As he prepares to turn 39, LeBron James has accomplished enough for two Hall of Fame careers

(Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports illustration)

(Stefan Milic/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The earliest instance I can find of someone applying the phrase “lion in winter” to LeBron James came in a column by the great Russ Bengtson. It’s a really good piece — one attempting to both place LeBron in the context of antecedent superstars who’d trafficked in dominance before eventually succumbing to the ravages of time (Jordan, Magic, Bird, Shaq, Kobe, et al.) and prepare us for the inevitability of James one day joining them.

“As it turns out, LeBron will likely wind up having the same amount of time as anyone else — and he’ll use it up faster,” Bengtson wrote. “… [What the end of James’ career will look like] isn’t entirely clear. But it’s coming. Sooner than we might want.”

That piece ran on Dec. 30, 2014 — James’ 30th birthday.

Since turning 30, LeBron has scored more points in the regular season than Sam Jones and Tim Hardaway did during their entire Hall of Fame careers. Add in more than 4,600 rebounds and 4,600 assists, to go with nearly 750 steals and 400 blocks, and you’ve got a statistical résumé that only 13 other players have ever accumulated — 11 Hall of Famers (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird, Jason Kidd, Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade), one guy likely to go in now that he’s eligible (Vince Carter) and another guaranteed entry as soon as he’s eligible (James Harden).

Oh, also: nine All-Star appearances; nine All-NBA selections (including five First Team nods); five top-five finishes in regular-season MVP voting; five trips to the NBA Finals; two NBA championships; two Finals MVP trophies; and the greatest comeback the sport has ever seen.

That LeBron has had a whole-ass Hall of Fame career since smart people started wondering when he’d enter his “lion in winter” phase — and maybe even a couple of Hall of Fame runs, depending on how you divvy things up — doesn’t mean those people weren’t so smart. (And if you doubt that, go listen to Russ on Vincent Goodwill’s podcast and read his book.) It means that what James has done between then and now is unprecedented to a degree that, frankly, is difficult to overstate.

James turns 39 on Saturday, having played more minutes and scored more points than any player in NBA history. He’s top-five all-time in assists and top-10 in steals, at or near the top of the career leaderboard for every advanced statistic our greatest nerds have ever devised. He’s amassed enough individual and team success to demand a seat in any barstool debate over which player might have the most legitimate case to being the greatest basketball player of all time … and he just keeps adding to his case.

As he nears the midpoint of his 21st season, LeBron is still producing like a top-10 player — averaging better than 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game, shooting 60% on 2-pointers and a career-high 41% from 3-point range. The only player ever to reach 22 seasons in the NBA was Carter; by that time, he was averaging less than 18 minutes per game as a reserve in Atlanta. James is nearly doubling that while remaining the straw that stirs the drink in L.A.: The Lakers have outscored opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court and have been outscored by 7.6 points per 100 when he’s off it.

In a sport where the reward for consistent greatness is grueling 100-game campaigns and less time to recuperate than everybody else, James has managed to continue eluding the go-go-Gadget arms of Father Time, thanks partly to a willingness to adapt and evolve. The game’s premier interior scorer is now averaging a half-dozen 3-point attempts per game, because those shots take less energy than bulldozing your way to the basket and help space the floor for other people to attack. Its premier slasher became arguably its most devastating low-post player, because putting him that close to the hoop forced double-teams that opened up kickout passes to cutters and shooters, helping produce some of the most efficient offenses in NBA history.

Its preeminent wing becomes a power forward and, when necessary, a center, to open up the floor on offense and get more quick perimeter defenders on the floor against small-ball lineups. When the opponent goes big, he slides over to point guard, allowing his coach to play giganto-ball with multiple power forwards and centers — a kind of damn-the-torpedoes in reverse, going all-in on size and length, spacing be damned, because you trust LeBron to find enough pathways to points to make it all stand up.

It hasn’t this season; not often enough, at least. Despite good health for James and Anthony Davis, a Lakers team coming off a Western Conference finals run finds itself floating around .500, mired in the play-in mix, just outside the bottom 10 in offensive efficiency — and only scoring at about a league-average rate with LeBron on the floor.

This, perhaps, is where LeBron’s age shows most readily: In a West where youth is being served, with Anthony Edwards’ Timberwolves and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s Thunder vying to topple reigning champion Nikola Jokić’s Nuggets, his ongoing individual excellence isn’t enough to tip the scales in L.A.’s favor on a night-to-night basis. And the James-and-Davis combo, while still potent — the Lakers outscore opponents by nearly six points per 100 in LeBron/AD minutes — hasn’t been enough to overcome shaky perimeter shooting and a paucity of playmaking oomph from a guard core headlined by D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves.

That’s why you’ll continue to hear the Lakers associated with any playmaker who might hit the market — Zach LaVine, Dejounte Murray, whoever it might be. Whether those players, or any others who may become available, would put the Lakers over the top in a deep, tough conference, you’d expect Rob Pelinka and the rest of L.A.’s braintrust to keep pounding the pavement, working the phones and looking for the kind of upgrade that could unlock another second-half run, just like February’s four-team blockbuster set the Lakers up for a conference finals run.

That’s what you do when you’ve got a top-10 player who could be the best player in nearly any series he’s in — you keep going all-in until you’ve got nothing left to go all-in with. And that, as much as anything, is a testament to the story that LeBron has written across two unprecedented decades: At 39 years old, he’s still good enough to convince you to go all-in for him. And maybe, if things break right, even good enough to make the bet pay off.

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