It’s time to face a hard reality: LeBron James is no longer the best player in the NBA.
Forget MVPs, titles, and All-Star Games for a moment. Say every year you asked a hundred basketball people, Family Feud-style, “Who is the best basketball player on Earth?” When is the last time the no. 1 answer would not have been LeBron? 2007-ish, maybe? That’s a hell of a run holding the belt.
And this is the part where you say, “Well, what did you expect, Captain Obvious? He’s 34 years old and has over 55,000 minutes worth of tread on his tires, including playoffs.” You would be exactly right, but the fact we even have to acknowledge LeBron’s mortality speaks to the absurd standards to which we’ve always held him, and continue to do so. I am not writing this to take digs at LeBron or to attempt to minimize his greatness. His resume is unassailable and it speaks for itself. Even this deep into his career, he remains a capital-G Great player, with numbers that continue to look like a “typical” LeBron season.
But something has changed about LBJ, and it isn’t just the uniform he’s wearing or the players around him. It’s time for an honest accounting of what he is and is not at this stage, one which cuts through the drama and history of him as an NBA institution and gets us close to what a reasonable set of expectations should be for his career going forward. Getting there starts with the explicit admission — even as the narrative lags behind the reality, often the case in these matters — that LeBron James is no longer Earth’s best basketball player, and employing him alone does not automatically make a team a title contender. Miami-era LeBron is not walking through that door.
Sitting three games back of the 8-seed with twenty-two games to play, it is no longer just a remote possibility the Lakers will miss the postseason in LeBron’s first year with the team; it is exceedingly likely. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) estimates the Lakers have only a 3.1% chance of reaching the postseason after losing to the woeful Grizzlies on Monday night. Assuming they don’t suddenly stumble upon the Fountain of Chemistry, what does history tell us about a player like LeBron missing the playoffs? Is this normal?
The unique nature of LeBron’s all-time great career makes it difficult to find direct historical parallels, but we can take a shot. A player has been selected to the All-Star team in his 16th NBA season or later 27 times in league history. [Here’s the list if you care to see it. Thanks to B-R’s Player Season Finder tool.] When filtered by points per game, a pretty clear top tier of “guys who were still elite late in their careers” emerges: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Karl Malone. [Kobe and Kareem were both Lakers, and Malone’s career rates as the most “similar” by Win Shares to LeBron, so perhaps we’re onto something.]
How did those other players fare as top options late in their respective careers? Kareem’s Lakers won the title in ’85 before famously losing in the Conference Finals to Houston in ’86, with Kareem leading the team in FGA per game in both seasons, but the comparison is difficult because of the presence of young superstars Magic Johnson and James Worthy on those squads. Kobe is a slightly more snug fit, as he and LeBron are relative contemporaries who also both came into the league straight out of high school, so their careers track as far as age vs. experience are concerned. In Kobe’s 16th season (2011-12), he averaged 27.9/ 5.4/ 4.6 for a 41-25 Lakers team. [This was the lockout-shortened season, during which, you may recall, LeBron’s Heat won the title.] The Lakers survived the post-Melo Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs before getting blown off the floor by the Durant/Westbrook/Harden Thunder in Round Two. That season was the last stand for the core which won two championships, as the front office would then make the disastrous Dwight Howard and Steve Nash trades during the 2012 offseason. A tumultuous ’12-’13 season ended with a 45-37 record and a dispiriting first round sweep at the hands of the eventual-Finalist Spurs. Based on the talent and experience levels of those rosters vis-a-vis the current Lakers, it’s probably fair to say those teams were at least as disappointing as this year’s edition.
Interestingly, two other Kareem and Kobe seasons might be our closest apples-to-apples comparisons. The Lakers traded for a 28-year-old Kareem in 1975 but sacrificed a large part of their core in so doing, then proceeded to go 40-42 and miss the playoffs in ’75-’76 despite Kareem posting a Giannis-like 27.7/ 13.5/ 5.0 on 53% shooting. Kobe and the ’04-’05 Lakers might be our best comp, though. Fresh off shipping Shaq out of town to Miami, the Lakers roster featured a 26-year-old Kobe, 25-year-old Lamar Odom, 24-year-old Caron Butler, and just about the lamest, most useless supporting cast you could possibly imagine. With no chemistry and no depth of talent (sound familiar?), the team struggled to a 34-48 record, then qualified for the playoffs the next two years with similarly flawed rosters before losing in the first round to the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns both times. Even though both Kobe and Kareem were more firmly planted in their respective primes during those seasons than is LeBron, the theme of commingling a generational superstar with a transitional roster jibes well with what we’re seeing in LA today.
Like Kareem, Karl Malone came into the league as an older player than LeBron, so charting his decline in terms of age and experience doesn’t line up as neatly as it does for Kobe. The Mailman’s 16th season didn’t take place until he was 37 years old, and he certainly showed signs of gentle decline during that season and beyond. Even so, Malone did share a similar physique to LeBron as well as the same legendary commitment to physical fitness and maintenance. He also remained the primary offensive option in Utah all the way up to his 18th season at age 39, when he still led the team in minutes, field goal attempts, and scoring. Age aside, entering his 16th season (in ’00-’01), Malone had played a comparable number of minutes and endured a similar degree of physical punishment in his career as had LeBron entering 2018-19. [LeBron has played significantly more playoff minutes, but the regular season minutes and scoring averages are remarkably similar.]
While Utah still won a very respectable 53 games in ’00-’01, the Jazz could not escape the first round of the playoffs, and would likewise fail to do so in Malone’s final two years in Salt Lake City. So best we can tell, the ceiling for a Western Conference team led by a gracefully declining Hall of Fame forward with a statuesque physique and a receding hairline is first round cannon fodder. Add in the competitive difference between the eras (the quality of play is FAR superior now to what it was at the turn of the millennium) and cut through all the melodramatic nonsense surrounding this version of the Lakers, and suddenly their struggles don’t seem so abnormal after all. LeBron is certainly still a championship-caliber player, and it’s possible he could yet be the best player on a legitimate contender, but he will need a lot of help to get there, a subtle but dramatic shift from the way the rest of his career has unfolded. That we didn’t see this Lakers’ season coming — even as LA’s front office chose to flank LeBron with nothing but unready young guys and veteran jabronies — is a testament to the level of respect LeBron’s achievements command. The King deserves his fair share of blame for the Lakers’ failures this season, but no one can will his team to 50+ wins on sheer individual greatness forever. It’s time to acknowledge we’ve reached that point with LeBron and adjust our expectations accordingly.
And remember: when LeBron has played this year, he’s been terrific. His counting stats, shooting splits, and advanced metrics are all right in line with his career averages (particularly when compared to previous inaugural seasons with a new team), and the Lakers were on a 48-win pace at the time he was injured against Golden State on Christmas Day. His effort obviously waxes and wanes, especially on defense, but part of me has to be impressed by a guy who has so much mastery over the game he can coast through large stretches of season and still be one of the best players in the world by any measure. This may not be enough to compete when coupled with a flawed roster and a loaded conference, but it’s not as though LeBron is suddenly some sort of bum.
And yet…there are signs, both statistical and subjective, that LeBron is a diminished player. The groin injury he suffered against Golden State, which cost him the ensuing seventeen games, was a red flag. Of course random injuries happen in basketball, but here’s the thing: they don’t happen to LeBron. He has never missed as many games in a season as he has this year. It was genuinely destabilizing to watch the Warriors’ game and realize, “Yeah, he’s actually injured. This never happens.” We’ve seen him get hurt, time and again, and always get back up and keep playing, like a damn cyborg. This time looked and felt different. It was immediately clear something was really wrong, and his subsequent absence bore it out. Sure, it might have just been random bad luck, but when the luck strikes for the first and only time just shy of a player’s 34th birthday, it’s easy to think it might be more than a coincidence. [Kobe had never suffered a major injury either until his Achilles’ tendon snapped in April of 2013, when he was — you guessed it — 34 years old. He was never the same again.]
Whether due to the injury, age, apathy, or some combination thereof, LeBron simply appears less explosive this year. [Again, this is relative to his historical baseline of “one of the most transcendent physical specimens of all time,” so take it for what it’s worth.] Oddly enough, this change stood out to me the most in an unexpected setting: the All-Star Game. In past years, when thrown into the pool with his peers at the top of the league, LeBron had still looked like a qualitatively different kind of athlete. He was always the biggest, fastest roller coaster in an amusement park full of them. He was THE attraction. And while he pulled out a few turn-back-the-clock moments in this year’s game, by and large he just looked like another really good player out there. Sure, he got his numbers and he helped orchestrate his team’s comeback, but it never looked like he tried to take the game over or ‘son’ any of the younger guys. I know I’m nitpicking, but on a floor full of special players, for the first time, he didn’t look that special.
