Earlier this week, Tom Brady announced his retirement of the NFL after 22 seasons. At 44, Brady was an MVP candidate and still at the top of his game when he left.
Likewise, LeBron James remains elite in his 19th NBA season. How many more seasons do you think LeBron has left? And will he leave before his superstar talents fade noticeably?
Trying to guess how much longer LeBron James will be able to play at an elite level is like trying to predict how many more action films Liam Neeson will make after Medicare qualifies. James is the beneficiary (at a high price paid in dollars and sweat) of the most advanced nutrition, fitness, fitness and recovery methods, equipment and personnel in the history of the ‘Athletics. His work ethic is next level. So I could easily see him playing as is, with minimal decline, after his 40th birthday.
Will that be enough for him to achieve what most of us consider to be his dual ambition, which rests on the length of his career? The former somehow eclipses Michael Jordan in NBA fans’ casual arguments over “greatest player of all time.” I don’t think extending his claim to the title of most sustained excellence of all time matters much in this particular debate, even after James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s leading points scorer. Many people think he needs to surpass Jordan in rings — that means seven, three more than he currently has — to distract from the six finals losses on his resume (compared to the zero of Jordan). It’s not going to happen.
That leaves his dream of playing with, or at least in the same NBA game, as his 17-year-old son, Bronny. And that means reaching 2024-25, during which time Pops will be 40 years old. From what I said above, This seems perfectly reasonable, with minimal decline in James’ skills. Certainly not to the point that he would be embarrassed or damage his reputation as a Top 5 player of all time. So mark me for 22 seasons for James, timing his farewell tour with his eldest son’s rookie NBA season.
James is under contract through the 2022-23 season, so there is no doubt that James will join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and Jamal Crawford as the only other NBA players to record 20 seasons. It also seems inevitable that James (36,414 points) will pass Karl Malone (36,928) and Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. And yet, I don’t think this is how James will end his career. I am convinced that he will sign another contract to extend his career.
The reasons? First, James did a great job delaying Father Time. Of course, James has missed significant time due to injuries over the past few seasons in 2017-18 (27 games), 2020-21 (27) and 2021-22 (14 and counting). But when James actually played, he looked as dominant as he did in his prime. The other reason: James has publicly stated as a goal that he would like to stay in the NBA if his son, Bronny, makes it into the league. Bronny will be a senior next season at Sierra Canyon School, a private K-12 school in Chatsworth, Calif., and will then likely have to play at least one year in college, with the G League Ignite or overseas before to enter the NBA.
Given this trajectory, I think LeBron will make sure his final season coincides with Bronny’s rookie season in the NBA, likely in the 2024-25 season. At this point, LeBron may not be the same dominant player he once was. But I think he would be willing to accept a relegation rule and a relative pay cut to be able to play for his son’s team. So expect LeBron to keep his options open as a free agent until he knows which team is signing his son.
LeBron’s remaining service time isn’t entirely up to him; it’s a collaboration with the basketball gods. Because: A slip here, an ankle twist there, a muscle pull there, and the body may not cooperate. Just a hunch, but he probably has two more seasons of decent health and “elite” level, i.e. All-Star worthy. And then there is a question of exit strategy.
Will he follow the path of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish, among other Hall of Famers, and overstay his welcome? Unlikely – pride and the fact that he doesn’t need the money will stop him. The fairy tale ending, of course, is that LeBron plays just long enough to be teammates with Bronny for a year — either in the NBA if the kid succeeds, or professionally overseas — and then he quits.
I’m not LeBron James and I’m not close enough to him to really know what his motivations are or how willing he is to play with deteriorating skills and athleticism. So there’s no point trying to guess the answer to this question (especially the second part). When it comes to his efficiency on every possession (especially on defense) in every game, he’s already not the player he was two seasons ago. And maybe he’s more susceptible to injury from year to year.
But he remains a very effective offensive player, with solid outside numbers, shooting 68.8% in the paint (fourth best mark of his career), and success at high level. Even on defense, he has the IQ and athleticism to make big plays on occasion. So, unless the wheels fall off over the next 16 months, he could certainly continue to play beyond his current contract (expires in 2023) if he’s willing to make the sacrifices required.
Wanting to quote James accurately, I dug through the boxes to find the latest remarks regarding his future. Asked last month on Uninterrupted about his hopes for the future of his son, Bronny, James didn’t mince his words. “I want him to reach the NBA. I’m not even going to lie. I want to be on the pitch with him. I think it would be an incredible moment. He’s about to be a junior, so the years…it could be close. But we’ll have to see. “That tells me LeBron will play at least long enough to make this dream a reality, and why not? We would all love to accomplish something of this magnitude.
Throw in some of his nagging injuries, and the fact is that James, at 37, is playing some of the best basketball of his career, producing his highest scoring average (29.1 points) since 2009-10, his first round in Cleveland. The extension James signed in 2020 takes him through the 2022-23 season and Bronny graduates from high school in 2023. We’ve seen how James has smartly negotiated shorter deals throughout his career to keep open his options. When this current deal with the Lakers ends, you can expect a short pact whether he stays or joins a new team.
Besides that, we’ve all heard about how James spends $1.5 million a year to take care of his body. So James can play productively for as long as he wants, whether as a starter or possibly as a reserve. As a father, I support him and hope to be home the night the James family finally realizes this dream. We should all dream as big as LeBron.