LeBron James and the NBA's All-Time Greatest Stars over 35
You've surely all heard about Father Time's unblemished record, but you may not know how ferociously some NBA greats have challenged it.
Then again, you probably should realize it since the Association's resident cyborg, 35-year-old LeBron James, just claimed the crown over age and all other challengers en route to the 2020 title.
It was one of the greatest campaigns ever engineered by a seasoned veteran, but it wasn't the only time a hooper has toyed with our concept of the aging process.
Let's hop into our time machine, then, and revisit some of the best seasons ever delivered by an age-35-or-over baller. To simplify the discussion, we're analyzing single seasons—largely on the strength of statistics, but also factoring in awards, accolades and accomplishments—and only considering players who were at least 35 by Feb. 1 in the respective campaign.
Tim Duncan, 2012-13 San Antonio Spurs
Duncan's fundamentally sound approach had him bobbing and weaving around Father Time into his late 30s. This was his age-36 campaign, and he was still a walking double-double (17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds) and 50-plus-percent finisher (50.2 field-goal percentage, to be precise).
His place on San Antonio's pecking order was fuzzy at times as these Spurs ran first through Tony Parker and eventually cleared room for Kawhi Leonard's emergence. But Duncan, an All-NBA first-team selection and All-Defensive second-teamer, played a prominent role in a season that featured 58 Spurs wins and a seven-game loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Alex English, 1988-89 Denver Nuggets
There was no such thing as playing too fast on Doug Moe's Nuggets teams of the 1980s, so the production could run a little inflated. Three of the six highest-scoring seasons in NBA history were overseen by Moe in Denver.
That partly explains why English gets only an honorable mention despite authoring the highest points-per-game mark of any 35-plus hooper (26.5). There's also his allergy to defense, which dragged down his on-court impact to the point he contributed just 0.110 win shares per 48 minutes (as many as Dorian Finney-Smith gave the Dallas Mavericks in 2019-20).
Still, let's not sneeze at a 35-year-old averaging 26.5 points and 4.7 assists.
Michael Jordan, 2001-02 Washington Wizards
If an all-time list can include at least a mention of Jordan, it probably should. And it's not like this is simply a lifetime-achievement honor. In his age-38 season, which was preceded by three years of retirement, he averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
Now, Air Jordan didn't have much jet fuel left (20 dunks in 60 games), and it effectively grounded his normally elite efficiency (41.6 field-goal percentage). But he did book a starting spot in the All-Star Game and posted a 20.7 player efficiency rating.
Steve Nash, 2009-10 Phoenix Suns
Before back injuries got the better of him, Nash was teaching wine about effective aging. He captured a pair of assist titles after his 35th birthday and ranked among the game's most efficient marksmen until the bottom finally dropped out in 2013-14.
This was his age-35 season, and it still ranked among the finest he produced. He dropped an NBA-best 11.0 dimes per contest. He toyed with defenders to the tune of a 50.7/42.6/93.8 shooting slash. He quarterbacked one of the 10 best offenses in NBA history and steered the Suns to the conference finals. Only seven players collected more MVP votes than the All-NBA second-teamer.
Dirk Nowitzki, 2013-14 Dallas Mavericks
The 7-footer boasted a silky smooth fadeaway that was scientifically hard to stop, so it's little surprise Nowitzki aged gracefully. Saying that, it's still worth marveling at his age-35 season. He not only totaled a top-20 scoring average (21.7, 13th), but he was also a few fortunate bounces away from compiling the 50/40/90 slash line that defines efficient shooting (he "settled" for 49.7/39.8/89.9).
He didn't touch many other areas on the stat sheet, and whatever defensive resistance he once offered had largely eroded. But there are only so many ways to nitpick the 35-year-old focal point of the league's sixth-best offense.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
Few NBA careers stretch to an age-37 season. Those that do can suffer dramatic declines at any time.
But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Association's all-time leading scorer, had the key to longevity. It was his trademark skyhook, which when launched by the 7'2" center with a 7'5" wingspan, was as unstoppable as any signature move the basketball world has ever seen. Maintaining a strict commitment to conditioning and embracing martial arts and yoga helped him suspend time, too.
Even still, he should've at least been winding down by 1984-85. It was his 16th NBA season. He had averaged 39.1 minutes over the prior 15. His points, rebounds and blocks had declined each of the previous three years—all of which were extended by NBA Finals appearances.
That all should've drained him, but the 37-year-old refused to let his fuel tank run dry. In fact, his minutes (33.3), points (22.0), boards (7.9), assists (3.2) and blocks (2.1) per game were all up from the previous season. He snagged both an All-NBA second-team spot and a fourth-place finish in MVP voting.
It looked like the mileage might be adding up when he couldn't get himself going (or keep up with Robert Parish) in Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals. But Abdul-Jabbar, who turned 38 that April, flipped the proverbial switch only the game's elites can access and blitzed the Boston Celtics for 28.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.6 blocks per game over the final five contests to take the trophy back to L.A.
He earned Finals MVP for his efforts and remains the oldest player to ever capture the award.
Elgin Baylor, 1969-70 Los Angeles Lakers
Want to know how many players averaged at least 24 points, 10 rebounds and five assists last season? One: back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Want to know how many have hit those marks at any point in the past three decades? Four: Antetokounmpo, Charles Barkley, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins.
