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Thursday, January 19, 2023

LeBron James is Playing at a Level no other 38 Year Old Has Reached

LeBron James celebrated his 38th birthday on December 30, 2022, and in the past three weeks he has played at a level no other 38 year old NBA player has ever reached, averaging 34.9 ppg, 9.4 rpg, and 8.6 apg in seven games. Overall, this season he is averaging 29.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and 7.0 apg while playing 35 of a possible 45 games. Until the season is over it is too soon to definitively proclaim James the greatest 38 year old NBA player ever, but it is already safe to say that he has placed himself on the short list.

Unless James' play declines significantly down the stretch, the only age 38 player who played at a comparable level was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who holds the career regular season scoring record (38,387 points) that James is on pace to pass in about three weeks.

In Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's age 38 season (1984-85), he averaged 22.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 3.2 apg while playing in 79 of a possible 82 games. He finished fourth in regular season MVP voting, but was relegated to the All-NBA Second Team behind Moses Malone, the All-NBA First Team center that season who was third in MVP voting, trailing only Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar won the 1985 Finals MVP after averaging 25.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, and 5.2 apg as his L.A. Lakers defeated the defending champion Boston Celtics in six games. In his age 39 season (1985-86), Abdul-Jabbar averaged 23.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 3.5 apg to earn an All-NBA First Team selection along with a fifth place finish in the regular season MVP voting.

In Michael Jordan's age 38 season (2001-02), he averaged 22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 5.2 apg while playing in 60 of a possible 82 games for the Washington Wizards. Jordan had been retired for three years, so it could be argued that his body was well-rested, but it could also be argued that he was rusty after spending an extended period of time away from NBA competition. Jordan made the All-Star team but was not selected for the All-NBA Team. He had five 40 point games—including a season-high 51 point outburst versus the Charlotte Hornets—but he also scored fewer than 10 points in five games. Jordan shot .416 from the field, the worst field goal percentage of his career (not counting the 17 games he played in 1994-95 during his first comeback). During his age 39 season, Jordan's scoring average declined to 20.0 ppg but his field goal percentage improve to .445 (still well below his career average of .497). The two most remarkable facts about Jordan's final season are (1) he played all 82 games despite having chronic knee problems, and (2) he averaged 37.0 mpg, which would rank third in the league this season (in the pre load-management 2002-03 season, Jordan ranked 35th in mpg).

In Karl Malone's age 38 season (2001-02), he averaged 22.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg, and 4.3 apg in 80 games. He was selected to the All-Star team.

In John Stockton's age 38 season (1999-00), he averaged 12.1 ppg and 8.6 apg (sixth in the NBA) in 82 games while earning the last of his 10 All-Star selections. 

A good conditioning program is vital for any NBA player, but it is particularly important for older players. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Ron Harper formed a "Breakfast Club" during which they worked out and trained together so that their bodies would be prepared not only for the regular season but also for deep playoff runs, and that dedication paid off with the Chicago Bulls' second "three-peat" from 1996-98. Jordan played until he was 40, Pippen played until he was 38, and Harper played until he was 37.

Julius Erving was one of the early adopters in terms of doing conditioning work with the express purpose of extending his career by maintaining strength and flexibility to prevent injuries. Howard Cosell profiled John Kilbourne's work with Erving and the 1983 NBA Champion Philadelphia 76ers. Erving also trained with Pat Croce, who complimented Erving as the hardest working athlete he had ever seen. A 1985 Orlando Sentinel article called Erving Croce's "prize pupil" in an era when NBA players and teams were just beginning to understand the importance of weightlifting and training. Croce is best known for being the Philadelphia 76ers' majority owner during Allen Iverson's prime years. 

Erving played 16 professional seasons, retiring after his age 37 season (1986-87) during which he averaged 16.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, and 3.2 apg while earning his 16th All-Star selection (second all-time behind only Abdul-Jabbar's 17 at that point). In recent years, it has become more common not only for careers to last 16 or more seasons but also for older players to remain productive--but at the time Erving retired making the All-Star team at 37 was very rare, and even playing past age 33 was uncommon: in 1986-87, there were only 20 NBA players 33 or older, and Erving ranked sixth in scoring in that group (the only player older than Erving who posted a higher scoring average that season was Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 17.5 ppg). This season, there are more than 40 players who are 33 or older, three of them are each averaging at least 29 ppg (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry), and four others are each averaging at least 21 ppg.

Today's players have more time, money, and resources than their predecessors did to help preserve their bodies. It has been reported that James spends more than $1 million per year on body maintenance, and it is clear that the effort, money, and time spent are paying tremendous dividends for him. James is setting an incredible standard for players in their late 30s, and it will be interesting to see how long he can play at this level, and if 20 or 30 years from now additional advances make it more common for players to perform so well near the age of 40.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:42 PM



At Friday, January 20, 2023 2:34:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Lebron in year 20 Kareem was 38 in year 15 he came in 4 years earlier than LeBron

What bron doing no one that age in sports history done except Tom Brady maybe.

