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LeBron James Needs to Hold Up His End of the Bargain

Anthony Davis successfully forced his way to Los Angeles. For the new-look Lakers to work, LeBron needs to prove he can still play like a superstar at this stage of his career.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James has played with a lot of future Hall of Famers in 16 seasons in the NBA. From Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, LeBron has spent the past decade with some of the league’s best. But he has never played with anyone as good as Anthony Davis, a legitimate superstar in his prime. The Lakers gave up a king’s ransom to get AD from the Pelicans—three former first-round draft picks and three future first-round picks—and form one of the most talented duos in NBA history. The question is timing. With James turning 35 in December, what version of him will the Lakers get over the next few seasons?

LeBron showed the first real signs of aging last season, his first in Los Angeles. His per-game stats (27.4 points on 51 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds, and 8.3 assists) were in line with his career averages, but he wasn’t the same two-way force that he has been for most of his career. The issue wasn’t any decline in skill. LeBron is still one of the best ball handlers and passers in the league, and he’s a far better shooter than when he was younger. But you could see a drop-off in physical ability. He didn’t jump quite as high, run quite as fast, or have as much energy as he used to. In other words, LeBron started to play more like an old man. He didn’t attack the rim as much, begged off the toughest defensive assignments, and took plays off. He can still do everything on a basketball court at a high level. He just has to pick and choose his spots more carefully.

James is slowly changing how he plays offense. He is taking more 3s and fewer shots at the rim. He still took a ton of shots (44.6 percent) within 5 feet of the rim last season, but it was below his career high (49.7) in the 2015-16 season, when he was 31 and won an NBA title in his second season back with the Cavs. That number has gone down every season since, while his number of 3-point attempts has risen. LeBron went from averaging 3.7 3s per game in 2015-16 to 5.9 in 2018-19. It’s not just the number of 3s; it’s the type of 3s he’s taking. A career-high 65.8 percent of his 3s were unassisted last season. For better or worse, LeBron will take pull-up 3s from anywhere as if he were Steph Curry or James Harden. The question is whether those are really the shots that he should be taking, or whether he’s settling because he either can’t or won’t go to the rim as often. It’s far easier for a player his age to shoot 3s than to put his head down and score through traffic. He’s not shooting all that well, either—33.9 percent from 3 and 66.5 percent from the free throw line. The Lakers need him to be more accurate, because it will only become a more important part of his game as he gets older.

His physical decline is more noticeable on defense. The Lakers tried to hide LeBron as much as possible. The players James defended the most last season were P.J. Tucker (154 possessions), Al-Farouq Aminu (144), and Dante Cunningham (125). Peak LeBron had the ability to be the primary option on offense while also shutting down the best scorer on the opposing team. He can’t do that anymore. Even worse is that he’s no longer very engaged off the ball. He fell asleep a lot last season, while giving fairly inconsistent effort. Los Angeles was not a great defensive team last season, and LeBron was as much a part of the problem as anyone.

James can’t do everything on his own anymore. The good news for the Lakers is that he shouldn’t have to. Davis is the perfect costar to help LeBron ease deeper into his 30s. He is what LeBron was at 26: a two-way force who can win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. AD has made significant improvements over the past few seasons; they have just been overshadowed by all the drama and lack of playoff success in New Orleans. Davis doesn’t have any holes in his game. He has averaged at least 25 points and 11 rebounds in each of the past three seasons, and he’s coming off career highs in 3-point attempts (2.6 per game) and assists (3.9 per game). It’s not just that he and James will instantly form one of the best pick-and-roll combinations in the league. LeBron has never played with a big man who can create shots for him like Davis, or who could cover for him as well on defense. Davis should be a far more versatile offensive partner than either Bosh or Love, whom James turned into spot-up shooters. And while Bosh was an excellent defensive center, he never averaged more than 1.4 blocks or one steal in a single season. Davis averaged 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game last season.

The big question left for the Lakers is who they can get to surround LeBron and Davis. The amount of available salary cap space the Lakers have left depends on two things: whether the Davis trade is submitted to the league as soon as possible (July 6) or the two teams wait 30 days to use the no. 4 overall pick for salary-matching purposes, and whether AD waives his trade bonus ($4.2 million). They could have as much as $32.6 million, which would allow them to offer a max contract to another star like Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, or Jimmy Butler, or as little as $23.7 million. Kawhi, the reigning Finals MVP, is a cut above the other four, but all five would make sense. There is an argument to be made that Los Angeles should instead split up the money into more 3-and-D players like Patrick Beverley and Danny Green. The problem is those players are already in their 30s and don’t have much margin for error if they decline. The Lakers won’t have much flexibility going forward. They can’t afford to make a mistake in free agency. They gave up so many future assets to the Pelicans that they won’t be able to attach draft picks or young players to get off a bad contract like they did with D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov.

