LOS ANGELES — In his 21st year of NBA basketball, LeBron James’ career has gone on long enough that it could legally drink alcohol, a feat yet to be accomplished by two of his current Laker teammates. Incredibly, he’s just the seventh player in NBA history to play in this many seasons — only Vince Carter made it to year 22 — and the only one to average over 20 minutes or score more than 10 points per game in that season.
But LeBron isn’t just playing some minor role for the Lakers. He’s leading his 8-6 team in scoring and is second in both rebounds and assists. Through 14 games, he’s arguably been their best player, pacing the team in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Box Plus/Minus (BPM) while trailing only Anthony Davis in Win Shares (WS).
After a recent blowout win over the Grizzlies, LeBron said, “I feel like there’s not anything I cannot do that I did in my 20s out on the floor.” And based on his statistical output, he isn’t wrong.
In his 20s, LeBron averaged 28.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.0 assists in 39.2 minutes per game. Since entering his 20th NBA season, he’s tallied virtually identical averages across the board, averaging 28.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game. His consistency is even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s played four fewer minutes per game and posted a higher effective field goal percentage during that stretch.
While the counting stats continue to compare favorably, the King has undoubtedly slowed down in some ways. Even if LeBron can probably still guard the Grizzlies’ present-day Derrick Rose, as he did in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, there’s no way present-day LeBron is locking down that version of pre-injury Rose in MVP form.
And though the bounce he routinely flashed throughout the earlier part of his career isn’t quite the same anymore, LeBron still soars through the lane for highlight dunks or catches up to an opponent’s breakaway for a chasedown block as often as anyone else in the league.
LEBRON JAMES THROWS DOWN THE DUNK pic.twitter.com/nRCYRuLJW4— Ahn Fire Digital (@AhnFireDigital) November 20, 2023
As he’s aged, LeBron has also lost some of his ability to endure both the individual-game minutes-load he used to bear as well as the games total he would typically shoulder. Injuries in four of the previous five seasons have kept him from playing in 60 regular season games, and there are times in games now when LeBron has to ease off the gas in order to have enough in the tank for when the Lakers need it most.
Still, even without the 48-minute-per-game Swiss Army Knife impact of his youth, a more directed LeBron is better than at least “90 percent of the NBA,” an estimate James himself offered after the conclusion of last season’s playoff run to the Western Conference Finals.
Instead of blowing past defenders as he did in his youth, LeBron more often leverages his strength and savvy to score. Here, he exploits Dillon Brooks’ overplay for crucial fourth quarter points.
Then, on Sunday night matched up against Brooks again, LeBron repeated the feat.
Watch the subtle genius of LeBron James— Vinay K. (@vkillem) November 20, 2023
Earlier in the 4th Brooks used a sneaky slip and pull on LeBron to steal an entry pass.
On the last play of the game, Brooks tries it again but LeBron backs into his slip side him wiping him out of the play completely. pic.twitter.com/azTwQt2nbw
Even at his age, LeBron remains one of the league’s preeminent threats around the rim. This season, he’s fourth in transition points per game and is shooting 82% at the rim (76/93), the best of any player with more than 70 attempts. LeBron is still one of the most efficient stars in the league sporting the fourth-most points per shot attempt of any player with a usage rate over 30%, and even currently sports a career-high true-shooting percentage at 67.1%.
After the Lakers’ Sunday win over the Rockets, Austin Reaves spoke to LeBron’s rare combination of age and dominance, “If Bron plays like this, we want him to play 48 minutes... I remind him every day, he’s old... He’s fighting Father Time better than anybody that’s played the game other than maybe Tom Brady.”
Asked about his own motivation to keep on trucking, LeBron stressed a similar message, “Just trying to push the limit. See how far I can take this thing. It’s me vs. Father Time. I’m trying to change the narrative.”
Given the fact that literally no one in the history of the league has ever done what LeBron is doing, it’s hard to give a reasonable guess as to how long he can keep it up. For as long as he does though, let’s just be grateful we get to bear witness to his greatness.