LeBron James, approaching 35, is not at the absolute height of his basketball powers. His physical prowess has declined to some extent, and he has been managing his effort levels for years. Sometimes he isn’t all there on defense, and he takes possessions off on offense—a luxury he has this year with Anthony Davis around. But he hasn’t relinquished his spot as the league’s best player.
Watching LeBron feels similar to how it’s always felt. He has the ball a ton and makes crazy passes that no one else on the court sees. Stopping him when he drives to the basket is nearly impossible. His presence on the court is unique to everyone else’s; everything he does is a lesson in basketball, because you know it’s the best possible play in that moment.
LeBron doesn’t seem like he’s declined much, even though he might not be quite as indestructible physically as he used to be. His late-career evolution is fascinating, and it’s become more obvious as he tries hard to compete for a championship this year. Last year was a wash. This year is legacy-solidifying time.
The clearest symbol of late-career LeBron is the assists. He leads the NBA with 11.1 per game, racking up them up at career-high rates and lobbing sweet alley-oops for AD. He’s basically a pass-first player now. His teammates know to move to the right spots when he has the ball, particularly when he is the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll. LeBron knows his gravity and how to leverage it better than anyone in the history of basketball.
The Lakers are appointment viewing mostly because LeBron is coming up with new ways to get players open every game. The timing on his passes is always exquisite—a common thread among the very best in sports. Sometimes he posts up and waits for things to develop around him:
Other times he pushes full-speed ahead, messing up the chess pieces in anticipation of a Laker drifting open for a three or into the lane for a layup:
There is no way to play off-ball defense perfectly against LeBron; no one other than him knows what kind of passes he’s going to come up with. If you lag off your man, LeBron registers that. If you stick on your man, LeBron has an easier path either to the basket or to a different teammate.
It is not new that LeBron has a high basketball IQ. No player in history has been smarter than he is on the court. But he’s taken it to a new level this year.
For an all-time great, this evolution makes sense. He’s always been a cerebral player, but over time he’s gained familiarity with just how far he can take his talent. By now, he’s reached his highest point as a distributor, even as he’s lost some of the pure physical gifts. It’s the same thing we’ve seen with other GOATs. Sidney Crosby and Lionel Messi, the comparable athletes to LeBron in other sports, are similarly improved as passers, even as they were better than everyone else from the start. Crosby defends at a higher level than when he was younger.
We’re seeing the natural end point of LeBron’s prime. He’ll only get more comfortable on the floor, despite losing some of his athletic gifts. It’s hard to know how long he can sustain it, but we know that LeBron is a unique breed. We shouldn’t be surprised if he keeps the Lakers in championship contention for a few more years.
This season, LA are 12-2 and first in the Western Conference. They outscore opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the floor, and they’ve thrived when LeBron plays without Davis. The Lakers have an offensive rating of just 91.4 when LeBron sits and 114.8 when he plays. We are seeing MVP LeBron.
He’s also playing defense, legitimately. When he tries on defense, he can be a force. The Lakers are one of the best defensive teams in the league, with Davis playing at Defensive Player of the Year level.
The Lakers might not be able to sustain this level of success for the entire season, but they will be in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference. And they’ll be set up for a playoff run, which should bring the return of Playoff LeBron. Not many teams will be able to deal with that.