The Lakers can’t afford for LeBron to have any age-related slippage or miss too much time with injuries. They will need Davis and LeBron to play like top-five players if they don’t get a third star. And if they get a third star, they will not have much room to fill out the rest of their roster.

Health was the biggest issue for LeBron last season. The pulled groin that he suffered on Christmas against the Warriors was the worst injury of his career. He missed more than a month, and it took him a while to get comfortable again. In the end, he played only 55 games, by far the fewest in his NBA career (although that number was lower than it could have been because he sat out the last few weeks of the season when the Lakers were no longer in playoff contention). We know that older players tend to take longer to recover from injuries. We had just never seen it from LeBron before, in part because he was never seriously injured before. He was so big and fast that he dished out far more punishment than he took, and he bounced back from seemingly serious falls as if they were nothing. He can’t get up as quickly anymore. The groin injury wasn’t all bad, though. The rest LeBron got by missing the postseason could be the sabbatical his body needed before the next stage of his career.

New Lakers head coach Frank Vogel will still have to be careful with how he uses LeBron. He will be tempted to play him as much as possible. With James and Kyle Kuzma the only regulars left following the Davis trade, the Lakers will have a completely new team without much depth to paper over their lack of continuity. No matter what they end up doing the rest of the summer, the roster will be top-heavy. Yet Vogel can’t afford to chase wins in the regular season—either with LeBron or Davis, the latter of whom has struggled with minor injuries throughout his career in New Orleans. Davis may not be able to keep LeBron fresh for the playoffs by playing more minutes in the same way that LeBron did with Wade at the end of their time in Miami. The biggest priority for Vogel should be keeping both of his stars healthy for the playoffs, which may mean resting LeBron as much as Gregg Popovich used to with Tim Duncan.

LeBron has already put an incredible number of miles on his body. He is no. 15 in NBA history in career minutes played in the regular season (46,235) and no. 1 among active players. No. 2 is Vince Carter (45,491), and no. 3 is Pau Gasol (41,001). LeBron is in uncharted territory; Michael Jordan retired at no. 28 (41,011) on the career minutes list. He will pass Kobe Bryant for no. 7 (48,637) in his 69th game next season if he averages the same number of minutes (35.2) he did last season. And all of those minutes don’t count the playoffs, where he is no. 1 (10,049) among all players, active and retired. LeBron has made the Finals nine times and has never lost in the first round in 13 appearances. It shouldn’t be possible for him to keep up his same level of play for much longer. But it will be fascinating to watch him try.

Jordan and Kobe never got the chance to compete for a championship in their late 30s. LeBron pairing up with AD is like if Jordan had played with Tim Duncan after his final title with the Bulls, or if Dwight Howard had been healthy and in his prime when he teamed up with Kobe. The only players as old as LeBron is now who have been stars on a championship team are big men like Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. LeBron, as a perimeter player with the size of a big man, might be able to age more like those two 7-footers than MJ and Kobe. He’s as big as Karl Malone, who started on a Finals team at 40. The Lakers are hoping that LeBron and Davis will flip the dynamic between Magic and Kareem on its head. Kareem was 37 when he won a title with Magic, then 25. He won two more at 39 and 40 because Magic was 27 and 28.

The odds are against the Lakers’ new duo. It’s hard for players, even ones in their primes, to stay healthy after making deep runs in the playoffs every season. Look at how banged up the Warriors are after five straight trips to the Finals. LeBron knows that better than anyone. Wade was 29 and Bosh was 26 in their first season with LeBron. Love was 26, and Irving was 22. All four have dealt with significant injuries after so many trips in the playoffs next to him. LeBron has never formed a Big Three with anyone close to as old as he is now. He didn’t risk his prime by pairing up with an older star. Davis is risking his. Forcing his way onto the Lakers was a huge gamble for a superstar who could have picked any team. LeBron sold Davis on being his costar. Now he has to live up to his end of the bargain.