Bron has never been hurt with a serious injury help him tho

And his size and strength

But Bron gonna break Kareem record cause of longevity

At Friday, January 20, 2023 3:19:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Kareem joined the NBA four years LATER than LeBron, not four years earlier. Kareem went to UCLA and then turned pro, while LeBron went straight from high school to the pros.

As I noted, Kareem was Finals MVP at 38, so I am not quite ready to put LeBron at 38 over Kareem at 38, but LeBron at 38 is on a very short list. LeBron is probably more athletic at 38 than any NBA player has been. Kareem and MJ were effective at that age, but not as athletic as they had been. LeBron is still very athletic.

LeBron's career is remarkable.

At Friday, January 20, 2023 3:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcel said, "But Bron gonna break Kareem record cause of longevity"

the 3-point shot is a much bigger reason

also players didn't go pro out that young in Kareem's day

Kareem's longevity was remarkable, considering they didn't have the same training/nutrition back then -- look at other sports


At Friday, January 20, 2023 4:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Good point. LeBron has made 2209 regular season three point field goals, so that is 2209 "extra" points, because those shots would have only counted for two points during most of Kareem's career. Kareem would not likely have shot many threes regardless of which era he played in, but playing in an era with a lot of three point shooting would have opened up the court for him and probably made him even tougher to guard.

At Sunday, January 22, 2023 2:46:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I mean one way to look at LeBron's career is to see how many records he set for "youngest player to do X" and then look at how many "oldest player to do X" records he has.

What's crazy to me is that with LeBron's size, passing/basketball IQ, and ability to shoot (although he's mired in a miserable slump from 3-point range this year), it's easy to imagine him being a contributing player to a team in a Boris Diaw/Late-Career Karl Malone kind of way when he's almost entirely ground-bound.

When will he lose the ability to be an effective role player? When he's 42? 45? 47? The mental sacrifices of keeping that kind of full-time body maintenance and having been in the NBA for the entire time your children have been alive are so immense, but as long as he's willing to keep making them this rabbit hole could be unimaginably deep.

At Tuesday, January 24, 2023 2:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


LeBron's longevity as a high level performer is remarkable. As you noted, he set numerous "youngest player" records, and now he is setting at least as many "oldest player" records.

I am not sure if he would accept a role as a Boris Diaw/late-career Karl Malone contributor, but you are correct that if he were willing to do that then he could extend his career to his mid-40s and possibly beyond.

At Tuesday, January 24, 2023 10:22:00 PM, Anonymous Lazlo said...

Hello, David.
You do a great job in each article!
I would like to tell you that there's a little error in the MJ section.
Jordan scored 51 points (his career-high that season) against the Hornets, followed by 45 versus the Nets and then he scored his 30,000th point against the Bulls, in the same game he made that famous two-handed block against Ron Mercer, in which he finished with 29.

I also believed that his two broken ribs, tendinitis and excessive fluid in his knees played a significant role in his lack of athleticism during his two seasons as a Wizards. In fact, he could only played 60 games in 2001-02 because he was noticeably injured. At Miami, the Heat's doctor removed fluid from his knees and told MJ not to play in that condition. He decided to play anyway. He could only walk during that game and ended up scoring 9 points and leaving the game early.

Keep writing great articles, David!

At Tuesday, January 24, 2023 10:30:00 PM, Anonymous Lazlo said...

One more thing,
Why today's analysts are so obsessed with "youngest to score 3,000", "youngest with 1,000 threes", instead of "fastest to score 3,000", "fastest to 1,000 threes". Instead of focusing on LeBron (youngest) they should be focusing on Wilt (fastest) and MJ (second-fastest).
Number of games should always prevail over the age of a certain player when he reaches a milestone. Don't you agree?

At Wednesday, January 25, 2023 11:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are correct that Jordan's season-high 51 point game was against the Hornets. I have corrected that sentence accordingly.

You are also correct that Jordan dealt with a host of injuries and ailments during his two years with the Wizards. The book "When Nothing Else Matters" discusses this extensively, including the fact that Jordan closed team practices to the public so that media members would not see that he was dragging one leg up and down the court because of all of the fluid buildup in his knee.

"Youngest to accomplish X" matters in the sense that just to be able to play in the NBA at a very young age is exceptional, and it is even more exceptional to play well at a very young age; many to the preps to pros players needed a season or two to really get going. LeBron is unusual in that he played at an All-Star level from day one.

That said, I agree with you that "Fastest to accomplish X" is a fairer metric, because this puts Wilt, Kareem, and others on equal footing with players who were able to go from the preps to the pros, an option that was not available prior to the 1970s.


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