It was 2006. LeBron James wasn’t even halfway 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 best player in the game.
As a 21-year-old, he averaged 30.2 points.
Fast forward 16 years. He left Cleveland, went to Miami, won two championships, got married, fathered three, went back to Cleveland, won another championship, went to Los Angeles, won a fourth championship with the Lakers, still a big star, still talking to the best player.
As a 37-year-old, he averaged 30.1 points.
James turns 38 on Friday, halfway through his 20th season. No one in NBA history has averaged as 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 age 37; the average scorer of the remaining 149 was 8.3 points per game.
But here’s James, just not slowing down. He averaged more points at 37 than at 22. Or 23. Or 24. Or any other age in the last 16 years.
“I know how feverishly he works on his game,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Just being in the gym, watching him in the gym… you know, he’s not just playing his own individual game of HORSE. He really works the shots and is just ready to strike from any zone or distance.
James is closing in on passing Abdul-Jabbar for the NBA career scoring record — they’re separated by just 574 points — and he’s as prolific a scorer as he’s ever been.
“I know how much I put into the game,” said James. “I know how much I put into my body, into my mind and all those things. But I kind of surprise myself sometimes, just on the level. If you look at the history of the game… it seems not many people have played at this level for so many years and have so many miles and such on their CV.”
Not much. If applicable. At least not at 37.
He not only averaged 30.1 points, but also 8.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists during this round of 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 greatest point guards ever – averaged more assists at 37.
At his current pace, James could overtake Abdul-Jabbar for the scoring record in early February. And he doesn’t plan to stop playing anytime soon either, so that record could be well out of reach by the time James is actually done.
“He’s constantly working on his craft,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, the only coach to win more than one championship with James. “So he continues to develop new skills to put in his toolbox. He does not get tired of that process. You can see it. He’s like a computer. If he sees another player working on something or doing something in the game, he says, “Oh, I want to try that.” … He never gets bored with that.”
However, he is tired of 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 timeline for his return. They are stuck at the bottom of the NBA and need a major rally to avoid missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Since James and Davis led the Lakers to the 2020 NBA title, the team has not won a playoff series; it went out in the first round in 2021 and didn’t make it in 2022.
James has averaged 27.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists this season. He has never finished a season with such high averages in all three of these categories – not even in any of his four MVP seasons.
And at the moment it seems like it’s going for nothing.
“I don’t want to end my career playing at this level, from a team aspect,” said James. “I still want to be able to compete for championships because I know what I can bring to any baseball club with the right pieces.”
He will be a 38-year-old All-Star when play starts in February; only five other players have played in that game at age 38 or older. The Lakers are just three games away from the final play-in tournament spot, so it’s not like there’s no hope for this season.
But he’s not playing for All-Star scores, or the chance to get into the playoffs, or even for scoring records. He doesn’t know how much longer he wants to play, but he knows what he still wants to do.
“I am a winner. And I want to win,” said James. “I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. 18 year old boy from 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 play basketball is 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 in the years to come.”