How Much Longer Does LeBron James Have as NBA's Driving Force?

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How Much Longer Does LeBron James Have as NBA's Driving Force?
Steve Mitchell/USA Today

Of all the jaw-dropping stats authored by LeBron James, none is as sneaky-staggering as this: In his 11-year NBA career, James has never missed more than seven games in a single season due to injury.

A player this impossibly athletic, with this little regard for his or anyone else's body, being that durable? Distant galaxies hold stranger physics.

Despite his seeming indestructibility, however, LeBron James is, ostensibly, human. Sooner or later, even Superman's genetics must bend to the will of the world.

Taking athletic atrophy for what it is, how long, exactly, can LeBron keep his claim as unquestioned King?

Over the past few seasons, only one player has truly earned the right to be called a challenger to the throne: the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

At just 25 years old and coming off his best statistical season to date, Durant is nowhere near finished closing the gap. Whether he can pair his peerless scoring ability with LeBron's playmaker genethis is where the doubt, however slight, still lingers.

Being four years James' junior, Durant's trajectory should, in theory, reach its peak at some point over the next three seasons, just as LeBron's stock finally—mercifully, if you're everyone else—begins to fall.

Or longer, depending on whom you ask.

"When I retire," LeBron told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick when asked about Durant feeling real title pressure. "When I retire. They're still talking about, am I going to win a third? You know..."

Beyond Durant, though, the NBA's upper crust isn't exactly flush with obvious usurpers. Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Chris Paulgreat players all. But are they capable of carrying the league—in face as well as feats—the way James has?

KD might be busy planning his next step up the mountain. All the while, another, younger buck is busy planning his own ascension. And judging by the man's wingspan, he's about to rattle off switchbacks like they're stair steps.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Recently, Durant confided in NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer why he believes Anthony Davis could hit the summit sooner than later:

I know how good [Davis] is now, but I know how good he's going to be. He's an MVP-caliber player. So he's next. He's next in line – a guy that has grown so much in just a year. ... I've seen him since he was a junior in high school. His growth from then to now is just phenomenal. He's just growing every single day. He's moving up the ladder every single day. It's scary. Scary.

In Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans are in possession of an athletic specimen unlike any the league has seen. That he's also a hyper-skilled basketball savant with roots in a point guard's perspective only makes the monster more menacing.

Davis' second-year leap was one of the most pronounced in recent memory. Add pounds of muscle and a summer spent with Team USA to that body of work, and year three promises to be equally notice-serving.

Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

Not that anyone would be shocked if Davis somehow leapfrogged his way into a three-way fray with LeBron and Durant. At the same time, the NBA—for all its strides on social issues—has long been somewhat hidebound in how it promotes its superstars.

From Larry Bird and Magic Johnson through Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, James and Durant, we find a 30-plus-year tradition of ball-dominant stars who make their hardwood hay on the wings. This after decades of center-centric teams and strategies.

But as Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley wrote back in February, there's another, equally crucial financial factor at play in the NBA’s promotional calculus:

Basketball eras aren't broken down by time; they're remembered by names: Chamberlain vs. Russell, Magic vs. Bird, Jordan vs. The World, Kobe vs. Shaq. As more money has flooded into the league—perhaps the single greatest achievement of David Stern's career—those names have grown bigger outside the basketball world.

Championships set these superstars up for their ascensions. The business world grants them their wings.

According to Forbes, KD is set to rake in $14 million in endorsement money this year—nothing to scoff at for sure, but not exactly face-of-the-league kind of money, not when Derrick Rose has $21 million coming in, another $34 million is going to Kobe Bryant and King James is pocketing a cool $42 million.

Statistically speaking, Durant is as close as it gets to LeBron's bonkers production. Off the court, there's simply no comparison. And while we'd love to believe one's global branding ought not be brought to bear in determining a particular league's driving force, the jerseys and the posters argue otherwise.

The difference with Davis, of course, is one of positional potential: We still don't know what the guy is, let alone whether or not he can carry the league's PR largesse about his shoulders. It's entirely conceivable he could.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

After Davis, you probably have to look back to the most recent rookie crop—Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Dante Exum, etc.—to find the next possible bona fide best.

Even here, history has proven time and again that making the James comparison is at the very least futile and at most downright dangerous. Just ask Vince Carter, Grant Hill, Harold Miner or any of the other poor saps who bore the weight of unfair MJ comparisons.

O.J. Mayo, anyone?

Regardless of who comes closest to nipping or even tripping James' heels, if the Michael Jordan era taught us anything, it's that earning "Next" is as much about statistical superlatives as it is public perception. Even after two titles and a quartet of MVPs, LeBron remains, in the eyes of most, a tier or two below His Airness.

Then again, it's precisely in Jordan's longevity that James might find his best chance of keeping the pursuing pack at bay. Indeed, Jordan was a full 35 by the time he snagged his sixth and last title in 1998. After yet another multiyear hiatus, MJ returned to the Washington Wizards, where he averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists as a largely ground-bound guard who turned 39 midseason.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Jordan might not have logged quite the NBA mileage LeBron has, but neither was he cut from the same, seemingly science-fiction stock. If James can remain injury-free, it'll take a Herculean leap from Durant or Davis to officially close the gap.

Smaller ifs have certainly been squandered.

Still, remaining the league's driving force isn't merely about rings and records (although that's certainly what weighs heaviest on the public's mind). Equally important—and LeBron understands this as well as anyone—is retaining one's place as a driver of narratives.

From his arrival as a fresh-faced phenom to "The Decision" to his prodigal return, James' image has vacillated between hero and villain and back again so many times you wonder how his head's still screwed on at all. So long as he continues being the conversation, rather than a tangent thereof, LeBron can probably afford a few more statistical concessions.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Add up all the brushstrokes, and you end up with a portrait of an artist who, even as an elder in a young man's game, will continue hanging where the most eyes can behold it. That, more than baskets or banners or All-Stars or medals, is the true measure of longevity.

From top to bottom, the NBA boasts more talent than at any point in its history. As such, it's only natural that the hierarchy should become more diffuse and unpredictable. That way, "who's next?" can remain a fluid conversation rather than a foregone conclusion.

As for LeBron, asking how many more years he might maintain his reign as NBA King—fair as it is to ask—warrants one and only one surefire answer: as long as we're watching him.

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