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Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Ageless LeBron James

LeBron James is one of the select few players who belongs in the conversation for the title of the greatest basketball player of all-time, but there will probably never be a consensus choice for that distinction: Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons, Wilt Chamberlain set numerous individual statistical records and led two dominant championship runs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six championships and had incredible longevity, Michael Jordan broke some of Chamberlain's scoring records while posting a 6-0 NBA Finals record, and a handful of other players merit being mentioned as well.

However, one title that LeBron James may clinch--if he has not done so already--is greatest "old" basketball player of all-time. "Old" can be defined in various ways, but this article stipulates that an "old" player is one who turns 35 during a given calendar year. Historically, that age is a meaningful milestone. For example, Jerry West made the 1973 All-NBA First Team and finished sixth in MVP voting just before turning 35, but he played only 31 games as a 35 year old before retiring after the 1973-74 season. Only a relatively small number of players extend their careers past the age of 35, and a much smaller number of players that age perform at an All-Star level, let alone at an All-NBA, MVP, and/or Finals MVP level.

I first wrote about pro basketball's ageless wonders in the November 2002 issue of Basketball Digest, and then I revisited that subject in the April 2004 issue of Basketball Digest. The first article used 35 as a demarcation point, while the second article--written in the wake of Michael Jordan's two year stint as a Washington Wizard--focused on the 40 and over club, which LeBron James has not yet joined.

The first article crowned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as "the unquestioned king of the 35 and over club," noting that he posted Hall of Fame caliber numbers just in the eight seasons comprising that portion of his career, including playing an important role for four Lakers' championship teams while receiving eight All-Star selections, four All-NBA First or Second Team selections, one All-Defensive Second Team selection, and one Finals MVP. He ranked among the league's scoring, field goal percentage and shot blocking leaders in several of those seasons. To put those accolades into perspective, Hall of Fame centers Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Willis Reed, and Nate Thurmond each earned eight or fewer All-Star selections in their entire careers! 

Jordan turned 35 during his final season as a Chicago Bull, and he authored perhaps the greatest season by a 35 year old player, winning the scoring title (28.7 ppg), the All-Star Game MVP, the regular season MVP, and the Finals MVP while also being selected to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. He then retired for three years before coming back to play two seasons as a Wizard, when he earned two All-Star selections but no other seasonal honors (he finished 13th in the 2002 MVP voting).

Jordan may have been the greatest 35 year old ever, but his overall post-35 body of work does not match up with Abdul-Jabbar's.

Other players who had notable accomplishments at 35 or older include Bill Russell (in his final season he finished fourth in MVP voting, made the All-Defensive First Team, and averaged 19.3 rpg for a championship team as player-coach), Wilt Chamberlain (one Finals MVP, two rebounding titles), John Havlicek (four All-Star selections, second only to Abdul-Jabbar in this age category), Julius Erving (three All-Star selections, and he holds the record as the oldest member of the 100-100 club), Dennis Rodman (three rebounding titles while playing for three championship teams), and Karl Malone (won the 1999 regular season MVP as a 35 year old).

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and back to back titles in the 12th-14th seasons of his career, mirroring what Jordan did with the Bulls at a similar stage in his career (but Jordan was older, because he played three years of college ball compared to Bryant going straight from high school to the NBA), and it seemed that he might challenge Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan as the greatest "old" player of all-time, but ultimately Bryant's body gave out. Bryant was playing at an MVP level (he finished fifth in the 2013 regular season MVP voting) when he ruptured his Achilles just a few months prior to turning 35. He played 107 games over three seasons at ages 35-37, but he never regained his old form, though he did finish his career on a high note by setting the all-time record for most points scored in a player's final NBA game (60, more than doubling John Havlicek's previous record of 29) while also becoming the oldest player to score at least 60 points in an NBA game.

If Bryant had not suffered such a serious injury then he seemed on track to be an elite performer past the age of 35, but of course injuries are a part of the game, and injuries are one of the major reasons that most players do not even play past 35 at all.

