Since the NBA was established, we have seen amazing individual players. There are just some players in the history of the league that can turn it on and score at any time. We are seeing it in today’s league with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. It’s been going on for a long time, dating back to the 1950s.
Some players owned a decade. They got lucky as their career began right at the start of the decade and their prime years were all of those 10 seasons. Some players like Michael Jordan started their careers in the middle of a decade, which put them at a disadvantage.
We took a look at the leading scorer for each decade. To measure, we used this template:
1950 to 1959
1960 to 1969
1970 to 1979
1980 to 1989
1990 to 1999
2000 to 2009
2010 to 2019
2020 to Present
Let’s take a look at the leading scorer by each decade.
1950s - Dolph Schayes - 13,915 Points
2nd Place: Bob Cousy - 13,399 Points
3rd Place: Paul Arizin - 12,728 Points
Dolph Schayes was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1948 in the BAA Draft, as well as by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in the NBL Draft. The Blackhawks then traded his rights to the Syracuse Nationals. This team eventually became the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the most iconic franchises in the association right now. He played with Syracuse for one season in the NPL and stayed with the Nationals when they joined the newly formed National Basketball Association in 1949.
To start the 50s, Schayes led the league in rebounding with a 16.1 per game average. Throughout the year, he was a fixture in the top-5 for rebounds as well as his scoring. His best season came during 1957-1958, where he averaged a career-high 24.9 points per game, which was second in the league.
Schayes was also a fixture at the free-throw line, where he led the league three times, with two of those times coming outside the decade. Schayes finished his career with 12 All-Star appearances and was a six-time All-NBA First Team selection, as well as a six-time selection on the Second Team. When he retired in 1964, he held NBA records for games played, free throws made, free throws attempted, personal fouls, and was second to Bob Pettit in scoring. Pettit might have made this list had his career not started in 1954 and ended directly in the middle of the 60s.
1960s - Wilt Chamberlain - 24,719 Points
2nd Place: Oscar Robertson - 22,009 Points
3rd Place: Elgin Baylor - 19,207 Points
Chamberlain is considered one of the most dominant players of his era. Chamberlain finished his career with numerous records in scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage. He led the NBA in scoring seven times, field goal percentage nine times, and minutes played eight times. That also includes 11 rebonding titles and one assist title.
Chamberlain was so dominant that the NBA had to implement a few rule changes. That included widening the lane from 12 to 16 feet, as well as rules regarding inbounds plays and shooting free throws.
His greatest achievement likely came from his 100-point game. Chamberlain’s weakness was his free throw shooting, finishing a third-worst career percentage of 51.1%. Had he been able to connect more at the line, this margin would have been a greater lead. Chamberlain was ahead of his time when it came to scoring and rebounding.
1970s - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 21,814 Points
2nd Place: Elvin Hayes - 18,525 Points
3rd Place: Pete Maravich - 15,948 Points
It should come as no surprise that Abdul-Jabbar controlled at least one decade given that he finished his career as the all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. He earned six championships, two Finals MVPs, and 15 All-NBA selections. While most of his championships came in the 80s, his scoring took off during the 70s when he was a member of the Bucks and Lakers.
Regarded as one of the best centers ever, he was tall, slender, and big that was able to move exceptionally well. His patented skyhook shot was unguardable based on how quickly he was able to get it off and his tall frame on top of that. When you look back on players you would want to start your franchise with, Abdul-Jabbar is one of those players heavily talked about in those conversations.
Four of his six seasons with Milwaukee featured Abdul-Jabbar scoring over 30 points per game. When he joined the Lakers, he was close to about 25 points per game but was surrounded with more talent. Either way, he was the most-watched scorer of this decade, which is why he scored more than 3,000 points than Elvin Hayes.
1980s - Alex English - 21,133 Points
2nd Place: Moses Malone - 18,491 Points
3rd Place: Larry Bird - 17,974 Points
Midway through the 1979-1980 season, English was traded to the Nuggets from the Pacers for George McGinnis. By 1982, McGinnis was out of the league, which is why this trade goes down as a major letdown for the Indiana franchise. English became a star for the Nuggets and led the 80s with the most points scored.
In his first full season with the Nuggets, English scored 23.8 points per game, which was a career-high at the time. After that, he kept building off his success. The following year, he averaged 25.4 points, and then in his third season, he won the league scoring title with 28.4 points per game.
After falling fourth in the scoring race in 1983-1984, English picked up the following year with 27.9 points per game. His best season came during the 1985-1986 season, he scored 29.8 points per game, which was third behind Dominique Wilkins and Adrian Dantley. Right behind English were two other legends, but had Michael Jordan been given more time, he would have likely won this decade. Jordan scored over 14,000 points in the 80s despite starting his career during the 1984-1985 season.
