 61 points in January 1952.
Ed Macauley: 1957
After spending the first seven years of his career in Boston, the St. Louis native returned home, joining the St. Louis Hawks to finish his decorated time in the league. He won a championship in his second-to-last season, beating his former Celtics team that featured a handful of future Hall of Famers.
The 6-8 center never averaged more than 20.4 points in a season, but he earned his brief stint as the league’s all-time scorer through consistency. He led the league in games played in three of his 10 seasons and also had the best field goal percentage in the NBA in 1953-54 at 48.6%.
Dolph Schayes: 1957-1963
Schayes was a big man with a soft touch, leading the league in free throw percentage three times and shooting 84.9% from the stripe overall during his 15-year career.
The 12-time All-Star won a championship with the Syracuse Nationals in 1955, kicking off a string of six straight seasons in which he averaged more than 20 points per game in the prime of his career. He earned his spot as the league’s most dangerous scorer through longevity and consistency, leading the NBA in games played four times and minutes played twice as a 6-8, 220-pound power forward. His son, Danny, went on to have an 18-year NBA career.
Bob Pettit: 1963-1966
The No. 2 pick in the 1954 draft out of LSU, “The Bombardier from Baton Rouge” lived up to his stock as a prospect, enjoying about as decorated a career as they come. Pettit led the St. Louis Hawks to the championship over Boston in 1958, putting up 50 points and 19 rebounds in a series-clinching 110-109 win in Game 6.
Pettit was a two-time MVP and a two-time scoring champ. He averaged 20-plus points per game in each of his 11 seasons, maxing out at 31.1 points per game in 1961-62. He was an All-Star every year he was in the league and was named All-Star MVP four times. At 6-9, 205 pounds, he was a lithe power forward and relied on a hook shot that predated Abdul-Jabbar’s. He just turned 90 last month and was a celebrated guest at All-Star Weekend in Cleveland last year, when he was honored as a member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.
Chamberlain is the Paul Bunyan of the NBA, having accomplished so many unthinkable things on the basketball court that it sounds like folklore.
Average 50 points for a season? Wilt did it.
Score 100 in a game? That, too.
Grab 55 rebounds against Bill Russell of all people? Yup.
How about averaging 48.5 minutes for a season when games are only 48 minutes long? Or leading the NBA in assists one season as a center, back when positionless basketball was not a thing? Or playing 1,045 games for his career and never fouling out of a single one? Chamberlain did all that.
He is one of the NBA’s true game-changers, as the league literally changed the dimensions of the lane because Chamberlain’s legs were so long he could straddle the old key, keeping his feet outside the paint to avoid a three-second violation by still camping himself that close to the basket.
As rich as his résumé reads with the four MVPs, two championships and 13 All-Star nods, his scoring acumen might be the most impressive facet of his impeccable career. Chamberlain won the scoring title seven times, averaging north of 35 points per game six times, and he finished with a career scoring average of 30.066 points per game, edged ever so slightly by Michael Jordan’s 30.12 career clip, giving him the second-highest scoring average in league history.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 1984-present
On April 5, 1984, Abdul-Jabbar received an entry pass from Magic Johnson. He established position along the baseline with his back to the basket, swung back his right foot as if he was going to make a move toward the paint and then pivoted back away from the lane to unleash his signature skyhook over his right shoulder when he was 12 feet from the hoop. The ball found nothing but net.
He surpassed Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer on that day and has owned the mark for nearly 40 years.
The fact that Abdul-Jabbar had 7-4 Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton guarding him and rendered him useless as a defender with his graceful flick of his wrist out of Eaton’s reach only underscored what an unstoppable move he had developed.
Abdul-Jabbar played five more seasons for L.A. after setting the mark, padding his position at the top with nearly another 7,000 points before retiring. The extra points proved insurmountable decades later when the likes of Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Dirk Nowitzki pushed past Chamberlain’s 31,419 but then ran out of time on their careers before catching “The Captain.”
Abdul-Jabbar scored his 38,387 points because of his physical gifts, standing 7-2, and his skill, to be sure. But it was also a longevity achievement, pounding his body on the hardwood until he was 41 years old. Continuing to dedicate himself to the sport, he finished his career with three NBA Finals appearances and two championship rings in his last three seasons.
He ended up with a 24.6 points-per-game scoring average all told, shooting 55.9% from the field and 72.1% from the foul line, while making exactly one 3-pointer.
James will be wearing the scoring crown before long and, like Abdul-Jabbar did after passing Chamberlain, will only add to his own record with two more seasons on his Lakers contract, keeping him in the league for at least 22 seasons before he calls it quits.
It could very well be another 40 years before another name is added to this hallowed list.