It was a foregone conclusion that LeBron James would be drafted first overall in 2003, even before the draft lottery rewarded his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers with the first overall pick. James was already a national phenomenon before stepping foot on an NBA court.
James immediately bore a tremendous burden, with pressure to grow into potentially the best player of all time. And while that amount of pressure seems suffocating to virtually anyone else, to James it was probably expected.
Fast-forward 16 years and James has not disappointed. He has accomplished just about everything an NBA player can accomplish; he is a three-time NBA champion, a four-time NBA MVP, a fifteen-time NBA All-Star and so on. To say James’ career has been wildly successful is actually an understatement.
But looking back and looking ahead are dramatically different exercises. And while James has performed exceptionally well in all of his 16 professional seasons, every season from here on out represents new challenges – the likes of which he has yet to face, namely aging.
Last season, James suffered his first serious, documented injury – a groin strain sustained on Christmas Day. But groin strains are not terribly severe and typically don’t linger too long when treated correctly. The Lakers took precautions with James, playing him in only 21 of their final 48 games. And while James career will probably come to an end by his own volition – and not as a result of an injury – he will inevitably begin to show cracks in his armor at some point.
But when might that be?
Sports media has already begun to wonder. And it is well within our rights as basketball fans, onlookers and commentators to debate. But doing so aimlessly is an exercise in futility.
With that being said, let’s try to predict James’ 2019-20 output by examining the drop-off of four quasi-similar players at similar points in their career relative to their career averages. Let us draw comparisons to players who are at least somewhat similar to James from a physique and/or stylistic standpoint, so the comparisons are as relevant as possible.
Of course there are independent variables that we can’t predict, like James’ willingness to accept less minutes or his desire to run the Los Angeles Lakers’ offense through Anthony Davis to mitigate strain on his body. And while they will ultimately affect James’ output in 2019-20, we’ll have to proceed as though he’ll approach this season like all of the ones he’s participated in prior to it – which might not come to fruition.
While it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint four players that share that much in common with James, we are fortunate enough to have the entire history of the NBA from which to draw. So let’s examine four of the best and most physically gifted players to ever don an NBA jersey, all of whom share at least one striking similarity to James – Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins and Kobe Bryant. And we’ll examine the first full season in which a player entered having already turned 34-years-old.
But first, let’s establish the baseline:
LeBron James averages 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists in 38.6 minutes per game through 16 seasons. He has logged a total of 46,235 regular season minutes and 10,038 minutes in postseason games.
Jordan entered the 1997-98 season having already turned 34 years old the previous winter. His 34-year-old season differs from James’ in that he’d played significantly fewer minutes up to that point. Jordan retired from basketball for nearly two seasons after the 1992-93 season when he was only 30-years-old, and he entered the league at 21 years of age – meaning he had the luxury of a 27-game NCAA regular season and a slimmed down postseason in place of playing 82 games with less rest between them.
Jordan entered 1997-98 having played a total of 32,706 regular season minutes and 7,474 playoff minutes – nearly 16,000 minutes less than James in total.
Jordan averaged 30.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 37.75 minutes per game in his 12 seasons prior to turning 34. In his 13th season and at 34 years old, Jordan averaged 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 38.8 minutes per game.
Malone is a 6-foot-10 wrecking ball who had above-average speed and mobility given his size and build. He was a powerful two-way player who also had elements of a finesse game well ahead of his time. He entered the league at 22-years-old. Thus, he preserved his body a bit, too. But Malone also played straight through 40 years of age, having played 80 or more games in all but two professional seasons.
Malone and Jordan were born in the same year and, therefore, their 34-year-old-season was the same (1997-98). Malone entered his having played a total of 36,799 regular season minutes and 4,924 playoff minutes – nearly 16,000 minutes less than James in total.
He averaged 26.11 points, 10.75 rebounds and 3.25 assists per game in 37.55 minutes per game prior to the season in which he turned 34. Malone lived up to his iron man reputation and posted even better averages in his 34-year-old season than he’d averaged across the first 12 seasons, averaging 27 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 37.4 minutes per game.
While Wilkins sported a slightly slimmer stature than James, his height, play at a wing position and explosiveness make him an extremely relevant comparison. Wilkins entered the league at 22 years old and he retired from the NBA when he was 39. His rookie season was 1982-83; he was 34 at the beginning of the 1994-95 season – his thirteenth season in the NBA.
Wilkins played 33,493 regular season minutes prior to 1994-95, and an additional 2,019 playoff minutes; he played approximately 20,000 total minutes less than James as a professional at the same age. Wilkins ruptured his right Achilles tendon in 1992, which added additional complications to Wilkins’ professional journey and residual, physical barriers to overcome.
Wilkins averaged 26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.68 assists in 36.99 minutes per game across the 12 seasons before his 34-year-old season. Wilkins production dropped considerably in his next professional season, averaging 17.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 31.5 minutes per game.
Bryant might be the most relevant comparison given the fact that both he and James entered the league as 18-year-old rookies. Bryant was a rookie in 1997. He was 34 years old in 2012-13 season as a 16-year veteran.
Bryant played in 42,377 regular season minutes and 8,641 playoff minutes prior to his 34-year-old season – which is far closer to James’ minute totals than any of the previously mentioned players.
Bryant averaged 25.16 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.65 assists in 36.53 minutes per game through 16 seasons prior to his 34-year-old season. He averaged 27.3 points, 6 assists and 5.6 rebounds in 38.6 minutes per game as a 34-year-old.
And to provide some color to the aforementioned statistics: In 1997-98, Jordan led the league in scoring, won a NBA Finals MVP and received first-team All-NBA honors. In 1996-97, Malone was named league MVP and received first-team All-NBA honors. In 2012-13, Bryant received first-team All-NBA honors and he carried the Lakers to the playoffs despite a lack of coaching continuity and a hodge-podge of disappointing and injured role players in a competitive Western Conference. And Wilkins averaged 31.5 minutes per game and posted about the same effective field goal percentage in his 34-year-old season (.472) as he did for his entire career (.478).
The average production of the four players mentioned above prior to their 34-year-old season is 27.17 points, 4 assists and 7.26 rebounds in 37.2 minutes per game, whereas the average production in the 34-year-old season was 25.2 points, 3.9 assists and 6.75 rebounds in 36.575 minutes per game. That means that if the average drop-off of the Jordan, Malone, Wilkins and Bryant careers can be expected of him, then James’ 2019-20 production will look something like the following: 25.2 points, 6.3 assists, 5.75 rebounds in 37.95 minutes per game.
One additional caveat: James injury history, or lack thereof, and the degree to which he attends to his body is unique, even for players who shared equally big burdens for their respective teams. After all, modern medicine and advancements in health and wellness should lengthen James’ career beyond all four of the aforementioned players in and of itself.
And to reiterate, so many factors will affect James’ 2019-20 production, and it is laughable to think that we can predict a player’s production for an entire 82-game season with a simple formula such as the one used above.
But one thing is for sure: If his 2019-20 season plays out at all like the circumstances that were dealt to Jordan, Malone, Wilkins and Bryant, we can expect another impressive year from James.