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The King in Winter

For the past 15 years, LeBron James has chased Michael Jordan’s ghost. But soon, he’ll be embarking on a journey on the court that His Airness never took on himself: the unwinnable challenge of aging gracefully.

LeBron James with Michael Jordan in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Michael Jordan or LeBron James? It is one of the essential questions in the modern era of sports fandom, encompassing facts and biases, statistics and anecdotal evidence, and the ever-shifting barometer of cultural relevance. It turns friends into foes, barbershops into the site of parliamentary debates, and the Super Bowl LII champions into bickering schoolchildren. The question of Jordan or LeBron may live on for longer than they do. So, before we fully gear up for what should be a frenzied second half of the season, why not celebrate and examine the impact of two of the most influential players in basketball history?

Welcome to Jordan-LeBron Week.

LeBron James is about to do something Michael Jordan never did: He is going to age in front of us. Jordan was 34 when he retired the second time, the same age LeBron will turn this December. By the time Jordan made his final return at 38, he was a shell of himself. He left a champion and returned an elder statesman with no chance to compete with the next generation of stars. They never got a chance to dethrone him. LeBron’s not retiring anytime soon, which means he’ll spend the next few years trying to hold off players like Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo for as long as he can. How he navigates the twilight phase of his career will have a huge impact on how we remember him.

LeBron is already showing signs of age, and it’s not just the hair loss. He still has eye-popping stats this season (26.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 8.9 assists on 54.4 percent shooting), but he can’t take over games on both ends of the floor like during his apex in Miami. Doing that in the regular season takes energy he no longer has, which is likely why he has barely played defense the past few months. While part of the issue was him losing confidence in a dysfunctional roster, he also can’t dominate the ball and go all out defensively if he wants to have anything left in the tank for the playoffs. For the first time since his rookie year, his team has a negative net rating (minus-0.1) with him on the floor.

LeBron should start rounding into form after the All-Star break. He seems genuinely excited to play with all the players the Cavs acquired in a blockbuster series of deadline trades, and he has perfected the art of flipping the switch in May and June. LeBron was a one-man wrecking crew in last year’s postseason, leading the Cavs to a 12-1 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs. He even played the Warriors to a near draw when he was on the floor in the Finals. Cleveland went from a net rating of minus-1.8 in the 212 minutes he played to minus-37.4 in the 28 minutes he sat.

The only thing he couldn’t do was contain Durant. KD’s pull-up 3 over LeBron in the final moments of Game 3 was the lasting image from that series, a play that effectively sealed Golden State’s championship. LeBron became the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks in 2016; Durant essentially negated him in 2017. LeBron met his match. Durant is every bit as gifted as he is, except he’s four years younger.

Durant learned from LeBron’s example. After entering the league as a pure scorer, he has become a well-rounded player over the course of his career. Now, at the age of 29, he’s a finished product with no holes in his game. Durant has turned himself into a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, an award LeBron has never won. When Durant signed with Golden State, he changed the balance of power in the NBA. The Warriors are a better version of what LeBron created in Miami. The only way for him to win another championship is to go through Durant.

LeBron also has a new challenger in the East. After rampaging through the conference for the past decade, LeBron now faces a player who can go toe-to-toe with him. Giannis has the chance to be a transcendent player in his own right, combining the size of a center with the speed and floor game of a point guard. His presence alone makes the Bucks a wild card in the playoffs, though it’s unclear how good they are at present. They fired Jason Kidd a few weeks ago and are still integrating Jabari Parker back into the mix. In their first 12 games without Kidd, they have a net rating of plus-13.1 when Giannis is on the floor. If they feel confident in his occasionally balky knee, they may try to play him all 48 minutes in a playoff game like LeBron often did when he was 23.

There was no one like LeBron in the league 15 years ago. He changed the way the game is played, and now he has to deal with a new generation of stars who grew up reading from his playbook. Durant and Giannis are new-age bigs who aren’t confined to traditional positional designations, or the typical skill sets for players their size. They cause just as many matchup problems as LeBron does in a playoff series. LeBron has always been able to count on having the best combination of size and speed on the court. Durant and Giannis can flip the script. The matchup is still even for now, but the odds will move in their favor going forward.

The good news for LeBron? The normal rules of aging don’t necessarily apply to the greatest athletes. He is declining from such a peak that even a more limited version of himself could still be a top-10 player. He’s one of the most versatile players in NBA history, and there are many roles he could be used in that he isn’t occupying at the moment. LeBron has an almost endless capacity for reinvention. He hasn’t always wanted to tap into it in the past, but his declining athleticism will eventually force his hand.

