LeBron James defying age in seemingly inevitable march to all-time scoring title

To watch him is to constantly be surprised when he delivers what you expect.

They said he was chosen before he ever arrived in the NBA, and he’s spent 19 seasons proving that selection correct. He’s changed the key words, graduating from hype to greatness to greatest in front of worldwide witnesses.

Today, LeBron James is a year older than he was yesterday. He’s one day closer to the moment when his muscles and tendons will start to erode and his skills start to transform into memories. But not now, not yet.

James is 37 years old — a number that means something to almost every basketball player before him yet nothing to him. When he entered the NBA as a teenager, James played with a physicality and a maturity that contradicted his years. Now, as he’s running through defenses around the league, he’s playing with an energy and spring in his legs that again defies time.

Slow down? Why?

“Where I’m at with it, I’m still playing at such a high level, I haven’t given it too much thought,” James said. “But I’m in Year 19 and I’m not going to do another 19, so I’m definitely halfway into my career. I’m on the other side of the hill. So, we’ll see where the game takes me. We’ll see where my body takes me and my mind. As long as my mind stays fresh and my body stays with that, I can play the game. But at the end of the day, the game will tell you, your body will tell you, your mind will tell you. I’ve put in enough hours and punched enough clocks where when that time comes, I’ll be OK with it.”

The end is coming — it’s closer now than it was the last time he took the court. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he’s played almost 62,000 minutes, that’s more than 43 continuous days of basketball, combining the explosiveness of Michael Jordan with the all-around game of Magic Johnson and the brute force of Shaquille O’Neal.

“He’s the blueprint of success,” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said.

While the Lakers are off to a disappointing start this season, James has been on a tear, scoring 30 or more points in 13 of the 23 games he’s played. He went into Wednesday night’s game in Memphis averaging 27.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists.

“He’s a robot, man,” Malik Monk said. “He can do whatever he wants to.”

Lakers star LeBron James is quickly approaching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA scoring record.

(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

History tells us that James should have a significant dip in production awaiting him just around the corner — something that happened to most of the NBA legends lucky enough to play into their late 30s. A handful of players, such as Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, managed to stay productive.

Uncoincidentally, those are the two players James is chasing on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Provided James stays healthy — and that’s no safe bet after ankle and abdominal injuries have already cost him time this year — he could pass Malone for No. 2 on the scoring list by the end of the season. Around 20 points a game for the next 45 games would get that done.

To catch Abdul-Jabbar, James will need to score about 2,400 more points. It’s easy to imagine him averaging 20 points for a 120-game stretch, putting him on track in 2024 to become the league’s scoring king.

He’ll have to avoid freak accidents, like the one that cost him 20 games last season, and some of the natural soft-tissue injuries that are likely to surface as he continues to pile up minutes and points.

It’s never been the metric James has measured his game by — scoring is just a part of the puzzle. It is, though, the NBA’s crowning individual achievement and a logical place for the player with the longest stretch of sustained greatness to eventually land.

Just this month, James reiterated that individual statistics are meaningless without winning, and the Lakers’ path forward for the latter could really be rocky. Yet you know James’ accomplishments aren’t lost on him.

After every major milestone, James’ Instagram story becomes littered with highlights and graphics celebrating the latest achievement. It’s not lost on anyone around the Lakers, with his coach occasionally forced to just sit back in disbelief.

“It’s still — I shouldn’t say it surprises me — but it’s just incredible for him to play at such a high level,” Frank Vogel said earlier this month after James scored 33.

In the weeks since, he’s been better.

James has benefited from a combination of factors to make this possible. Obviously, he was blessed athletically. He has the kind of unending energy that helped separate Jordan from every imitator, and James uses it by investing time and money into strength training, injury prevention, recovery and overall health.

He’s been lucky enough to compete at a time when aging norms are shifting, when Paul Rudd can be People’s Sexiest Man Alive despite being more than two years older than actor Wilford Brimley was in the movie Cocoon. Tom Brady can be a Super Bowl favorite at 44 and James, along with peers like Chris Paul, can lead NBA teams deep into their late 30s.

“Age today is not the same as when I first came into the NBA,” 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony said.

LeBron James looks to pass under pressure from San Antonio's Jock Landale and Keldon Johnson.

LeBron James, top left, looks to pass under pressure from San Antonio’s Jock Landale, center, and Keldon Johnson during a Lakers loss on Dec. 23.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

It doesn’t look like it, especially when James plants his feet and explodes toward the rim. That’s not gone yet. When it does, he believes his days of an effective basketball player won’t be over.

“I don’t have to score the ball to be effective out on the floor. I know how to get my teammates open,” he said. “I know how to read defenses. I know everything that our offense needs in order for us to be successful. And in a make-or-miss league, sometimes when you don’t have it going offensively, you have to be able to still make an impact. So, I can do that just off my mind alone.”

James knows what 37 usually means in basketball. It normally doesn’t mean having this kind of a season in a league filled in part by your son’s former high school teammates. It normally doesn’t mean being looked to as a team’s best hope for a title. It normally doesn’t mean expectations like this.

But as time has passed, James made one thing clearer than all others — he’ll probably deliver.

Associated Press and Los Angeles Times photos

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