I’ve been thinking about what Lebron James and Kevin Durant in particular could look like in the Mid 2020s for over a decade now. I’ve always thought given their size and body composition, it would allow for them to move up a position on defense. That move would be the catalyst to help them offset the inevitable loss of athleticism. Lebron especially, I felt like, could just transition easily to PF as rugged as he is and essentially become a mix of Magic Johnson and Karl Malone. His passing and shooting skills shouldn’t regress much. It was always I thought his ability to guard younger wings at 40 and being guarded by quicker players, in turn where the problem would be. Essentially putting him on post players forces the post player to have to guard him or another more skilled wing which puts them at a disadvantage on defense. Playing out of the post, can exploit still slower younger players on offense while being strong or in Durant’s case long enough to hold up on defense well enough to still have a spot on the court.
We’ve pretty much seen an even more aggressive transition to the post than I expected this past season. Per basketball reference, Lebron played 44% of his minutes at PF, 50% of his minutes at Center, and the other 6% at SF.
This after only being 2 seasons removed from leading the league in assists and one season removed from playing 73% of his minutes at PG and the rest at SG. That’s how versatile he really is. Other than Magic Johnson he’s probably the only player that can play all 5 positions at an elite level and I think he did it better.
Lebron playing nearly all his minutes in the post this season obviously allowed him to be much more productive and efficient. He improved his points per possession and did it on a higher True Shooting percentage. It was actually his highest PER and True Shooting season in the past 4 seasons. It was actually his highest-scoring rate since he was 25 years old on his 5th highest True Shooting of his career. It was also his 5th highest scoring rate per possession in his career. Basically a top 5 offensive season in his career at 37 years old which is insane.
I don’t think anyone can use the argument bad teams or empty stats. If anything scoring on a bad team is usually harder to do efficiently because you are the entire focus of the gameplan. They can’t plan or help off like they couldn’t if a DWade or Kyrie was beside you or have to account for them. Sure he had AD some this year but not much. The amount of volume and efficiency is truly remarkable. It was his 5th highest usage season as well of his career.
How did this happen
I think playing in the post allowed for that completely. It’s really the only explanation to be improving at an age where every other player is going the opposite direction. There is only one other variable at play and that is what position he was playing at that could allow for this. We’ve seen players like Jordan playing nearly all their minutes at SF and even a little at PF in their late 30s but unlike players like Jordan or Kobe that could only push up so much in the lineup before they could be taken advantage of by bigger wings or post players. There were fewer places to hide them on defense, Lebron, however, has actual center size and strength at 6-9, 250. He will likely have no problem playing in the post or guarding post players the next 5 years as well and can probably still be a plus defender there when he wants to be.
Kevin Durant likewise played 89% of his minutes at PF this past season and had even played 16% of his minutes at Center 2 seasons ago and as much as 23% when he was with the Warriors. With his ball-handling and shooting ability, he should continue to age well and exploit PFs and Centers. Both of their size allows them to age and move up to these more advantageous positions for their offensive game and should continue to allow for little drop-off.
I remember when I first thought about how these players would age after Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs beat the Heat when he was just a few days from turning 33. I started thinking about how good he could be in the next 5 to 7 years with his shooting and size that should allow him to age like fine wine. Shortly after, Tim Duncan was also a driving force on a championship team as well looking ageless.
For the most part, those two players aged very well as expected and had some quality seasons into their mid to late 30s. I will say the drop-off in the last year for both was massive and something I didn’t see coming or as hard when it did. When it does finally go for some of these players, it REALLY goes in a big way and sometimes unexpectedly.
Career-altering injuries can also become a lot more likely at these advanced ages as well. Even the previously indestructible Lebron has had injuries that have cost him chunks over the last few years. Kobe was rolling to one of his best seasons ever before his injuries. Even the iron man that was Karl Malone who had basically never missed a single game in his career missed his first significant time when he was 40. You just never know and can’t predict injuries, so we will just hope and assume all the players remain healthy.
Really the biggest question to me has always been not if they could still play, but if they would. The NBA is certainly a grind and many great players retire before they even have to. KD had even said in the past when he was younger he didn’t see himself playing after 34 which I don’t think we can take seriously now. That was an early 20-something talking that didn’t realize how fast you actually get to 34 years old. My expectation for years has been that Lebron would still be around at 40 for several reasons.
#1 I still expected Lebron to be a top 20 type player by 40 years old, for the reasons I stated above. After the season he just had I think I lowballed that and now he could actually still be a top 10 player IMO in 3 years. If he’s really still this good why would he walk away?
#2 from the time his son picked up a basketball and was considered a high-level prospect, it’s been pretty obvious a potential collision course with the first basketball father-son duo could happen. The fact Lebron talked about wanting to play with his son this year confirms that he’s aiming to stick around and try to make that happen. I don’t think there is any question on his end of being able to play in the NBA in 3 years, it’s if the son is actually playable. I expect he will make it happen with his pull, though. BTW I don’t envy the pressure it puts on his son or the path he might prefer to take.
