LeBron James Smart to Consider Ending His International Career

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2013

Aug 11, 2012; London, United Kingdom; USA forward LeBron James (6) celebrates after winning the gold in the men's basketball final against Spain in the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James is done with Olympic basketball.

Or he isn't. We won't know until 2016. But if the defending NBA Finals and regular-season MVP had to make his decision right nowhis international playing career will have concluded with the 2012 gold-medal game in London.

At least that's what a source close to the Miami Heat forward told Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, as the United States was holding tryouts this week in preparation for the 2014 World Championships. It's already been confirmed that James won't participate in that event, which will be held in Spain next August and September.

The will-he-or-won't-he question comes about two years later, when Team USA will look for a third straight gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro games. While leaving the possibility open that James could change his mind—his decision-making was categorized as how he feels "at that moment"—a source close to the situation told Spears it would take a lot for him to play.

"The only way I could see him playing in the Olympics is if his country really, really needed him to play," the source said. "But hasn't he done enough?"

It's a fair question. James has already participated in the last three Olympics, winning two gold medals and one bronze. He was both a part of the downfall of Team USA at 2004's embarrassing showing at Athens and the renaissance in Beijing four years later. 

What's more, LeBron will be 31 years old by the time the Rio games come along. He'll have played 13 NBA seasons, the exact number Michael Jordan played with the Chicago Bulls before his second retirement. Would it be fair to expect James to represent his country with that much mileage on his body?

Probably not. In fact, if you look at the numbers, it would probably be a prudent decision for James' international retirement to stick. 

Through his age-28 season, LeBron has played in 903 games. He's missed just 39 games, an average of just under four per season. In percentage form, James has played in just under 96 percent of his possible appearances—an astounding number for someone a decade into his career. He's never had the Michael Jordan 1985-86 season, or even missed double-digit contests in a campaign the way Kobe Bryant has four times in his career.

LeBron James is a cyborg. He's built differently than you, I or just about anyone in NBA history. It's what makes him so astounding to watcha human Transformer put in an (alleged) 6'8", 250-pound form. Watching LeBron makes you think he has the expiration date of a Twinkie.

Only he doesn't.

LeBron might be some superhuman force of nature at this moment, but human beings die for a reason. Their muscle production shuts down, testosterone levels dip and each ticking on the calendar makes recovering from nagging injuries all the harder. As someone who just turned 23, I've already come to grips that I'll someday loathe my 33-year-old form. 

It's just a reality of life—even for LeBron James. By the time Team USA boards the jet for Rio, James will have played three more NBA seasons.

Assuming that James continues at his current playing rate, he'll be sitting at right about 1,190 games played for his career. That number takes into account his 96 percent playing rate during the regular season, as well as a 17.25 average for playoff games per season—likely conservative considering those numbers include his leaner Cleveland years.

But let's just say, for the sake of attrition, James has played in 1,175 total games come Olympic time 2016—five per season fewer than our initial estimate. James has played on average 39.7 minutes per game during his regular-season career, but it would be unfair to use that as a basis for our hypothetical. His minutes have dipped down into the 37 to 38 range with Miami, and teams that win championships tend to be more prone to conserve energy in the monotonous 82-game slog. 

For the sake of conservatism with this estimate, let's say James' minutes in the regular season dip all the way down to 36 per night over these next three seasons (we'll be keeping his playoff minutes on par with his career average). Calculating this out in our scenario, it equates to James playing 46,489 minutes (regular season and playoffs) over the course of his career at that juncture.

That's a lot of minutes. For perspective, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar unsurprisingly holds the all-time record for that stat with 66,297 minutes played. Where James winds up falling on this list is up to some variables, of course—mostly ones related to Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce—but it's safe to say he'll fall somewhere in the mid-to-lower 20s all time. James will have likely played more minutes already at age 31 than Charles Barkley, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did in their entire careers.

And LeBron isn't going to suddenly stop racking up NBA minutes once he hits the big three-oh.

The marvel of modern medicine should allow him to play into his mid-30s without completely befalling to attrition, assuming no catastrophic injuries happen during that time frame. It's very likely that James will fall inside the top 10 all time in minutes played by the time his career ends, and he's not going to be satisfied merely being another player on a team—that Kobe blood exists in him somewhere.

That's about the point where Olympic basketball goes from being something he does to honor his country and an unneeded burden. Yes, Bryant played at 33 a year ago. Jason Kidd did the same into his mid-30s.

But, of course, that ignores what James has meant to Team USA basketball.

He's already one of three players in history—Carmelo Anthony and David Robinson being the others—to play in three Olympiads. Bryant said "thanks but no thanks" over and over again until he was on the precipice of his 30th birthday. Kidd popped up on the 2000 gold medalists and played in the 2003 and 2007 World Championships but didn't pop back up in an Olympics until 2008.

It's true, though, that James has expressed interest in becoming the first player to do so last August. 

"If I'm healthy, I did the math and I'll be 31, and if I have the opportunity to be out there, I will do it," said James, per ESPN. "I love it. I love being a part of it and representing my country. I don't know what may happen in four years, but it would be great to be back out there again. Definitely."

That goes against James' reported feelings a year later, which is understandable. He's just gone through a second consecutive grueling title chase, one that saw him take on a burden almost equivalent to the one he faced in Cleveland. By the time the 2013 NBA Finals had rolled around, LeBron had played basketball nonstop for two years, almost completely sans any break time.

As he looked mortal in the first few games against the San Antonio Spurs, plenty of smart folks were wondering whether exhaustion had finally set in. 

While it took all of about a week for James to re-profess his commitment to getting better for next season, it's hard to blame him for wanting to take some time away. As Spears' source noted, James has a family now. He has two kids. He's getting married in September. As much as we like to think of basketball players and all athletes as singular beings meant for our entertainment, they have lives—ones that continue to creep in as a player gets older. 

If James opts out of playing in Rio, it's fair to be disappointed. I've always posited that Team USA LeBron is him at his best, playing the facilitating role and working on both ends to make his uber-talented teammates look even better than what they already are.

That said, the United States isn't going to fold without the game's greatest player. In fact, it's already begun making contingency plans for the next face of the red, white and blue. 

Jerry Colangelo, the Grand Pooh-Bah of Team USA, has already deemed Kevin Durant "the face of USA Basketball going forward," per ESPN's Marc Stein. While James has the legacy and is arguably already a top-10 all-time great, it's Durant who has committed to the 2014 World Championships.

It's Durant who will be in prime age for Olympic dominance in Rio. It's Durant—sick of being second—who probably needs this crowning achievement more than anything. Pass me the torch, LeBron—literally and figuratively. 

LeBron no longer needs the Olympics. He's already the greatest player in the world. He already has two NBA championship rings, three Olympic medals and the worldwide adoration he so desires. LeBron will also have a ton of tread on his tires come 2016—the type of career-long burden that doesn't heal as quickly come 31. 

But he's not going to play baseball for the better part of two seasons. Or joining the Peace Corps. He'll be doing what's best for NBA LeBron James. And if ending his Olympic career winds up giving his body ample enough time to rest and extend his NBA prime a couple of more years, it's a trade-off we should all be happy with—especially with a worthy heir ready to take the King's throne.


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