Somehow, he's managed to live up to the tremendous hype that followed him into the league. In the first decade of his career, the self-proclaimed "Chosen One" took home four regular-season MVP awards, appeared in four NBA Finals, won two championships and earned two Finals MVP Awards.
And after finally breaking through for his first championship in 2011-12, it appears as though he's just getting started on his ring collection. That begs the question: Where will LeBron James' legacy stand 10 years from now? How will he be remembered?
Let's take a look back at James' first decade, then make use of predictive analyses to estimate where he'll end up by the 2023-24 season.
LeBron's First 10 Years
Upon making his professional debut on Oct. 29, 2003, LeBron wasted no time proving why NBA executives considered him the consensus No. 1 draft pick. He dropped 25 points on 12-of-20 shooting, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in a 14-point loss to the Sacramento Kings and was off to the races from there.
James averaged 20.9 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per game during the 2003-04 season, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to be named Rookie of the Year.
"I think nothing but extraordinary things about this extraordinary young man," said Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who presented the trophy to James, according to the Associated Press. "He silenced the critics early and often. This rookie of the year selection is his first step to going to the Basketball Hall of Fame."
It only got better for James from there.
Over each of the next nine seasons, LeBron averaged at least 26.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. He single-handedly turned the Cleveland Cavaliers into one of the premier teams in the Eastern Conference, dragging a roster whose second-best player was Larry Hughes into the 2007 Finals.
He racked up regular-season MVP awards during each of his final two seasons in Cleveland (2008-09 and 2009-10), leading the Cavaliers to a combined 127-37 record. Despite his nightly heroics, the Cavs couldn't make it back to the NBA Finals, succumbing to the Orlando Magic in 2009 and Boston Celtics in 2010 in the playoffs.
From there, the infamous "Decision" led LeBron to take his talents to South Beach, where he'd make three straight Finals appearances. The Dallas Mavericks ruined the Miami Heat's seemingly preordained victory in 2011, but James and the Heat broke through each of the next two seasons against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
Along with those two championships came LeBron's third and fourth regular-season MVP awards and two straight Finals MVPs. His laundry list of accomplishments should only grow longer over the next few seasons.
Heading into the 2013-14 season, James has recorded 21,081 points, 5,553 rebounds, 5,302 assists, 1,323 steals and 649 blocks over his 10-year career. He currently ranks 37th all time in points, 46th in assists, 61st in steals, 168th in blocks and 198th in rebounds, according to Basketball-Reference.
With those statistics and accomplishments in mind, let's take a look at how the next 10 years in his career might play out.
Projected Stats in 2023
Projecting a decade's worth of statistics and accomplishments for any athlete could easily turn out to be a fool's errand. All it takes is one career-altering injury to render any predictions moot.
To date, however, LeBron has managed to evade any sort of significant injury throughout his pro career. He's missed no more than seven games in a single season, and many of those DNP's can be chalked up to added rest before the start of the playoffs.
So, let's assume that he continues being a basketball android and remains relatively healthy for the rest of his career. How should we expect his performance to decline year-over-year as he begins to lose the battle against Father Time?
Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt, authors of the book Stumbling on Wins, came up with estimates of how players' per-minute efficiency changes each year as they grow older. Their formulas are based upon data from the 1977-78 to 2007-08 seasons.
You can see their chart below, via WagesofWins.com.
|Age Change||Expected Performance Change From Previous Season|
|23 to 24||+2%|
|24 to 25||No change|
|25 to 26||-2%|
|26 to 27||-4%|
|27 to 28||-6%|
|28 to 29||-9%|
|29 to 30||-11%|
|30 to 31||-17%|
|31 to 32||-22%|
|32 to 33||-35%|
|33 to 34||-57%|
|34 to 35||-146%|
"Stumbling on Wins," via WagesofWins.com
In essence, the authors surmise that NBA players reach their peak around age 25, experience gradual declines until 30, then begin to sharply decline from that point forward.
Modern medicine can extend careers, but it can't keep players going at a high level for 35-40 minutes per night in perpetuity. That's just fact.
But James, who will turn 29 on Dec. 30, has completely defied typical age-based patterns over the past half-decade. Here, I've presented his win-shares-per-48-minutes figures on a season-by-season basis since 2008-09 (performance change presented as a percentage in parentheses).
|Age Change||Expected Performance Change||Actual Performance Change|
|22 to 23||N/A||.242|
|23 to 24||+2%||.318 (+31%)|
|24 to 25||No change||.299 (-6%)|
|25 to 26||-2%||.244 (-18%)|
|26 to 27||-4%||.298 (+22%)|
|27 to 28||-6%||.322 (+8%)|
"Stumbling on Wins" and Basketball-Reference
James immediately rebounded that next season (2011-12) to basically match his win-shares-per-48-minutes figure from his final year in Cleveland. Once Wade accepted the sidekick role and let LeBron be LeBron, James bounced right back as the most dominant force in the league.