LeBron James turned 35 last season, when he averaged 25.3 ppg, a career-high/league leading 10.2 apg, and 7.8 rpg. During the playoffs he averaged 27.6 ppg, 8.8 apg, and 10.8 rpg, and he led the L.A. Lakers to their first title of the post-Bryant era. James won his fourth Finals MVP after averaging 29.8 ppg, 11.8 rpg, and 8.5 apg as the Lakers beat the Heat in six games. He is the second oldest Finals MVP, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar.

This season, through his first 20 games James averaged 25.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, and 7.5 apg. He is on pace to post a career-high three point field goal percentage (.417), though that may be an artifact of a small sample size.

When comparing "old" Abdul-Jabbar to "old" James it is important to remember that Abdul-Jabbar--arguably the greatest college basketball player of all-time--played four years at UCLA before joining the NBA, while James jumped straight from high school to the NBA. Thus, James is currently a 36 year old in his 18th season, while Abdul-Jabbar turned 40 years old late in his 18th season, and Abdul-Jabbar turned 36 years old late in his 14th season. Thus, you cannot fairly compare the two players only on a season to season basis, because that gives James a four year age advantage over Abdul-Jabbar.

Abdul-Jabbar's post-35 career is quite remarkable.

As a 35 year old in his 13th season, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 23.9 ppg and 8.7 rpg during the regular season. That was the worst season of his career up to that point, and he slipped to 10th in the MVP voting after finishing third and first in the previous two years. However, he and Norm Nixon each averaged 20.4 ppg in the playoffs (Nixon scored one more point than Abdul-Jabbar over the span of 14 playoff games) to share the team lead as the Lakers won their second title in three seasons.

As a 36 year old in his 14th season, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 21.8 ppg and 7.5 rpg during the regular season. He again finished 10th in the regular season MVP voting. Abdul-Jabbar led the NBA in playoff scoring (27.1 ppg), but the Lakers were swept in the NBA Finals by one of the best single-season teams of all-time, the Moses Malone-Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers

As a 37 year old in his 15th season, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 21.5 ppg and 7.3 rpg during the regular season. He finished fourth in the regular season MVP voting. He averaged 23.9 ppg and 8.2 rpg in the playoffs, but the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in seven games in the NBA Finals.

As a 38 year old in his 16th season, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22.0 ppg and 7.9 rpg during the regular season. He finished fourth in regular season MVP balloting and made the All-NBA Second Team before winning the Finals MVP after averaging 25.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 5.2 apg, and 1.5 bpg as his Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in six games. He led the Lakers in scoring, rebounding, and blocked shots during the Finals, while ranking second on the team in assists behind Magic Johnson.

Abdul-Jabbar made the All-NBA Team for the final time--earning First Team honors--as a 39 year old during his 17th season. He averaged 23.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 1.6 bpg during the regular season, and he finished fifth in regular season MVP voting. He was the Lakers' leading scorer during the regular season and the playoffs (25.9 ppg) as the Lakers lost to Houston in the Western Conference Finals.

As a 40 year old in his 18th season, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 17.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg during the regular season and 19.2 ppg and 6.8 rpg during the playoffs. He was the Lakers' third leading scorer during both the regular season and the playoffs as the Lakers won the title after a 65-17 regular season. 

Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 40 mpg in each of his first seven seasons. Then, he averaged between 35 and 39.5 mpg in each of the next six seasons. He averaged between 31-33 mpg in the next five seasons, before averaging 28.9 mpg in season 19 and 22.9 mpg in season 20.  

James' mpg numbers have followed a similar trajectory: he averaged at least 40 mpg for four straight seasons early in his career, but he is averaging a career-low 33.1 mpg this season. However, James is more productive on a per minute basis now--as a scorer, rebounder, and playmaker--than he was during most of his previous seasons: his 2021 per minute numbers are his second best ever in scoring, his second best ever in rebounding, and his fifth best ever in assists. The most amazing thing about James' play as a 35 year old--and now as a 36 year old--is that when you watch him, if you ignore that he is developing a hairline resembling "old" Abdul-Jabbar, you cannot tell his age, nor can you tell that he is an 18 year veteran. 

