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The Final Stretch of LeBron’s Race Toward Greatness

His historic endurance is testing the limits of the human body under the prolonged stress of the NBA. When will it finally start to crumble?

Matthew Hollister

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Banana Boat Week. You remember the Banana Boat picture, right? That image of a floating basketball Mount Rushmore that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul (and Carmelo Anthony, if only in spirit). We’ll be looking at how that group of friends has shaped the modern NBA, and what we might expect from them in these final seasons before they ride the waves into the sunset. We’ll also look at players who orbited their stars — the role players, outcasts, and busts who haven’t had quite the same impact on the game. Grab your life preserver. This should be fun.

LeBron James was at his absolute best in last season’s NBA Finals. He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks a game, becoming the first player in NBA history to lead both teams in all five statistical categories in a playoff series. His chase-down block of Andre Iguodala with less than two minutes remaining in Game 7 was an all-timer, and it required every bit of his speed, explosiveness, and leaping ability to pull off. LeBron didn’t look like a player who had lost a step in that moment, or one who was in the waning stages of his prime. He looked like someone still getting better.

The most amazing part of his Finals performance is that it came at the age of 31, after 13 seasons in the NBA. That’s not the way things are supposed to work. Most athletes who have played as much as LeBron has are well on their way to retirement, if they aren’t already out of the league. What makes him unique is how quickly he racked up such a massive workload. No player in the history of the NBA has played as many minutes as LeBron at his age. He’s a walking science experiment, quantifying how much high-level professional basketball the human body can withstand before it starts to break down.

James came into the league at 18, and started playing heavy minutes immediately. He never had a 40-game college basketball season that could have tempered his adjustment from high school to the 82-game NBA season. Despite that, he has remained remarkably durable throughout his career. He has never had a significant injury, and the biggest chunk of games he has ever missed came during his infamous two-week hiatus in the middle of his first season back in Cleveland. James also hasn’t had much of an extended summer in more than 10 years. After missing the playoffs his first two seasons, his teams have made deep runs in the postseason every year since. He has played in six consecutive NBA Finals, the longest streak for an individual player (alongside teammate James Jones) since the 1960s Celtics. The numbers add up quickly.

LeBron has already played over 5,000 minutes more than Magic and Bird did in their careers. Barring an injury, he will pass Michael Jordan at some point this season, and he already has if we pretend that MJ’s Wizards days never happened. LeBron has more miles on his legs than Jordan had after his final championship. If a player’s body is like a high-performance sports car, LeBron has to hope the make and model are more important than the odometer. It’s not like his miles have been easy country-road driving, either. He has been going high speed through city traffic, putting tremendous stress on his joints as he has exploded off cuts and powered his way through lanes, absorbing a lot of contact in the process.

The good news for LeBron is that he has access to modern forms of medicine that previous generations of players could have only dreamed of. He spends a million and a half dollars a year on his body. The sheer amount of labor necessary to get him ready for the rigors of an NBA season is mind-boggling. What’s unclear is whether all of it is enough to undo the cumulative damage of cramming that many games into that short a time. LeBron is no. 3 on the NBA’s active list of career minutes played (regular season and playoffs combined), behind only Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki. Those guys have five seasons on him.

The only players who had a comparable workload at LeBron’s age are Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who also came into the league directly out of high school and became stars by the age of 20, logging heavy minutes from that point on. After staying healthy for most of their careers, their bodies started to break down by their mid-30s. Garnett tore up his knee at 32, and Kobe tore his Achilles at 34. Both injuries came on noncontact plays. There’s no way to know whether the burden of those minutes caught up to them, or whether they were the victims of freak accidents, but having more than a decade’s worth of wear on their tread couldn’t have helped. LeBron has been an iron man his entire career, but all it takes is one awkward fall to change everything. KG made a relatively full recovery; Kobe was never the same player again.

Even if James stays healthy, the inevitable decline that comes for every NBA athlete in his mid-30s is fast approaching. To get a baseline for comparison, I looked at the career paths of every player in NBA history who posted seasons with a player efficiency rating of at least 23 and win shares per 48 minutes of at least .200 between the ages of 25 and 29. Using one-size-fits-all stats is inherently messy, but the list is a who’s who of NBA royalty. From there, I looked at the average number of win shares that players in the group produced in each year of their 30s. The trend looks like this:

The only instances in which the average WS ascends are from age 35 to 36 and 39 to 40, an effect of what statisticians call survivorship bias. The players prone to injury had mostly dropped out of the pool by that age, leaving behind the relatively healthy still playing at a higher level.

Of course, the regular season is only so important at this point in LeBron’s journey. Success, in James’s view, is assessed solely in the postseason, and we already know what his cruise control looks like from November to April. He has long since stopped giving his best effort on defense, and the regular-season MVP award he won in 2013 will almost certainly be his last. The clear precedent is Tim Duncan, who played at a high level until 40 in large part because the Spurs kept him in mothballs in the regular season. Managing LeBron’s minutes could conceivably extend his career and allow him to make magic in May and June a little longer. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would be Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in this scenario, and the Eastern Conference is bad enough that the Cavs shouldn’t need LeBron at his best to set them up for the playoffs.

It’s an appealing theory, but it might be locking the barn doors after the horses have escaped. Duncan’s rest was mostly about keeping him healthy. He wasn’t nearly as good a playoff performer in his 30s as he was in his 20s. There’s pretty much only one player in NBA history who was. There have been 30 postseasons when one player had at least 4 win shares, including LeBron in 2016, and only twice did it occur with a player over 31. One was Jordan at 32, and the other was Jordan at 34.

By the time LeBron is 35, he will be in his 17th season in the NBA. It’s hard to imagine any scenario, short of turning him into the Six Million Dollar Man, where he will have the same type of burst and quickness that he has now. He will have to adjust his game significantly to remain an elite player. The relatively rapid physical decline of Dwyane Wade, who plays a similar, high-contact style of slashing basketball, has to be in the back of LeBron’s mind. The big advantage LeBron has on Wade is size. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, LeBron is a big man with the speed of a guard and the natural ability to play out on the perimeter. If you take away his speed, James would simply be a typical highly skilled big man — the type of player that, for decades, has been an integral part of the recipe for championship contention. LeBron has about the same build as Karl Malone; Malone was an All-Star at 38 and a starter in the NBA Finals at 40.

There’s a long history of great players sliding up a position as they get older. Duncan and Garnett were trendsetters at the power forward position when they came into the league, but they were conventional centers by the time they retired. Jason Kidd went from ball-dominant point guard to 3-and-D off-guard in his late 30s. Pierce, LeBron’s archnemesis in the playoffs, has kept himself relevant by reinventing himself as a small-ball 4. They all had the size to change positions, and matching up with bigger and slower players made the decline of their athleticism less of an issue.

The days when James can take over an NBA Finals single-handedly will soon come to an end. In late August LeBron talked to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols about chasing Jordan’s legacy, and whether he hoped to retire as the greatest basketball player ever. “Absolutely,” he said. “I want to maximize what I can do. If I can be in a situation where I’m even talked about as the best basketball player ever, that’ll be great.” His chase of greatness is a race against Jordan, but it’s also a race against time.