As LeBron James enters his 17th NBA season, Bleacher Report is taking a look at where the four-time MVP sits in the history books in several statistical categories now, after his projected 2019-20 season and following the remainder of his Hall of Fame career.
Already near the top of the all-time leaderboards in numerous categories, James has passed some of the game's greatest players, and even more legends are about to be bumped down the rankings.
First up in this series is total minutes played, both in the regular and postseason. James' longevity has become part of his lore, along with the incredible production that he's been able to maintain now heading into his age-35 season.
2019-20 Regular-Season/Playoffs Minutes Projection
He's played 46,235 career regular-season minutes, which equates to an average of 38.6 minutes per game in his 1,198 total contests. To put that in perspective, only one player in the last five years (Jimmy Butler in 2014-15) has averaged that much playing time over a single season, let alone an entire career.
James' combination of heavy usage, incredible durability and lengthy career fueled his rise up the all-time minutes leaderboard. He has averaged nearly 75 games per season, and he played in all 82 in his age-33 campaign with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017-18. He's missed only 98 games across 16 seasons, many of which came last year with the Los Angeles Lakers because of a groin injury.
With James set to turn 35 on Dec. 30, the Lakers will have to continue to be cautious about his usage. While he didn't miss a single game and led the NBA at 36.9 minutes per game in 2017-18, there's no reason for him to log his usual workload in preparation for what L.A. hopes to be a lengthy playoff run.
The Lakers played 13 back-to-backs last season, and the league average as a whole was 13.9. While James likely won't sit out every back-to-back in 2019-20, he'll likely miss at least a few for load management. He could also rest for a few games toward the end of the regular season to prepare for the playoffs, and he might miss games because of nagging injuries as well.
His average number of minutes over the last five years (2,591.8) should be a good guideline. That comes out to around 71 games at 36.4 minutes per night. The Lakers should try to lower his playing time if possible, but playing in a loaded Western Conference could make that difficult.
If James does play around 2,600 minutes, he'll move from 15th all the way up to seventh on the all-time list, passing the following legends:
While James could pass Kobe Bryant in 2019-20, Elvin Hayes will be untouchable. James would have to play all 82 games while averaging 46 minutes per night, which is out of the question even for him.
When it comes to the postseason, James can't rise any higher.
He passed Tim Duncan for first place (10,049 total minutes) during the 2018 postseason and can only add distance between himself and the retired San Antonio Spurs star. The next-closest active NBA player is 31st-ranked Kevin Durant (5,598 minutes). With Durant expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season because of an Achilles injury, James has a chance to increase his lead even more.
Primarily aided by his eight straight trips to the Finals from 2010-11 through 2017-18, James' record of total postseason minutes should stand for a long time, regardless of how far the Lakers advance in this year's playoffs.
How James Got Here
Going straight to the NBA at age 18 rather than spending a year in college helped James climb the all-time minutes leaderboards. It's remarkable how he's maintained his durability, too.
James is still arguably the NBA's best player, while no other 2003 draftee is currently under contract for the 2019-20 season. Dwyane Wade, Kyle Korver, Carmelo Anthony and Zaza Pachulia are the only others who even played last season, and Wade has since retired.
That kind of durability comes with a price.
James reportedly spends around $1.5 million per year on gym equipment, trainers, masseuses, chefs and other fitness technology to maintain his body, according to The Ringer's Bill Simmons. While not every NBA player can afford this kind of maintenance, James is the league's highest overall earner in salary plus endorsements and carries a net worth of $450 million, per Forbes.
James has worked with the same trainer, Mike Mancias, since 2004-05. Mancias, who previously worked with Michael Jordan, connected with James while interning with the Cavaliers. He's since followed James from Cleveland to the Miami Heat, back to the Cavs and is now on the Lakers training staff.
"I think with LeBron and any elite athlete, recovery never ends, recovery never stops. If he plays 48 minutes one night or 28 minutes, recovery is the No. 1 focus. Whether that be in nutrition, hydration, more flexibility exercises, stuff in the weight room. It's a never-ending process really. That's the process we have to take to be successful and have longevity. ...
"We'll do a quick Q&A in the locker room. How did the game go? How is this feeling? And LeBron gives me some feedback on how he felt after each and every game. We do that No. 1. Then we start the process of hydration and nutrition. And No. 1 frankly is some good high quality food. Then we go into cryotherapy. Cold tubs, ice baths, cryo chamber, whatever might be available that particular night."
James has proved he can play though injuries as well. He finished the final three games of the 2018 NBA Finals with a "significant" hand injury after he punched a whiteboard in the Cavs' locker room following a disappointing Game 1 loss, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst. He still went on to average 28.3 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds over the following three games.
Career Minutes Projection
James realistically could move all the way up to seventh place in total regular-season minutes in 2019-20, but how high can he ultimately ascend?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played through his age-41 season, holds the all-time record with 57,446 total minutes. Karl Malone, the newly retired Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd and Elvin Hayes sit behind him.
If James can play his hypothetical average of 2,591 minutes per season (roughly 72 games at 36 minutes per night), here's where he'll rank every year until his age-39 season in 2023-24:
|LeBron James Career Minutes Projection|
If he keeps on this projected pace, James will pass Abdul-Jabbar for the most regular-season minutes sometime during the 2023-24 season. That would be his 21st season in the league.
However, it will only become more difficult for the 15-time All-Star to maintain his level of durability, and the Lakers will assuredly try to decrease his games and minutes played throughout the remainder of his career.
While he might have to play into his 40s to accomplish this feat, James could finish his career leading the NBA in both regular-season and playoff minutes.
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