It is often said that defense wins games and championships in the NBA. While there may be truth to this, it only explains part of the reality.
In fact, scoring is still the number one measurement in the NBA. A team cannot win without putting up enough points on the board, no matter how good its defense is (just think of this season’s Chicago Bulls as a glaring example).
When team recaps are displayed, scoring numbers are always the most prominent. In addition, most of the bets in Las Vegas regarding the NBA come down to scoring (wins versus losses or beating the spread).
Furthermore, top scorers who become superstars in the league have the ability to sell tickets, which make the NBA one of the most successful sports leagues in the world.
Personally, I am a big fan of defense, but that topic is for another time. This article will focus on the top 23 most prolific scorers in NBA history.
Let’s say it’s an appropriate number paid in homage to Michael Jordan who still holds the record for highest scoring average.
In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “prolific” is defined as being fruitful and marked by abundant productivity.
Hence, when considering the best scorers in league history, players were ranked according to the consistency of high scoring games and seasons. And I also had to consider the impact of different eras of the game.
Obviously, it would be easier to score in the late 1950s to early 1960s when team defenses were less complicated, the pace of the game was quicker (more possessions equals more opportunities to score), and players (a.k.a defenders) were shorter, weaker and less athletic.
Nevertheless, it’s time to present the greatest scorers in NBA history.
Most basketball fans today never saw Bob Pettit play, but he was one of the true pioneers of the NBA. He set the benchmark as the first premier power forward in the league and his numbers are certainly impressive.
Currently, Pettit ranks 6th in scoring with a career average of 26.4 points per game. His eleven seasons in the NBA were highlighted by his six 50-point games.
In addition, he is the only retired player in NBA history (with a minimum of 5 seasons played) who has averaged more than 20 points per game in every season played.
Like many early scorers in the NBA, Pettit benefitted from the quicker pace of the game which inflated stats, as well as less imposing defenses from smaller players.
Julius Erving may not be the best scorer in NBA history, but he was one of the most creative. His hanging, behind the backboard scoop shot in the 1980 Finals is as legendary as any shot in NBA history
Dr. J actually had his most prolific scoring days in the ABA, a league whom many have characterized as having softer team defenses. However, Erving still averaged 22.0 points per game in the NBA, which ranks 30th all-time. If he had spent all of his prime years in the NBA, his averages and scoring totals would likely have been higher.
After tallying 39 40-point games in the ABA, Erving posted at least 40 points in nine of his NBA games.
Alex English played most of his NBA games tucked away in the Rockies with the Denver Nuggets. While there, he helped make his team one of the most prolific scoring units the NBA has ever seen.
During his reign in the league, English had a string of eight seasons where he scored at least 2,000 points and led the league in scoring during the 1982-1983 season. Many other athletes come to mind when thing of the NBA in the 1980s, but it was Alex English that led the league in scoring during that decade.
Overall, English’s 25,613 career points ranks 13th all-time.
After leading the NCAA in scoring three consecutive years with an incredible 44.2 points per game average, Pete Maravich took his act to the NBA where he dazzled and captivated fans around the league.
Although his career was eventually cut short by knee injuries (he only played in 658 games in the NBA), Maravich still managed to lead the league in scoring in 1977. Possessing a unique array of moves, Maravich made scoring seem easy as he tallied six 50-point games and 35 40-point games throughout his career.
Overall, he ranks 18th all-time in scoring average with 24.2 points per game in the NBA.
Adrian Dantley is one of those athletes that few people today talk about. Yet, he was one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA.
While with the Utah Jazz, Dantley led the league in scoring twice during the 1980s. Throughout his career, he averaged 24.3 points per game which ties him with Larry Bird as being ranked at the 17th best mark. In addition, his 23,177 career points ranks 21st all-time.
Included on his resume are six 50-point games and an impressive 52 40-point games.
Via trades and team acquisitions, Dantley just missed out on championship seasons with the Lakers (1980) and Pistons (1989).
Dirk Nowitzki has steadily been one of the most consistent dominant scorers over the past decade and has proved to be the best shooting big man in league history.
As one of the few members of the 50-40-90 club (having made at least 50 percent of his field goals, 40 percent of his three-pointers, and 90 percent of his free throws throughout a season), Nowitzki has been a scoring threat all over the court.
One of the most telling stats is that in playoff elimination games, Nowitzki has averaged over 28 points per game. Included among those games are 13 contests where he scored at least 30 points, trailing only Jerry West who had 14.