[Statistically, he remains an elite attacker off the dribble. His free throw rate is up from his last few years in Cleveland and he continues to be one of the top finishers in the league in the restricted area, but there are causes for concern. His shot distribution has shifted slightly away from layups/dunks and towards threes (though this could just be in accordance with league-wide trends), and even so, he is getting his shot blocked at a higher rate per attempt than at any point in his career.]
This is going to sound counter-intuitive because it’s not exactly a new phenomenon, but LeBron’s indifference towards defensive activity may be a canary in the coal mine. We’ve become accustomed to LeBron coasting through sections of games and seasons on the defensive end, with the knowledge he would invariably turn up the intensity when it mattered. But here’s the thing: for a team currently on the outside of the playoff field, THESE ARE THE GAMES THAT MATTER. Conserving energy for some indeterminate fourth quarter in late May doesn’t have much value if the Lakers are going fishing in mid-April. There’s no way to roll back his odometer, so if he can’t — or won’t — summon up whatever is necessary to yet again drag his team over the finish line this season, what reason would we have to believe he’ll be able to do so in future seasons, even if his supporting cast improves?
Which brings us to the elephant in the room of this entire conversation: is there a path for LeBron to age gracefully and still compete for championships (a la Kareem) with this iteration of the Lakers? The semi-baffling free agent signings, the Anthony Davis fiasco, and all of the ensuing chemistry-related shenanigans — many of his own creation, of course — have got to have LeBron questioning whether he hitched his wagon to the right organization. If Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka strike out again on AD over the summer, what on Earth are they going to do? The top tier of upcoming free agents (Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving) are likely out of their reach, in part because those guys won’t want to play second fiddle to LeBron’s Golden Years, which is in itself a slightly damning indictment of James’ current position within the league’s hierarchy.
Beyond them, is there anyone LA could conceivably get who moves the needle toward contention in a significant way? Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, or Boogie Cousins are all intriguing fits, but backing up the Brinks’ truck for any of those dudes represents a massive risk coupled with a very uncertain reward. On the other hand, what’s the alternative? LeBron clearly has some noticeable angst regarding the state of the roster this season, even as everyone around the team preached patience before the year began, mind you. How is he going to react if the front office whiffs on AD and the free agent market, leaving him with a similarly deficient supporting cast and another wasted season at the tail end of his extended prime in ’19-’20? It’s an exceptionally difficult needle to thread, and while history is replete with examples of LA turning chicken shit into chicken salad, since the passing of Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ brass has not exactly displayed a level of organizational competence which inspires much blind faith. This situation could get ugly, and quick.
Further complicating matters was LeBron’s recent invective about whether his teammates were committed enough, which played as more than a bit hypocritical, given his various off-court business entanglements. It’s a long season and everyone needs to let off steam now and then, but he knows better. It certainly didn’t make the best sales pitch for a free agent sitting on the fence. Is the allure of LA and the Lakers worth the likelihood of getting thrown under the bus every time there’s a hint of adversity?
It all points to a serious need for a shift in the way the organization interfaces with LeBron, and vice versa. LeBron is still great, but history says this is the best version of him we’re going to get from now on, and it isn’t enough anymore. Creating a championship roster will be borderline impossible if both parties refuse to accept these facts and make decisions with them in mind. As we discussed earlier, there’s no real historical precedent to use as a blueprint beyond “do what it takes to get AD to LA” (he’s the Magic to LeBron’s Kareem in the best-case scenario). [Jordan’s career is also not a useful guide, as he ghosted what would have been his “gentle decline” phase via his second retirement. Alas.]
The last LeBron-led team to rank lower than 8th in Offensive Rating was the ’07-’08 Cavs. He’s had help at stops along the way, but it’s fair to say The King has essentially been an offense unto himself for an entire decade. This year’s Lakers rank 22nd. Yes, he’s missed time, but the contrast is stark nonetheless. Building a roster around LeBron’s talents has always been an intractable problem any franchise would die to have. Instead, the Lakers are now stuck having to ask themselves whether the juice is still worth the squeeze. That shift in mindset, more than any other factor, may be the clearest indicator we’ve entered the twilight of LeBron’s magnificent career. It remains to be seen whether the intoxicating combination of Lakers Exceptionalism and LeBron Exceptionalism will cause LA to drag its feet on embracing this new paradigm, making the potential fallout worse in the process.
Naturally, we haven’t heard the last of the NBA’s biggest star since Jordan, but it’s time to start reorienting our perception of his stardom in the context of his basketball mortality, even if he and his team can’t or won’t yet. LeBron James isn’t perfect, and time is going to render him even less so, but we can still enjoy his greatness through a different lens while he’s here.
Top Photo Credit: Brad Penner — USA Today Sports