LeBron James Might Just Keep Doing This Forever

I’ve watched LeBron James dominate the NBA for most of my life. I was 11 years old when I attended his first NBA game against the Sacramento Kings in 2003. I watched him score 25 points, grab six rebounds, and dish nine assists in that game. Last night, as a 32-year-old, I sat on my couch and watched him dazzle me just as easily as he did that night over 20 years go.

James dragged the Lakers back from a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit on the “road” against the Clippers on Wednesday night, dropping 19 points (three more than the Clippers managed) and dishing four assists in the final frame. That’s the largest fourth-quarter comeback of James’s career, which says as much about this era (teams blow more big leads now than ever) as it does James’s career (hard to craft tons of large comebacks if you just win two-thirds of your games forever). He started the quarter by nailing four quick triples in the first five minutes—three from the wings, one above the break—and as the Lakers kept mismatch-hunting and the Clippers kept surrendering disadvantageous switches without any resistance, he took total control of the game. Once he barbecued James Harden and Daniel Theis a few too many times (one wonders how different things might look if Paul George and Ivica Zubac were healthy), the Clippers began flash-doubling, and James calmly kicked to open shooters. It was the eternal LeBron James value proposition in miniature: you have to give him open threes, because he’s too physically devastating in the interior, but he can shoot; you have to send help, because nobody can really guard him one-on-one, but he’s one of the best passers of his generation. I’d tell you to savor this while you can, but who knows, he might be still like this in five years.

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James was the best player in the league forever, an impossible perch to maintain. That he’s still around at age 39, after 67,566 minutes across 20 regular seasons and 16 postseasons, is itself remarkable, but even wilder is the fact that he’s hardly declined at all, and even then, only if you squint. It’s inevitable that someone will replace him—someone already has—because time moves forward and a body can only handle so much. As Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid all won MVPs, and as the first three guys and also Kawhi Leonard won championships, you could start to feel the shape of what the inevitable LeBron decline would look like: he’d still be good, but no longer one of the best. That’s how linear time works. And then he does something like what he did to the Clippers and it destroys all notions of entropy, because at his 39-year-old peak, there’s still nobody quite like a fully locked-in LeBron James.

“It’s just a zone, and you can’t really describe it,” James said after the game. “You wish you could stay in it forever, but obviously it checks out once the game ends. But during it, you don’t feel anything. It’s just like a superpower feel.”

The 2023-24 Lakers are a misshapen team, with five good players and a bunch of semi-injured flotsam. They’ve been so mediocre despite James and Anthony Davis being remarkably healthy, a frustrating suite of affairs that explains why they’ve been so grumpy and pissy and why James has been his typically passiveaggressive self. They don’t shoot many threes or do anything especially well besides not foul, and they wavered back and forth between not being able to stop anyone while scoring a ton, or not being able to score and playing good defense.

They’re 8-3 in February, scrapping desperately to join the four-team glut currently fighting for the last two guaranteed play-in spots and stave off the oncoming Warriors behind them. They also won the In-Season Tournament and beat the Celtics in Boston without James or Davis, so there’s something here worth taking seriously, even if the road to the playoffs is steep. The two worthwhile projection systems give them a 31 and 49 percent chance of making the final eight. Every team around them in the standings is deeper and more well-constructed. None of them have LeBron James, though, and Wednesday was a reminder of how much that means.

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