Column: Scoring record clinches it. LeBron James, not Michael Jordan, is basketball’s GOAT

LeBron James stands between NBA commissioner Adam Silver, left, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose scoring record he broke.
Lakers star LeBron James is flanked by NBA Commissoner Adam Silver, left, and Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer Tuesday night.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

One small basket for man, one giant end to the sports argument that has plagued mankind.

With his 36th point Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and silence a decades-long debate.

James is now officially and unquestionably the greatest basketball player to ever walk this Earth, and no apologies necessary to those who still insist it is Michael Jordan.

Accomplished in front of a roaring crowd at Arena on a fallaway jumper with 10.9 seconds left in the third quarter, this wasn’t just a milestone for a superstar, it was the coronation of a King.


The little, and big, moments that led to LeBron James becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer as he surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Tuesday night.

Feb. 7, 2023

James not only eclipsed 38,387 points, but he made more than 38,387 points in a debate that is surely now resolved.

Turn off “The Last Dance” videos, lose the romantic Bulls-colored glasses, separate the myths from the men, and the reality thunders down like a trademark James tomahawk dunk.

James, not Jordan, is the GOAT.

He cemented that status on a night when a celebrity-studded sellout crowd screamed every time he touched the ball, urging him to shoot, groaning when he passed.

He scored eight points in the first quarter, a dozen in the second quarter. Then, fueled by roars that grew louder with each basket, he turned it on with 16 points in the record-setting third quarter that appropriately featured virtually every sort of basket — free throws, layups, three-pointers and that clinching two-point fall-away.

After making the record shot, amid deafening cheers from fans who leaped and hugged, James stalked across the court with his arms in the air and his head tilted toward the ceiling. He held that pose for a few seconds, then doubled over with emotion.

He summoned his family to midcourt, where he was honored by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Abdul-Jabbar, who handed him a basketball in a symbolic passing of the torch. The widely reported iciness between James and Abdul-Jabbar was obvious in the way they stood apart and didn’t look at each other. It was at this point that James began to cry, then took the microphone and addressed the crowd.


“I wouldn’t be me without all of y’alls help, all y’alls passion, all y’alls sacrifices,” he told the crowd and his loved ones, later adding: “I would never, ever in a million years dreamt this even better than what it is tonight. .… F— man, thank you, guys.”

In breaking a seemingly unbreakable record that has stood for nearly 39 years — as long as Babe Ruth once held the career home run record after his retirement — James has checked the last box on a resume that doesn’t just dominate basketball but defines it.

He ranks first on the scoring list, more than 11,000 points ahead of the next active player, and nobody will ever catch him.

He ranks fourth on the all-time assists list having just recently passed assist specialist Steve Nash.

When debating the greatest players in Lakers history, LeBron James is likely the most talented of them all, but only tied for seventh in an L.A. Times poll.

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He ranks 32nd on the all-time rebounds list, but no active player has more and no active player is in position to pass him.

In all three categories, James leads Jordan, which leaves Jordan’s defenders to continuously brag only about the same thing they’ve been bragging about for years.


Jordan has won six championships, James has won four, and that is supposed to make Jordan a better player. It does not.

Jordan won all six titles with the same team and the same system. James won his titles with three teams in three systems, a much tougher accomplishment.

Then there was the coaching. Jordan was coached during each of his championships by Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. James won titles with coaches who were unproven or journeymen at the time, from Erik Spoelstra to Tyronn Lue to Frank Vogel.

What does this say about James’ basketball IQ? It’s off the charts and at least the equal of Jordan’s.

LeBron James, left, passed Michael Jordan on the NBA’s all-time scoring list against the Denver Nuggets on March 6, 2019.
(Chris Szagola; Beth A. Keiser / Associated Press)

James is more versatile than Jordan, with an ability to play all five positions. James is more adaptable than Jordan, with the body of a tight end, the toughness of a running back and the agility of a wide receiver, with a game that produces unstoppable drives and feathery three-pointers.