Players move up the position spectrum as they get older. Jason Kidd went from the 1 to the 2, Paul Pierce went from the 3 to the 4, and Tim Duncan went from the 4 to the 5. The shift allows them to match up with bigger and slower players, while their team can put more speed and athleticism at their old positions. LeBron still has two position shifts he could make. He can go from the 3 to the 4 and then again from the 4 to the 5. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, LeBron is essentially the size of Al Horford, who is now a full-time center. There’s no reason he couldn’t become a starting 5, especially with the league continuing to get smaller.

The other concession to age LeBron has to make is becoming a more consistent shooter. Shooting 3s requires a lot less energy than dunking on people. The slower he gets, the more important it will be for him to knock down outside shots. He has shot better than 40 percent from 3 in a season only once; his 36.2 percent shooting on 4.8 3-point attempts per game this season is one of the best marks of his career. It won’t be easy for him to improve after 15 seasons in the NBA, but it is possible. Hall of Fame players have done it before. Kidd is the best example; he won a championship at 37 after turning himself into an elite spot-up shooter.

LeBron has spent the past eight years playing with an elite stretch big man, whether it was Chris Bosh or Kevin Love. His best bet to remain an elite player going forward is to become one himself. A team with LeBron splitting time at the 4 and 5 and waves of athletic shooters around him would be impossible to defend. Most big men could not guard even a slower version of LeBron, so there would be mismatches all over the floor. If opposing teams downsized, LeBron could take smaller defenders into the post, a tool he’s honed since he first began playing power forward in 2011 for Miami. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he’s in the 76th percentile of players leaguewide when scoring and passing out of the post this season.

Posting up would be the best way to neutralize the quickness of guys like Durant and Giannis. LeBron is built like a tank. His frame gives him the ability to put longer and more athletic defenders on his back and create enough room to get off his shot. He has never had to play the angles before. It doesn’t mean he couldn’t. He will have to continue refining his footwork and his jumper, but the foundation is there. The buzzer-beater he made over Jimmy Butler in Cleveland’s victory against Minnesota could become one of the main weapons in his arsenal:

That’s how LeBron has to play if he wants to be one of the primary options on an elite team at 37 or 38. Just the fact it’s possible is stunning. If LeBron is an All-Star in 2023, he would be one of the top players in the NBA for two decades. Perimeter players aren’t supposed to last that long. Jordan was great for only 13 seasons. Kobe made it to 20, but he was never the same player after tearing his Achilles. The difference is that LeBron was never just a perimeter player. He’s a big man who likes to play on the perimeter, and great big men can play forever. Tim Duncan won a title at 37. Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started in the Finals in their 40s. LeBron could play in the 2023 Finals if he stays healthy and has the right teammates around him.

There are some epic playoff series still ahead of him. No one is excited about a potential Cleveland vs. Golden State IV in this year’s Finals, but a lot will change this summer. Committing to the Cavs would allow them to use their lottery pick from the Nets to continue upgrading their roster. Going west would give him one final opportunity to build a superteam. No matter what conference he is in, he will have a younger rival standing in his way. LeBron vs. Giannis or LeBron vs. Durant will be basketball played at as high a level as possible. LeBron will be the sentimental favorite in those matchups. Everyone roots for the lion in winter.

He can find inspiration from an all-time great in a different sport. A few years ago it seemed like Roger Federer would never win another major title. He had been passed by Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, and Andy Murray, younger players who were every bit as skilled and much more athletic. Federer didn’t give up or walk away. He kept himself ready and put himself in a position to pounce if the opportunity arose. Then, his rivals started breaking down physically, and he became king of the sport again at 36, the oldest player in ATP history to hold a no. 1 ranking. Just showing up is half the battle. If LeBron keeps making the Finals every season, he might back his way into six titles.

Even that wouldn’t be enough for him to match Jordan for many people. A huge part of Jordan’s legacy is never losing in the Finals. He went from man to myth when he walked away on top. The last memory fans have of prime Jordan is the jumper that clinched the 1998 Finals. The flip side, though, is that Jordan didn’t create as many memories for himself as he could. Jordan at 38 may not have been good enough to compete for a title, but Jordan at 37 and 36 might have been. Jordan at 35 definitely was. An athlete gets only so many chances in their lives to play the sport they love, and Jordan didn’t maximize his.

The second comeback was proof that Jordan regretted his decision. Jordan has spent the past 20 years trying to recapture the feeling of playing in the Finals. Retiring on top was good for his legacy, but he can’t take that with him when he dies. There is no such thing as immortality in sports. Who was the greatest chariot racer in the history of the Byzantine Empire, or the greatest pitz player in Mayan history? All any of us can do is make the most of the short amount of time we have. LeBron is one of the greatest players ever, and he has the chance to play the game for as long as anyone in NBA history. He will get to play in far more high-level basketball games than Jordan ever did. For a profession with such a short lifespan, perhaps that’s the only legacy that really matters.