Fifteen seasons into LeBron James’ career, there is piqued interest about where he is headed next season but a staid reaction for where he is this season.
Numb to greatness, a humdrum appreciation comes with his sierra of staggering statistics. At a point when Michael Jordan was retiring after 15 seasons, James argues that he is better than ever.
His Cleveland team’s tumult takes away from what James is doing this season. James Harden and Kevin Durant dazzle for dominant teams. James grinds for a dormant challenger.
The Cavaliers’ trade-deadline reinvention drew raves, but injuries, particularly Kevin Love’s fractured hand, are preventing them from building a champion on the fly.
Still, James does not relent. Nearly 53,000 regular-season and postseason minutes into his career, he is about to play an 82-game season for the first time.
It already has been remarkable that James avoids significant injuries even as he thrusts himself into defenses and maneuvers through nightly doses of elite defenders.
James missed an average of five games through his first 14 seasons. But at 33, he is about to play every game in a season during which he already collected a career-high 14 triple-doubles.
He does not feel like he can afford a down day.
“I’ve had a lot of those times and then probably like two or three minutes later, I was like, ‘Get your … up; let’s get to work,’ ” James said. “That’s just how I am. We all feel that way where we’re like, ‘We just ain’t got it today.’ But as soon as I feel that, I always feel like there was someone else that was like, ‘Well, I got it today because he may not be getting up.’ I don’t like that feeling.”
James entered the league with an impressive teenage physique but boasts twice the power now. He is no worse for the wear of carrying teams to eight consecutive NBA Finals.
The best indication of how his training works is the way he has performed this season in the second game on back-to-back nights, the death knell to most aging players. James has averaged 23.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 11 games without rest.
“Over time, you just kind of learn how to grow with it and how to deal with it through certain situations, through a team struggling or you’re struggling personally or your body feeling fatigued or your mind sometimes feeling fatigued,” James said. “How you can deal with it to hit a refresh or a reset button. It’s very challenging. You just have to go through it. There was never someone who I could talk to when I was coming up that was a part of this league. I’ve learned everything on the fly.
“As far as being a NBA player, how to approach it, your body and things of that nature, how to stay consistent, I’ve learned all that on my own — all on the fly because I never had somebody I could go to. Ain’t nobody ever kind of lended their hand to me either, so I’ve kind of just figured it out.”
Statistics escalate along with the pace of play in the NBA but James snickers at the idea that his latest numbers benefit from increased possessions in games.
“It just say I’m like fine wine,” James said. “I get better with age.”
James’ minutes played this season are actually below his career average. His playing time has increased lately out of need with injuries to Love, Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Cedi Osman.
For two consecutive seasons, James has shot a career-high percentage. His three-point percentage is the third best of his career. As he complains about officiating favoring jump shooters, James has received the fewest free-throw attempts since his rookie year, but his scoring average is nearly identical to his career (27.1).
James is posting career-high averages for rebounds (8.6) and assists (9.0) for a second consecutive year but also for turnovers (4.3). His efficiency rating is the best he has posted in four years, but his plus-minus is barely negative for the first time in his career, reflective of the Cavaliers’ roller-coaster season.
Cleveland still could finish anywhere from third place to eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
“I just want us to get as healthy as we can so I know and obviously our coaching staff knows and we all know what we can become,” James said. “Standings don’t matter to me. It is what it is at this point.”
Starting with Saturday’s game at Chicago, Cleveland’s last 14 games came against opponents the Cavs have beaten 18 of 25 times. Love is expected to return later this week. Until Hood returns, Kyle Korver replaced J.R. Smith in the starting lineup and immediately put up 19- and 22-point games.
“I think everybody benefits from playing with LeBron,” Korver said. “He commands a lot of attention. He sees the whole floor. Obviously, he’s always reading what my man is doing, and he’s able to hit me in my spots. Makes everybody better.”
James is not revealing details about his future, but he is an open book on the court. He is seemingly as indestructible as he is intimidating. He might last until LeBron James Jr., 13, is ready to join the league.
Even amid all of his enterprise and entertainment endeavors, it would be impossible for James not to be ultra-committed to his body and still log 94 regular-season and postseason appearances a season for the last six years. He could be headed for 100-plus games this year.