It has been truly remarkable to watch LeBron James earn a seat at the GOAT table, but his next act could be even more impressive. With 14 NBA seasons on the odometer and his 33rd birthday approaching in December, perhaps the most incredible aspect of LeBron’s career is that his future still carries weight. After all, King James is still the king.
Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard have closed the gap, but LeBron is still at (or at least near) the apex of the sport. The list of players who could say that this far into their careers is short:
The next steps differed for each of these Hall-of-Famers: Wilt retired after his 14th season; Kareem aged gracefully as Magic Johnson’s right-hand (sky-hook) man; Mailman continued to deliver the goods for the next four years until an injury in his 2003-04 swansong with the Lakers ended his career; Bryant1 strung together three more good seasons before injuries piled up.
The specter of injury or age-related decline looms ominously for LeBron but, as of right now, he looks poised to be Father Time’s toughest challenger. If we cross our fingers whilst praying to whomever you pray to that LeBron James doesn’t get hurt, what does his future look like?
I approached this question through two different lenses:
Part 1: What could his career statistics look like?
Part 2: What will his game look like accounting for some decline in his athleticism? (Stay tuned)
Part 1: LeBron’s Climb Up NBA Leaderboards
*Note: All statistics presented here are for the regular season only; playoff stats are not included. These numbers are accurate as of the end of the 2016-17 season.
LeBron James is already all over the NBA record books. I took a stab at projecting where he could end up in the various statistical categories depending on how much longer he plays and how far his production declines. Be warned: this was hardly a scientific process. I didn’t apply an aging curve2, instead opting to work off his current career averages and calculating low- (40% of current production), medium- (70%) and high-end (100%) statistical projections. I thought this tiered approach would capture varying degrees of decline and generate a range of possible outcomes. The stat lines I used are shown below:
Using these averages, I forecasted what LeBron’s career numbers would look like eight years into the future. Playing the full eight years would mean he plays through 2024-25 logging a ridiculous 22 seasons under his belt. By no means do I actually expect him to play that long, but I thought it was worth looking so far into the future since LeBron is the NBA version of The Terminator.
**Note: Each of the following graphs contains three colored lines. The orange line represents LeBron’s statistical trajectory using my low-end projections, yellow represents the medium projection and green represents the high projection.
The “Big Man” Stats
These are the weakest areas of LeBron’s box-score stats. Nevertheless, he will probably finish his career in the top 100 for blocks and the top 60 for rebounds. The high-end rebound projection (7.2 rebounds per game) is his current career average, but it’s worth noting that he set a career-high last year with 8.6 boards per game. As the league gets smaller, it’s plausible that he evolves into a more traditional big and increases his rebounding.
The “Point Guard” Stats
LeBron’s steal rate has decreased over the last few years, probably due to his coasting on defense for the regular season. Nevertheless, it’s likely he ends up as one of the 10 best pickpockets in league history with an outside shot at a top-5 finish.
The company LeBron keeps here is ridiculous. The fact that he could plausibly finish with more assists than Steve Nash cements his status as one of the game’s greatest creators. John Stockton3 and Jason Kidd are out of the King’s grasp, so the No. 3 spot is as high as he can realistically go.
The Ironman Stats
In addition to his versatile game, LeBron’s insane durability has played a large role in his awesome career marks. Given the league’s focus on rest and longevity, we could see LeBron start to routinely sit out (more than he already does) as he ages. As long as he doesn’t suffer a serious injury, he seems like a lock to finish in the top 50 for games played and the top 10 for minutes played.
The GOAT Stats
LeBron’s primary claim to GOAT status is his all-around dominance as shown in ALL of these graphs, but these are the two categories that carry more weight.
Win shares is not a perfect stat, but he should overtake Michael Jordan in career win shares this season and he has a realistic shot at earning the No. 1 spot.
Barring injury, LeBron is a lock to be a top-6 scorer in league history and it should just be a matter of time before he passes Jordan and Kobe. There’s a sizable gap between No. 3 (Bryant) and No. 2 (Malone), but LeBron could chase down the top 2 if he plays long enough.
It’s easy to get caught up in the G.O.A.T. debate and the ‘ghost of Michael Jordan‘ but that conversation often ends with a myopic focus on championships. Titles may be the only thing that can significantly impact LeBron’s legacy in the eyes of the masses, but let’s not lose sight of the history he makes whenever he sets foot on court. His versatility is his greatness, and the combination of all these graphs shows a man who has dominated every aspect of the game like no other.
1. Kobe’s all-in-one metrics suggest he wasn’t actually one of the game’s best in that 2009-10 season, but I’m not going to pretend that all-in-one metrics are perfect. Bryant was certainly considered to be one of the league’s best at the time. It’s worth pointing out, however, just how FREAKING good Pau Gasol was for those Lakers teams (he bested Kobe in both BPM and WS for the first 4 full seasons of their partnership).^
2. Mostly because I don’t know how to apply an aging curve, but also because if there were ever a player to not conform to the standard aging curve, it would be LeBron James.^
3. John Stockton gets criminally overlooked in all discussions about the point guard position. For his career, he posted a 50.2 assist percentage (1st all-time) and a 60.8 true-shooting percentage (12th all-time). He didn’t score a ton of points, but those career marks are unimpeachable and untouchable.^