The new NBA season is upon us, and also the umpteenth in a row where a team led by LeBron James is considered to be one of the contenders. But is the wear and tear finally catching up with him or could he push the limits of humanity even further?
Last October, Nike promoted the Nike LeBron 20 shoe by pitting him against Father Time (portrayed by Jason Momoa, for it seems Hollywood has no actual old men) in a commercial. After that, King James averaged 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game in his 20th season while surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the all-time leading scorer in league history. Not bad for an old man, right?
With Udonis Haslem and Andre Iguodala leaving to enjoy their retirement, James is now the oldest active player in the league. He has played more than 1400 games (ninth all-time) and 54,000 minutes (third) over his career. Just five players have reached their 21st season before, and none of them averaged more than 7.4 points per game. James, who played 29 minutes and put up 21 points, eight rebounds, and five assists in the season opener, is quite literally pushing the limits now. He has scored more than ten points in his last 1152 games.
“I feel different. I am not a 21-year-old, that is for sure,” LeBron said before the season. “Feels a little bit different getting out of bed every day. But as far as my energy level, I feel pretty good. I feel like I have got a lot more in the tank to give.”
LeBron will not be 39 until December. Looking at the passport will not mean much to him. Vince Carter was 43 when he retired, Dirk Nowitzki 41. Tom Brady, considered the greatest American football quarterback of all time, kept going until 45, and was the Super Bowl MVP at 43 while winning his final ring. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon went on until 45 too. Although those legends can be considered outliers, careers are now longer on average too. So what can LeBron achieve?
We can expect to see him still contribute and put up at least 20-5-5 on any given night, but he has gradually passed the torch to Anthony Davis as the first option for the Lakers. A smart move. They won the title together in 2020, and at 30, Davis – provided he manages to stay healthy – must accept the alpha role as his own now. But with his injury history (Davis has averaged 44 games over the last three seasons), the risks are clear.
The Lakers could have gone a different route. Remember last season? They had a third All-Star in Russell Westbrook along for the ride, but it was utter chaos until resolved via a trade in February. From there, the Lakers gathered momentum. They made the play-in tournament, beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, and knocked out both the Memphis Grizzlies (4-2) and the Golden State Warriors (4-2) before being swept by the Denver Nuggets. But by making the Conference Finals, they still were a top-four team in the league.
This off-season, they have played it safe. No big moves, no third superstar, just keep the core intact. Re-signed Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves, and D’Angelo Russell; acquired Gabe Vincent, Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish, Jaxson Hayes, and Christian Wood. This means it will be up to Davis and LeBron to carry the team once more.
But betting your successes on a 39-year-old and a guy who has a long history of serious injuries? Experts are cautious, and with good reason. They lost World Cup MVP Dennis Schröder, who walked away to join the Toronto Raptors, meaning someone has to step up when it matters. The potential is there, but the Lakers need a lot of things to go their way.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, they will have no time to settle in the West. Last season, the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings were quietly efficient; the Dallas Mavericks are preparing for their first season with the Luka Doncic – Kyrie Irving duo, the Minnesota Timberwolves have an interesting look, and it might get tighter at home as well – the LA Clippers have plenty of talent (and Westbrook) to pose a threat.
Then there are the behemoths. After six Finals appearances and four titles in the past nine years, the Golden State Warriors are still here with Stephen Curry (35), Klay Thompson (33), and Draymond Green (33) leading the way. This summer, they traded for Chris Paul (38), a Hall of Fame point guard chasing for a ring to end his career. Much like the Lakers, health will be their biggest concern.
The Denver Nuggets start the season as the defending champions, and Nikola Jokic is back from his summer of doing whatever he wanted. Most of the core will be back too. They will set the early benchmark, especially after soundly beating the Lakers on opening night (Jokic had a triple-double, by the way – it seems dealing with horses is a good enough preparation for him).
The Phoenix Suns are in the mix after adding three-time All-Star Bradley Beal (by giving up Paul) to run along with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker while also restocking the second unit. And if the Lakers manage to navigate all that, a match-up with either a developing Boston Celtics or a reshaped Milwaukee Bucks (if you have been living under a rock, Damian Lillard joined Giannis Antetokounmpo … thinking about it, someone should notify Jokic) looms in the Finals.
What makes LeBron tick heading into his 21st season? He says the Larry O’Brien Trophy is still on his mind every day. After delivering in Miami, making good on his promise in Cleveland, and leading the Lakers to a somewhat unexpected title in 2020, a fifth title would still not put him next to His Airness Michael Jordan (who has six). But Bill Russell has eleven anyway.
However, winning another for the Lakers would add more than just plus one to James’s legacy; it would make the Lakers the greatest franchise in NBA history once again, an honour they have not held since 1963. A potential Finals match-up with the Celtics, with teams tied at 17 apiece, would be an instant epic.
If we run that scenario and have the Lakers lift the title with James crowned Finals MVP at 39, a discussion would be in order surely. That would be the creme de la creme to end James’s career and quite possibly raise him to GOAT status.
But first, a long and grueling season awaits. Let’s go!