Everyone likes to compare players over generations. Is Jordan as good as Magic? Is Shaq as good as Wilt? Is Kobe as good as Jordan? Is LeBron as good as Jordan? Is anyone as good as Jordan? Is Durant as good as LeBron? These kinds of things will never go away, because the discussion is what makes being a fan enjoyable. Despite never being able to prove anything, we love to be able to debate.
But a different debate I’m bringing to the table is this: How much longer does LeBron James have to be a dominating player? We’ve become so accustomed to seeing him dominate the league in such a fierce way that I think many forget that he’s a human being. He’s prone to illness, injury and possibly even kryptonite.
James just turned 30 years old and has made the trip to the NBA Finals five seasons in a row. He’s played over 43,000 minutes in his career, which is a huge workload. You have to be in tremendous shape to be able to handle the rigors of an NBA season, but LeBron has to keep his body in a condition above all others to handle the pressure the game has inevitably put on his knees and ankles.
To give you a comparison, he and Kobe Bryant both came into the league out of high school. But Bryant didn’t get to the total minutes mark that James sits at right now, having not yet begun his 13th season, until Bryant’s 15th year in the league — and that’s with having won five championships to that point.
In my digging, I decided to compare players across generations (as we all love to do) to see when true decline hit some of the greatest players in the game. It wasn’t just enough for a player to have been great, though, but also to have been in some way similar to James. He had to be able to score, pass and rebound to some degree. He had to be at least 6’6”, drive to the basket frequently and get to the foul line. Basically, I was looking for guys who played small forward or shooting guard.
The short list I came up with consists of Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant. Having my similar players, I decided to look at some advanced stats that could give me a way to compare player value to their league in their era. This way, I avoid the messy comparison of “Jordan vs LeBron,” since the eras are so different. This excluded Baylor, unfortunately, as advanced stats aren’t on record for the 1960s, which was when he was in his prime.
I decided on using VORP (value over replacement player) as a measuring stick. Again, the numbers themselves aren’t as important because the value that Dominique Wilkins may have had versus the replacement may not truly show how good he was. It really only shows how much better he was than the most readily available replacement. So it’s important not to compare VORP totals by season and try to make sense out of it.
What I was looking for was a trend. I wanted to see at what point in their respective careers did these players start to go into a decline. After gathering my data, I put them into some neat line graphs that can help us see in a more clear way the career trends, which I must yet again stress is the most important thing we’re looking for.
Dr. J was in the ABA for the first three years of his prime (I recorded age 23-34 as prime years), so I have no plot for those seasons. But you can see he hit his absolute best between ages 28-31, and then there was a sharp decline thereafter.
Wilkins spiked early in his career at age 27 before going into a small lull and spiking again at 31. Again, we see that age 32 triggered the downward slope of value over replacement.
“Pip” was at his best between ages 28-31, which happened to run from Jordan’s surprise retirement in 1993-94 through their fifth championship run in 1996-97. Pippen was hurt leading up to their next and final season together, and although they won their sixth championship that year, he was never the same player again.
Jordan is a bit of an exception to the rule (isn’t he always?). He’s in elite company very early in his career, having his best numbers recorded from ages 24-27. He’s still very, very good from that point forward. Despite missing essentially two full seasons to retirement in the middle of his prime, he came back strong at age 32 before decline set in at age 33. Is it possible his time off helped extend his prime an extra year or two?
Kobe has been a bit up and down in his career, having high numbers early on and having small dips throughout. I think it’s fair to say that his decline began at age 31, which is incidentally the last year he won a championship. It’s worth noting that he did have a recovery at age 34.
Like Jordan, LeBron had a masterful run very early in his career. Even though it appears that there’s a decline at age 26, I should remind you that he signed with the Miami Heat that season. Those first two years are a bit down, but that has a lot to do with the supporting cast around him being so talented. LeBron’s VORP spiked back up the year he won his second championship, but since has dropped considerably.
James’s VORP this last season, at age 30, was the lowest of his career. I think this is really important, given the trends we saw with the players above. The average player started their decline around age 32, which might give James another season of high-level production. At the same time, however, we need to be mindful of the minutes that he’s played. It’s entirely possible that this is the year that LeBron James concedes his title as “Best Player on the Planet.”
But what does that mean for the Cavaliers? Frankly, it might not matter in the Eastern Conference. The teams in the East are, generally, bad enough that James’s supporting cast of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving should be able to carry them in the playoffs, assuming everyone is healthy. Even if LeBron declines in value, this team could, and probably should, still make it to the NBA Finals.
But once they get there, it’s probably another story, given how good the Western Conference is with the Warriors, Spurs and others. And from there, who knows what happens in the rest of the NBA with the salary cap potentially changing the landscape of the league. This could very well be LeBron’s best chance to win a championship in Cleveland.