LeBron James will begin his 17th NBA season, his second with the Los Angeles Lakers, on Tuesday. Long-established as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, James is also building a resumé as one of its longest-tenured.
With nine NBA Finals appearances and a 38.6-minutes-per-game average in the regular season, the forward has already played more combined regular-season and playoff minutes (56,284) than all but five players in NBA history. He trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tim Duncan.
The question on the eve of the 2019-20 season is whether James can continue to play at a level we’re used to seeing. He will turn 35 on Dec. 30, and the Lakers’ championship hopes are riding on his ability not just to be one of the best players on the planet, but also to be available when needed. Last season, James put up averages similar to those from the bulk of his career — 27.4 points, 8.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds, 51.0 field-goal percentage — but his 55 games and 1,937 minutes played were his lowest ever.
Could last year’s lack of availability be the start of a downward trend for James’ career? It’s impossible to know for sure, but an examination of data for James and other players who have reached similar levels of playing time tells us two things:
No one else in the last 45 years has played this well after playing this many minutes.
Though he’s been remarkably consistent in the latter stages of his career, there is another Hall of Famer who stayed closer to his peak later, even if that peak was not as high.
Determining James’ effectiveness as he’s aged compared to his peers requires finding who those peers are and determining how well they played.
In the case of James, his peers are those who have played the most minutes in NBA history, a list that includes many of the greatest players ever.
To measure effectiveness, we can use a basketball-reference.com statistic called value over replacement player (VORP). It takes a player’s traditional raw statistics and estimates how much more valuable he is to his team compared to an average replacement. Some of the statistics the formula uses were not tracked by the NBA until 1974 (offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, blocks, steals, and turnovers), so VORP is not available for seasons before 1974-75.
How accurate is VORP? Judge for yourself.
The list is fairly representative of the best players in the league over the last 45 years. Is LeBron James better than Michael Jordan? VORP gives James the edge, but it is a cumulative stat, so James’ advantage of 5,224 regular-season minutes gives his VORP a boost. The cumulative nature of the stat also hurts players whose careers started before 1974, such as Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving.
Since Jordan falls at No. 20 on the list of the most minutes for players since 1974, and he seems important enough to include, we’ll restrict our analysis to those first 20.
But how has that value changed over time? There are two ways to measure it.
The first one is simple: Look at each player’s VORP in each season of his career. It’s easy to compile, but it’s problematic. Not all seasons are created equal, and for a player’s body, it’s not just the years, it’s the mileage. More time on the court can accelerate a body’s aging. Players miss time because of injuries; family issues; and mystifying, career-peak, mid-dynasty retirements that they reconsider 1½ years later. Teams can make repeated, deep runs in the playoffs, adding more minutes to a player’s odometer. And in the modern NBA, teams do what they can to preserve the bodies of their best players — having them sit more during games or skip games entirely — to make sure they’re ready for the postseason.
The better way to measure how well a player performs over time is to measure his value against his minutes played. We can segment the players’ careers into 5,000-minute milestones, inclusive of full seasons, and examine what happens to value over the years. (For example, the span from a player’s first season through the completion of the season in which he crossed 5,000 minutes played would be his first segment. The second segment would be from the start of the season after that through the end of the season in which he played his 10,000th minute.)
To be fair, James has an advantage: His NBA career started when he was 18, and his relative health has allowed him to pile up minutes earlier and faster than any other player in our sample. He’s missed only about seven games per season, and he started his 11th 5,000-minute segment in just his 15th season. The next fastest to get there was Karl Malone in his 16th season. Kobe Bryant got there in his 17th year. The other 10 players to get there did so in their 18th season or later.
By examining regular-season and playoff minutes, and regular-season and playoff VORP, and breaking careers into milestone segments, we can chart the rise and fall of the players who have endured the most wear and tear on the NBA hardwood.
There are plenty of ways to parse the results, but James stacks up well, even against this Hall of Fame cast, in all of them. For instance, if we look at VORP per minute played in each milestone segment, his performance in the latter stages of his career is well above those of other players.
Not only has James stayed above the pack, but his performance also has remained relatively stable at a point when many others begin to dip. The only other player to do a better job of maintaining his performance deep into his career is Karl Malone. Malone hit his VORP-per-minute peak during his career segment in which he passed 25,000 minutes, his sixth and seventh seasons. His next five 5,000-minute segments, spanning the next six seasons of his career, had him between 87.49% and 98.06% of that mark.
James hit his peak in his 15,000-20,000-minute segment, his fourth and fifth years. He hasn’t been above 90.71% of that peak since, but was still at 74.53% of it more than 30,000 minutes later.
James’ performance when compared to his peak per minute played moved higher than Malone’s over just the last two seasons, when James crossed the 55,000-minute threshold.
The two charts above show how well these players have performed, and maintained their performance, when they’re on the court. However, as players age and injuries mount, staying on the court becomes a bigger issue. We can factor in availability by comparing actual minutes played to the number of minutes that were available to a player — which is simply the total number of minutes the team played.
For instance, in his third season, which is the 5,000-10,000-minute segment of his career, James played 3,965 of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 4,600 combined regular-season and playoff minutes, or 86.20%.
Once again, Malone stands out, particularly for how much he was able to play in the latter stages of his career. The decline at the end came from his last season, with the Lakers, when he played only 42 regular-season games and missed one of Los Angeles’ 22 playoff contests.
All that’s left is to take the players’ total value and divide it by the total minutes available for them to play.
There you have it: VORP says no one (whose career began since the start of the 1974-75 season) has provided as much value as James this late into his career. It’s been true since his eighth and ninth seasons, the segment during which he passed 35,000 minutes. Even over the most recent stretch of James’ career, his 50,000-55,000-minute segment when he missed 27 games, he’s provided 55.26% more production per team minute than the next-closest player, Malone.
If you remove James and find the average of the other 12 players who have crossed the 50,000-minute threshold, he’s been 457.97% more productive than his peers.
It’s impossible to predict with certainty what all of this means for the rest of James’ career. He’s still one of the best players in the world when he’s on the court, but if the injuries that slowed him last season are the first signs of a decline, his production could fall fast.
The answers to James’ future will start to be answered Tuesday night.