It was 2006. LeBron James wasn’t even midway through his first stint in Cleveland. He made the playoffs for the first time, was already a globally recognized star and well on his way to becoming the game’s best player.
As a 21-year-old, he averaged 30.2 points.
Fast forward 16 years. He’s left Cleveland, gone to Miami, won two championships, gotten married, became a father of three, gone back to Cleveland, won another championship, left for Los Angeles, won a fourth championship with the Lakers, still a giant star, still in the best-player conversation.
As a 37-year-old, he averaged 30.1 points.
James turns 38 on Friday, midway through his 20th season. Nobody in NBA history has averaged so many points as a 37-year-old. Not even close. Karl Malone averaged 23.2 points at that age, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 20.2 and Julius Erving averaged 20.2. There have been 150 players in NBA history who played at 37; the average scoring clip of the other 149 was 8.3 points per game.
Yet here is James, simply not slowing down. He averaged more points at 37 then he did at 22. Or 23. Or 24. Or any other age over the last 16 years.
“I know how feverishly he works on his game,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Just being in the gym, seeing him in the gym … you know, he’s not just out there playing his own individual game of H-O-R-S-E. He actually works on the shots and just being ready to be able to strike from any zone or any distance.”
James is closing in on passing Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA career scoring record — they’re separated by only 574 points — and he’s as prolific a scorer as he’s ever been.
“I do know how much I put into the game,” James said. “I know how much I put into my body, into my mind, and all of those things. But I kind of surprise myself sometimes, just at the level. When you look at the history of the game… doesn’t seem like many have played at this level for this many years and this many miles and things on their resume.”
Not many. If any. Not at 37, anyway.
He averaged not just the 30.1 points, but 8.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists during this lap around the sun. Only six players at that age averaged more rebounds, only four players — Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd and John Stockton, four of the best point guards ever — averaged more assists at 37.
At his current pace, James could catch Abdul-Jabbar for the scoring record by early February. And he doesn’t intend to stop playing anytime soon, either, so that record might be way out of reach by the time James is actually done.
“He constantly works at his craft,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, the only coach to win more than one championship with James. “So, he’s going to continue to develop new skills to put in his toolkit. He doesn’t get bored with that process. You can tell. He’s like a computer. When he sees another player work on something, or do something in the game, he says, ‘Oh, I want to try that.’ … He never gets bored with that.”
He has, however, gotten bored with losing.
The Lakers are 14-21 and are without perennial All-Star big man Anthony Davis, who remains out with a foot injury with no timetable for his return. They’re mired near the bottom of the NBA and need a big rally in order to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Since James and Davis led the Lakers to the 2020 NBA title, the team hasn’t won a playoff series; it went out in the first round in 2021, and didn’t make it in 2022.
James is averaging 27.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists this season. He’s never finished a season with averages that high in all three of those categories — not even in any of his four MVP seasons.
And, right now, it seems like it’s going for naught.
“I don’t want to finish my career playing at this level, from a team aspect,” James said. “I want to still be able to compete for championships because I know what I can still bring to any ballclub with the right pieces.”
He’ll be a 38-year-old All-Star when the game rolls around in February; only five other players have been in that game at 38 or older. The Lakers are only three games out of the last play-in tournament spot, so it’s not like there’s no hope for this season.
But he’s not playing for All-Star longevity marks, or the chance to squeak into the playoffs, or even scoring records. He doesn’t know how much longer he wants to play, but knows what he still wants to do.
“I’m a winner. And I want to win,” James said. “I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. That has always been my passion, my goal since I entered the league, an 18-year-old kid out of Akron, Ohio. I know it takes steps to get there. And once you get there, you know how to get there.
“Playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball, it’s not in my DNA. It’s not in my DNA anymore. So, we’ll see what happens. We’ll see how fresh my mind stays over the next couple of years.”