CLEVELAND >> LeBron James emerged from a chaotic, complex season unscathed — better than ever.
Still the NBA’s undisputed king.
Despite no longer having Kyrie Irving at his side. Despite an injury-riddled season in which the Cavaliers’ roster morphed twice and despite being surrounded by a supporting cast that included rookies and just three holdovers from Cleveland teams he dragged to three straight NBA Finals, James played every game and powered through his 15th pro season like it was another helpless defender in the lane.
By investing millions into maintaining his body and with a work ethic that has pushed him since childhood, James seems intent on challenging basketball’s natural cycle of aging.
At 33, and on the eve of making a run at his eighth straight Finals, James is not slowing down. He remains the game’s best all-around player, most dominant force. Still, the one to beat. Still, the player most capable of carrying a team to playoff victories. Still, the most likely player — sorry Messrs. Westbrook, Harden, Curry and Durant — to make a play that wins a game or a series.
“It doesn’t seem like he gets old,” said Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown. “He just doesn’t go away.”
While Cleveland’s season was highly irregular, James had another brilliant one.
He averaged 27.5 points — his highest total since 2010 — and established career-highs in assists (9.1), rebounds (8.6) and played the full slate of games for the first time. He led the league in total points, minutes played, surpassed 30,000 career points, recorded 18 triple-doubles and was the league’s second-leading scorer in the fourth quarter (7.5 points).
The three-time champion also extended his record of scoring at least 10 points to 873 games, a mark once owned by Michael Jordan (862), the player James has spent his entire adulthood being compared to and the one he has equaled on many measures.
Jordan was not done at 33, winning three more titles. But his game aged differently. Jordan relied more on jumpers as he got older and ceded tough defensive assignments to other Bulls. James continues to take over games physically, particularly late, and he never hesitates to defend the opponents’ toughest scorers. And the Bulls never counted on their general to rebound or dish out assists as the Cavs lean on James.
James has done it all amid a strange, soap-opera-like season for Cleveland, which endured injuries, illnesses, trades and tribulations from late last summer until early spring.
“As the Land Turns is what I call it,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, who returned from an illness just last week.
Following Wednesday’s regular-season finale, James stamped this as-yet-unfinished season a personal triumph.
“It’s the best I’ve felt all season and I’ve got the numbers to back it up and I’ve got the wins to back it up as well,” he said. “I’ve just tried to be available to my teammates every single night and do everything that I could to win ball games. Either by scoring, by rebounding, by defending, by assisting, taking charges, whatever the case may be. Statistically it all speaks for itself.”
While amassing those numbers, James has seemingly paused the aging process. Of course, it helps that he has a nutritionist, personal trainer, masseuse, cryogenic chamber and 21st century technology to keep him one step ahead of Father Time.
Cavaliers forward Kendrick Perkins, who was drafted in 2003 after James, is awed by his friend’s commitment and dedication. Perkins was stunned to learn James invests upward of $2 million per year on his body.
“It’s crazy. I watch how he takes care of his body, I watch how he gets treatment around the clock,” said Perkins. “But it shows and that’s why he’s able to do what he’s been doing at this age. Everybody will be like, ‘Man, ‘Bron got to be doing something,’ and I’m like, ‘No, he actually put in the groundwork and everything you see is because he sacrificed.’ It’s amazing to watch.”
James isn’t done, not even close, and earlier this season he described re-writing the narrative that players in their early 30s have reached their prime.
“Hopefully I can break the mold, so when the next guy comes, he can still get $200 or $300 million and be 33 years old,” he said. “I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break. It’s not just about me, it’s for the next crew. I want it all.”
And what James wants, he usually gets.
He has meticulously worked at his craft, refining his game, adding weapons. This season, James posted a career-high in 3-pointers, and according to Basketball-Reference.com, he made a higher percentage of shots from beyond 28 feet than any player — including Stephen Curry — since 2001.
As far as Brown’s concerned, James is the new standard.
“I don’t see any decline athletically and then watch it, the trend that he’s now shooting and making 3s, so you feel that he just keeps getting better,” Brown said before James scored 44 with 11 rebounds and 11 assists against the Sixers. “The fact that he can play that many minutes, that many games, seemingly not missing a beat. He is amazing.
“In my opinion, he is the best player to have ever played our sport. And he just keeps getting better. And I say that with tremendous respect to lots of other people. That’s a hell of a comment that I don’t throw out recklessly. And I just feel like his body of work makes me feel very confident and comfortable saying that. He’s playing arguably his best basketball.”