Lakers: Is LeBron James Finally Aging?
Yes, LeBron James got into a fight on the floor last night in a 121-116 come-from-behind Los Angeles Lakers victory over the Detroit Pistons. The future Hall of Fame forward was ejected after playing for just 21:26 minutes yesterday, when he inadvertently drew blood while not-so-inadvertently elbowing (but really, kind of punching) Pistons forward Isaiah Stewart in the eye.
He registered a paltry -15 plus-minus while scoring 10 points and pulling down five assists. This lackluster statistical turn is at least partly at fault in the young season for a worrisome bigger trend: LeBron James is no longer the de facto best player in the NBA who joined the Lakers in the summer of 2018.
Injuries have been a big part of that. Injuries come for all NBA players sooner or later, but outside of one two-week stint while with the Miami Heat, James proved remarkably durable prior to his time at the soon-to-be-Crypto.com Center.
James missed 27 games during the ill-fated 2018-19 Lakers season, 27 games during the 2020-21 Lakers season, and now 10 of 18 games this season.. and it's not even December!
This year already marks the third season during his four-season Lakers tenure where James has missed significant time due to injury. His defense during the regular continues to look lethargic at best. He can turn it up during the playoffs, but he can't realistically be expected to reach the levels he did while with the Cleveland Cavaliers or Miami Heat.
But beyond that, James appears to be showing worrying signs of age-related decline on offense.
This season, James is averaging 22.8 points, 6.1 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per game. His field goal shooting has grown less efficient than in years past, as a whopping 40.7% of his total shot diet now stems from long range. He is connecting on 49% of his shots, still pretty great overall, but taking significantly fewer two-pointers than ever. He is taking fewer shots within three feet of the rim than ever, just 28.3% (his peak was 45.9% in Cleveland, and his career average is 35.8% of his total shot diet).
It's great that James has become a respectable shooter from deep (he's averaging 35.6% on a career-most 7.4 triples a night). But for a player whose game used to be so predicated on athleticism, these are concerning trends. It makes sense. James turns 37 in December, and is playing in his 19th NBA season. He wants to minimize contact inside a bit.
James can no longer be relied upon to stay healthy. This is just the reality of where he is in his NBA career. He is no longer the best player in the league. He may be sliding right out of the top five. Would you prefer to have him on your club over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, 65 games of Joel Embiid, or even Jimmy Butler right now?
If LeBron James can't do the Herculean feats the Lakers had hoped for this season and has entered what Bill Simmons likes to call The Next Stage Of His Career, the entire calculus for what we can reasonably expect out of this three-star Lakers club must be recalibrated.