LeBron James has done it. He passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's all-time leading scorer on Tuesday night against the Thunder, with a signature fadeaway jumper near the end of the third quarter. It's an achievement fueled by a mythical two-decade scoring stretch.
James was probably never the best pure scorer in the league, playing in an era with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and others. His one scoring title speaks to that. But he's made history due to consistent greatness and longevity.
He's been consistently one of the best scorers in the NBA for two straight decades. It's the longest scoring prime in NBA history, hands down. Michael Jordan's 10 straight scoring titles when he played full seasons is in its own category. In terms of longest prime stretches, it's LeBron.
His streak of double-digit scoring is a reflection of this consistency. He has scored 10-plus points in 1,140 straight regular-season games, 274 games -- or more than three full seasons -- longer than the second-longest streak in NBA history, which is 866 held by Michael Jordan from 1986 to 2001. LeBron hasn't scored in single digits in over 16 years. (It was an eight-point outing against the Bucks on January 5, 2007.) It's one of the best ironman streaks in sports history and a snapshot of LeBron's scoring greatness. He's averaging over 30 points per game in each of the last two seasons -- at age 37 and 38.
There's also this. He's ranked top 20 in the NBA in scoring average in all 20 seasons in the NBA, beginning with his rookie season when he ranked 15th, to this season as he ranks 7th.
The next-longest streak all-time belongs to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who ranked top-20 in 17 straight seasons before ranking 43rd in his age-39 season with 17.5 ppg in 1986-87.
Kareem vs LeBron NBA ppg ranks by season number
|Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||LeBron James|
Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone ranked top 20 in 15 straight seasons, respectively. This might have been a different story if Kareem were allowed to go from high school to the NBA like LeBron, but that's a discussion for another day.
Most consecutive seasons ranking top 20 in ppg
Also, you might be wondering what the qualifier is here, as LeBron notably sat out the final five games of last season and did not qualify for a scoring title, when he could have won it for a second time. I simply used no qualifier and LeBron is still top 20 every season.
Now, it's debatable whether James is still in his overall prime at age 38. But strictly from a statistical standpoint, he is still in his scoring prime. Another top-20 ppg mark solidifies that to me.
He owes the incredible consistently to his ability to evolve, among other stunning attributes. In his rookie season the league average for 3-pointers made per game was 5.2. That's up to 12.3 per game in LeBron's 20th season. Points per game has gone up from 93.4 to 114.2. No matter what's changed though, LeBron's scoring has stayed the same.
It's a common thread he shares with some of the other all-time leaders in sports. Some of the absolute best had long "scoring primes" too.
But how do they stack up to LeBron's 20 straight seasons ranking in the top-20 in scoring average. What are the longest "scoring primes" in sports history?
Keep in mind there's no perfect way, or even apples-to-apples way, to do this across sports. But I took my shot at it for fun, here's the results:
I started in baseball because it has the longest and richest history in North American sports, especially in its appreciation for statistics. The most apples-to-apples comparison I can make for "scoring" in baseball is home runs and hitting so I looked at home runs, at-bats per home run, hits and batting average to cover all the bases (pun intended).
Ty Cobb (22 straight seasons in top 20 of batting average)
Cobb is MLB's all-time leader in batting average and was the all-time hits king from 1923 to 1985. He ranked top 20 in the majors in batting average in 22 straight seasons where he played at least half his team games. That certainly rivals LeBron in terms of a "scoring prime," but is not as impressive given it was accomplished roughly a century ago with a smaller league, and not against the best competition.
Babe Ruth (17 straight seasons in top 20 of HR and at-bats per HR)
The Great Bambino was the MLB's all-time home run leader from 1921 to 1974. He retired with 714 home runs after the 1935 season, 336 more than Lou Gehrig's 378, which was second-best back then. The Sultan of Swat was ahead of his time, blasting them out unlike any other in major league history. He didn't have LeBron's longevity though, mostly because he split time between hitting and pitching in his early years. Ruth owns the best marks all-time in baseball with 17 straight seasons ranking top 20 in the majors in home runs and at-bats per home run from 1918-1934 (min. 50% of games played). Like Cobb, he did it with fewer teams in the league and in an era that was not integrated with baseball's best talent.
Pete Rose (17 straight seasons in top 20 of hits)
Major League Baseball's all-time hits leader ranked top 20 in the majors in 17 straight seasons from 1965-81, including top 10 in 15 straight from 1965 to 1979. He notably dropped off in his age-41 season in 1982, failing to hit above .286 in his final five seasons.
Honorable mention: Hank Aaron
Hammerin' Hank followed Ruth as the home run king from 1974 to 2007. He did so without ever hitting 50 home runs in a season, one of the most remarkable feats in sports. It was his incredible longevity and consistent greatness, like LeBron's scoring, that set him apart. He had 20 straight 20-homer campaigns from 1955-74, the longest streak in MLB history. It's an incredible feat, but it's not quite LeBron's scoring relative to the rest of the league. Aaron ranked top 30 in home runs in 20 straight seasons, and top 20 in nine straight seasons. Close, but no cigar.
Soccer statistics are not as historically available as other sports, so I can't say with absolute certainty that nobody matches LeBron's scoring prime here. We do know Pele is one of the most prolific scorers in soccer history and could have theoretically matched LeBron as he played from 1957 to 1977.
Modern soccer statistics are more readily available and at least provide conclusive results that no player in this era has reached LeBron levels of scoring longevity.
