How Is LeBron James Getting Better?

LeBron James is getting… better

The 38-year-old superstar just won the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament MVP. How far can he push the limits of human performance?

LEBRON JAMES SAID recently he’s playing one-on-one with Father Time (FT), an opponent we all know is undefeated. After James led the LA Lakers to victory over the Indiana Pacers in the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament on the weekend and collected the tournament MVP trophy in the process, you’d have to say James is, at the very least, ahead in his head-to-head match-up. The question is probably not can he beat FT, but how much of a lead can he establish before FT begins to reel him in?

James averaged 26.4 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists while shooting 56.8 per cent from the field and 60.6 per cent on 3s in the in-season tournament, helping the Lakers get through their group stage and Knockout Round with a perfect 7-0 record. From the beginning of the tournament, James made it clear he was on a mission to win the tournament so that his lesser-paid teammates could collect the $500,000 on offer for each winning player. It was a noble goal and James delivered, as did his All-Star teammate Anthony Davis, who was devastating in the final in Las Vegas, with 41 points, 20 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks.

For the season, James is averaging 25 points, 7.5  rebounds and 6.6 assists. These are slightly below his career averages of 27, 7 and 7 but he is proving more efficient this season, shooting 55.3 percent from the floor and a scorching 40.7 per cent from behind the arc, well above his career mark of 34.6 per cent.

Like the Covid-induced bubble tournament, the in-season tournament was made for an ageing player like James, and an injury-prone one like Davis. With a limited number of games, James could set himself for a committed run with more minutes and play at a greater intensity.

Staying healthy for the full 82-game regular season, plus a protracted play-off run with brutal seven-games series is a different matter. The Lakers’ problem the last few seasons has been keeping James and Davis on the floor and fully healthy at play-off time. It’s an incredible ask for a man who turns 39 in December.

 

 

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While James played just 29 minutes in the Lakers’ season opener and there was talk that coach Darvin Ham would try to restrict him to a 30-minute per game cap, that was soon dispensed with for a very simple reason. Without James on the floor the Lakers are a shell of a team. James has to play more minutes for the team to compete. The question is, will having James play this load, at this intensity, in December come back to haunt them in April and May? Given James has suffered serious injuries every season in his four-year run with the Lakers, it’s unlikely he’ll get through the remainder of the season unscathed.

A larger question for James is how much longer he can continue to play at this level. He famously spends over $1 million a year on his body, has a hyperbaric chamber in his house and documents his workouts on insta. He has stated that his goal is to play alongside his son Bronny, who, incidentally, made his season debut for USC on Sunday, five months after suffering a cardiac arrest, with James watching on from the stands. If Bronny declares for next year’s draft James would only have to play one more season to reach his declared goal. But it’s possible after his late start, Bronny needs more time to develop, which would extend James’ career at least another year.

A further question is what happens if James’ form does begin to dip, as it inevitably must at some stage. Will his pride see him retire before the decline is too noticeable? Which leads to one final question: what if James continues to play at this level well into his forties? Why retire if you’re still ahead of FT?

Of course, that’s the tricky thing with FT. To beat him, you have to do what Michael Jordan did in 1993 and retire prematurely, with fuel still in your tank and a competitive itch to scratch. The longer you play, the more the odds favour FT. James, of course, knows all this and knows his body better than anybody. How he chooses to play the toughest opponent of all will be the defining question of this late stage of his career.

Right now, though, he’s winning the battle.

 

 

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Related:

LeBron James’ complete training and diet plan

Why we all need a Steph-LeBron James rivalry in our life

 

Ben Jhoty

By Ben Jhoty

Ben Jhoty, Men’s Health’s Head of Content, attempts to honour the brand’s health-conscious, aspirational ethos on weekdays while living marginally larger on weekends. A new father, when he’s not rocking an infant to sleep, he tries to get to the gym, shoot hoops and binge on streaming shows.

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