With last night’s loss to the Warriors, LeBron James has finished his 12th NBA season. He’s played in 1,089 games, 178 of which were in the playoffs, and he’s played just under 36,00 regular-season minutes and another 7,500 playoff minutes. He’s currently 30 years old, and one has to start wondering: how many years of LeBron do we have left? The answer is at least a few. No player has ever looked so inhuman as James has throughout his career, but when you look at how much basketball he’s played, the end might come a bit sooner than we might expect.
Since the 2010-2011 season, when he started his Finals streak, Lebron has played 18,135 total minutes. The closest player to James’s output in that time frame is Kevin Durant with almost 3,000 fewer minutes. Going to the Finals five years in a row has a two-pronged attack on James’s durability: it adds more games of high intensity basketball to each season, and it also shortens his offseason, giving him less time to rest.
We saw the impact of these extended seasons on James this year with the games he missed during the regular season and some of the fatigue on display in the Finals. LeBron is only getting older, and the continued wear of consecutive deep playoff runs isn’t helping.
Luckily for James, he started young. Most players are further into their 30s after their 12th year. By going straight to the NBA from high school, James didn’t have to waste any of his young, developmental years in college and got to hit the ground running playing in the NBA.
There’s another famous player who went straight from high school to the NBA, and he’s still hanging around, even if this is allegedly his final season. Kobe Bryant was drafted in 1996 and has been playing for 19 seasons, although his last three seasons have been cut short by major injuries. If LeBron’s career follows Kobe’s, he should have about five more years of LeBron-quality basketball left in him.
There are obviously differences, however, in James’s career and Bryant’s. LeBron has started every game he’s played in the NBA except one game against the Pacers in 2007. Bryant, on the other hand, didn’t consistently start for the Lakers until his third season with the team, and he didn’t have to put up the same kind of workload as James until later in his career. While it’s useful to see how Bryant has aged and handled the grind of playoff runs, given that they both came into the NBA at similar points of their development, it’s important to remember that they’re different players with different careers.
We’ve already seen peak LeBron; it happened some time in the past three years, likely during the 2012-2013 season when he put up a 31.6 PER. His claim that he’s the best player in the world wasn’t untrue, but he’s not the best he’s ever been. The combination of age and fatigue have taken a little bit from his game, and will continue to take more as time goes on. Enjoy him while he’s still great. We have a few more years to do that, but they’re becoming fewer.