LeBron James is quite good. Everyone knows this. He’s by most rational standards one of the top 5-7 players of all time. Just based on pure talent and skill, he’s probably one of the top three.
One thing that has made LeBron particularly incredible is his level of consistency. He entered the league in 2003-2004, averaging 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game as a 19-year-old rookie. Since then, he’s been perhaps the most consistent producer in terms of pure output we’ve ever seen. In the last 12 seasons, LeBron has averaged between 25.3 and 30.0 points per game, between 6.0 and 8.0 rebounds per game, and between 6.0 and 8.6 assists per game.
Pretty much every season of his career has had some variation of his career averages of 27/7/7, which is just absurd to think about. He’s also made 12 straight All-NBA teams, and has never finished outside of the top-10 in MVP voting. He’s made nine straight All-NBA 1st teams, and finished in the top-three in MVP voting eight straight times.
However, we’ve noticed LeBron start to slip the tiniest amount over the last two seasons. In 2014-2015, he had to take an eight-game sabbatical to rest an ailing back (and mind). His jumper fell off a cliff from about January 2015 to March 2016. And this past year, while he was the same dynamic LeBron in the playoffs, he looked more passive and restrained than we’d ever seen before in the regular season. As he continues to age, the question of how to best use LeBron, and how long he can remain at this elite level, becomes more and more of a question.
Heading into his age 32 season, LeBron has played an unprecedented amount of minutes. He’s played 38,478 regular season minutes, which ranks eighth all-time for players after their 13th NBA season. That’s about 800 more minutes than Kevin Garnett and a full 4000 ahead of Kobe Bryant had played during their 13th NBA seasons. Throw another 8,383 playoff minutes on top of that (fourth all-time already), and it’s safe to say we’ve never seen a player with this amount of miles on his legs at age 31. LeBron’s maintained an unearthly level of consistency, but the fear he could suffer a drop-off earlier than most greats is very real.
Of course, we don’t know when, or even if, LeBron might begin to break down. The best way to examine the possibilities is to look at players who had carried similar loads to this point of their careers, and in doing this, we see a number of different possibilities. The table below shows the top 10 players in terms of regular season minutes played at age 31*, breaking down their total longevity, level of high-end play, and health.
* - Magic Johnson was 10th on this list, and he’s excluded because his situation is unique and not really applicable here. Instead, I added Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (13th), who probably played close to 3000 minutes at UCLA in addition to his 31,771 NBA minutes by age 31.
After Age 31
|All-Star Level Seasons
After Age 31
|Wilt Chamberlain||33044||5||4||36||Yes (Knee in age 33 season - able to recover)|
|Isiah Thomas||33766||1||0||31||Yes (Several minor/chronic injuries)|
|Kevin Garnett||37863||8+||5||36||Yes (Knee in age 32 season - able to recover)|
|Kobe Bryant||37366||6||3||34||Yes (Achilles in age 35 season - unable to recover)|
|Carmelo Anthony||32796||??||??||??||Yes (Chronic knee issues - Recovery TBD)|
Injury risk is one of the biggest things that you worry about with aging superstars - as Kobe and Larry Bird have showed us, a major injury or two can completely blindside a high-level player at a moment’s notice. However, this isn’t an absolute, as only Kobe and Isiah were done in by significant injuries among the top-30 in Age 31 minutes. More commonly, it’s a gradual regression, like what we saw with Garnett after 2010 or with Robertson during his Bucks tenure.
The overarching theme of the guys who survived at a high level for multiple seasons? They had help, and weren’t asked to carry as much of a load as they had been in their primes. Wilt joined Jerry West in his age 32 season. Kareem Abdul-Jabbarwelcomed Magic immediately after his age 31 season, and was able to slowly defer responsibility to him. Garnett’s age 31 season was his title year with the Celtics’ ‘Big Three’. And Dirk Nowitzki has consistently been surrounded with talented secondary players who keep him from needing to carry a high usage.
This seems important for LeBron, because in theory, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster is set up so that this transition can take place. LeBron has maintained a high usage rate over the past two years, taking 32.3 percent of possessions in 2014-2015 and 31.4 percent last year. But as he ages, the expectation should be that Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will take more of the scoring load. In theory, it will truly become a trio of primary scorers, rather than the pecking order that exists now.
LeBron’s usage doesn’t have to drop too far, either. Even ticking down to 26-27 percent would take a decent amount of load off of LeBron. Garnett’s usage dropped from the 27-28 percent range with Minnesota to around 24-25, and Kareem went from 27.0 percent in 1977-1978 to the 24-25 percent range from 1982-1985. A couple of percentage points lowering is enough to mean that LeBron doesn’t need to be generating offense nearly as often as he does, something that’s especially important for him as a ball-dominant scorer and playmaker.
The other benefit of doing this is that it doesn’t preclude LeBron from taking over in the playoffs. Kyrie and Love can take more possessions from James during the regular season, letting him take less of a load, and potentially helping him work on areas he could grow in to save himself, like spot-up shooting. In the playoffs, when the game slows down, and having one of the best isolation scorers in the game matters more, LeBron can have more energy and carry more of the offensive load. He did this to an extent in the last two rounds of the 2016 playoffs, after letting the team work cohesively to beat the Pistons and Hawks. This seems to be the way things are going right now, and accepting that and letting Irving and Love take over more in the regular season might prevent the malaise this team suffered from for much of the 15-16 regular season.
The Cavs have so far struggled to fully integrate Irving and Love in this way though, and that may be something to worry about. The big confounding factors in this are ego and chemistry, and it’s hard to project how James is going to see himself as he begins to decline. Taking the Tim Duncan approach of “rest, delegate, take over when needed” is clearly more helpful for longevity than the Kobe “continue shooting blanks after you run out of bullets” approach to career twilight. However, we don’t know where James is going to fall on that spectrum, and a lot of that could depend on Kyrie’s continued development and the team’s ability to get Love to be more consistent.
We aren’t quite at the twilight of LeBron’s career, but it’s safe to say it’s about 3p.m. Whether the sun sets early or late depends on health, and how well LeBron and the Cavs can coordinate him taking a step back in offensive responsibility over the next few seasons. If Irving and Love can continue to make strides, and the Cavs maintain solid depth, then LeBron might be able to maintain a high level well into his late-30s. It behooves the Cavs to do this, because every high-level LeBron year is another year their title window stays open.