How Long Can LeBron James Stay Atop the NBA?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 30, 2014

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 25:  A close up shot of LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game against the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena on December 25, 2014 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

LeBron James' game is changing. 

Now 30 years old, he'll never regain the athletic prowess he enjoyed in his 20s, and his spot atop the NBA's hierarchy is under heavy siege. Not only are there many players trying to take over and sit in the individual throne he's occupied for so long, but Father Time is working against him, gradually eroding the physical tools that have helped make him so dominant while forcing him to rely on his insane basketball intelligence even more. 

Throughout NBA history, players have tended to decline in their 30s, and James isn't just any 30-year-old. He'll take on the Atlanta Hawks to celebrate his latest birthday, and that will be the 872nd game of a career that has already contained plenty of twists and turns. 

He's been in the NBA ever since he was just a precocious teenager, and it's not as though the deep playoff runs and work with Team USA have helped him keep tread on the tires. 

After throwing international play out of the equation, let's look at how many games James has logged compared to a few other legends on their 30th birthdays: 

There's quite the smorgasbord of career trajectories up above.  

James has been in the NBA for a long time and played a whole lot of games. Kobe Bryant was in the same boat, and he managed to maintain his level of performance deep into his 30s. He's still going strong, even if his efficiency has waned to the point that his scoring is detrimental to the Los Angeles Lakers at times. 

Then we have Michael Jordan, who dominated in his 30s. In fact, he engineered a three-peat after that milestone birthday and won an MVP at 34, though it's certainly worth noting that his career at North Carolina and his one-and-a-half years playing baseball kept the miles from piling up too quickly. 

BOB JORDAN/Associated Press

Dwyane Wade hasn't played all that much, but he's always been far more prone to injury than James. The two entered the league at the same time during the 2003 NBA draft, but Wade had two years of college experience at Marquette and has never been remotely as durable as his good friend and former teammate. Larry Bird falls into the same boat, though he's particularly notable because his 1,061 combined regular-season and playoff games have already been surpassed by the 30-year-old in question. 

For the most part, unless there are some serious extenuating circumstances, declines are inevitable. 

"Well, I mean, first of all, let's be honest: We all know that Father Time is undefeated," the four-time MVP recently told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "I don't care who you are; I don't care how much stretching, yoga, treatment, tables—Father Time is undefeated."

But, as we'll get to, James might possess some of those characteristics and fall into those circumstances that help him stave off the nasty clutches of old age for a while longer. 

Still at a Ridiculous Level

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 26:  Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James #23 looks to make a pass against Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo #5 during the game at Amway Center on December 26, 2014 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

James' game is significantly different now than it was even a year ago, but he's still playing at a rather high level. Leading up to his 30th birthday, he was averaging 25.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game for the Cleveland Cavaliers while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 36.9 percent from beyond the arc and 74.3 percent at the stripe. His player efficiency rating, via Basketball-Reference.com, was an impressive 25.0.

While that's not up to his typical standards, it's still one of the best marks in the Association. That seems to be the theme of the 2014-15 campaign for this particular standout—he hasn't met his normal benchmarks, but he's still been pretty darn good. 

To help prove that point, you need only look at the impact James has had on the Cavaliers. 

With him on the court, the team is scoring and allowing 112.0 and 106.7 points per 100 possessions, respectively, which would leave Cleveland ranked No. 4 and No. 17. But when he sits, those numbers drop and rise to 107.4 and 112.4, two marks that would put the Cavs at No. 13 (tied with the surprisingly struggling San Antonio Spurs) and No. 29 throughout the Association. 

That's a big difference, and it's representative of James' continued impact even if he isn't playing how we've traditionally come to expect from him. And the biggest change has come right around the rim, where it seems that James has lost some of his explosiveness and finishing ability. Deadspin.com's Tom Ley breaks that down quite nicely: 

According to Synergy Sports, last year's version of LeBron was more or less the most lethal player in the league around the rim. On non-post up shots around the basket, he created 1.50 points per possession. (Out of players who took at least 100 shots around the basket, only Dwight Howard was more productive.) He was also a nightmare when driving to the basket out of Iso situations last season, creating 1.13 points per possession when going to his right, and 1.12 when driving to his left.

