Ranking the Greatest Scorers in NBA History

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2020

Ranking the Greatest Scorers in NBA History

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    LeBron James has surpassed Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant on the NBA's all-time scoring chart, moving up to No. 3 and padding an already storied legacy.

    Between the two, though, which player is the better scorer?

    That question isn't as simple as looking at point totals. Instead, it demands a nuanced approach that involves total production but also factors in efficiency, longevity and the individual's style. Some subjectivity is unavoidable since numbers are important, yet don't tell a complete story in this particular case.

    We've looked back through NBA history and decided on the 10 best scorers, as well as highlighting several other deserving players.

    Note: ABA production is considered.

Honorable Mentions

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    Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal
    Karl Malone and Shaquille O'NealMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Long-Term Scorers

    Karl Malone (second all-time), Dirk Nowitzki (sixth) and Shaquille O'Neal (10th) hold a prodigious spot in NBA history. While undeniably Hall of Famers, longevity is the greatest factor in their positions on the scoring list considering all three played at least 19 seasons in the NBA. To be merely one of the 20-25 greatest scorers is no slight.

               

    The High Peaks

    Elgin Baylor, George Gervin, Larry Bird, Pete Maravich and Dominique Wilkins are among the players who enjoyed a few ridiculously productive years, helping them land a spot on the all-time scorers' list. They all averaged 30-plus points in at least one season, save for Bird, who barely missed the mark with 29.9 in 1987-88.

10. Stephen Curry

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry doesn't yet have the longevity of many players, but over the past decade, he has changed how the game is played. Not only is the Golden State Warriors point guard a lethal perimeter shooter, but he's also deadly off the dribble.

    That's a huge difference compared to other marksmen. Nobody has ever matched Curry's combination of volume and efficiency.

    Curry already has the third-most threes in NBA history, and he's connecting at the fourth-highest rate ever. The three-time champion has averaged at least two made threes in 10 seasons (and is on pace for an 11th consecutive year). No other player has recorded more than seven in a career.

9. Jerry West

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    Associated Press

    During an era when jump shots weren't the norm, Jerry West broke the mold.

    The Lakers legend showcased a mid-range acuity uncommon to his peers. He averaged 27.0 points over his 14-year career, topping out at 31.3 in 1965-66 with four seasons of 30-plus points per game. West also thrived in the playoffs, posting a 40.6-point average in 1964-65 and notching 30-plus points in six other postseasons.

    "I'm surprised when the ball doesn't go into the hoop," West once said, per NBA.com. "I think I should make every shot."

    West's 27.03 points per game stands as the fifth-highest all-time mark.

8. James Harden

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    You don't need to love his style. And you certainly don't need to like it.

    Nevertheless, Houston Rockets guard James Harden has become one of the NBA's most efficient scorers. Besides, Harden's shot-making ability is undeniable. He already owns top-15 marks in points per game and true shooting percentage.

    "There has never been a player like him," Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal wrote. "And he's now doing things that have never been done on a basketball court."

    Harden developed a lethal step-back game that has helped him knock down the seventh-most threes in league history. In 2019-20, he's on pace for a third straight scoring title.

7. Kevin Durant

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Seven-footers aren't supposed to shoot like this.

    Though his actual height is a secondary topic, Kevin Durant has an uncommon skill set for his size. In NBA history, only 14 players who are 6'9" or taller have notched at least 1,000 threes. Of that group, the only other player to average at least 21.0 points per game over their career is LeBron James.

    And that stature only complicates the challenge he presents. Durant can shoot over nearly anyone, yet he's still posted the 12th-best true shooting percentage in league history.

    It's no wonder he'd risen to 36th all-time in scoring before his 31st birthday.

6. Allen Iverson

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Of the top 50 all-time scorers in NBA history, here's the complete list of players who were 6'0" or shorter: Allen Iverson.

    That relative lack of size didn't prevent Iverson from becoming a nightmare to defend. "The Answer" won four scoring titles and ranks 30th on the all-time points list, showing off a spectacular mix of explosiveness, dribbling and an ability to attack the rim.

    "When we get him the ball in the open court, he's scary," former Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown once said of Iverson.

    Among the 13 who averaged at least 25 points throughout their career, Iverson and West are the only players shorter than 6'5".

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

    The all-time leading scorer in league history with 38,387 points, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar climbed the list while popularizing a devastating skyhook. Considering his 7'2" frame, it was a nearly unblockable shot.

    "Defenders had to contend with a subtle left-arm clearout throwing them off balance, which left them with no chance to reach the impossibly high release point," B/R's Grant Hughes wrote of Abdul-Jabbar's shot. "Even if they got the timing right, opponents had to go through Abdul-Jabbar's body to bother the attempt."

    On top of that, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 20-plus points in 17 of his 20 seasons.

4. Wilt Chamberlain

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    Dick Raphael/Getty Images

    In each of his first seven NBA seasons, Wilt Chamberlain led the league in scoring. There are worse ways to begin a career.

    Basketball historian Leonard Koppett called the Hall of Famer "clearly the most dominating player who ever played basketball, maybe not the best, but the most dominant," per the New York Times.

    Without question, Chamberlain's lasting achievement is his 100-point display in 1962. But he also recorded 40-plus points 118 times, towering over Michael Jordan (31) in second place.

    Chamberlainwho averaged an unconscionable 22.9 rebounds per game over 14 seasonsranks seventh all-time with 31,419 career points.

3. LeBron James

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    When factoring in his passing ability, LeBron James is likely the most overwhelming force to attack the basket in NBA history.

    Built like a tall linebacker with the athleticism of a point guard, LeBron has regularly been compared to a freight train. That powerful style has propelled James to 15and possibly 16straight seasons of 25-plus points per game. Nobody else has more than 11 consecutive years of that output.

    LeBron's range, quite unfairly, also extends beyond the arc. He ranks 17th in career three-pointers made.

    If he stays healthy, LeBron has a terrific chance to retire as the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

2. Kobe Bryant

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Kobe Bryant always found a way to create a look.

    "Drop him anywhere inside the arc, pit him against any defender in the world," Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland wrote, "and he'll still find a way to pump, swivel, duck, twist, or lunge his way into clean airspace and release an above-average NBA jump shot."

    Although he never mastered the perimeter, Kobe had enough range to demand respect anywhere on the floor. He holds a top-20 spot on the all-time threes list.

    Bryant retired as the No. 3 scorer in league history, only recently falling to fourth behind LeBron.

1. Michael Jordan

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    BETH A. KEISER/Associated Press

    Michael Jordan retired prior to the 1993-94 season, tried to play baseball and missed much of the 1994-95 campaign. Upon his return in March 1995, Jordanwho hadn't played an NBA game in 21 monthsscored 55 points in his fifth appearance.

    Remarkable, unreal, improbable, ridiculous. You name it, the adjective probably defines his accomplishments.

    Jordan did practically anything he wanted on the court, attacking the rim or controlling the mid-range. His fadeaway and turnaround jumper, especially from the post, took on mythical status.

    The six-time champion won 10 scoring titles and owns the NBA standard for points per game at 30.12.

                  

    Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.