Did LeBron James Have the Best Season Ever by a 34-Year Old?
In perhaps the most surprising turn of events this season, LeBron James ended up missing the NBA Playoffs for the first time in 14 years. While that sounds surprising without any context, it’s not as surprising when you consider all of the factors that influenced the Lakers’ postseason absence. James is a walking circus that attracts attention anywhere he goes, and the Lakers knew this when they awarded him a max deal last summer. But is it possible that, amid all the attention he gets and the narratives that surround him, we’re ignoring the fact that LeBron might have had the most impressive season for a 34-year old (or older) in NBA history?
Of course, the adjectives “best”, “impressive”, “outstanding”, and all of their synonyms are subject to opinion and individual perspective. Some things are not as good or as impressive for one person as they are for another. But there isn’t a world in which a basketball player averaging 27.4 points, 8.3 assists, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals on 51% shooting from the field and 34% from three-point land isn’t good or impressive whatsoever. James did this, mind you, after his 34th birthday and in his 16th season in the league.
Only 35 players in NBA history have averaged over 20 points per game after turning 34 years old. The latest instance came in 2014-15, when Kobe Bryant averaged 22.3 points – albeit in just 35 games and with a horrific 37.3% shooting accuracy. James’ 27.4 points per game rank second behind 34 year-old Bernard King’s 28.4 in 1990-91. Also, LeBron’s 33.9% shooting from three-point land ranks third in that 35-man group; so do his 8.3 assists per game, right behind Jerry West (8.8) and Lenny Wilkens (8.4) who both recorded these marks in the 1972-73 season. Only 12 out of these 35 players finished their seasons with a 50+ FG%.
These are just a few examples of James consistently ranking near the top of most statistical box score categories. And all things considered, there may not be another age 34+ player with a collective stat line as impressive as LeBron’s. Out of the 35 players who averaged over 20 points per game after their 34th birthday, here are the most statistically impressive seasons:
To select the most statistically impressive seasons, I looked for all-around volume in box score statistics without a notable drop in shooting accuracy and efficiency. 2001-02 Michael Jordan and his beautiful 22.9/5.2/5.7 stat line at age 38, for instance, were left off due to his horrid shooting splits of 41.6 FG%, 18.9 3PFG%, 42.0 EFG%, and 46.8 TS%.
Perhaps the most astounding fact from this chart is that LeBron is tied with Alex English for least minutes per game played at 35.2, with Wilt Chamberlain leading the way at 44.3 and Kobe Bryant coming in at second with 38.6. The fact that all of these players were able to put up very thick stat lines at such a relatively advanced age in these many minutes is a huge feat by itself. Everyone but Karl Malone (49) and Larry Bird (45) played at least 55 games in the highlighted season, so the sample sizes are certainly meaningful.
James is convincingly the most accurate and efficient out of the six players, with very nice shooting splits that help his advanced shooting numbers look really good. These would look even better had LeBron shot better than a career-worst 66.5% from the free throw line, which specifically hurt his TS%. Nonetheless, he still leads the whole pack in that category.
Kobe Bryant, Alex English, and Karl Malone had similarly successful seasons at age 34 and 35 in terms of shooting, though the scoring, assists, and rebounds are still multiple units away from James’ near-triple-double season. Wilt continued beasting with outstanding rebounding and overall accuracy numbers at age 34, though the scoring is not quite there. Larry Bird’s season is also an interesting comparison, with similar rebound and assist numbers to go along with a much better three-point shot than James, but the scoring is also too low and the advanced shooting metrics punish him for not being as efficient overall.
Funny enough, James is the only one out of the six players in this list to miss the Playoffs, with the next worst results coming from Kobe’s 2012-13 Lakers, who got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Despite LeBron not making the postseason, it isn’t fair to claim he didn’t do everything he could on the court.
Yes, he might have killed the young Lakers’ chemistry if the reports of him aggressively pushing LA’s front office to acquire Anthony Davis via trade turn out to be true; yes, he might have not been fully engaged on the defensive end for most of the season; yes, this man will inherently create drama anywhere he goes because that’s how things work when you are one of the two best players in NBA history. But there is no denying LeBron James is coming off the most statistically impressive season for a 34 year old ever.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, unless otherwise noted.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA