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LeBron James has spent more than half his life in the NBA.
Even James marveled at that fact earlier this month when someone tweeted that James has now spent more days as a professional basketball player than he did in the time between birth (Dec. 30, 1984) and joining the NBA (2003).
"MAN WHAT!!!," James tweeted with five screaming-face emojis.
It’s a remarkable achievement – 19 NBA seasons – that extends beyond just longevity.
No player spends that much time in the NBA without being great at what he does, and few players – if any – have played basketball better than James.
So, happy birthday, LeBron! Thirty-seven years old today. Nearing 40. Closer to 50 than you’ll ever be to 20.
The heavy hand of time pushes us one way. But don’t let the existential malaise get you down, LeBron. Look at you. You’re 37 and still playing at an elite level: 28.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.
I remember my first one-on-one interview with James, in 2008, and he told me how much of a people person he is and didn’t mind when people came up and said hello in restaurants. The Cavs PR staff just about wanted to strike that from the record. And he told me then, "I lose sight of the fact of how young I am."
Those days are long gone. Before the titles and MVPs. Before the LeBron James Family Foundation began changing lives of Akron kids with innovative initiatives. Before a growing multimedia business developed.
Speaking of time, the first time I recall James mentioning that Father Time was undefeated was during his days with Miami.
About a decade later, James still has the (slight) edge over Old Man Time. Just don’t google, "James and Father Time."
This is not a rumination on age. But it’s prudent to acknowledge James has only so many years left in the NBA.
How much longer will he play? How much longer at this level? And while James not long ago said he has nothing left to prove, as long as he’s playing, he wants to win championships. Can he win another as the main star? And how close is Father Time to getting the best of James?
There are no definitive answers, only some reasonable deductions and outright guesses.
How many more seasons? And at this level?
In his physical condition and with his production, it appears James has at least three more All-NBA-type seasons left. No player has averaged 25 points or more at 37 years old, and James is on track to do that. He’s shooting 52% from the field – 61.5% on 2-pointers and 36.9% on 3-pointers.
Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – two Hall of Famers who combined longevity with productivity – are the two players ahead of James on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Abdul-Jabbar averaged 23.4 points at 38 years old in 1985-86 and was in double-figures his final three seasons, dipping to 10.1 points per game in 1988-89 at 41 years old.
Malone averaged 25.5 points at 36 years old and was still at 20.6 at 39 in his second to last NBA season. Michael Jordan still posted 20 points per game at 39.
While James doesn’t talk about it, the all-time scoring record must be somewhere on his mind. In the never-ending debate about greatest player of all-time, the more accomplishments and records to a résumé, the better the argument.
If James plays in at least 40 of the Lakers’ remaining 48 games and averages 25 points, he will pass Malone late in the season and trail only Abdul-Jabbar by nearly 1,400 points headed into next season. As long as he’s healthy and continues to average at least 22 points, he will become the league’s all-time leading scorer in the 2022-23 season.
James has mentioned often the possibility of playing an NBA game on the same court with his son, Bronny, who is a junior in high school and ranked No. 49 on ESPN’s list of top players in the class of 2023.
"If he stays on the path that he’s on, he has a great chance of being a pro and playing at a high level," James told reporters after watching his son play a high school game at Staples Center earlier this month.
The earliest James and his son could do that is the 2024-25 season, which would be James’ 22nd in the league as he turns 40 that season.
"Obviously with health and a little bit of luck, that’ll be the ultimate thing for me to be on the same court as my son in this beautiful game," James said.
Can James still carry a team to a championship?
Tim Duncan was 37 and Abdul-Jabbar was 40 when they won their final NBA titles. Still valuable contributors who started, neither was the main guy. But they were also first-team All-NBA performers at 38 years old.
Where does that leave James? Well, he won his last title in 2020, just two months before he turned 36, and we’re just 14½ months from that bubble championship. He doesn’t look that much different today – if any different – than he did then.
As much as the Lakers have struggled, they’ve struggled less because of James who has 11 games with at least 30 points in his last 15, including 39 twice and at least 30 in his last five. If he continues this production – there’s no reason to think he won’t – James will be an All-NBA player for the 18th time, extending his record.
But there are variables he can’t control such as the quality of opponents and quality of his roster. The Lakers are 17-19 and in seventh place, hardly a team looking to make a deep playoff run. They aren’t better than Golden State, Phoenix, Utah and Memphis, and unless there are drastic changes in performance and/or roster, that’s not changing.
Yes, injuries and COVID have played a role, but the roster makeover has been the bigger problem. If there’s another title in James’ future, roster improvements are necessary.
The tussle with Father Time
James has held off Father Time with grace and success, mostly. That’s not a surprise, considering his impeccable shape, workout regimen and the financial commitment to his health, spending more than $1 million each year to take care of himself.
Forget the stats. Just looking at him indicates he has at least a few seasons left.
That doesn’t mean he has avoided injuries. This season, he has missed 10 games – two with right ankle soreness and eight with a strained abdominal muscle. Last season, he played in 45 of 72 games, missing 26 games with a sprained right ankle, and in 2018-19, he missed 24 games with left groin issues.
Not only has James logged considerable regular-season minutes (37 minutes per game in 2021-22 in his 19th season), he has played 266 playoff games (three more seasons) at 41.5 minutes per game.
James has avoided serious season-ending issues. Father Time might be landing jabs, but no haymakers and James continues to win the fight, if not by knockout then by decision.
Either way, it looks like this fight is going the distance.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James turns 37, but how much longer can he remain elite player?