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Two-Decade Dons: LeBron James is about to join another elite statistical club

Assuming good health on Oct. 18th’s Opening Night of the 2022-23 NBA season, LeBron James will become just the 10th player in league history to appear in 20 different seasons.

NBA All-Star Game 2016 Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Heading into his 20th NBA season, LeBron James is not just heading into unprecedented territory, he’s running laps in, around, and all over it. Placing the problematic nature of frontier colonialism aside, James’ latter years are starting to look like the Lewis and Clark of basketball longevity.

Two decades in, he’s not just a productive NBA player, he’s still one of the best in the whole league, and expected to remain the face of one of the league’s marquee franchises in their hopes to contend for an 18th league championship.

With only nine other players in NBA history having even reached a 20th season, LeBron’s competition is scant, albeit storied, considering the lofty accomplishments those players accomplished in their earlier years. However, by the time they arrived at their 20th season, they lacked the special potency that carried them so deep into their careers in the first place.

Without further ado, here are the nine players in NBA history to have completed two decades as players in the league, ranked by descending win shares during that 20th season:

9. Kobe Bryant (-0.4 WS)

Despite going out on what is almost undeniably the greatest single-game conclusion to a playing career in basketball history — a night on which I inexplicably bet real American currency that he’d score fewer than 27.5 points — Kobe was inarguably bad over the course of his 20th and final NBA season.

Just a couple of years removed from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon, Kobe had lost almost all of the spring in his step that helped fuel his graceful glides around the court. With less oomph beneath his jumper and a diminished ability to evade athletically superior defenders, Kobe’s stats in his final season were that of a player below replacement level (to borrow a baseball parlance)

On most nights that season, it was a tough act to watch, but who cares? Handing the keys to Kobe in the waning moments of his career strengthened the relationship between the franchise and one of its brightest stars, as well as helping the team improve its equity in the upcoming draft.

On miserable 36%/29%/83% shooting splits, Kobe averaged 17.6 points per game for Byron Scott’s wholly uncompetitive 17-65 Lakers team, a group whose incompetence was ultimately rewarded with the right to select Brandon Ingram second overall in the 2017 NBA Draft.

However, in his final game, Bryant was nothing short of sublime, providing basketball fans with a lasting image of the Mamba in all his glory.

8. Kevin Willis (0.0 WS)

In the penultimate season of a career so long it would be old enough to buy a beer in any of the United States, Kevin Willis had a minimal impact on his 04-05 Atlanta Hawks. In need of trustworthy bodies, Willis found a home on the NBA’s worst team that season — for 29 games and five starts — as the Hawks finished with a 13-69 record, five games worse than any other franchise that year.

After a year on the couch, Willis returned for a final NBA stint at age-44, playing in five more games while on a 10-day contract for the first place ‘06-07 Mavs, before their stunning first round loss to Baron Davis’ “We Believe” Warriors.

7. Jamal Crawford (0.1 WS)

It only lasted six minutes, but Jamal Crawford did play a 20th season in the NBA.

Appearing in a single game for the Brooklyn Nets during the 2020 Orlando bubble, Crawford made his way onto this select list, but in the process spoiled his rare distinction of concluding the previous season on his own 50-piece.

6. Moses Malone (1.0)

Though Moses was probably one of the game’s most underrated greats, a series of injuries to his lower extremities hampered the “Chairman of the Boards’” effectiveness after his age-33 campaign. At 39, Malone was barely hanging onto big league viability, averaging 2.9 points and 8.8 minutes across 19 games for the ‘94-95 San Antonio Spurs.

5. Vince Carter (1.2)

The last perimeter player on the list, Carter reinvented himself as a 3-and-D cog after a decade of high-flying dominance in the Atlantic Division. In his 20th season, Carter averaged 17.7 minutes across 57 contests, playing a legitimate role at the back end of the Sacramento Kings’ rotation. Incredibly, Carter played another two seasons, eventually retiring at age 43 as a member of the Atlanta Hawks.

4. Robert Parish (1.7 WS)

With the conclusion of 14 storybook years on the Celtics, a run during which he made nine All-Star Games and won four NBA titles, Robert Parish played out the remainder of his athletic life outside of Boston. In his second season with the Charlotte Hornets, before a final year on the Bulls, Parish was, like the majority of this list, a bit role player at the back-end of a professional basketball team’s rotation.

On the 41-41 Hornets, Parish averaged just under 4 points in fewer than 15 minutes per game. However, amazingly, the 1995-96 campaign marked Parish’s 20th straight season of at least 72 games played — a pace unlikely to be matched again, especially considering the modern game’s increasing emphasis on pace, physicality, and injury prevention.

3. Kevin Garnett (1.9 WS)

In the wake of one of the worst trades in modern NBA history, one that sent an unprecedented haul of draft assets for the Celtics’ over-the-hill veteran core, the Nets found themselves adrift without a paddle. With an expensive and underperforming roster, they had no choice but to tear it down, a process that is apparently culminating with a second-round playoff exit and potentially another teardown.

Halfway through the ‘14-15 season with a 21-31 record, Kevin Garnett waived his no-trade clause to return to Minnesota. Though he made it just two games with the Wolves before a knee injury forced him out of the remainder of the season, Garnett returned for a 21st and final season with the team before finally calling it quits.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2.9 WS)

As the Lakers became Magic Johnson and James Worthy’s team, Kareem gracefully aged into a supporting role on a still dominant Showtime team. As the fifth-leading scorer in his 20th and final season on a team that was ultimately swept by the Pistons in the 1989 Finals, Kareem had become a productive, but severely limited player in comparison to his all-time dominant peak at the very end of his NBA life.

1. Dirk Nowitzki (4.8 WS)

Somewhat surprisingly, Old Man Dirk was the most statistically productive player in his 20th season in NBA history. In the season before his last, Dirk put up a wholly respectable 12 points in 25 minutes per game on shooting splits that were tenths of a percent short of 50%/40%/90%. While he didn’t help much on the defensive end, his ability to stretch the floor and drag down boards at a decent clip made him a more than viable player, even when his days of murdering opponents in the mid-post were long behind him.

Win Shares are an archaic and mostly outmoded impact metric, but as an easily sortable publicly accessible metric on the eminently useful, it does more than enough as a rough approximation of aggregate value over the course of a season to generally estimate how productive a player was.

If LeBron is able to produce at a level even remotely comparable to the worst of his 19 prior campaigns, he’ll blow his year-20 competition out of the water entirely.

In 19 seasons to date, LeBron has never posted worse than 5.1 WS, a total that came in his rookie year, and is coming off of a season in which he finished with 7.5 in just 56 games. If his recent play is any indication of what LeBron has in store for year-20, he’ll sit atop this list by season’s end if he plays even half the games, and if he’s fortunate enough to stay a bit healthier than he has been the past two years, he could even double Dirk’s mark.

After inking a new, two-year extension that will keep him with the Lakers for at least two more seasons — and a player option for the third, and second year of this new deal — LeBron has shown few physical or emotional signs that he’s ready to hang ‘em up any time soon.

But regardless of how long he does eventually hang in there, he’ll be statistically peerless soon enough — especially with Kareem’s all-time regular season scoring record on the horizon — if he isn’t already.

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 hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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