RCL Exclusive

How Long Can King James Reign?

After 15 seasons of unprecedented playing time, LeBron shows no signs of slowing down…yet.

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How does LeBron James (still) do it?

He will pass Michael Jordan on the all-time games played list as early as Nov. 9.

It’s not just that LeBron reached the pros as a teen: it’s that upon arrival, he immediately started carrying his team. When he made his NBA debut in 2003, 18-year-old LeBron averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 39.5 minutes per game while winning Rookie of the Year. (By comparison, Kobe Bryant also skipped college to go straight to the pros at 18, but he only averaged 7.6 points while playing 15.5 minutes his first year.) This is how LeBron played back then:

Now 32, LeBron enters his 15th season in the NBA. During his career, he has amassed four MVPs, three titles, three NBA Finals MVPs, and six appearances on the NBA’s All-Defensive teams among his many, many other honors. Over those 15 seasons, he has averaged 27.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.0 assists while shooting over 50 percent from the field. (For those debating the greatest player of this generation, note that these figures are all significantly better than Kobe’s career marks.) LeBron has also averaged 38.9 minutes per game. He has started at least 62 games each season for his career… and his lowest appearances-in-a-season total came when the NBA had a lockout and only played a 66-game schedule. He is already 28th in NBA/ABA career minutes with over 41,000. This is how he played last season:

Oh, and come playoff time, LeBron’s minutes increase to an absurd 42.1 per game as he averages 28.4 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 6.9 assists while shooting 48.5% from the field. Thanks largely to winning the Eastern Conference seven straight times, he is already second in career playoff minutes with 9,127, trailing only surefire Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan, who played 19 seasons and had 18 playoff appearances. In total, LeBron has played over 50,000 minutes of NBA basketball. (To put this sum in perspective, it is the equivalent of more than a solid month of non-stop running around the hardwood.)

LeBron enters this season as, at worst, one of the five best players in the NBA and there’s a strong argument King James still reigns alone. (See video below.)

Which makes it necessary to ask: How the hell is this possible?

“He’s obviously a freak athlete and has been remarkably successful in avoiding major injuries in his career,” said Dr. David Geier. (Geier knows all about getting hurt: he is an orthopedic surgeon and the author of That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever.)

In general, Geier believes that the key to longevity among aging athletes is avoiding damage in the first place: “You start developing these injuries that lead to problems down the road.” These injuries may cause arthritis and have taken down many a superstar: “Kobe had the Achilles rupture.” (Careers have also been cut short in stranger ways: Larry Bird destroyed his back working on a driveway.)

LeBron’s only real scare so far has been having a tumor removed from his jaw back in 2009.

How can LeBron continue the run of good health? Geier said basketball players need to worry in particular about their lower bodies because “all the planting your foot and changing directions” puts athletes at risk for “Achilles injuries, foot injuries, patellar tendon type things from all the jumping.” Geier said this is clearly a top priority for LeBron’s team: “I have no doubt that there’s a lot of work on his lower body to try to keep that rested, to keep that stretched and loosened, to try to minimize those nagging injuries, those muscle pulls that really drive you crazy.” Geier also noted LeBron puts a heavy emphasis on lots of time doing nothing at all: “You hear these stories about how he sleeps 10, 11 hours a day.”

Geier said LeBron’s longevity is particularly remarkable considering his size: “He’s what, 270 pounds, and just a monstrous guy. You wonder if that’s going to catch up to him at some point.” LeBron is officially listed at 6’8” and 250 pounds, but for a good chunk of career has been rumored to be significantly heavier.

Beyond that size, there’s the explosive quickness. While LeBron is generally regarded as being less adept at playing lockdown defense as he’s aged—he hasn’t made an All-Defensive team since 2014—at a big moment in a playoff game he can clamp down on any position. Just look at the block party he gave Steph Curry during the 2016 Finals. LeBron even snuffed Steph during a dead ball situation.

Of course, as anyone who watched the last three NBA Finals knows, the Cavs invariably fall to pieces when LeBron goes to the bench. This is the real challenge for LeBron moving forward. While he has started to sit out more games—missing eight in 2016—when he plays, he plays a ton. “You see Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry play 28 to 30 minutes a game and LeBron has so many games when he’s playing 38 to 40 minutes during the regular season,” said Geier. By comparison, last season both Leonard and Curry averaged 33.4 minutes per game, while LeBron led the NBA at 37.8. And those extra minutes add up.

As LeBron ages, Geier speculated he could alter his game to minimize wear-and-tear: “On offense, you can stand out by the three-point line and avoid some of the contact.” Indeed, it’s possible LeBron might develop a weapon like the one utilized by the NBA’s all-time leader in MVPs, points, and minutes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “The skyhook: use your body to protect yourself against contact.” Geier called the shot simply: “Genius.”

Geier conceded it’s a “bit harder to hide on defense,” but felt a coach might not “always put him on the other team’s best players” to preserve LeBron so that come playoffs he can go “wherever he’s needed.”

That said, how much time does LeBron have left as an elite player? “I think he’s probably got—this is somewhat physician, somewhat basketball fan—probably four or five years, assuming he stays healthy.” (Luck plays a major role in longevity: as Gordon Hayward demonstrated on 2017’s opening night, a season can be lost in an instant.) Geier noted that even the best-case scenario for King James doesn’t extend much beyond then: “The gold standard is, if you can get to 40, that’s about as good as you can hope in the NBA.”

Until then, long live the King.