The 2022-23 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
Nobody in the history of the NBA has given Father Time as competitive of a game as LeBron James.
Because of James' longevity and the advancements in sports performance over the course of his 20-year career, we tend to think other superstars will similarly extend their primes into their late 30s. Only, there are thousands of examples from the past two decades of players who enjoyed the same access to training and never cracked 40,000 combined regular-season and playoff minutes, let alone reached James' 63,174.
Just 66 of more than 4,500 players in NBA history (1.5%) have hit that 40,000 mark. James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant are among them. Russell Westbrook and James Harden should join them this season. No one made more All-NBA teams than them in the 2010s. All are closer to the end of their careers than the start.
At some point, we have to consider whether their torch is being passed to a new generation before our eyes. What better point than now, when the lineup from last season's All-NBA first team — Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker — was all 27 years old or younger for the first time since the 1955 roster featured the Fort Wayne Pistons' Larry Foust as one of four centers.
LeBron James, shattering precedents
James is expected to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 33-year-old career scoring record of 38,387 points this season, but Abdul-Jabbar's 66,297 combined regular-season and playoff minutes have stood as the NBA standard for just as long, and James could hit that mark, too, with good health in his 20th campaign.
What James is doing as he approaches his 38th birthday is beyond unprecedented. In his rearview are the 62,579 minutes Karl Malone retired with as an injury-plagued fourth option on the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers. James has played the same amount of NBA minutes that Abdul-Jabbar had in late March 1988, when he was nearing his 41st birthday and about to embark on the Lakers' playoff run to the championship. Abdul-Jabbar played 30 minutes per game in the 1988 playoffs, averaging 14.1 points as their fourth option. He returned for one more season, his 20th in the NBA, averaged a career-low 10.1 points and retired in 1989.
It is reasonable to believe James can be a meaningful contributor to another championship. He nearly led the league in scoring last season. But to think he can be the No. 1 option on a title team — or even Anthony Davis' wingman — goes against everything we have ever known in league history. The only reason we even entertain the possibility is because this is James, and he has made a career out of shattering precedents.
James is nearing 10,000 more minutes than Kobe Bryant had played when he ruptured his Achilles in 2013 and 20,000 more minutes than Michael Jordan had played when he won his sixth ring for the Chicago Bulls in 1998. (To put that into perspective, Joakim Noah played 20,749 combined minutes in his 13-year career.)
James has missed at least 26 games in three of his last four seasons, and the fourth featured a four-month layoff prior to the playoffs. He has fallen from All-NBA first team in 2020 to second team in 2021 and (kindly) third team last season. His Lakers have gone from winning a title to failing to make the playoffs in that span.
Given Davis' unreliability, the onus is still on James, whose usage rate last season (32.3%) hit a 12-year high and whose defense suffered as a result. The Lakers are asking James to still be The Best Player Alive, only he hasn't been for two years, so their ceiling collapsed, especially since the talent around him is not as deep as it is around Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Doncic, Tatum, Booker or their young All-NBA brethren, Joel Embiid and Ja Morant — all of whom have led teams deeper into the playoffs over the last two seasons.
Chris Paul, prolonging the point
Paul has the benefit of sharing his workload with Booker, DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, among others on the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, the franchise is fracturing, and the Suns' loss to a team from Australia on Sunday will not quell any concerns we may have about how they might respond to the summer from hell.
Paul is well down a list of concerns that includes the owner's ousting, Ayton's disenchantment and Jae Crowder's trade request, but the 12-time All-Star is entering a minutes stratosphere occupied by four other traditional point guards in NBA history. Paul will begin this season with more minutes played (45,088, which is 35th all-time, squarely between a 40-year-old Charles Oakley and a 38-year-old Horace Grant) than:
Tony Parker in 2017-18, his final season with the San Antonio Spurs, four years after his last appearance on an All-Star or All-NBA team.
Jason Kidd in 2008-09, his first full season in his return to the Dallas Mavericks, when he failed to make an All-Star, All-NBA or All-Defensive appearance for the first time in a decade.
Gary Payton in 2003-04, his lone season with the Lakers, when he also failed to make an All-Star, All-NBA or All-Defensive appearance for the first time in a decade.
John Stockton in 1999-2000, when he made his final All-Star appearance and failed to appear on an All-NBA team for the first time in 12 years.
Their combined averages in those seasons: 11.1 points and 6.8 assists in 30.7 minutes per game. Three of them played at least 81 games. Two went on to win titles — Kidd as the fourth scoring option on the 2011 Mavericks and Payton as a reserve on the 2006 Miami Heat. That is encouraging news for Paul's prospects with the Suns, but none of the others was making a quarter of the salary cap and carrying so heavy a load.