In terms of accolades, Michael Jordan's 1998 season was even better than LeBron James' 2020 season, but the way that James played last season and the way he is playing so far this season seems different--looks different--than "old" Jordan or "old" Abdul-Jabbar or any other "old" all-time great discussed above. "Old" Jordan was extraordinarily productive: he was crafty, and after an intensive exercise regimen he was probably stronger than he had ever been. However, you would never mistake "old" Jordan for Air Jordan in terms of athleticism and explosiveness.

Similarly, "old" Abdul-Jabbar posted impressive statistics while playing an integral role for four championship teams, but he was not the highly mobile and incredibly athletic marvel that he had been during his prime years.

In terms of retaining elite athletic ability at an advanced age, Julius Erving ranks as highly as anyone: he took off from just inside the free throw line in the 1985 Slam Dunk Contest at 35, and he was a more prolific shot blocker at that age (109 blocked shots in 78 games) than James ever was (James had a career-high 93 blocked shots in 81 games as a 24 year old in 2008-09)--but, even accounting for Erving's late career shift from forward to guard, he was not the rebounder that he was during his prime, and he did not consistently play above the rim to the extent that he did during his prime. During his final season at the age of 37, Erving claimed that he could still do any single move that he had ever done before, and that was probably true, but Erving could no longer do those moves repeatedly every game over the course of a season.

In contrast, James is still flying through the air on a regular basis, still posting elite scoring numbers with a high field goal percentage (.496, just below his career average), and still able to go head to head with much younger MVP caliber players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard not only using craftiness, strength and guile, but also at the very least matching their athleticism as well. 

I would take young Jordan and young Bryant over James, for reasons that I have discussed at length in various articles--but "old" James is obviously better than hobbled "old" Bryant, "old" James' peak is better than "old" Abdul-Jabbar's peak, and "old" James is at least comparable to the 1998 version of "old" Jordan ("old" James is better than "old" Jordan from the Wizards, though to be fair to Jordan he was several years older at that time than James is now).

It remains to be seen if James will have a post-35 career as long and productive as Abdul-Jabbar's and/or if James will still be an All-Star at 40 as Jordan was, but in terms of peak value James has already made a strong case that he is the greatest "old" player of all-time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 AM



At Thursday, February 04, 2021 4:30:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...


I told u about lebron for 10 plus years

He prob the 2nd greatest player ever def top 4

He been great for so long like tom Brady

Just like the patriot way was tom brady

U knew u had to go through lebron to get to the promise land

He made 10 finals won 4 4 fmvp 4 mvo could of had more

Yea he is the best player after 35

I dont think he better than mj idk. About kareem but he been so great for so long

I never thought his game would age so great and he never gets hurt

He always made teammates better and he never had a great coach

He the man salute to lebron

At Thursday, February 04, 2021 7:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You have said many things about LeBron James over the years, some of which have proven to be correct and others of which have not proven to be correct.

I wrote about LeBron's "accelerated growth curve" early in his career, and I have recognized him as an all-time great--despite his flaws, which I have also documented--for quite some time.

I would not rank him as the second best player of all-time but he is securely in the top 10 for sure.

From a durability standpoint, the Brady comparison is valid, but football and basketball are different sports with different dynamics so it is hard to say whether or not James is as good or better at basketball as Brady is at football.

Kareem had the best post-35 career of all-time, but LeBron's post-35 career is just beginning so we can't make that comparison yet. LeBron at 35 is comparable to Jordan at 35 in my estimation. I would take peak Jordan over peak LeBron, without hesitation.

LeBron's game has aged better that anyone could have expected. What he is doing is remarkable.

Regarding coaching, Erik Spoelstra is a great coach who will likely be in the Hall of Fame someday. Ty Lue and Frank Vogel are at the very least very good coaches. Mike Brown was a very good coach. LeBron has not had the benefit of spending most of his career with one Hall of Fame coach, as Jordan and Kobe both did with Phil Jackson--but Jordan and Kobe spent their careers with one team (not counting Jordan's brief comeback with the Wizards), while LeBron made the choice to leave Cleveland, leave Miami, and then leave Cleveland.


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