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The Road to the Title Goes Through LeBron Until He Says Otherwise

Miami LeBron is long gone. But subtle changes in James’s game helped vault him back into the Finals and could keep him there for years to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“It’s been like this for a very long time: If you want to win, you’ll have to go through a LeBron James–led team,” Jimmy Butler said Sunday after the Heat beat the Celtics in Game 6 to advance to the NBA Finals. “You’re going to get the same test over and over until you pass it. That test is LeBron James.” But one year ago around this time, James was doubted more than he has been in years. LeBron, who’s in his 17th season and turned 35 in December, was coming off a season in which a groin injury kept him to a career-low 55 games. He was no longer the consensus best player in the league: ESPN and Sports Illustrated ranked him third, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. James called 2019-20 his “revenge season,” and that’s precisely what it has been since last October when the Lakers, led by LeBron and Anthony Davis, embarked on their journey to the Finals.

LeBron’s success and longevity are testaments to his otherworldly talent, and also to his adaptability. James has been a de facto point guard over his career, but Lakers head coach Frank Vogel asked him to take on even more of the playmaking responsibility. For the first time in his career, he led the NBA in assists, averaging 10.2 per game. LeBron logged more touches, passes, and time possessing the ball per game than he has since at least 2013-14, which is the first season NBA Advanced Stats tracking data is available. Assigning James the heaviest facilitating load of his career revealed his blueprint for playing elite basketball into his 40s, if he chooses to play that long.

James is still one of the league’s most explosive players, but he’s not in his athletic prime, like he was during his first stint in Cleveland and while he went to four straight Finals with Miami. An untrained eye can see this, and scouts and coaches say his first step isn’t as sudden as it once was; he relies more on manipulative moves and pure power than on burst to get to the rim. This season, he posted a career-low free throw rate. It obviously hasn’t affected his production: He’s averaging 26.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists while playing stellar defense in the playoffs, and he finished second in MVP voting. The playoffs have shown that James is still the best basketball player in the world.

His athleticism has and will continue to change, but his mind won’t: LeBron is a savant playmaker with the size, dexterity, and vision to make any pass. Those skills don’t fade. If his scoring workload declines in the coming years, he can lean more and more on his playmaking and still make a tremendous impact.

James has been trending in that direction: In his past four seasons, he’s posted four of the five highest assist percentages of his career. This season, he posted a career high, assisting on a massive 49.1 percent of his teammates’ baskets while he was on the court. Over the past 30 seasons that mark has been surpassed only 26 times by nine other players, primarily by traditional point guards like John Stockton, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and his former nemesis and current teammate, Rajon Rondo. Magic Johnson is the only player taller than 6-foot-5 to ever do it once; if James keeps this type of role in the coming seasons, it’s realistic to expect him to do it again. With LeBron’s size and strength, he’s better equipped than smaller guards to sustain this production into his late 30s and his 40s, pending good health.

It sure helps to be supported by Davis, one of the most dominant ball-screen scorers in league history. Davis can flush lob dunks, score with finesse on the move, and pop for 3s or attack off the dribble. If the defense switches a screen, James can deliver Davis the ball on the low post or the elbow and let him go to work. James has done that often this season: He assisted Davis 2.7 times per game in the regular season and 3.1 times per game during the playoffs, both of which rank as the most often James has assisted a teammate, per NBA Advanced Stats. Davis is only 27 and in his prime; as LeBron ages, he can play through AD—like he did in Game 3—and pick his own spots as a scorer, like he did in the fourth quarter of Game 5 to send the Lakers to the Finals.

James also takes more 3s (he posted a career-high 6.3 attempts this season) and played a career low in minutes (34.6). There’s no going back from here—there will be no more seasons when he averages over 40 minutes and logs 10 free throws per game. LeBron has logged a career 59,125 minutes in the regular season and postseason, which is the most by any player ever over their first 17 years in the league. He’s about four full seasons away from surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most minutes ever logged in the NBA. During that time, James should also pass Kareem for most points—he’s currently third, only 4,146 behind Kareem for regular-season totals and just 2,596 behind when including the playoffs. James also currently ranks eighth all time in regular-season assists (and sixth including the playoffs); catching John Stockton is improbable, but at this rate, he could move ahead of Magic and into the top five. Kareem played 20 seasons until he was 41 thanks to a game that was built to last, plus good injury luck. But LeBron could go for longer if he stays healthy because of his elite playmaking skills.

James could retire today with 16 All-NBA honors (most all time), four league MVPs (tied with Wilt Chamberlain for third most all time), three championships, three Finals MVPs (tied for second most all time, behind Jordan’s six), and be considered, at worst, the second-best player of all time. He will add to those accolades next month if the Lakers defeat the Heat. But as much as we debate whether James has overtaken Michael Jordan as the GOAT, that conversation is far from over. There’s no end in sight for LeBron because his adaptable skill set will allow him to compete for championships as long as he desires. By the time he’s done, there may be no argument for anyone else. Whether it’s a new role, a new team, or a new conference, James has shown he’s still the gatekeeper to a championship.