We saw Paul grit his way to the 2021 NBA Finals, playing through a shoulder injury, and he ran out of gas against Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks. This past season, a hamstring injury reportedly slowed Paul in five dreadful games to close out a Western Conference semifinals collapse against Doncic's Mavericks.
Paul's usage rate in both the regular season and playoffs fell to career lows (around 20%) last season in roughly 34 minutes per game. When Kidd won his ring with Dallas at age 37, he played 35 minutes a night on much lower usage (14.3%). That team belonged to late-prime Dirk Nowitzki. When Payton won with Miami, also at age 37, he used 12.3% of the Heat's possessions in the 24 minutes per game he took the floor off the bench. That team belonged to 24-year-old Dwyane Wade and 33-year-old Shaquille O'Neal.
Paul turned 37 in May. He has been an All-Star and All-NBA second team selection each of the past two years. Repeating that with so many minutes on his increasingly injured legs would be a feat unmatched by a point guard of his stature. Phoenix needs to lighten his load and hope Booker, Ayton and Bridges can pick up an increasing amount of slack, or else the Suns are in danger of sliding back below contention.
Kevin Durant, high-usage unicorn
Durant turned 34 years old at the end of September. His 40,768 total minutes rank 59th in league history, between Magic Johnson in his 32-game return from a four-year absence in 1996 and a 44-year-old Kevin Willis on a 10-day contract with the Mavericks in 2007. That Willis, who began his career on the Atlanta Hawks in 1984, was still on an NBA court 23 years later is remarkable. That Durant has already played more minutes than him is striking.
Durant is listed at 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, neither of which feels right. He is a slender 7-footer, and nobody in his frame has sustained an elite outside-in game on such high usage (30.2% for his career) for so long.
The closest comparison might be Kevin Garnett, who reached 55,701 minutes combined in the regular season and playoffs, eighth in history. Durant's 40,768 minutes draw him even with where Garnett was after winning the 2008 championship with the Boston Celtics. That is encouraging news for the Brooklyn Nets, who are relying on a similarly star-laden ensemble cast, albeit with more organizational chaos around them.
The Garnett model comes with some warnings for the life of Durant's four-year, $194 million extension. Garnett required knee surgery — the first major medical procedure of his career — 57 games into the 2008-09 season. That began a steady decline in availability and production. His Celtics did reach Game 7 of both the 2010 Finals and 2012 Eastern Conference finals, but Garnett at that time used far fewer possessions in far fewer minutes per game than Durant did in falling short of those playoff heights the past two seasons.
Durant is also no stranger to surgery already. Whereas Garnett had missed 26 total games in the decade leading up to his knee injury at age 32, Durant has missed 238 games over the last nine seasons, which included a series of foot surgeries that cut his 2014-15 campaign short and his Achilles' rupture in 2019.
Durant is the same number of years removed from his Achilles' injury, one year younger and 2,683 more minutes into his career than Dominique Wilkins was when he left the NBA for Greece in 1995. Yet, Durant's usage rate and minutes load last season matched Bryant's in 2013, when he tore his Achilles at age 34. A unicorn is entering uncharted territory, and the Nets need him now more than ever. Something's gotta give.
James Harden, talking 'bout practice
Much has been made of 33-year-old Westbrook's steep four-year decline from top-five MVP candidate for the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2015-18 to fringe All-NBA selection for the Houston Rockets in 2020 to replacement-level player for the Lakers last season. He is seemingly on the verge of being traded from Los Angeles as an expiring salary, bought out by his next team and in search of employment across the NBA.
Less has been made of 33-year-old Harden's fall from top-five MVP candidate for the Rockets from 2017-20 to outside the All-NBA picture for the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers the past two years, if only because his decline is not so precipitous. Yet, anyone who has seen Harden's decreased levels of commitment and health during a two-year period in which he has requested multiple trades can attest to a concerning trend.
After missing a total of 20 games from 2014-20, Harden has missed 45 to hamstring injuries in both legs over the past two seasons. Worse, he has looked like a shell of himself in the playoffs for two years running.
Westbrook's 39,594 minutes rank 71st in NBA history. He is running half a prime season ahead of Harden's 37,940. Both rank top-11 in career usage rate (along with James and Durant). Only four other ball-dominant guards have ever finished top-75 in both categories: Jordan, Bryant, Wade and Allen Iverson.
