We’ve kind of run out of ways to describe what LeBron James is doing at this point. The Cleveland Cavaliers are undefeated in the playoffs behind the King’s monster 35-9-7 per game line, and like the Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers before them, the Boston Celtics don’t seem to have any answers.
At 32 years old, James is playing as well as he ever has – and that’s saying something. In the 2009 playoffs, he averaged 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game – but he’s scoring more efficiently now, shooting an obscene 56 percent from the floor in the postseason.
You don’t need me to tell you that James is an all-time great, or even that his level of durability is unprecedented. But we may not talk enough about the latter and what it means for the next five years of his career.
It’s fascinating to imagine how James’ game will age. He’s immensely skilled, but James’ top two assets are his physical stature and athleticism – 265-pound hulks aren’t supposed to be able to do the things he does.
That’s great, but athleticism leaves you at a certain point. Most would agree that, right now, LeBron ranks somewhere between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as an all-timer. Both were more polished scorers (note: this doesn’t necessarily mean better) than James.
James can score as well as anyone, but he’s usually not torching foes with 17-foot fadeaways. If mastered, that shot ages well. Jordan and Bryant were hyper-athletes as youths, but their styles allowed them to continue dominating even after their most explosive days were in the rearview mirror. Serving as the spread pick-and-roll maestro requires a certain level of athleticism that James clearly still has. But it’s different, and more physically taxing. How much longer can he do it?
Perhaps we just have to recognize that James is a unique specimen, and the age restrictions we put on certain players might not apply to him. He’s an old 32, considering the minutes he has played and the fact he entered the league when he was 19. James will slow down at some point. His age 34 or 35 season would seem like a logical time for that to happen. It does for most players, if not sooner.
But what if it just … doesn’t? Back to the durability point: James has never suffered a serious injury in his 14 years in the league. Even the robotic Kawhi Leonard is prone to setbacks. It’s understood but perhaps not stated enough – James isn’t just one of the greatest basketball players ever; he’s one of the greatest athletes ever. At 38, James isn’t going to look like 38-year-old Paul Pierce.
As long as James doesn’t totally fall off a cliff, he’s going to be the best player in the world — even with a little regression. Among the superstars in the league today, James is the best by a significant margin.
Let’s say this season is James’ apex, and the next three years he takes small steps back. You know where that leaves him? The level he was playing at with the Miami Heat, when he won two championships and was the best player in the league.
After shocking the 73-win Golden State Warriors en route to the Cavaliers’ first championship in 2016, it felt like that was as good as we were going to see of James. He was 31, with a ton of miles on him. He’d still be a valuable player into his late 30s – he’s LeBron James – but if felt like perhaps we’d have two or three more years of greatness before the next wave of superstars claimed the throne.
Once again, we may have underestimated the King. I’m not saying James will still be the best player in the world when he’s 36. I’m also not ruling it out.