For more perspective on how out-of-character that 2010-11 season was for LeBron: It was the only season in the past five years in which he posted a player efficiency rating below 30.
So, what can we expect from the King moving forward?
If the past two years are any indication, age won't be much of an issue for James. If anything, as Father Time begins to rob him of athleticism, he'll likely continue adding to his game in other ways, as evidenced by his newly burgeoning post game.
In terms of statistics, James has been remarkably consistent ever since his rookie year. Barring the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, he's finished each season with at least 2,000 points, 525 rebounds and 470 assists.
If he maintains those totals over the next five years, he'd have roughly 31,000 total points, 7,600 rebounds and 7,200 assists to his name. That would put him about 7,000 points shy of breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's all-time scoring record and just outside the top 10 in assists total.
Once he reaches his early-to-mid-30s, it's reasonable to expect some statistical drops from a man who will likely have about 45,000 career minutes under his belt by that time. Then again, Kobe Bryant just posted a year for the ages in his 17th season, so it's entirely possible that LeBron continues to remain nearly as dominant at that stage of his career.
Essentially, barring any significant injury, LeBron has a real shot at making a run at Kareem's all-time scoring record. By the time he wraps up his career, he's also likely to finish among the top 10 in career assists.
Projected Accomplishments in 2023
Unlike statistics, which at least provide some rough guidelines to follow, career accomplishments are a total crapshoot. The Heat may be back-to-back champions, but the road to a three-peat will be littered with potential landmines.
Between the Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets, escaping the Eastern Conference playoffs unscathed will be a challenge in and of itself. And it's not as though the Heat went Fo', Fo', Fo', Fo' through the playoffs each of the past two years. The Celtics, Pacers and Spurs each pushed the Heat to a Game 7 in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and 2013 NBA Finals, respectively.
At this point, there's no way to know what the future holds for LeBron. He could three-peat with the Heat next season, opt out of his contract next summer, sign a massive extension and spend the rest of his basketball-playing days in Miami.
Then again, he could always decide to depart following the 2013-14 season for a new challenge.
Ultimately, a team's championship potential is what his decision in 2014 should depend upon. Now that he's won two titles, LeBron needs to get greedy and shoot for even more if he hopes to vault up the list of the league's all-time greats.
But no matter what he decides to do in the 2014 offseason, we can make a few educated guesses about what he'll be able to accomplish over the next 10 years. According to a statistical model created by FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver, the best player in the NBA has roughly a 20 to 25 percent chance to win a championship in a given year.
Looking at the 13 players in league history who had at least one title and one regular-season MVP by their age-28 season, Silver determined that such players averaged 1.9 additional rings.
So, based on Silver's analysis, four rings would appear to be a safe bet for James. And barring a stunning series performance by one of his teammates, he's almost bound to win the Finals MVP every time he wins a championship, too.
Assuming he wins four of each, that would leave LeBron two rings and two Finals MVPs short of matching Michael Jordan. Still, there's one category where James seems virtually certain to surpass M.J., though: regular-season MVPs.
LeBron's four regular-season MVPs sit one shy of Jordan (Abdul-Jabbar holds the all-time record with six). Considering that he finished one vote short of being named the unanimous MVP in 2013 despite Kevin Durant's 50-40-90 shooting season, LeBron should enter each of the next few seasons as the presumptive MVP favorite.
So long as James stays healthy, seven or eight regular-season MVPs isn't out of the question. Beyond that, it's a complete guessing game.
It's entirely possible that he wins the Defensive Player of the Year Award at least once. And if he decides to take his talents back to Team USA, he could become the first male three-time gold medalist in Olympic basketball history.
The New G.O.A.T.?
So, with his projected statistics and accomplishments from 2023 in mind, let's get back to the original question: How will we remember James a decade from now?
Where do you expect LeBron to finish among the NBA's all-time greats?
Assuming he's able to continue accruing rings and MVP awards, he's almost sure to go down as a top-five great.
Currently, with apologies to Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, the all-time top five likely consists of Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in some order. If James matches Bird's ring total (three), he's a virtual lock to steal Larry Legend's spot in that list.
The LeBron vs. M.J. comparison has been made ad nauseam, but there's good reason for it. Of any active NBA player, James has the best shot of stealing the greatest-of-all-time title from Jordan. With only a decade of NBA service under his belt, he's not anywhere close to doing so yet.
If he can add a few more rings, regular-season MVPs and Finals MVPs to his career totals, the competition will legitimately heat up.