Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at LeBron James.
Every retired NBA great has eventually succumbed to the increasing mental and physical pressures that mount with age. Kobe Bryant was never able to recapture the agility he had before his Achilles tear. Even Michael Jordan bowed out of the league twice for exhaustion, and then for a third and final time after a sub-standard run with the Washington Wizards.
Even the great ones can’t outrun the inevitable.
Entering his age-37 season — and his 19th in the NBA — LeBron is already deep into unprecedented territory. In the history of the league, only three players have averaged 25 points per game in their age-35 season or older. Alex English did it in ‘88-89, and Karl Malone did it in ‘99-00. LeBron James has already done it in each of the past two seasons. Only two players have scored at least 25 points per game in their 17th NBA season or later. Kobe Bryant did it in 2012-13, the season which ended in his Achilles tear. LeBron James’ last two seasons each fit the bill.
In fact, LeBron has averaged at least 25 points per game for 17 seasons in a row now; every year except his first in the league. While points per game is an incredibly narrow window into appreciating the consummate winner that is LeBron James, the degree to which he’s been able to separate himself from his historically great peers in the game’s most important rudimentary counting statistic is astounding in and of itself.
While LeBron’s still easily one of basketball’s best whenever he’s been fully healthy, he’s missed 27 games each in two of his three seasons in Los Angeles due to a pair of on-court injuries. On Christmas Day 2019, LeBron injured his groin on an awkward slip and fall, and severely sprained his ankle in March of this year when Solomon Hill took his legs out from underneath him. With both incidents coming in relatively close succession in a career otherwise mostly unmarred by physical maladies, it’s hard to completely separate the seemingly flukey nature of each injury from the possibility of LeBron’s body becoming increasingly brittle with age.
As detailed by our own Alex Regla, LeBron’s teams have often struggled to tread water when the star at the center of their system leaves the floor. His Lakers have been no exception.
Last season, LeBron finished fifth in adjusted point differential, per Cleaning the Glass, with the Lakers scoring 12.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it. A double-edged sword, this stat is a credit to LeBron’s greatness as much as it is an indictment of the team around him. This year, the addition of Russell Westbrook gives the Lakers someone capable of replicating the playmaking and rim pressure LeBron delivers, albeit to a lesser extent. If Frank Vogel can stagger the team’s two top playmakers accordingly, this team has a chance to trounce opponents even when LeBron sits for the first time in his career.
These hypothetical non-LeBron lineups, with or without Anthony Davis, should still be able to outplay other teams’ starters, something that couldn’t be said for similarly constructed lineups of the previous iteration of this squad. Last year, the Lakers lost all minutes without LeBron by 3 points per 100 possessions. While the Wizards lost all Westbrook minutes without Bradley Beal by 4.8 points per 100 possessions, they were only +0.8 points with both on the floor, and -1.9 with Beal alone, more indicative of their mostly awful roster than any flaw endemic to Russ himself. As long as Russ and LeBron are still at or near full-strength, the Lakers should be able to lean into better lineups with the King off the floor.
The Lakers’ improved depth should help James on the court as well. As an outside shooter, LeBron’s 36.5 overall 2020-21 percentage was weighed down by his fourth percentile shot quality (per B-Ball Index). Increased rim pressure from excellent drivers like Russell Westbrook or even a year-three Talen Horton-Tucker could give LeBron his cleanest looks since playing in Miami next to peak Dwyane Wade, the only time in his career he’s shot over 40% from downtown.
While it’d be foolish to reposition LeBron far from the center of the Lakers’ offense, the team may begin to ween him from primary playmaking duties even when he’s on the court. Giving LeBron opportunities to attack off of a catch following a THT or Westbrook drive neutralizes some of their deficiencies in spacing and gives LeBron a chance to get going against an already compromised defense. Further, the decreased physical burden may help him maintain his health throughout the 82-game season heading into the playoffs, something he’s only been able to do once as a Laker.
According to his recent performance, as long as LeBron is healthy, his team will always have a chance to win, so long as he’s not matched up against the Hamptons Five Warriors. While he’ll probably regress or retire one day, it doesn’t seem as though that time will come especially soon. With an upgraded crew around him, LeBron should have some newfound leeway to age even more gracefully than he already has.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.