His performance in Game 1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s playoffs was one for the ages, as he set the single highest true shooting percentage mark of any game in history.
With a career scoring average of 23.0 points per game, Nowitzki currently ranks 21st all-time.
Dwyane Wade has been one of the most exciting players in the league for the past eight years. His ability to drive to the basket on offense has led to a highly efficient scoring rate.
During the 2008-2009 season, Wade led the league in scoring. His 25.4 points per game scoring average currently ranks 10th all-time.
While his scoring averages will likely stay depressed with LeBron James and Chris Bosh as teammates, Wade should continue to be one of the most prolific scorers and efficient scorers in the NBA for at least a few more years.
Bernard King was a rising star in the 1980s while playing the Big Apple. While with the Knicks, King posted back-to-back 50 point games during the 1984 season. That was the first time any player accomplished that feat since 1964.
Later that year, King scored 60 points on Christmas Day en route to leading the NBA in scoring that season. All together, Bernard King had eight 50-point games during his career.
During the 1984 playoffs, King had one of the most impressive five game series, as he led the Knicks over the Pistons by scoring over 40 points in four games and 36 points in the other.
If not for an ACL tear in his right knee at the peak of his career in 1985, his scoring numbers would have been even more impressive. Nevertheless, his 22.5 points per game scoring average is the 24th best mark of all-time.
While Dominique Wilkins was well-known for his acrobatic dunks, The Human Highlight Film was also a premier scorer. In just his fourth season, Wilkins led the NBA in scoring. That season was also the second of ten consecutive seasons where he would average at least 25 points per game.
Throughout his long NBA career, Wilkins had seven 50-point games and a memorable 47-point performance in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston (Larry Bird scored 34 in that game).
Wilkins’ 24.8 points per game scoring average currently ranks 14th all-time and his 26, 668 career points ranks 11th.
Karl Malone defined scoring excellence and longevity in the NBA during the 1980s and 1990s. He did better than Dominique Wilkins by averaging at least 25 points per game (and over 2000 points scored) for 11 consecutive seasons.
With one of the best mid-range jump shots and excellent finishes in the pick-and-roll with Hall of Fame teammate John Stockton, Malone proved to be the greatest scoring power forward in NBA history. He only scored four 50-point games in his career, but Malone steadily put up high scoring games each year.
Currently, he ranks 12th all-time with a scoring average of 25 points per game. With 36,928 career points (ranking second in NBA history), it will be tough for any other top scorers to surpass Malone’s scoring mark.
LeBron James is starting to quiet many of his critics with his dominant playoff performances this year with the Miami Heat. Over the last seven seasons since his sophomore year, James has averaged at least 26 points per game.
Standing 6’8” and weighing about 260 pounds, James is an athletic freak who is as big as a power forward but as quick as a point guard. His ball handling and driving ability has made him nearly impossible to stop. Having added a potent jumper to his arsenal, James has only become a better scorer over the years.
James led the league in scoring in 2008 but similar to Dwyane Wade, his scoring numbers will probably stay a bit lower while in Miami as compared to his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
His career may be only about half over, but James has already posted eight 50-point games and 42 40-point games. In addition, his 27.7 points per game scoring average currently ranks as the third best mark of all-time.
Before there was Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird dominated the NBA as a premier shooter. Bird set the benchmark and even made the “50-40-90” club twice. Perhaps what was most impressive about his scoring ability was the relative ease in which he put up points in clutch situations.
If not for nagging injuries like bone spurs in his heels and back issues, his scoring records would have been even more impressive. Despite the health problems, Bird still managed to score 50 or more points five times throughout his career, as well as post 47 40-point games.
Bird’s 24.3 points per game scoring average currently ranks 16th all-time and his 21,791 career points ranks 27th.
During the prime of his career, Shaquille O’Neal was as unstoppable as any player in NBA history. Dominating in the post, O’Neal was too quick and strong for any individual defender to slow him down.
During a reign of 10 consecutive years in which he averaged at least 26 points per game, O’Neal earned two scoring titles. He posted a career high 61 points on his birthday in the year 2000, one of three games in which he scored at least 50 points. Overall, Shaq had 49 40-point games throughout his career.
