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The shortened season could hurt one Laker in particular: LeBron James

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It’s a lot harder to chase history with fewer games.

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2020 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James came into the NBA renowned for his passing ability. In fact, one of the primary criticisms of him at a young age — one that persists to this day — is his preference to pass to the open man instead of barreling through the defense to score.

And yet, James scores plenty. More than just about any individual in NBA history. He passed Kobe Bryant for third on the all-time scoring list this season and is within striking distance of first overall, a mark held by yet another Lakers great, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

James has averaged 27.1 points per game over the course of his 17-year career. That number saw some slippage last season, but the man can still get out of bed and put up 25 points pretty much whenever he wants. At that pace, it would take James 166 games to pass Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

The funny thing about that number is it’s almost exactly two full, 82-game NBA seasons, which is how much longer James is under contract with the Lakers (we’ll overlook that pesky little player option for now). However, the next season James plays will almost certainly be shorter than normal. The league theoretically wants to play 72 games, but is considering lowering the number even further if tip-off is delayed until January, giving James less and less time to catch The Captain.

This isn’t the first time that the schedule makers have been unkind to James in his pursuit of history. He played in a lockout-shortened season in 2011-12 that cut 16 games off the schedule. If we extrapolate his scoring pace that year to a full season, James missed out on 408 additional points in 2012.

This past season, James lost 11 regular-season games due the pandemic. That’s another 263 points based on his 2019-20 average, and one could argue that James would have had substantially more motivation to score at a higher clip had he and the Lakers been chasing down the Bucks for homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals — and Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP — rather than mailing in their seeding games in the bubble.

If James had the 671 points in his back pocket from 2012 and 2020, he could average 25 points per game and be 139 games away from tying Abdul-Jabbar. That means James could have held sole possession of the title within the next two years.

Instead, James is still 4,146 points away, and now is facing the prospect of missing at least another 10 regular-season games, and potentially more. Even if the league and the players do agree on a 72-game schedule, the games will be so compact that James will probably sit more than usual, further lowering his scoring total in the 2020-21 season.

LeBron’s path to the all-time scoring record

PPG Games to catch Kareem
PPG Games to catch Kareem
20.0 208
21.0 198
22.0 189
23.0 181
24.0 173
25.0 166
26.0 160
27.0 154

James obviously isn’t the only player to miss out on regular season games due to these extenuating circumstances. Karl Malone is in second place on the all-time scoring list and lost 32 games in the 1999 season due to the work stoppage, which exceeds the number of games that James has lost (27). Abdul-Jabbar was remarkably fortunate, on the other hand. Each of his 20 seasons included the full 82 games, and he took full advantage en route to setting the record.

This discussion could all be moot if James elects to play 20 seasons — the same number that Abdul-Jabbar and Bryant played — and is able to maintain his health throughout. Even three 70-game seasons at a pace of 20 points per game would be enough for James to earn the all-time scoring record. That would also give James some room to take games off for load management. It’s unclear whether James would still be in a Laker uniform at that point, but that’s a discussion for another day.

James has never explicitly said that he wants to be the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. It seemed to mean something to him when he led the league in assists this year, probably because he’d never done that before, but scoring isn’t something that James talks about. Then again, James seems to crave individual recognition more now than he has in recent years — his confusion at the MVP vote and his sermon about deserving respect after winning the Finals both suggest that he’s definitely thought about these historical accolades, even if he doesn’t bring them up on a regular basis.

It certainly would be a feather in James’ cap in the GOAT debate if he became the all-time leading scorer. He would then have an argument for both the greatest peak in NBA history, and the greatest total career.

But the prospect of earning that crown is unfortunately a little bit further away than it might have seemed when James first signed on the dotted line with the Lakers. After suffering the first major injury of his career and then having games taken away for reasons beyond his control, the record will (probably) remain out of James’ reach for at least two more seasons.

Other Lakers have expressed doubts about starting the season so soon after the bubble ended, but James has been somewhat absent from those conversations. Maybe it’s because his mind is otherwise occupied, and maybe it’s because he is considering the historical impact of playing more games. James’ legacy isn’t at stake, but he could add to it in a meaningful way with the all-time scoring title. A few extra games on the league calendar could help him get there a full season quicker.

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