This year, all of those numbers are down. He's getting just 1.17 points per possession on non-post up shots around the rim, good for 30th in the league among players who have taken at least 100 such shots. He's still doing OK when driving to his right, creating 1.03 points per possession, but he's been a disaster when going to his left, creating just .75 points per possession on 58 such plays.

Nonetheless, James has remained effective, and he's well aware that he has more than athleticism at his disposal. 

"I want people to understand that there's more to me than just athleticism," the four-time MVP told Skolnick. "That's not my whole game. Obviously, it's allowed me to do some great things out on the floor. But my basketball IQ and the way I approach the game mentally, I want that to be seen more than my athleticism."

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Quicken Loans Arena on December 23, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Even while making people see more than his athleticism—though far too many focus on the lack of thunderous dunks and miss the total package—James hasn't quite been the best player in the league this season. That honor has to go to either Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden or Russell Westbrook. Take your pick. 

But after so clearly being the Association's top dog over the last five-plus years, James has earned himself a bit of a cushion, especially as his game evolves and he gains comfort playing alongside new teammates and under a first-year head coach. We've seen the first hint of cracks in his game, but he's compensated quite nicely in other areas. 

Remember, the on-court impact he's had on the Cavaliers is absolutely ridiculous. Plus, his raw numbers have trended in the right direction, as he's averaged 27.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game on 52.2 percent shooting from the field and a 40.4 percent clip from downtown during his last 10 outings. Those numbers are much more James-esque than what we saw at the beginning of the year, even if he's still turning the ball over too frequently. 

It's important to note that the best basketball player in the world is not necessarily the top player each and every season of his career—even during his prime. That's what we're seeing now, though James' age dictates that a consistent decline would inevitably push him out of that top spot. 

Are we going to see such a thing anytime soon?

Future Change Doesn't Mean Decline

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23: (EDITORS NOTE: THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN CONVERTED TO BLACK AND WHITE)  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Quicken Loans Arena on December 23, 2014 in Clevel
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Losing that elite athleticism isn't necessarily a death knell for the Akron native. 

One of the most interesting parts of James' game this season has been largely overlooked thus far, and it serves as the perfect example of how he can keep playing at a consistent level for a while longer. As noted earlier, he's averaging 7.6 assists per game, and that's a mark that's higher than any he's produced since dropping 8.6 dimes per contest during his final pre-Miami year with the Cavaliers. Rather than finishing so many of his drives with dunks or plays at the rim, he's kicking the ball out to teammates with aplomb and always making the right play. 

That penchant for playing the numbers and creating the most advantageous situation for his team is the biggest reason James isn't just going to go away anytime soon. Instead, he's likely going to morph into a version of Magic Johnson, serving as one of the league's best distributors and impacting the game in so many different ways. 

"The LeBron who could dunk on any player at any time is probably gone," a league advance scout told ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst in the middle of December. "He's probably never been a better basketball player than he is right now, though."

That anonymous talent evaluator isn't the only one who feels that way, even within Windhorst's piece.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the game on December 23, 2014 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"Five years ago he was more likely to look at the defense and just attack it by himself and then react to what they did," an Eastern Conference assistant coach explained. "Now, you'll see him set the defense up and take advantage of its weaknesses. If that means fewer dunks but more efficient shots for himself or his teammates then you could say he's playing better offensively now than he was then."

Dunks are not the ultimate measure of offensive ability. Neither are points scored, for that matter. And James is privy to the notion that glamorous statistics don't necessarily make a player the best at what he does.

He revealed as much to Skolnick after confirming that he'd rather be known for intelligence than athletic prowess: 

Well, it [intelligence] doesn't get talked about in our sport. It just doesn't. You know, the dunks, the long-range shooting, the guys that play above the rim. It doesn't get talked about. We don't really talk about the guys that really think the game.