Westbrook and Harden have played a similar number of minutes as Jordan entering "The Last Dance" season, Bryant between his last two title runs, Wade joining the Cleveland Cavaliers and Iverson on the Detroit Pistons. Do we think Westbrook and Harden are comparable to Jordan and Bryant in their ability to persist on worn treads or closer to the drop-off Wade and Iverson experienced as they hit 40,000 minutes?
There were no signs of serious decline for Jordan or Bryant at that point in their careers. Jordan won MVPs in 1996 and 1998, en route to the second three-peat of his career, and Bryant was the league's MVP in 2008, prior to winning consecutive championships. They were as unprecedented as James became.
Like Wade, Westbrook's relentlessness on a surgically repaired knee slowed in his mid-30s. And Harden, like Iverson, tore his hamstring amid a series of trades and questions about his off-court commitment.
Philadelphia hopes Harden is more willing and able to accept a supplementary role than Iverson was late in his career. Embiid is the MVP candidate now, and that gives Harden a decent shot to extend his career as a setup man, so long as he is not already the hobbled and aging Scottie Pippen of 1998 to Embiid's Jordan.
Stephen Curry, graceful sharpshooter
Bearing the torch before it is officially passed from one great NBA generation to the next is 34-year-old Golden State Warriors phenom Stephen Curry, the reigning champion and Finals MVP. He was drafted in 2009 — the same year as Harden, two years after Durant, four years after Paul and six years after James.
They are the last viable superstars selected in the 2000s.
Ankle injuries that Curry corrected earlier in his career, a freak hand injury that cost him nearly the entire 2019-20 season and a cautious approach to all of his ailments have limited him to 33,360 minutes in his career — the equivalent of two or three seasons worth of rest in comparison to Harden and Westbrook.
Curry has enjoyed the added benefit of playing in a more egalitarian system of star players, including three seasons alongside Durant, which has allowed him to avoid the added toll of isolation-heavy offense. Curry is still squarely in his prime, and how many more years he can serve as the focal point of a championship team will depend on the ability of Golden State's roster to continue limiting the season-long onus on him.
The list of all-time great shooters reveals a host of players who combined fitness and finesse to eclipse 40,000 career minutes. This season, Curry will likely surpass the minutes played by Kyle Korver, whose highest single-season usage rate was lower than Curry's as a rookie in 2009. The only Curry comparisons we can reasonably make are to Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, who both surpassed 52,000 minutes, and even they never approached Curry's workload or superstardom. We have to allow for Curry as a one-of-one.
Curry's career minutes are in line with Miller's in 1999 and Allen's in 2008. Miller was still an All-Star regular and the No. 1 scoring option for a team that was between forcing Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals against Jordan's Bulls and pushing O'Neal and Bryant's Lakers to Game 6 of the 2000 Finals. Allen remained an All-Star in the years after he accepted a tertiary role on the Celtics, and he warranted Finals MVP consideration for his performance over six games in their victory against Bryant's Lakers in 2008.
Miller and Allen were still capable of dropping highly efficient 30-point games in more than 40 minutes of a Finals outing in their age 34 seasons, which bodes well for Curry this season. Both played a handful more years, averaging double digits for playoff teams, but with usage rates that started dipping into the teens.
The only starters age 34 or older ever to carry a usage rate higher than 25% through four playoff rounds to a title are Abdul-Jabbar in 1984, Jordan in 1998 and James in 2020. That is the list, and Curry would surely have to join it for the Warriors to repeat. There is precedent, and then there are the unprecedented.
Kawhi Leonard, the denouement
NBA drafts from 1992-98 yielded O'Neal, Garnett, Bryant, Nowitzki and Tim Duncan. No one appeared on more All-NBA teams than them in the 2000s, and they won every championship from 1999-2011 but one.
They all played 19 or more seasons, but only Duncan won a title more than 14 seasons into his legendary career — at age 38 in 2014, when Kawhi Leonard was Finals MVP for the collaborative San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard, who has played 22,815 minutes at age 31 and woven his own era into the league's fabric, won once more with the 2019 Toronto Raptors (and might win again with the Los Angeles Clippers this season). He unclenched the grasp that James, Curry and Durant have had on the championship since 2012, as did Antetekounmpo in 2021, defeating Durant, Harden and Paul en route to the next generation's first title.
When will Antetokounmpo and the stars drafted after him — the ones who will dominate All-NBA rosters of the 2020s — grab the championship reins for good? James is entering Year 20 of his career, Paul his 18th, Durant his 16th, and Curry and Harden their 14th. LeBron and company are surpassing the standards set by their elders, but advancements in sports performance can only secure their grip on greatness for so long.
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