SAN ANTONIO — Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James passed Dirk Nowitzki for sixth place on the all-time scoring list Saturday, and Nowitzki thinks James will end up as the greatest scorer to ever play the game.
“If he stays healthy, the way he’s looking and moving, he has a chance at Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar],” Nowitzki told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “His numbers have been unbelievable. He doesn’t seem to slow down. The stuff he was doing last year in year 15 was incredible. If he keeps this up, he can pass Kareem.”
James entered Saturday with 31,167 career points, needing 21 points to pass Nowitzki and become the game’s active leader in points scored. Nowitzki is currently sidelined with a left ankle injury, meaning that James has likely passed Nowitzki for good.
James got his 21st point on a 17-foot jumper from the right wing with 7:51 left in the third quarter against the San Antonio Spurs.
He also passed Shaquille O’Neal for sixth on the all-time field goals list in the third quarter. O’Neal had 11,330 in his 19-year career.
James, who scored 2,251 points last season, is in range to pass a couple of retired legends on the all-time scoring list before his first season with the Lakers is up. Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) is in fifth place, and Michael Jordan (32,292) is in fourth.
The top three scorers in league history all played for the Lakers at some point in their careers. Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) is first, Karl Malone (36,928 points) is second and Kobe Bryant (33,643 points) is third.
Lakers coach Luke Walton praised both James and Nowitzki as “unstoppable” scorers.
“I’ve had to try to guard both of them when I played and there’s nothing you can do,” Walton said before the Lakers’ game against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday. “You can play great defense and they still make the shot. All you’re trying to do when you’re playing guys of that level is make it hard on them. Don’t foul them. Make them take contested shots. Make them take a lot of shots to get their points. But there’s nothing you can do to stop either one of those guys.”
James and Nowitzki faced off in the 2011 NBA Finals, with Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks charging back to win the series 4-2 after James’ Miami Heat started out with a 2-1 lead.
During that series, in which Nowitzki was named Finals MVP, James coughed while leaving the arena with then-teammate Dwyane Wade after a practice, mocking Nowitzki, who played through flu-like symptoms.
“To me, that was over and done with at the Finals already,” Nowitzki said, asked to look back on it. “It wasn’t like that added motivation or anything. I don’t really hold much grudges.
“I said [it was childish and immature] in the press conference at the time, and that was it. I felt a little disrespected, because I’ve never faked anything in my career. I don’t have to. When I can play, I can play. I always try to be there for my team. But for me, at that time, it was over. Just kept it moving.”
Since then, the two surefire Hall of Famers have repeatedly gone out of their way to credit one another’s prowess on the basketball court.
“It’s an honor to be talked about like that from one of the all-time greats,” Nowitzki said of James’ public compliments. “I really appreciate it. It’s humbling to hear your name in the conversation with some of the greats.”
While Nowitzki says his relationship with James does not extend much beyond the occasional brief conversation before or after a game, his appreciation for the four-time MVP is clear.
“He hears the stuff I’m guessing that I say about him, that he’s one of the greats of all time,” Nowitzki said. “There is some mutual respect. Every time we see each other we say hi and whatever, congrats on everything, and just kind of keep it moving. That’s probably the relationship I have with most of these guys – mutual respect for each other and we say hi. … But just to be in the same conversation as some of these guys – LeBron is one – just to be up there with some of the all-time greats is an honor.”
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