Maybe it's because there's just not a lot of guys that really think the game. We have a couple that I know that when you play against them, they're thinking the game. Chris Paul. Tim Duncan. Those guys. Those guys. Dwyane Wade. Those guys are thinking the game before it happens. But there's less of us than the guys who are flying above the rim.

Notice that James uses the first person in that last sentence, clearly grouping himself in with the players who "think the game." That's unbelievably crucial, especially as he moves forward into the post-30 stage of his career.

The dunks are going to continue declining in frequency. So too will the chase-down blocks and the athletic exploits that made him a SportsCenter staple early on in his professional tenure. But, thanks to thinking the game, James doesn't have to trend in the wrong direction. 

He's never been a player like Bryant, one who's going to continue to gun away and refuse to evolve drastically, even if his scoring production comes at a detriment to his team. If James is best served averaging 15 points and 12 assists per game during his mid-30s, he'll be damned if he plays in a different way than that. 

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Brooklyn Nets during the game on December 19, 2014 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

We've already seen him change for the better in recent years—slimming down to save his back and knees, working on his post-up game and shooting ability in Miami so that he wasn't as utterly reliant on drives to the hoop. For a few more years—at least—the positive changes should be able to mitigate any age-related declines.

Eventually, though, he will fall off. Maybe only by a minor amount, but he will decline at some point.

The Challengers

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots a free throw against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on December 18, 2014 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Kevin Durant is the league's reigning MVP, though his follow-up campaign has been rather forgettable thanks to a never-ending stream of injuries that have limited him to only nine games played. But the scoring phenom is only 26 years old and is trending in the right direction year after year, especially after making so many strides as a distributor and defender during the 2013-14 campaign. 

Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Davis is already looking like the league's No. 1 player, though the New Orleans Pelicans haven't yet put enough talent around him for those worried about team success to give him his due credit. But it's impossible to deny what the surging big man has done in just about every facet of the game, consistently putting up numbers that haven't been seen since legends like Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson roamed the court in the mid-'90s. 

Plus, players like Curry, Westbrook and Harden are gunning for the crown, and all have made rather convincing arguments during the opening trimester of the 2014-15 campaign. 

This isn't the late '90s anymore.

Jordan was incredible after he turned 30 and returned from his ill-fated stint with the Chicago White Sox, but he also faced far less individual competition upon his comeback than James is going up against right now. There was no Durant, already playing at an MVP level and still in his mid-20s. There was no Davis, already playing at an MVP level and still barely old enough to consume alcohol in legal fashion. 

Jordan won his final MVP in 1998, and here's how the top 10 finishers in the voting stacked up. You can click over in the infographic below to see how old each player was at the time: 

Now, compare that to the results from last year: 

Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan were certainly young challengers at the time, but the current NBA is chock-full of young studs. Especially now that Davis is in the picture while Curry, Harden and Westbrook have gotten even better, those contenders are significantly younger than they were during Jordan's age-34 season. Throw in Durant and Paul George (when he's healthy), as well. 

James may not decline for a while longer, but he doesn't have to in order to lose his spot atop the Association. He's not improving anytime soon, and all these players in their early and mid-20s are certainly going to be getting better. 

At this point, Davis seems like a virtual lock to surpass James in the near future, assuming that hasn't actually happened already. But even if the 21-year-old Pelican has moved ahead of his older counterpart from Cleveland, he needs to stay there for a while longer in order to take the "best player alive" crown and hold onto it. 

Dec 18, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) dribbles the ball against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center. New Orleans Pelicans won 99 to 0. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

James will be near the top of the NBA for quite a few seasons. For the time being, he still remains at the pinnacle of the NBA hierarchy. 

But as early as next season, he may slip from that spot forever. Thirty doesn't have to be the end, but it's a notable milestone on the path toward it, no matter how long James can stave off any significant sort of decline.

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