While Shaq just announced his retirement, his legacy will endure in the annals of NBA history. His 23.7 points per game average was diminished by all of the recent seasons where he was a role player for his respective teams, but this mark still ranks 19th all-time. His 28,596 points will be more difficult for most players to catch, as it currently ranks 5th all-time.
With four scoring titles in the NBA, George Gervin proved to be one of the greatest scoring guards in NBA history. In fact, “The Iceman” proved to be nearly unstoppable, shooting an efficient 51.1 percent from the field during his NBA career.
With his patented finger roll, Gervin seemed to score at will. Among his 68 40-point games was his 63 point performance at the end of the 1978 season to narrowly edge out David Thompson (and his 73 points) for the scoring crown.
Overall, Gervin’s 26.2 points per game scoring average ranks as the 8th best mark of all-time.
Oscar Robertson, nicknamed “The Big O,” had an impressive NBA career. While known for being the only NBA player to ever average a triple double over the course of a season, fewer people realize that Robertson also averaged 30.8 points per game that season.
In fact, Robertson averaged over 28 points per game during each of his first eight seasons in the NBA and even earned one scoring crown. He used his 6’5”, 220 pound frame to muscle his way past smaller defenders to get good looks at the basket. He was also the first guard to dominate the game by posting up.
Over the course of his career, Robertson posted 77 games where he scored at least 40 points. His 25.7 points per game career average currently ranks 9th all-time, while his 26,710 career points rank 10th.
You might have guessed that the NBA’s logo was going to appear on this list. Jerry West was one of the premier scorers in NBA history.
Not only did he possess one of the best jump shots in the game, but West accomplished his scoring without the benefit of today’s three-point line. Throughout his career, not only did West score in dominant fashion, but he also earned his nickname “Mr. Clutch” by coming up big in clutch situations.
In the first round series of the 1965 playoffs, West made up for the absence of Elgin Baylor by averaging 46.3 points per game in the series, a mark that still stands as an NBA record.
His career was highlighted by a scoring title in 1970, five 50-point games, and 66 40-point games. He also averaged at least 25 points per game for eleven consecutive seasons.
West’s 27.0 points per game scoring average currently ranks 5th all-time and his 25,192 career points rank 15th. His playoff scoring average of 29.1 points per game ranks third all-time.
Allen Iverson represents the greatest scorer, inch-by-inch and pound-for-pound, which the NBA has ever seen. Standing just 6’0” and weighing 165 pounds, Iverson was able to dominate against much larger and stronger opponents on a nightly basis.
Iverson used his patented killer crossover moves to compliment his superior driving ability to score many of his points on the court. During the prime of his career, Iverson had ten consecutive seasons where he averaged at least 26 points per game. Included during that stretch were four seasons in which he led the NBA in scoring.
During his career, Iverson had 11 50-point games and 74 40-point games.
Today, Iverson ranks 6th all-time in scoring average at 26.7 points per game and his 24,368 career points rank 17th. In addition, his playoff scoring average of 29.7 points per game is the second highest mark in NBA history.
Before there was Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor was the first dominant scorer to elevate his game with his high-flying act. Known for his signature running bank shot, Baylor would go on to set the bar high for other scorers who would follow.
The truth is that it was Baylor’s prolific scoring that kept the struggling Minneapolis Lakers from going out of business and would help the franchise become one of the two greatest in NBA history.
Standing 6’5”, Baylor was the last of the great undersized forwards in the early years of the NBA, where many guards today are bigger.
Baylor had many memorable scoring games, including a 71-point game in 1970 and a 61-point performance in the 1962 Finals. The latter game is still an NBA Finals record, as well as a playoff record for most points scored in regulation.
Throughout his stellar career, Baylor had 4 60-point games, 14 50-point games, and 88 40-point games. His career scoring average of 27.4 points per game ranks 4th all-time and his 23,149 points rank 22nd.
Rick Barry spent some of his best years in the ABA, but his time in the NBA was also quite impressive. With one of the most pure and accurate outside jump shots in league history, Barry led the NBA in scoring in just his second season.
Barry was able to dominate the game in such fashion that it became somewhat of a norm for his teams to overachieve. His ability to overachieve, coupled with playing in a slower-paced era puts him in a spot ahead of Elgin Baylor.
During his years playing professional basketball, Barry tallied 13 50-point games and 70 40-point games in the NBA, as well as an additional 45 40-point games in the ABA.
