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LeBron’s Path to Claiming the “Best Ever” Title

Old LeBron will need to continue his streak of greatness

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Today is LeBron James Day on The Ringer. We figured nothing else was happening in the NBA world, so why not celebrate Bron, right? Thanks, Vlade and Vivek! Seriously, though, LeBron is having such an interesting season — on top of the most interesting career — and we wanted to look backward and forward with a collection of short posts about him. You can find all the posts here. Go ahead and make your trades. There’s only one King.

LeBron James is 32 years old, which seems wrong.

He’s too young to be 32: He’s the paragon of basketball athleticism, simultaneously strong, springy, and spry. I am 26, and my back hurts sometimes.

But he’s also too old to be 32. He’s been the NBA’s dominant force for over a decade; his hairline has been receding for even longer. My entire adult life has taken place in the LeBron James era. (Seriously, I was bar mitzvahed three days after his first game.)

Right now, the argument for LeBron James as the greatest player in NBA history boils down to his physical attributes. He doesn’t have the most championships or MVP awards, but he is a 6-foot-8-inch god-human designed to play basketball. As he embarks on the final third of his career, there are two milestones within reach that could cement his claim.

The first would be winning six titles, like Mike. Jordan had three championships by 1995, which is when he turned 32. James has three now and could potentially win a fourth this year. But Jordan’s situation was, well, different. His age-32 year was a weird miniseason as he attempted to re-engage in basketball after unretiring following a season in minor league baseball. It was the only season in the 1990s when Jordan attempted to play basketball (thus excluding 1993–94) and failed to win a title. As we all know, he went on to win three straight titles.

James is not as well positioned to win three more titles. His Cavaliers are defending champions but not the team to beat. The Warriors will be title favorites as long as their current core remains intact, which could span the rest of James’s prime. It is possible for James to beat them — he just did it in June. But that required a superhuman effort, one of the greatest Finals performances ever seen. Could he do that again? And again? And again? If not, James will be a ring or three short of Jordan at the same age Jordan retired for a second time.

The other milestone he could try to reach is beating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring title. James currently has 28,178 points scored in his career, roughly 10,000 shy of Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387. To do it, James would need to average 20-ish points a game over the next six-ish seasons. On the one hand, that seems doable — he’s averaged over 23 points per game in his past 13 seasons. On the other hand, that trajectory calls for 38-year-old LeBron James to score close to 20 points per game. Only three players have ever averaged 20 points at 37 or older: Kareem, whose height didn’t decline with age; MJ, who had the luxury of 11 Washington Wizards staying the hell out of his way; and Karl Malone, who used his old-man strength and John Stockton’s passing to get buckets.

Both accomplishments are, hypothetically, possible, but both would require James to sustain his exceptionally high level of play until he’s nearly 40. We have to imagine what Old LeBron will play like. (We already know what he will look like). Some players are capable of aging gracefully. Old centers often begin to bully with bulk to compensate for their lack of leap. Old guards can turn into shooters. But LeBron’s game is singularly multifaceted, and every aspect plays off each other. Doing so much for so long should, hypothetically, begin to kick in.

But LeBron’s miracle has always been his consistency. His job is to do everything, and he has done so for nearly a decade and a half. He’s rarely slumped, he’s never gotten injured, and he hasn’t slowed: In fact, he’s gotten better. His field goal percentage improved year-over-year in eight of his first 10 seasons, and he’s currently recording a career high in assists per game. He’s a better player now than he was at any point in his first Cleveland tenure, and he won MVP twice then. All three of his seasons since turning 30 are in the top 25 of PER all-time for players 30 and older.

It’s hard to picture a LeBron who’s unable to chase down a breakaway layup, a LeBron lightly tapping in dunks instead of slamming the ball through the rim hard enough to create a vortex in space-time. It shouldn’t be possible for LeBron to continue playing at his exceptionally high level. But LeBron James has always been impossible.