LeBron James was a high school phenom. Fans across the nation knew his name from an extremely young age. Now almost twenty years later, that still has not changed. LeBron has been in the NBA for 17 seasons, with his 18th season beginning tonight. If we look purely based at which season it is, LeBron will show there is no one with longevity like him. This is because LeBron did not go to college, so his 17th season would generally occur when he is younger compared to someone who went to college, meaning their 17th season would occur when they are older. Therefore, we must look at his age as a measure of longevity to compare him to other NBA greats who went to college. The question here is: looking at what LeBron James accomplished in his 17th season, can there be any comparison that a player other than LeBron was playing this well in their age 35 season? Does anyone else have longevity like LeBron?
This past season (2019-2020) LeBron was continuously praised for being great late into his career. One of the major narratives of the season was how great LeBron was playing at this late age. LeBron’s per game averages for the past season included 25.3 points per game, 10.2 assists per game and 7.8 rebounds per game on 49% shooting from the field. LeBron also made the all-star team, the all-NBA first team, won an NBA champion, and won the NBA finals MVP.
This is all very impressive, but to understand if it is truly as one of a kind as the media made it out to be, it needs reference. The NBA players shown below include some of the players known to have had the best longevity in NBA history. Here, their age and stats for their age 35 season (or later) are shown along with any accolades they achieved during that season.
Great NBA Seasons at Age 35 or Above
Steve Nash (35)
Steve Nash was 35 in the 2009-2010 NBA season. During this season Nash played 81 games, putting up averages of 16.5 points per game while dishing 11.0 assists per game as well. These are both extremely impressive for a player at age 35. Nash also made the all-star team and second-team all-NBA that season.
Dirk Nowitzki (35)
Dirk was another great player who aged well into the back-end of his career. Dirk’s age 35 season came in the 2013-2014 NBA season. In that season Dirk played 80 games, and put up an average of 21.7 points per game to go with 6.2 rebounds per game on 49, 39, 89 shooting splits (field goal%, three-point% and free throw% respectively). Dirk was also selected for an all-star appearance in this season.
Karl Malone (36)
Karl Malone’s age 35 season came during the 1998-1999 NBA season. In this season he put up average of 23.8 points per game along with 9.4 rebounds per game on 51% shooting from the field. Malone was selected to the all-star team, the first team all-NBA, the first team all-defense and won the league MVP that season.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (37)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is believed to be the NBA player with the greatest longevity, and for good reason. Kareem had a handful of great seasons past the age of 35, but this season stood out because of what he was able to accomplish in the playoffs. In the 1984-1985 season Kareem averaged 22.0 points per game to go along with 7.9 rebounds per game on almost 60% shooting from the field. Kareem was named to the all-star team, the second team all-NBA, won an NBA championship and won NBA finals MVP.
What does this mean?
Looking at these four players, it shows that what LeBron has done at the age of 35 has been done, but not necessarily to the same extent. While he may not have won the MVP, finishing second in voting is no small accomplishment.
LeBron’s assist average is only second to Steve Nash from the players here (he was also the only point guard) but averaging 10.2 assists per game and leading the league is also a big accomplishment. Similarly, out of the players here, LeBron had the highest scoring average in his age 35 season.
The only player to accomplish what LeBron did not was Karl Malone winning the NBA MVP. However, while Malone won the MVP he lacks what Kareem and LeBron accomplished in winning the NBA finals and NBA finals MVP.
Overall, LeBron clearly has a strong argument to make for having the best 35-year-old season of all time. While it is not a clear-cut argument, I still believe Kareem has shown to have the greatest longevity in NBA history, as winning a finals MVP at age 37, even with Magic Johnson on his team, is a huge achievement. If LeBron wins the NBA finals this upcoming season, things could change.