Mortality is no fun.
Kobe Bryant, at 35, suddenly appears at the end of the useful portion of his NBA career. But with LeBron James approaching 30, the reigning MVP seems likely to hold on longer than his West Coast rival was able.
Now, in light of his recent heroics, even speculating about LeBron's eventual decline at this point feels wrongheadedly pessimistic. James, at 29, is playing arguably the best basketball of his 11-year career. Less than a week removed from a career-high 61-point outburst against the Charlotte Bobcats, LeBron has a true shooting percentage of 65.6—which, if it holds up, would be the most efficient mark he’s ever posted—and assist, rebound and steal numbers that are roughly in line with his career averages.
In the month of February, James was otherworldly, even by his lofty standards. He averaged 30.8 points on 57.5 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds. 6.7 assists and 2.7 steals while the Miami Heat went 10-1 with quality wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder.
According to NBA.com, on the month, Miami outscored opponents 115 to 104.3 per 100 possessions when James was on the floor. That’s a shellacking.
James is playing so well right now that an MVP Award that seemed as good as Kevin Durant’s just weeks ago is now up for grabs.
“[James and Durant] are spiraling around and toward one another in a riveting display of one-upmanship, with a great performance from one motivating the other to similar heights,” Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney wrote in a March 7 post evaluating some of the tightest MVP races in NBA history, a cohort LeBron/Durant 2014 figures to join.
Ah, but back to the mortality thing. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, LeBron is probably a human being. As such, he’s subject to certain forces. One of these is aging.
LeBron James will get older. And, like most NBA players, he’ll get worse as he does. According to research by Dave Berri of Wages of Wins, and broadly supported by Kevin Pelton, then of Basketball Prospectus, players tend to peak in their mid-20s, slowly decline through 30, then fall off a cliff entirely at approximately 32. To repurpose an old Ernest Hemingway line, aging happens slowly at first, then all at once.
There’s an important exception though. Superstars tend to defy the typical aging curve.
The top-10 players in NBA history, excluding James, are likely, in some order, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Shaquille O’Neal, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant. This was, in fact, precisely the list SLAM Magazine put together in 2011 when it ranked the top 500 to ever play the game (H/T to Basketball-Prospectus).
This group was exceptional not just for the heights of their respective peaks but for their duration. Longevity is a defining feature of superstardom. Each one—with the exception of Magic—played productive basketball into his 30s. Michael Jordan won his last MVP at 35. Karl Malone, though excluded from SLAM’s top 10, was awarded the Maurice Podoloff Trophy when he was 36.
And there’s some evidence that modern stars are even better able to resist Father Time than their resilient predecessors. Bill Simmons, writing for ESPN, riffed on this point in 2011.
Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are fending off that rock hammer in ways that have to make us wonder if we're headed for a historical revamping along the lines of the steroids era blowing up baseball like an "Angry Birds" grenade. Everything we thought we knew about basketball is changing ... and for all the right reasons, too. (Well, unless you're Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo.) They are beneficiaries of undeniable advantages over everyone who played before them: better doctors, surgical procedures, dieting, drug testing, trainers, computers, video equipment, workout equipment, workout regiments, airplanes ... even pillows are better.
This augers well for a player like James—a modern star—but LeBron himself seems especially poised to remain productive well beyond the point where most of his colleagues have been forced to call it a career.
For starters, James is incredibly versatile. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry noted in March of 2013, LeBron has constantly reinvented himself, assiduously adding new wrinkles to his game, always keeping opponents, and humble sports columnists, guessing about what’s coming next.
Since winning his first MVP in 2008-09, LeBron’s game has evolved drastically. He’s a vastly different player now than the one he was in 2011. In fact, each year he’s won the MVP, he’s done so in a distinctive way. LeBron is a basketball scientist and his game is his laboratory; his ongoing research is returning brilliant results in awestruck gymnasiums from Boston to Los Angeles to London.
Once largely a perimeter player, now James’ offensive success is contingent on what he does in the post, where he famously received tutoring from maestro Hakeem Olajuwon in the 2011 offseason.
Given James’ current historically high level of play, his demonstrated ability and willingness to change his game and the progress teams have recently made in medical, nutrition and exercise science, it’s easy to imagine James hanging on as a top-flight player—if not the top player in the Association—even beyond Dec. 30, 2019, when he’ll celebrate his 35th birthday.
Karl Malone isn’t a perfect analog for James—who is?—but their similar dimensions and resistance to injury make the comparison an instructive one. And one that should make Heat fans smile. By measure of win shares per 48 minutes, Malone had the four best seasons of his career at 33, 34, 35 and 36, according to Basketball-Reference. James, if he’s able to dodge catastrophic injury, should enjoy similar longevity.
Miami, or whichever franchise is lucky enough to trot out a lineup anchored by James in 2019-20, will have a smart, powerful, disciplined post player to run its offense through. Imagine James, even with some erosion of his athleticism—but with his superlative vision and instincts preserved if not improved by all the reps he'll get in the interim—acting as a sort of quarterback of the offense from the post, Marc Gasol with mutant physicality and more discretion as a shooter.
Or, under a more optimistic scenario, it's not difficult to envisage a gym rat James remaining unusually well-preserved deep into what should, by all rights, be his retirement years; a 6'8" Helen Mirren. In this case, LeBron would effectively remain the player he is into the 2020s. That's a scary thought for the 29 teams he won't be on.
Injuries, of course, are the wild card. The fact James is yet to be seriously hurt is no guarantee that he won’t be going forward. In this way, Kobe’s example is a sobering one.
When he was LeBron's age, in 2007-08, Bryant showed no signs of slowing down either. He averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists and was named MVP—the only season he received the honor. Six years and a torn Achilles tendon later, he’s a $48.5 million millstone around the Lakers neck.
Translation: Nothing lasts forever. Whether he's finished at 35 or 42, NBA fans will only get so many years of LeBron. Savor them.