James has also been better, for longer, than Jordan. James looks as amazing at age 38 as he did when his career began 20 years ago. He plays as hard and effectively as he ever did. Just look at his numbers. At last count, he was averaging 30 points, seven assists and more than eight rebounds per game, all ranking in the NBA’s top 30.

When Jordan retired for good at age 40 in 2003, he had been a shell of himself in his final two seasons with the Washington Wizards.

Yet it’s not just about longevity. While Jordan averaged more points per game than anyone in basketball history, James ranks fifth on that list, proving his greatness has been as consistent as the constant slap of his hands upon his chest.

And don’t start with that tired, “LeBron isn’t clutch” argument. James has made five game-winning buzzer-beaters in the playoffs, the most in NBA history and two more than Jordan.

LeBron James became the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Here’s a statistical comparison of the two legendary players.

Feb. 7, 2023

Asked late Tuesday if he was now the GOAT, James didn’t argue.

“If I was a GM … of a franchise that was starting up and I had the No. 1 pick, I would take me,” he said, adding, “I’ve been able to do whatever this game has wanted me to do … that don’t take away from nobody else … but I can’t take nobody over me.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham agreed Tuesday that, yes, James is the GOAT.

“Impact? Man for man? I think he’s at the top of the list,” he said.

Putting James’ legacy into perspective is a jaw-dropping exercise. He has scored against several father-son combinations. He has scored against former high school teammates of his son Bronny. He has scored against a half-dozen current coaches. He has scored with different basketballs, different rules, and in arenas both new and demolished. He has scored at least 40 points in a game against all 30 teams.


All of which brings up a question lingering on the fringes of the record-breaking points celebration.

Has he truly scored with Lakers fans? Does the record feel like a Lakers accomplishment or a LeBron accomplishment?

The answer is complicated. Though the Lakers brought him here from Cleveland partially because they wanted him to break the scoring record in purple and gold, he has never quite connected with Los Angeles.

In his five seasons here, he has yet to win a playoff series in front of a home crowd. Their 2020 championship was forged in front of zero fans in a COVID-created bubble in Orlando, Fla. The Lakers’ first-round series against Phoenix in 2021 ended in injury and embarrassment.

Former Lakers stars and NBA Hall of Famers give their impressions of LeBron James overtaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time scoring leader.

Feb. 7, 2023

James has yet to hit a memorable game-winning shot as a Laker. He has yet to produce a classic game-winning defensive play as a Laker. He has, honestly, had very few singularly shining Lakers moments. There was the speech he gave before the first home game after the death of Kobe Bryant. There was the Bryant-imitated dunk he performed in Kobe’s honor. There was his winning duel with Golden State’s Steph Curry during the 2021 play-in game.


Until he broke the scoring record Tuesday, James had not done much to connect with the Lakers brand, and, even in this wondrous moment of triumph, his teammates did not surround him and Anthony Davis even took a seat behind the bench and looked away just before James hit his big shot.

The impression has always been that James is a great player who just happens to be biding his time with the Lakers. That impression is a fair one. The truth is, James belongs not to Los Angeles or the Lakers, but the world.

Abdul-Jabbar, meanwhile, is definitely a Laker, having spent his last 14 seasons here while helping the Showtime-era teams produce five championships. This, plus the fact that Abdul-Jabbar surrendered four years’ worth of scoring to James because Abdul-Jabbar had to attend college and James didn’t, is why some fans will forever believe Abdul-Jabbar is the real Lakers scoring leader. Few Lakers fans would even acknowledge James as a top-five Lakers great, leaving him out of a list that includes Magic Johnson, Bryant, Jerry West, Abdul-Jabbar and Chick Hearn.

At the end of a night in which the Lakers lost to the Thunder 133-130, none of that really mattered when James staked his claim to a title far more vaunted than anything the home team could offer.

He might not be the best Laker ever, but, on a night when he wore a Lakers uniform to break the unbreakable, he became the best basketball player ever.


Be like who?