Lionel Messi (16 straight seasons in top 20 of La Liga goals per game)
Lionel Messi recently won his first ever World Cup to enhance one of the greatest legacies in the sport, and even has a chance at scoring 1,000 goals someday. For now he's closing in on the 800-goal milestone, but his consistency hasn't been enough to hang with LeBron. He ranked top-20 in goals per game in 16 straight seasons with Barcelona in La Liga from the 2005-06 to 2020-21 seasons, before falling outside the top 20 in his first season with Paris Saint-Germain in 2021-22.
Cristiano Ronaldo (16 straight seasons in top 20 in goals per game)
Soccer's all-time official goals leader matches Messi with 16 straight seasons ranking top-20 in goals per game. Ronaldo did it in four different stops from 2006-07 to 2021-22 with three different clubs -- Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus. His streak looked done with one goal in 10 matches with Manchester United this season, but he has since had his contract terminated and signed with a Saudi Arabian club.
Excluding kickers, the only NFL player you can argue had a longer scoring prime than LeBron James is the recently retired Tom Brady, who was consistently one of the league's best quarterbacks for over two decades, after he became a starter in 2001. He crushed Father Time with a Super Bowl MVP at age 43 and NFL-records for completions and pass attempts in a season at age 45 in 2022. However, his "scoring" streak was interrupted as he did not throw a touchdown pass in 2008 after tearing his ACL in the season opener. If you were willing to let that slide, he'd be at 21 straight seasons in the top-20 in touchdown passes per game.
Take that for what it's worth. His prime rivals LeBron's in my mind, but technically his streak was broken, which is part of the deal.
Here's the streak that came closest in NFL history:
Drew Brees (17 straight seasons in top 20 in Pass TD per game)
Brees briefly held the NFL records for touchdown passes and passing yards so we shouldn't be surprised to see his streak of 17 straight seasons ranking top-20 in touchdown passes from 2004 until he retired in 2020.
If you're wondering where Brett Favre is, he had a run of 16 straight seasons snapped in 2006, when he had 18 touchdown passes in 16 games. No surprise either that no running back and wide receiver reached more than 16 straight seasons given the shorter length of NFL careers, especially at those positions. Jerry Rice would have come close but he played only two games in 1997.
I looked at goals per game for the history of the NHL and found one streak in particular you'll be interested in:
Gordie Howe (21 straight seasons in top 20 of goals per game)
"Mr. Hockey," Gordie Howe, was the NHL's all-time leading goal scorer for roughly three decades before Wayne Gretzky passed him. He famously played some level of professional hockey in six different decades, even playing in the WHA (World Hockey Association) into his fifties. He overcame a skull fracture (and a number of other severe injuries) in his career to run off 21 straight seasons ranking top-20 in the NHL in goals per game. It was a streak that began in 1949-50 when the league had six teams, and continued until 1969-70 when they expanded to twelve franchises. Despite fewer teams, I think this fairly ranks ahead of LeBron's streak given Howe's reputation as one of the greatest hockey players ever, and his historic longevity playing a violent sport.
Maurice Richard (17 straight seasons in top 20 of goals per game)
Maurice "Rocket" Richard was the NHL's all-time goals leader before Howe came along and ranked top-20 in 17 straight seasons in goals per game.
If you're looking for Wayne Gretzky, he went 11 straight seasons ranking top-20 in goals per game. Even when considering points per game (goals plus assists) his longest streak was 15 straight seasons.
The WNBA began in 1997, so there has not exactly been a lot of time for players to accumulate a LeBron-like streak.
Diana Taurasi (14 straight seasons in top-20 in scoring average)
The closest is Diana Taurasi, the WNBA's all-time scoring leader, who ranked top-20 in the league in scoring average for 14 straight seasons from 2004 to 2018, excluding the 2015 season when she only played overseas.
Honorable mentions in other sports
Those sports are where the best comparisons stop, either due to lack of historical data or comparable stats. I still need to give some love to these other primes in sports you should know about:
- Serena Williams went 20 years between her first (1999) and most recent (2019) grand slam title.
- Rafael Nadal owns the Open Era record for most consecutive years, 19, winning at least one ATP singles title. There's also a 17-year gap between his first (2005) and most recent (2022) grand slam title.
- Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer won a PGA TOUR event in a record 17 straight seasons. Nicklaus won multiple events in each of those years.
- Joe Louis was the world heavyweight champion in boxing from 1937 to 1949, the longest reign for any division in boxing history.
LeBron James is the NBA's all-time scoring champion, one of the crowning achievements in sports history, thanks to an incredible run of greatness and longevity. Fueled by 20 straight seasons ranking top-20 in the NBA in scoring average, his scoring prime is also one of the greatest in sports history.
Historically, Ty Cobb (22 straight seasons top-20 in batting average) and Gordie Howe (21 straight seasons top-20 in goals per game) are the only two athletes to top LeBron, although both were decades ago in an era where there were fewer teams. In the modern era of sports, King James stands alone, with an asterisk for Tom Brady, who missed almost the entire 2008 season. Either way, hats off to LeBron. He's certainly on a Mount Rushmore of the longest primes in sports history.
Longest 'scoring primes' by sport
22 straight seasons
Goals per game
21 straight seasons
20 straight seasons (and counting)
Pass TD per game
17 straight seasons
17 straight seasons
17 straight seasons
17 straight seasons
HR and AB per HR
17 straight seasons
Goals per game
16 straight seasons
Goals per game
16 straight seasons
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