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LeBron James Just Might Play Forever

Like Tom Brady, the Lakers star is redefining the aging curve. And after turning his biggest weakness into a strength this season, he may have extended his career even further.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For his latest trick, LeBron James has found another way to stave off time. It shouldn’t be possible for anyone to get better in their 18th season, especially given the short turnaround between the end of the bubble and the start of this season. But some tweaks to his game and the Lakers’ supporting cast has allowed LeBron to play at as high a level as ever. Many assumed that the 36-year-old LeBron would take it easy in the regular season and let 27-year-old Anthony Davis carry him to the playoffs. The reverse has happened instead. LeBron is the front-runner for his fifth MVP award after dropping a season-high 46 points in a 115-108 win over the Cavaliers on Monday.

The latest version of LeBron is one of the better shooters in the league. He’s averaging career highs in 3-point attempts per game (6.6) and 3-point percentage (41.2). LeBron ranks 15th in 3-point percentage among the 55 players attempting at least 6.0 3s per game, right behind the Heat’s Duncan Robinson. It’s remarkable to watch LeBron’s highlights and remember that defenses used to leave him open on the perimeter. He now has every shot from behind the arc in his bag. He takes pull-up 3s out of the pick-and-roll:

Stepback 3s when isolated against defenders:

And he can even launch shots from the logo:

The degree of difficulty on those shots isn’t as high as it might seem. LeBron is so big (6-foot-9 and 250 pounds) that few defenders can actually contest his jumper. That’s not to say they’re easy, but that it’s largely a matter of knocking down open shots once he’s created the necessary space. Now he’s doing it at a higher rate than ever.

The same thing happens when LeBron gets the ball on the block. He has long been one of the best post scorers in the league, but that was mostly based on his ability to overpower smaller defenders in the paint. The improvement in his jumper this season has allowed him to make the turnaround fadeaway a staple of his game. There’s nothing the defense can do once he gets to his spot other than hope he misses. It was fitting that LeBron busted out this move on the night before the one-year remembrance of Kobe Bryant’s death:

The most important thing about LeBron’s improved jumper is that it makes the game even easier for him. It takes less energy to put up a jumper than to put your head down and plow to the rim. According to NBA Advanced Stats, his number of drives per game (10.1) is way down from last season (14.1). LeBron is developing his old-man game just as he becomes an old man, by NBA standards.

The amount of miles on his body is staggering. He’s no. 1 in career minutes among active players and no. 7 all time (49,139). The next active player on that list is Carmelo Anthony at no. 32 (40,416). Emphasizing his jumper lets LeBron pick and choose when to run and jump.

There was a stretch at the beginning of the fourth quarter against Cleveland, following some trash-talking between LeBron and a member of the Cavs’ front office sitting in the stands, when he turned it on defensively and scored eight points in transition. That’s how he played almost all of last season, when he was a full-time point guard on a team that tried to run as much as possible. But the Lakers made some offseason changes to lift some of the offensive burden off of LeBron, allowing him to score without having to work as hard.

LeBron now shares point-guard duties with Dennis Schröder, and playmaking responsibilities are distributed more evenly through the starting lineup. The Lakers are running offense through Marc Gasol, and Davis is facilitating more than he did last season. As a result, LeBron’s assist average has plummeted from a career-high 10.2 last season to a number more in line with his career average (7.4). He’s handing out a lower percentage of his team’s total assists (29.7) than last year (40.2), while being assisted on the highest percentage of his field goals (38.0) in five seasons. The new-look Lakers move the ball incredibly well at times, slinging it around the floor and creating wide-open looks for LeBron:

LeBron is still the team’s engine. He leads the Lakers in minutes (32.7), points (25.2), and assists (7.4), and is second in rebounds (7.9). The team goes from a net rating of plus-12.5 in 588 minutes with him to plus-1.2 in 276 minutes without him. The difference is that Los Angeles’s newcomers are making LeBron better, instead of him always having to make his teammates better.

Davis, despite being almost a decade younger than James, is the Lakers superstar who has taken a step back this season. He’s averaging the third-fewest points per game (21.8) of his career. Los Angeles has a net rating of plus-5.7 in 235 minutes when LeBron plays without Davis, and minus-1.3 in 169 minutes when Davis plays without LeBron.

LeBron is checking every box necessary to win his fifth MVP, which would tie him with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell and trail only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six. He’s the best player on the team with the best record (14-4) and net rating (plus-9.7) in the league. The Lakers have had no championship hangover, despite having every reason to. They are a balanced team that plays elite defense (no. 1 in the NBA) and elite offense (no. 7) and brings consistent effort every night, no small thing in such a bizarre season. That all starts with LeBron. He still sets the tone for the whole league. If he’s taking the regular season seriously, then everyone else has to as well.

The biggest question is whether his jumper will hold up. His improved 3-point shooting has not translated to the free throw line (71.3 percent on 5.6 attempts per game), which suggests that his shooting percentages will regress to the mean as the season progresses. An extended cold streak from the perimeter may be the only thing standing in the way of an MVP season for LeBron.

LeBron’s jumper always has been the key to extending his career. It may seem hard to believe at this point, but his athleticism will eventually decline as he inches closer to 40. But it won’t matter if he can compensate for any decrease in speed with a better outside shot. LeBron will be as big as a tank and one of the smartest players in the league for as long as he plays. Continuing to improve as a shooter will keep him at the top of the league indefinitely.

LeBron, like Tom Brady in the NFL, is redefining the aging curve. Brady (43) is headed for a Super Bowl showdown against Patrick Mahomes (25). It’s time to start asking whether LeBron could end up doing something similar. Brady headlined a generation of QBs that my Ringer colleague Kevin Clark called “forever QBs” for their ability to dominate for an unprecedented amount of time. LeBron might be the first of the forever wings.