LeBron James is now a Laker, going to Los Angeles on a four-year deal. He’ll turn 34 in December and will be 37 years old when it concludes. We know that LeBron is still doing amazing things on a regular basis; he continually wills his teams to the NBA Finals and has been in the MVP discussion in perpetuity.
So it’s hard to doubt that he can continue to be among the best players in the league for the near future. But in the very near future, unseating Golden State in the West seems like a very difficult task, at least for the 2018-2019 season. The Lakers may not be in a position to contend until the following season, when James will be turning 35.
The number of guys who have had truly great seasons after age 33 is pretty short. It includes three years of Wilt Chamberlain with the Lakers, three years of Karl Malone, three years of David Robinson, and John Stockton. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put together a great run from age 33 to 38 with the Lakers. But it’s pretty rare. Maybe LeBron can join that company more than two years from now, but it’s not a given.
Taking the top SG/SF/PF who played since 1980, by win shares from age 24 to 33 (via basketball-reference.com), here are the players who were still within 66% of their peak years (age 24 to 28) at age 32 and 33, and then what they did after.
So, for example, Karl Malone’s win shares at age 32 and 33 were actually higher than from age 24 to 28 on average (110%). LeBron is at 77%–though it should be said that LeBron was so great from age 24 to 28, when he led in win shares every year, that he can be a percentage off that and still be an MVP.
That group were at 73% their production by win shares at age 34, and then it dropped to 53% at age 35 and 30% at age 36. LeBron can decline and still be great–if he is at half his peak win shares, that’s basically last year’s Paul George or Jimmy Butler in two years. But then again, if he does show some typically aging starting at age 35, then being one of the top 20 players in the league as he gets to 35 or 36 may not be enough, unless the Lakers add a true star. The window may not be as big as we think, and it’s being fogged up by Golden State for at least another twelve months.