Barry’s scoring average of 23.2 points per game ranks 20th all-time in the league’s history.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the gold standard in the NBA when it comes to longevity. Over the course of 20 seasons, Abdul-Jabbar used his signature and unstoppable sky hook shot to dominate the league in scoring.
During his first eight seasons in the NBA, he won two scoring titles and never averaged less than 25 points per game. Throughout his career, Abdul-Jabbar had 10 50-point games and 70 40-point games.
Although these figures are less than those that Baylor and Barry had, Abdul-Jabbar ranks higher on this list due to longevity. Also, Elgin Baylor likely would not have scored as much in today’s league featuring a much slower game pace , better team defenses, and bigger defenders.
Abdul-Jabbar’s 24.6 scoring average currently ranks 15th all-time and as most people know, his 38,387 career points is tops among all players.
Many people would rank Wilt Chamberlain as the most prolific scorer in NBA history. His statistics are certainly compelling.
With his size and superior athletic gifts, Chamberlain dominated the NBA in scoring throughout his career. He is the only player to average over 40 and 50 points per game throughout an entire season.
He led the league in scoring his first seven seasons, never averaging less than 33 points per game. Chamberlain posted 105 50-point games and 271 40-point games to lead all players in NBA history. Of the 62 60-point games in the league’s history, Wilt had 32 of them.
And of course, there’s the 100-point game that set an NBA record.
Yet, Chamberlain does not rank the highest on this list for the same reasons that brought Elgin Baylor down a few places.
Chamberlain’s most prolific scoring years came during a time when the pace of the game was much faster (some years featured paces that were 30 to 50 percent faster than today’s league), the painted lane area was 4 feet narrower, and only a handful of players were over 6’8”.
In today’s league, his stats wouldn’t be nearly inflated and he would have gone up against guys that are taller and stronger (like Shaquille O’Neal). There’s a reason why no one has come close to matching Chamberlain’s scoring or rebounding numbers in the modern NBA era.
Nevertheless, his career is one to be admired. His 30.1 points per game scoring average ranks second all-time and his 31,419 career points rank fourth.
Kobe Bryant rightfully deserves the second highest place on this list.
At first, some may not agree with this assessment, point to the fact that his scoring average is not as high as others. But compared to everyone else, Kobe may have the most impressive array of moves in his offensive arsenal.
Two significant games come to mind when thinking of Kobe’s scoring prowess. First is the 81-point game, which given the level of difficulty of shots, the percentage of the team’s scoring and fewer team shot attempts during the game, this game ranks as the most impressive scoring game in NBA history.
Another game that many think about was when Kobe outscored the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 through three quarters in 2005. Not only has this never been done by any other player, but Bryant accomplished this against a team that made it to the NBA Finals that season.
Kobe is also the only player to have scored at least 60 points twice while playing less than 40 minutes in a game (the game against Dallas where he logged 33 minutes, and the 61 points in 36 minutes against the Knicks in 2009 where he broke the Madison Square Garden scoring record).
In 2003 Kobe scored 40 or more points in nine consecutive games. Only Wilt Chamberlain has had a longer streak of scoring at least 40 points each game. Nevertheless, Bryant topped that by becoming just the second player to score at least 50 points in four consecutive games in 2007.
If not for teaming with Shaquille O’Neal during his early career years, Kobe’s averages and scoring totals would be even more impressive.
As it is, Kobe ranks second with five 60-point games, third with 24 50-point games and third with 107 40-point games. He also earned two scoring titles in the mid 2000s.
Most likely with a few dominant years left in his career, Bryant’s 25.3 points per game scoring average currently ranks 11th all-time and his 27,868 career points rank 6th.
Michael Jordan is the most prolific scorer in the history of the NBA. With offensive abilities similar to Bryant, Jordan possessed an even better athletic ability and an incredible 48 inch vertical leap to gain an advantage over opponents.
Along the way, he had 11 consecutive seasons where he averaged at least 26 points per game. During those years Jordan earned 10 scoring titles, which remain an NBA record.
He ranks second to Wilt Chamberlain in high-scoring games in nearly every category: five 60-point games, 39 50-point games, and 173 40-point games. Jordan does, however, lead all players with eight 50-point games in the postseason. In addition, his 33.5 points per game scoring average in the playoffs is the highest mark of any player.
His ability to raise his game during the playoffs may be the most impressive aspect of his game.
Overall, Jordan’s scoring average of 30.1 points per game ranks as the greatest of all-time and his 32,292 career points ranks third.