Want to know why that information is being provided on a section dedicated to Elgin Baylor? Because that's the stat line he tallied in 1969-70 when he was 35 years young. Oh, and the aerial acrobat was grounded for 28 games of that season by knee soreness, so he was aging and injured—and still awesome.
His strength enabled him to impose his will on younger, more athletic defenders, and his wide-reaching skills helped cover any gaps. Before his knees torpedoed his career—he only played 11 NBA games across two seasons after this—he had a counter to whatever the defense threw at him.
"He had the greatest variety of shots of anyone," former teammate Tommy Hawkins once told the San Francisco Examiner (via NBA.com). "He would take it in and hang and shoot from all these angles. Put spin on the ball. Elgin had incredible strength. He could post up Bill Russell. He could pass like Magic [Johnson] and dribble with the best guards in the league."
Baylor was spectacular at almost every step of his Hall of Fame NBA journey, and that included what was effectively his final go-round. While he was denied an All-NBA spot for only the second time in 12 years, he did compile the campaign's seventh-highest PER (20.8).
Wilt Chamberlain, 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
A statistical juggernaut to the very end, Wilt Chamberlain's penultimate NBA season (and age-35 campaign) featured multiple league-best numbers. And remember, this was before three-pointers existed and blocks and steals were tracked, so leading multiple categories was no small feat.
Then again, nothing the 7'1", 275-pounder did would qualify as such. There's an absurdity to his production levels, and that was still the case at this stage of his career.
He snared a league-best 19.2 rebounds per game. If that number seems enormous, that's because it is. No one has averaged 19 boards since, and only three players—Chamberlain included—have cleared 18. He also shot a league-best 64.9 percent from the field. He played all 82 games and averaged 42.3 minutes in them.
His scoring, at least, had finally tailed off (14.8 per game, his first time under 20), though that had more to do with team dynamics than any skill decline. When Jerry West and Gail Goodrich were both providing more than 25 points per night, there were only so many opportunities to go around for Chamberlain. And to his credit, he didn't force the issue and instead averaged almost half as many assists (4.0) as shots (9.3).
His work earned him an All-NBA second-team spot, an All-Defensive first-team selection and a third-place finish in MVP voting. Somehow, that was all just buildup to the crescendo that was his Finals MVP effort, punctuated by a 29-rebound, 24-point performance in Game 5—two nights after he suffered a fractured wrist that was only reported as a sprain.
"I knew it was broken [the day after Game 4] when I saw the X-rays, but no one else really knew it except the doctor and me," Chamberlain told reporters after the series. "At that time, I honestly felt that I couldn't play [in Game 5], couldn't bend it."
LeBron James, 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers
Questioning the King is rarely (if ever) advisable, but the hoops world couldn't help itself. James' first season in L.A. was so rough—including more injury issues than he'd ever had to handle and his team's worst record (37-45) since his rookie year (35-47)—that some wondered aloud if this was the beginning of the end.
Then, 2019-20 happened. The Lakers delivered James a legitimate running mate in Anthony Davis, and he looked instantly revitalized.
Truth be told, James' stat sheet had never really suffered. The has-he-lost-a-step debates look ludicrous in hindsight when he was shouldering per-game averages of 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists while shooting 51.0 percent from the field.
But this season—his age-35 marathon—was different.
He assumed complete offensive control and secured his first assists crown with 10.2 helpers per contest. He engaged defensively from the jump and guided the Lakers to a No. 3 finish in defensive efficiency, up 10 spots from the previous season. He became only the fourth player ever and the first over 30 to average 25 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. He finished second in the MVP race.
L.A. was 10.4 points better per 100 possessions with James than without. That gap widened to plus-15.6 in the postseason and held at plus-15.2 in the championship round, which he capped by becoming the first player to win Finals MVP for three different teams.
"This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I have," James said, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps.
Karl Malone, 1998-99 Utah Jazz
Karl Malone's reliability still boggles the mind. The more you study his numbers, the easier it is to understand how he wound up second on the all-time scoring list.
He averaged double figures as a 40-year-old in 2003-04 and popped for 20.6 points per outing the season prior. But his age-35 campaign is the one the history books will remember the longest.
His Utah Jazz had fallen to Michael Jordan's Bulls in each of the previous two Finals, then Malone and everyone else watched His Airness fly off into the sunset of his second retirement. The NBA suddenly had a best-player-on-the-planet void, and Malone wasn't going to let Father Time prevent him from filling it.
He opened the season with 21 points on just 10 shots and then had a 31-point, 12-rebound double-double his third time out. He was coming for the crown, and he was prepared to muscle through anything and everything in his path.
He missed just one game of the lockout-shortened season—due to suspension, not injury—and logged more than 37 minutes per night. In that time, he tallied 23.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. He raced through the checkered flag as the season leader in win shares (9.6) and value over replacement player (4.0).
Shortly thereafter, he was crowned with his second MVP award and became (and remains) the oldest player to earn the accolade. At the time, he was only the ninth player to earn multiple MVP honors. He also made first-team appearances on both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams for the third and final time of his career.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.