#3 He’s playing for history and the fact he could build a longevity argument over Jordan. Whereas Jordan clearly got burnt out on the NBA multiple times and retired, I think Lebron sees the sum of the numbers he can put up as a differentiator. He seems to welcome the grind and be able to deal with it better and maintain motivation. The man has played a lot of seasons, and it’s certainly hard mentally and physically, but he doesn’t seem like he’s on the verge of quitting anytime soon.
Ok so let’s get to where the players rank today and where we could potentially expect them to rank in 3 and 5 years given the natural progression and how similar players have aged or ascended. I have done extensive research on that if you want to view it here.
To take the debate out of this exercise, we will use the PER and the rankings this past year and talk about this from a PER perspective and where I would project that in 3 to 5 years. I understand that defense isn’t captured as well in PER but I still believe it’s a pretty accurate reflection of the best players in the NBA and all time. I also believe guys like Lebron can still turn up the defense when they want to in meaningful moments or postseason where as some of the regular season is going through the motions the playoffs can still be to small of a sample and noisy.
PER is about as objective as you can get in a ranking and I like for this exercise that is a tangible number and provides a framework. We have 70 years of tracking how players typically rise and fall in PER as you can see from the article above we have researched. The top 5 in PER are pretty much exactly the top 5 I would have as well. I think Giannis is the best player in the world right now but Jokic and Embid have their arguments and Lebron and KD seem to round out the top 5. If you want a defensive component added to the rankings, I went over that here.
The Overall NBA
|Zion Williamson||20||NOP||27.1(in 2020)|
|Kawhi Leonard||29||LAA||26.0(in 2020)|
If you take out the guys playing under 25 minutes, I think everything looks pretty accurate and basically about what I would rank them as well. Playoff basketball is certainly a consideration as well for those players that made it, as it’s generally played differently and at a higher level. The problem is the small sample size or lack of Playoff games it for some players. Some people will hold that against players like Lebron but it’s a team game IMO and he can’t control Westbrook or how his teammates play any more than Durant can’t control Kyrie or his vaccine status. I don’t hold that against them myself.
I do think the playoff PER’s have value for players like Curry that played enough games, but many of them are only a few games and small noisy samples. I think this is a small sample size theater for most. For example, Trae Young had a 23 PER leading Atlanta to the conference finals and had a 4.9 PER this year. We know he is capable or has at least done well before. That’s why I’m less concerned about a few game samples.
Curry strangely had his worst three-point shooting year ever (by a lot) in the regular season this past season as well, but I do think he pretty clearly redeemed himself in the playoffs. The way he was playing at the level he was able to get to over those 21 games isn’t a small sample. I think that helps push him higher than the 22nd highest PER guy he was in the regular season would suggest. When you take that into consideration he’s probably still more in the 6-10 best range of players. The .380% he shot from 3 was just an anomaly IMO. I fully expect him to shoot at least the .411% plus he has every other year of his career and was back to shooting in the playoffs if not better. He’s really the one example that is too low simply because his shooting got a little wonky. If you look at where he was last season as well as over 21 playoff games he is likely really more the 25 PER type player still. I think he can get back there next year.
Steph Curry also should be able to continue to age well. He’s built his body and strength to a level where he can’t guard up on most shooting guards as he ages which will help him a lot. PGs tend to do enough with the ball offensively they can age well as long as there is a place to hide them on defense. I think he can play that strength-based and pesky defense like Chris Paul has been able to do on bigger players. The shooting and offense will still be there.
PER is adjusted to the league average of that season and looking over history it’s still hard to have a 30 PER season. There are only 29 ever by 13 total players.
|30 PER Club|
|Nikola Jokić||32.85||2021-22||LeBron James||4|
|Wilt Chamberlain*||32.08||1961-62||Michael Jordan*||4|
|G. Antetokounmpo||32.05||2021-22||G. Antetokounmpo||3|
|G. Antetokounmpo||31.86||2019-20||Shaquille O’Neal*||3|
|Wilt Chamberlain*||31.82||1962-63||Wilt Chamberlain*||3|
|Michael Jordan*||31.71||1987-88||Nikola Jokic||2|
|LeBron James||31.67||2008-09||Anthony Davis||2|
|Wilt Chamberlain*||31.63||1963-64||Joel Embiid||2|
|Michael Jordan*||31.63||1990-91||Stephen Curry||1|
|LeBron James||31.59||2012-13||David Robinson*||1|
|Stephen Curry||31.46||2015-16||Dwyane Wade||1|
|Nikola Jokić||31.28||2020-21||James Harden||1|
|Michael Jordan*||31.18||1989-90||Russell Westbrook||1|
Jokic has two 30 PER seasons and Lebron and Jordan are tied with the most 4 and Wit, Shaq and Giannis at 3 behind them. I still believe given the age and skill level and old man game Jokic possesses that he should still be cranking out 30 PER seasons the next 3 years given where he is at today. He will be 29 in 3 years. Embid and Giannis I think are far more likely to drop below given they rely more on athletic ability, especially Giannis, and are also a year older. It seems to be pretty unavoidable as we have never had a player over 29 years old register a 30 PER season. The only one 29 is Harden whose style is pretty unique.
