There’s only one reliable way to let LeBron James feel his age on a basketball court: Casually inform him during the game that he once played against your father. Houston Rockets rookie Jabari Smith Jr. made sure of that the most striking example of that approach — not just because of the little things about his father, Jabari Sr., being on the opposing team in LeBron’s NBA debut in 2003, but also because Smith revealed that information to James when the 38-year-old was heading for a 48-pointer night buzzing through Houston en route to the league record.
In the near future – and maybe as early as this weekend – James Kareem will overtake Abdul-Jabbar to become the highest-scoring player in NBA history. And he’ll do it in the most inexplicable way, breaking into the record books with one of his most successful seasons, the twilight of his legendary career in full Technicolor.
Now let’s say it together as James takes the curve towards what many see as an unbreakable record: none of this is normal. A 38-year-old shouldn’t be averaging 30 points per game to contend for single season Scoring title in his 20th game of the league. Nobody does this. Even if Superstars stay well into their 30s, they become washed-out versions of the gamers they once were – with the same baseline but without the vivid details. Jason Kidd went from full-court dynamo to stoppage broker. Tim Duncan moved from the franchise-changing centerpiece to the fifth option in the Spurs lineup. LeBron’s miracle isn’t that he stayed long enough to finally catch Kareem. It’s like when he does, he’s still LeBron — he’s in full command and hitting at will.
His record will be a testament to incredible longevity, a streak spanning thousands of games and tens of thousands of minutes, including the most graceful and dominant decline the sport has ever seen. LeBron is a very different player now than he was at 28 and most certainly than he was at 18. And yet here he is, older and wiser and noticeably slower, and still getting buckets down the next branch of the family tree.
“Kenyon Martin Jr. was also on the court tonight. I played his dad,” James told reporters after the game against Smith and the Rockets in January. “Gary Trent Sr. I played in Toronto, and now obviously his son. Gary Payton and his son.” And that’s not all. There’s Rick and Jalen Brunson, Glen Rice Jr. and Sr., Glenn Robinson Jr. and III – the list goes on. By 2024, James could even share the place – or a team – with his own son. Forget the idea of a generation athlete; LeBron is multigenerationalwho dominated for so long that he created a continuous lineage for the sport’s lineage.
There’s no question that James is now playing a more perimeter-oriented game, as older veterans often do. But the reason his heyday seems endless is that he still manages to get to the basket – squeezing past and through opponents in a sporting impossibility. He bangs on the mail. He attacks from bread-and-butter pick-and-buns. He cuts off backdoor and takes every opportunity in the transition. Not only has LeBron scored more shots to the rim this season than any player age 35 or older — more than Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and even Michael Jordan — but his only real competitor is himself:
Simple life on the edge
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Data via NBA.com
Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise. LeBron has always made the toughest parts of the game look easy, so why not do the same when it comes to grappling with his sporting mortality? Every other player in LeBron’s age bracket is quickly fading – battling injuries, being propped up by minute restrictions, or filling smaller, supporting roles. Then there’s James, who dribbles right through players nearly 20 years his junior to give a battered Lakers roster the lifeline he so desperately needs.
In his younger days, James would jump in the air and return to the ground on his own schedule. There’s hanging time, and then there’s This– Enough buoyancy to make plays, right wrong and the occasional levitation under a defender’s arms in the air and still pull through for a dunk. LeBron still has feathers, but so much of his game today is based on flying forward rather than up.
James may not be revving as high as he used to, but such a strong and resourceful player is almost impossible to slow down. Defenders are looking at LeBron from every corner. Those trying to stay ahead of him quickly find that being around when he’s driving is never enough – not when he can so easily shrug off a competition and turn his best efforts to dust. It doesn’t matter who is not perfectly positioned. Those attempting to take charge often end up fouling instead. James has stood out over the years for his uncanny ability to see the entire board as a playmaker, down to every piece and every move. In admiring this kind of vision, it’s easy to forget that he generally accomplished his plans by overpowering the defender right in front of him. He still does.
This type of advantage ages well, especially when harnessed by a basketball genius. Part of the reason LeBron’s heyday has lasted so long – longer, in fact, than most players’ entire careers – is that it started early; His understanding of the game and how to manipulate it quickly caught up with his extraordinary physical abilities and gave him a boost to self-realization. At this stage in his career, that same brilliance allows him to make up the lost step. Overall, he spent almost 20 years at the very top of his guild.
The NBA has seen dominant bigs and superstars extend their careers through reinvention. James is different. He never had to reinvent his game or how he controls the action. He didn’t have a moment of reckoning as he had to give up the ghost of the player he once was. While so much has changed in LeBron’s two decades in the league, the arc of his career has come from finding enough new tools to dictate the game in the same fundamental way.
There’s a growing notion in the sporting world that, thanks to careful nutrition, improved training methods and significant medical advances, elite athletes are playing better for longer than ever. LeBron is often cited as evidence of a new wave because he invests so much in his athletic performance and because This is not what 38 normally looks like:
However, the reality is that NBA players don’t blossom deep into their careers. LeBron is.
In the past four seasons – since James turned 35 – the average NBA player has been younger than at any other time in NBA history. Any advances made in expanding players’ careers have been dwarfed by the growing demands of the game itself. Basketball in the ’90s was a battlefield, hand checks turned into body punches into hard, dangerous fouls. Basketball in the 2020s is a war of attrition – not against an enforcer bent on sending you down, but against unrelenting pace and space. There’s no quarter for veterans who used to hide in the dirt of the game and survived with guile and old manhood. If you can’t cover the floor, you’re as good as gone. If you don’t run the break, the league will leave you behind.
None of that was a problem for LeBron, who was a sporting prodigy in his first game in the league and remains to this day – as exceptional against Jabari Smith Jr. as he was against Jabari Smith Sr stood the test of time as long as I’m playing to compete against fathers and sons now,” said James. “It’s the same as what [Tom] Brady does. You look at Asante Samuel and now his son is playing. Patrick Surtain, he played the father and now he’s playing the son. I’m just trying to keep up with the Bradys I guess – not the Joneses.”
And now, after Brady announced his (second) retirement from the NFL this week, LeBron is left alone. There’s a reason James had to look outside of basketball for the closest comparison. Everyone else in his design class has come and gone. As LeBron approaches Kareem, Dwyane Wade is shaping the future of jazz through ownership. Luke Walton files scouting reports. Kendrick Perkins does, you know what Kendrick Perkins does. Boris Diaw is probably still swimming somewhere in the Mediterranean.
The longer James continues to play at this level, the harder it becomes to argue that each of today’s stars could truly be considered his equal. Kevin Durant is the closest active player behind LeBron in career standings with 26,684 career points. He’s still chasing LeBron more than 10,000 points. What LeBron has done, in being so meticulous about his body and his game, is creating the illusion that a career like his is attainable — that he is the marker of a trend, a vision for the future of the sport. But LeBron is not a guiding star or a role model. It is a historical aberration.
Soon James will have the record to prove it – and more points than any other player in NBA history, an extraordinary accolade for an extraordinary career. Unofficially, he probably has more drives in the basket as well. Read more. More pure in-game processing than anyone who has ever played the game. At this point, LeBron has seen it all: epochs come and go, competitors rise and fall, fathers give way to sons.
“You feel old, don’t you?” Smith joked in his back-and-forth with James after taking the future Hall of Famer back to a memory from 20 years ago.
LeBron admitted as much after his exchange with Smith, and that sentiment is certainly inevitable now – when every evening is in the shadow of history. Young men don’t chase kareem and a record like this. However, breaking it is the difference between old and timeless.