1990s - Karl Malone - 20,925 Points
2nd Place: Mitch Richmond - 16,178 Points
3rd Place: David Robinson - 16,149 Points
Michael Jordan played in only six full seasons during this decade. He missed the entire 1993-1994 season due to retirement and then missed nearly all of the 1994-1995 season before getting back to full strength the next season. Then, after the Bulls won the 1998 championship, he left the league again and didn’t return until the 2001-2002 season. Because of that layoff, Jordan was unable to crack the top-3.
As for the winner, Karl Malone led the 90s decade in scoring. During his career, Malone led the NBA in free throws and made a league-record seven times. He was a physical defender and rebounder that could also put the ball in the hoop regularly. When Malone retired, he finished second to Abdul-Jabbar in all-time scoring, a place he has for the time being.
Playing with John Stockton had its perks. He flourished in pick and roll situations and could convert fastbreak dunks and layups off assists from Stockton. He was also very durable, missing just 10 games in his career with the Jazz, three of which being a suspension. Malone lost a lot to Jordan when it came to overall play, but this is something where he has the upper hand.
2000s - Kobe Bryant - 21,550 Points
2nd Place: Dirk Nowitzki - 19,291 Points
3rd Place: Paul Pierce - 17,681 Points
In the history of the game, there was only one Kobe Bryant. When thinking about the greatest shooting guards of all time, Bryant gives Jordan a run for his money in that argument. Those who played against Bryant in the 2000s called him their version of Jordan. It was for good reason as Bryant finished his career as the Lakers’ all-time leading scorer with five championships.
Bryant enjoyed success in the 2000s with championships in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, and 2010. He also played in the NBA Finals in 2004 and 2008 as well. The first half of the 2000s saw Shaquille O’Neal dominate most box scores, but Bryant picked up the slack once he left, winning two scoring titles of his own. Bryant’s 35.4 points per game average in 2006 was once regarded as one of the best individual scoring seasons since Wilt Chamberlain.
Bryant’s 81-point game is the closest we have seen a player get to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game record. He scored at least 50 points 24 times in his career, which is third to Jordan (31) and Chamberlain (119). There were six times that Bryant scored 60 points in his career and was just the third player in NBA history to once average 40 points per game in a calendar month.
2010s - James Harden - 20,209 Points
2nd Place: LeBron James - 18,990 Points
3rd Place: Russell Westbrook - 17,834 Points
Being left-handed, Harden is currently the highest all-time lefty in the game’s history. He is considered one of the most versatile and dangerous scorers in the NBA. His wide array of offensive moves includes his Euro step and his step-back jumper. During the 2010s, Harden was also notorious for being able to draw contact, which sent him to the free-throw line, where he was very successful at converting as he holds a career percentage over 85%.
Harden is also the all-time leader in completed four-point plays. His playmaking skills go past the scoring as he has led the league in assists two times in his career. Among the best skillset, he has is his scoring. With Mike D’Antoni’s offense, Harden scored over 30 points per game three straight years from 2018 to 2020, including 36.1 per game during his MVP season.
When Harden left the Rockets, he left as the team’s all-time leading scorer. On top of those 30-point seasons, he added two seasons where he averaged over 29 points per game. He led the league in total points four times, but with his high volume of shots comes recklessness. Harden also led the league in total turnovers six times during this decade.
2020s - Steph Curry - 3,096 Points
2nd Place: Nikola Jokic - 2,883 Points
3rd Place: Giannis Antetokounmpo - 2,803 Points
For now, Curry is the leader of the 2020s decade thanks to a great season last year. Curry’s scoring was a frequently talked about topic among members of the league. To break in the new year 2021, he scored a career-high 62 points on January 3. He added a 50-point game in April, where his 53 points helped him surpass Wilt Chamberlain as the all-time leading scorer in Golden State Warriors history.
His month of April was truly historic. His 53 points were part of an 11-game stretch where Curry scored at least 30 points each game. That surpassed Kobe Bryant’s previous record for a player age 33 or older. He also connected on 78 three-pointers during that span, which was the most in NBA history over 11 games. By the end of the month, he became the first NBA player to average 35 points and shot 50-40-90. His 96 three-pointers for April was the most ever, breaking James Harden’s record of 82 set in November 2019.
Curry was able to hold off Bradley Beal and win the scoring title, which was his second ever. This year, Curry is fifth in total points but has over 1,000 points on the season. Curry is 33 years old, so it will be surprising to see if he holds onto this spot by the end of the decade. Trae Young has over 2,700 points in this decade and is leading the league in total points. This could be Young’s decade eight years from now.