Zion Williamson is the most obvious as he was already at 27.1 PER in his age 20 seasons. I think if he does it though it will need to happen sooner than later given the weight, injuries, and how he relies on incredible athleticism. 24 years old is likely his peak. Luka I think stands the best chance other than Zion to crack 30 by the time he enters his prime but I could see him falling just a little short. Morant I would expect to peak out earlier than most players. If you use Westbrook as a model he actually did have a 30 PER season at 28 years old, but I don’t see him hitting those highest levels or the path to it like with Westbrook rebounding. Butler and DeRozan will both be 35 years old in 3 years, I think D Wade’s probably the best model of decline for them.
James Harden seemed like he would age well, but I think the new FT rules and how he looked this season puts that in doubt. I think he will take a hit over the next 3 years as he’s not the most dedicated to his shape like some players as well. A player that is is Chris Paul and I could very well still see him being a 20 PER guy similar to Nash and Stockton in their late 30s.
The new additions to the top 30 seem most likely to be LeMelo Ball who was close already and John Collins who has already had a 23.5 season. I expect given his age he will be back and this past season was more of a slump. Brandon Ingram’s game isn’t one where he’s doing a lot in defensive stats and pretty average scoring efficiency. Still, at age 27 he likely will be as good as he’s ever been and should finally crack 20 PER. Zion is all the health. We’ll assume he is healthy and in better shape. He already had a 27 PER at 20 years old last year so if he has the best chance at cracking 30 on this list at 24 years old if he’s actually healthy. That should be his peak considering his athletic ability.
Jaylen Brown is also a player that has never actually cracked 20 PER. 19.9 one season is his high. Age 28 will be a good chance to be at least as good if not do it a couple of times. Tyrese Haliburton already had a 20.5 PER in his time with the Pacers, his game seems to project out well. Other guys that should be around a 20 PER but I think to fall a little short are Miles Bridges, Jaylen Brunson, and Wendell Carter. They would be guys to keep an eye on as there are always guys that have unexpected major leaps and improvements. Brunson will have the best chance with more usage with the Knicks.
Scottie Barnes is another guy that his time is probably a little to soon. I’m a little skeptical of how he scores to take his game to the next level. He’ll need to improve his 3-point shooting for sure to go much beyond 20 PER but there is a path. Guys like T. Maxey are already shooting so well it’s hard to see their path unless they start doing other things a lot better which seems harder to do. Lastly Kyrie, and who knows how serious he’s even taking basketball by that point. I do think his game could age very well if he’s still engaged. The last two or 3 draft classes will be the hardest to project. We’ve seen guys go from about a 15 PER to 25+ like Kawhi or Jimmy Butler and far more never do anything regardless of where they were drafted. Those are some pretty unprecedented leaps though, there is usually a more predictable trend. It just feels like and best-educated guess based on how efficient some are like Keegan Murray in college and look in summer league right now.
I guess the real question will be who is even still around 5 years from now as players you wouldn’t think do just disappear unexpectedly or retire earlier than you would think. We’ll assume Lebron and KD are still around. Chris Paul may even still be around. Certainly, there will be plenty of players we don’t even see coming that are mixed in here but we’ll stick to most of the same guys since we do know they should still be in this range most likely.
So that’s my best-educated guess after tracking the usual progression of what the NBA might look like in the next 5 years. It’s wild saying Lebron might still be a top 25 to 30 player at 42 years old but I think it’s somewhat realistic per possession. It’s unlikely he is playing much over 30 minutes a game if he even is though at that point. Looking over the other examples of players that played to this late age I’m going to assume if John Stockton can have a 21.0 PER at his age 40 season in 28 minutes a game it’s not unrealistic at all for Lebron to be at 20.5 in some similar minutes at 42. Karl Malone was still at 21.7 in his 36.2 minutes his 39 year old season.
Of course, as we’ve seen players can completely crater at this age too. I do not think Lebron will be sticking around if there is any indication of a major drop-off though by that point. He’s pretty in tune with his body and if he’s in the league I expect it’s because he’s still playing at a top 45 level at worst or if there is a partnership with his son that is enjoyable, or perhaps the other son is on a similar trajectory. That might even keep him around longer. Injuries are always a potential situational altering factor though well. It will be interesting to see and revisit.