After a successful summer, the Los Angeles Lakers are just weeks away from the start of training camp. That will mark the beginning of superstar LeBron James’ 21st NBA season, which will make him one of just five players to ever reach that milestone. That is an incredible feat, but as The Athletic points out, his longevity is starting to catch up with him.
While it is all but certain that he will take a step back in some form next season, how much remains to be seen. Going from being considered the best player in the NBA—whether he won MVP or not— for more than a decade to being in the bottom half of the top 10 doesn’t appear to be a big drop, but it could be.
LeBron’s impending decline should be a concern to the Lakers, but there’s hope.
LeBron certainly wasn’t the same player that we had come to expect in the playoffs last season, but he was still very good overall. Despite that, his playing all of next season at that level may still pose a problem for the Lakers, who are built around him being a superstar who can carry a team to the NBA Finals. Last season, he averaged a terrific 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.8 assists, indeed top-5 player-level production, but his scoring dropped to 24.5 points per game in the postseason.
Anthony Davis, who likely had his best season last year, could pick up the slack, but he has averaged 20 missed games a season over the course of his career. If that happens in 2023–24, LeBron simply can’t put the Lakers on his back any longer.
There is hope that Austin Reaves can build upon a successful postseason and his experience at the World Cup to establish himself as the team’s third-best player. That seems like a real possibility and would go a long way toward offsetting some of the decline that LeBron is seemingly beginning to experience. Even still, betting on a major jump for Reaves does come with the risk that he fails in a bigger role, which could lead to larger issues for the Lakers next season.
Ultimately, the numbers seem to back up the assertion that LeBron is no longer the best player in the NBA. Fortunately, the Lakers have other options, including Davis, Reaves, and a deeper roster that they can hopefully lean on as they look to win championship number 18 in 2023–24.