LeBron James turns 35 in December. He’s already played the fifth-most minutes in NBA history and is coming off the most significant injury of his 16-year career.
Needless to say, that’s not exactly the normal resumé of a player expected to lead his team to championship contention. But James has always stood above the norm, even for superstars, a reality that’s extended into the latter stages of his playing days. By any objective measure, he put together the best season ever for a 34-year-old during his debut campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Yet one game into James’ second season in Los Angeles, supposedly reinvigorated by the addition of six-time All-Star Anthony Davis, it finally seems time to wonder if the inevitable effects of aging and nearly two decades of wear and tear have caught up to him.
As James said in 2014, “Father Time is undefeated.”
Losing The Battle For L.A.
It should come as no surprise that the LA Clippers, even without Paul George, beat the Lakers on Tuesday night. The Clippers are far deeper than the Lakers, with more continuity of style and personnel, and Kawhi Leonard is coming off a championship run that staked his claim as the world’s best player. They feature several defenders with the requisite physical profile to at least give James trouble, too.
Still, it was jarring to watch James struggle to get all the way to the rim, often unable to get his shoulder past the first line of defense despite dancing with his dribble. James scored only 18 points on 19 shots, but his 4-of-8 shooting at the rim is greater cause for concern.
Time and again, James couldn’t muster the necessary separation and vertical lift to get clean looks at the basket from close. Those labors were understandable when he was checked by Leonard, Moe Harkless, and JaMychal Green, all of whom have the size and quickness to stick with him. But what made the Clippers so effective defensively in the season opener is that undersized center Montrezl Harrell was able to routinely bottle James up on switches, too.
Another telling indicator of James’ waning athleticism was how the Lakers defended the Clippers. Leonard cooked all night long, beasting Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with strong-armed drives before pulling up for jumpers. James, unfortunately, is easily his team’s best option to defend Leonard but hid on guards most of the night to conserve his energy.
The 28-year-old Leonard, meanwhile, spent ample time hounding his superstar counterpart.
The Lakers Are Making James Look Even Older
James has always been at his best in space, rampaging up the floor in transition and picking apart defenses in the half-court. The Lakers, though, seem intent to honor Davis’ preference of playing power forward, ensuring another non-shooter will usually be on the floor, cramping James’ room to operate.
Equally problematic is the Lakers’ lack of playmakers. Every team led by James is at its best when he’s the primary ball-handler, but even after Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso return from injury, the Lakers will be absent a dynamic secondary creator. They don’t have an avenue to add a facsimile of Kyrie Irving or Dwyane Wade; James will be left to run the show almost by himself for the season’s duration.
Disclaimer: One game is one game, and the Clippers might be the league’s best team. It also bears reminding that James is coming off his longest layoff since 2005. Some rust was to be expected, especially given the Lakers’ offseason roster and coaching changes. He was dominant in the post at times, too, even schooling Leonard with a beautiful fadeaway jumper early.
But the broad takeaways remain the same. James looked a half step slower than ever on Tuesday, and his team’s throwback style of play only exacerbated the issue. If Father Time hasn’t caught James already, it’s clear he’s getting closer and closer.