LeBron James is 38 years old. He is in Season 20 of his NBA career. He is, by conventional basketball-playing standards, ancient.
History says his decline should have started already.
Except it hasn’t. Not even close. And count that as just another example of what sets James apart from so many other greats, so many other superstars of their sport who were good enough for long enough to climb atop some lists in the record books.
The NBA’s new scoring leader — he caught Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Tuesday night, one Los Angeles Lakers great taking the record from another — is still one of the very best in the game. He is talking about playing two more years, three more years, maybe more. He could raise the scoring-record bar so high by the time he retires that it would be, at best, highly unrealistic for anyone to catch him.
“I know I’m still playing at a high level. … I’ve been able to do some incredible things in this league,” LeBron James said after he scored 38 points on the record-setting night to lift his career total to 38,390 — three more than Abdul-Jabbar, whose reign atop the NBA scoring list ended after almost 39 years. “And hopefully I can do some more incredible things before I’m done.”
The unfortunate part about most longevity records is this: Young athletes don’t set them. By design, they’re usually broken by athletes who are at or near the end of their career.
Take Pete Rose, for example. Rose got his 4,192nd career hit — a record-breaker, the one where he passed Ty Cobb’s official total (some say Rose actually had the record a few hits earlier, but the recognized number for Cobb by Major League Baseball remains 4,191 hits) — on Sept. 11, 1985.
At that moment, when Rose lined that hit off Eric Show, he was a .304 career hitter. But after the record-setter, he batted .225 for the remainder of his career. In fairness, he was 44 and 45 years old during that stint of batting .225.
He slowed down. It happens to everyone. Well, almost everyone.
“I think about the wear and tear on LeBron’s body and the lack of sleep and the 3 1/2 games a week, season after season, how he takes care of himself,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “I hope the young players pay attention to that. Anyone who’s ever been around LeBron, he’s always working on his body.”
Tiger Woods got 79 wins in 295 PGA Tour starts between 1996 and 2013, a ridiculously high-for-golf 27% winning rate. Since then, after off-the-course issues and a slew of injuries, Woods has won three times in 62 starts. He has tied Sam Snead for the all-time wins record on tour with 82. No one would dare doubt that Woods can find a way to get one more win and claim the record outright, but few would also say that it should be considered likely.
Wayne Gretzky caught Gordie Howe for the all-time NHL goals record and was still every bit The Great One — his moniker for decades now. But over his last five seasons after setting the record, Gretzky’s production predictably dipped a bit. He averaged 0.25 goals and 1.1 points per game over those last five seasons, at the ages of 34 through 38. Before that, he averaged 0.71 goals and 2.2 points per game.
Even Abdul-Jabbar, after catching Wilt Chamberlain in 1984, saw his numbers decrease. Before the record, Abdul-Jabbar averaged 27.0 points. Afterward, 17.7 points.
“Kareem was a great player his entire career, even after setting the record,” said Pat Riley, his coach with the Lakers and now the president of the Miami Heat. “The record didn’t change anything for him.”
There are two notable exceptions to the notion that says player production almost always must drop off after setting records.
LeBron James is the first one. Kobe Bryant averaged 17.6 points in his 20th season, a record for anyone who played that deep into their NBA career. It won’t be a record much longer. James is averaging 30 per game in his 20th season.
The other exception is Tom Brady.
The recently retired seven-time Super Bowl champion never slowed down after catching Drew Brees for three of the biggest records a quarterback can have — most completions, most touchdowns and most yards.
Consider what Brady did this season, his 23rd, at 45 years old: 4,694 yards, 25 touchdown passes, a career-best and league-high 490 completions, a career-best and league-high 733 attempts. It might not have been his best year, but it was still incredibly prolific.
“There’s always going to be a part that wants to play and a part of me that feels like I can play,” Brady said on his “Let’s Go!” podcast when explaining his retirement decision. “I think there’s just a decision to know that it’s the right time. I think for me, it’s going to end at some point and now’s the time.”
Brady never dropped off. Ever.
So far, we can say the same about LeBron James. He continues to defy Father Time.
And now, sit back and watch how many more points he adds to this total. Barring injury, 40,000 points will happen. If he plays two or three more full seasons, 42,000 or 43,000 isn’t unthinkable.
“He’s going to extend this record even further,” Abdul-Jabbar told TNT after the game Tuesday night. “And it’ll be interesting to see how far it goes.”
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