Who's the NBA's GOAT? LeBron May Have Already Answered the Question

Tom Haberstroh@tomhaberstrohContributor IMay 31, 2018


LeBron James' feet were submerged in an enormous ice bucket while two pillow-sized ice packs were strapped to his right leg, another one on his left knee and a fourth on his lower back.

Moments before, James had clinched his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But now, sitting in the Boston Celtics visitors' locker room, James is being iced down like a freshly caught yellowfin tuna.

As most of his teammates dance and bounce around on their feet, James is seated and gathering his emotions. A reporter asks him how it feels.

"I don't know," James replies. "I'm so goddamn tired right now."

James had just done the unthinkable. He played all 48 minutes in his 100th game of the season. None of the other players who appeared in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finalswith both young legs and oldplayed more than 43 minutes. James never caught a break, registering 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in an 87-79 win.

His NBA peers lit up Twitter.

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The image of James sitting in what amounted to an ice tomb while being showered with praise by his peers may not do James' greatness justice. What he's doing at 33 years old is essentially uncharted territory for any kind of athlete—in any sport.

"The sports-science community is just in awe of this guy," says Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic, one of the world's leading experts in human performance and physiology. "People should just recognize what they're watching in LeBron. It's different than Jordan. People need to get out of Jordan this, Jordan that. LeBron is different."

Joyner isn't alone. Dr. Marcus Elliott, the Harvard-trained founder and director of P3, has assessed the biomechanics of some of the best athletes in the world at his state-of-the-art lab nestled along the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Players from Andrew Wiggins to Andre Drummond to Dwight Howard to Luka Doncic have come through Elliott's lab to find out where they score on 3D motion-capture and force-plate technologies.

While he has yet to assess James, he knows what he's seeing.

"He's hit the quadruple lottery when it comes to genetics," Elliott says from afar. "Not just the physical side. You can't get to where he is without being head and shoulders above the competition from a mental standpoint. It's clear he just owns a different system than, say, Michael Jordan."

Joyner agrees that if there's a comp for James, it isn't Jordan.

"People bring up the Michael Jordan and Kobe [Bryant] thing, but it reminds me more of Wilt [Chamberlain]," Joyner says. "There's this overpowering physical force. The way he gets up and down the court, pinning shots against against the backboard while playing well over 40 minutes a game. The sort of physical force is just wild."

Joyner flies around the country presenting and meeting with the industry's top scientists and experts on the limits of the human body. In side conversations, James comes up more than any other athlete. Experts marvel at his consistency and ability to play at a high level.

The numbers speaking to James' durability are staggering. He is 130 minutes away from becoming the first player to surpass 10,000 career playoff minutes. That's more playoff minutes than Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had through their age-33 seasons combined.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain didn't play as many minutes in the playoffs combined as LeBron James already has entering the 2018 Finals.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain didn't play as many minutes in the playoffs combined as LeBron James already has entering the 2018 Finals.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Comparisons to current players are equally eye-opening.

James has sent home All-Stars Al Horford and Kyle Lowrythe most senior players on their respective rosters—for three straight postseasons. If you lay Horford's career minutes (27,661) and Lowry's (26,651) end to end with playoff minutes included, James needs only 144 minutes to catch up to them, which he'll likely do in these Finals if he maintains his current playing time. Keep in mind, Lowry is 32 and Horford turns 32 on June 3. James is 33.

Lowry and Horford didn't come out of high school like James did. But even if we compare James to preps-to-pros peers such as Bryant and Kevin Garnett, James still blows them out of the water in terms of mileage.

According to Basketball Reference, James has totaled 3,150 minutes more than Bryant did through their age-33 seasons and almost 10,000 more than Garnett at the same age. Spurs veteran Tony Parker, who made his NBA debut as a teenager and reached the Finals five times in 17 seasons, still trails James' career minutes by over 9,000.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com

Much of James' mileage can be attributed to how he has taken care of his body and works at it. ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst has reported James spends seven figures annually on recovery and optimization systems.

But another reason for his extensive court time is the fact he has never lost a first-round series, a feat that some of his greatest all-time peers cannot claim. Jordan couldn't get past the first round in his first three playoff appearances. Kobe made two first-round exits.

When Abdul-Jabbar was James' age, his Lakers were ousted in the first round despite having two other Hall of Famers, Magic Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes, on the roster. (The series was best-of-three, however.)

James has played a remarkable 235 of 235 playoff games for his teams, never missing a game due to injury or fatigue. After turning 30, Jordan took a season off to go play baseball and then retired again at the age of 34. Bryant and Garnett missed seven and 15 playoff games, respectively, in their careers.

Tim Duncan is one of the few players to have played in more playoff games than James, but it didn't come without a bump in the road. When Duncan was 23, he missed the entire 1999-00 postseason with a meniscus tear in his left knee. At around the same age, James was playing Duncan in the Finals with Daniel Gibson as perhaps his next-best teammate.

The longest stretch of time that James has been sidelined came in the 2014-15 season, when he missed 15 days nursing a sprained left knee. The following players were sidelined longer than that this past season alone: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Joe Johnson, Blake Griffin, Tony Parker, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, John Wall, Paul Millsap, Rajon Rondo, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, Zach Randolph, Isaiah Thomas, Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, Gordon Hayward, Jameer Nelson and Kristaps Porzingis.

Those 23 current or former All-Stars missed a longer stretch in 2017-18 than James has in his entire 15-year career.

James played 94 minutes combined in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals this year.
James played 94 minutes combined in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals this year.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Those who say this is to be expected from a top prospect like James may not grasp how rare it is for even the most-hyped players to get this far. For perspective, four of the previous nine No. 1 picks before James washed out of the NBA before their age-33 season (Yao Ming, Kwame Brown, Michael Olowokandi and Glenn Robinson). And three of the next four No. 1 picks have already ended their careers (Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani and Greg Oden), with Dwight Howard being the exception.

Slice it however you want, but it's clear that James is an outlier of outliers. From a human performance standpoint, Elliott says James has hit the lottery—again and again and again.

As spectators, we should be consider ourselves lucky to be alive to watch.


Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full-time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count The Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back To Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @tomhaberstroh.