On the surface, it seems patently absurd to discuss LeBron James’s decline. You only need to watch his top plays from last season to wonder how he still has skin on his forehead after nearly scraping his head on the underside of the rim multiple times last year.
But then you look at his Basketball Reference page and realize he has racked up more miles than a 1995 Honda. James is just 29 years old, but he’s entering his 12th season having already played 40,000 minutes when you factor in the playoffs. (Fine, 39,993 if you want to be that guy.) He currently ranks 16th among active players in regular season minutes.
Assuming James’s minutes per game closely resemble the last four years with Miami rather than his first seven with Cleveland, he’ll probably play around 38 per game for the Cavaliers next season, just less than 3,000 for the regular season. If James plays at least four more seasons — a safe assumption, considering he has played in 95 percent of all possible regular season games thus far in his career — that would be another 12,000 minutes added to the odometer. Since the NBA-ABA merger, only 13 shooting guards or forwards have played more than 12,000 minutes after their 10th seasons.
But beyond longevity, when can we expect a drop-off?
The table below shows how many minutes each player had accumulated by the end of their final elite season. I’m defining “elite” both quantitatively (e.g., the last season before a significant drop-off in win shares or PER) as well as qualitatively (for instance, the last All-NBA selection, while also factoring in the player’s role on the team).
For example, Kevin Garnett last made the All-NBA defensive team in 2011-12. He has played nearly 55,000 minutes if you include the playoffs, but you wouldn’t argue he’s been the same player the last two years. On the other hand, even though Ray Allen’s last All-NBA selection was in 2004-05, that can largely be attributed to playing a different role in Boston. He posted his fourth-highest win-share total in 2010-11 (and the highest playoff win-share numbers of his career), which is why 2011 is his cutoff. Again, there’s an element of subjectivity here.
Here’s how many minutes each player had logged by their last elite season.
Averaging out those minutes, we get 45,323, which would give LeBron James about one and a half or two seasons left of “elite” basketball considering James has already played 40,000 minutes. However, that number is probably way too low when you start looking at the list qualitatively.
James is clearly far more athletically durable than Charles Barkley, Larry Bird or Scottie Pippen— players who began to decline before even getting to 40,000 minutes. Based on the skill set of the players on the list, you could make a case that James’s post-30 career will more closely resemble the players at the top — Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki.
James has Malone’s physique combined with a more effective low-post game than either Bryant or Nowitzki. So the best-case scenario — assuming he avoids a major injury — would be that James has another 14,000 minutes at the top of his game.
That would give the Cavaliers about five more seasons of a dominant James. You can understand why he wanted Kevin Love right now, rather than counting on a 19-year-old Andrew Wiggins. But let’s see how that trade looks in five years time, when Wiggins is 24 and entering his prime.