Since the opening fortnight, though, the Cavaliers have been rolling, and James has surpassed his usual stratospheric standards. He’s averaging 27.8 points per game (his highest total in eight years), 9.3 assists (his highest ever), and 8.5 rebounds (a fraction off his career-best). He’s shooting 40 percent from beyond the three-point line and an unfathomable 63 percent inside it. He has played the most minutes in the league. One night in November, James poured in 57 points, the highest total by any player this season. And heading into Tuesday night’s showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks and their young phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo, he has logged four triple-doubles in his last five games.
At times, James seems to amaze even himself. In the first quarter of a recent victory over the Utah Jazz, he darted out on a fast break, awaiting a routine alley-oop pass. The lob didn’t quite synchronize with James’s jump, though, so he hung in the air, waited, reached back with his left hand, and—with his head now nearly behind the backboard—corralled the ball and jammed it through the rim. The play looked as though it had been concocted via suspension wires or CGI. When James landed, he stopped and stared at his palm for a moment, as if in wonderment.
“What he’s doing at his age, his 15th year, is unbelievable,” James’s head coach, Tyronn Lue, said last week. The appraisal was accurate; the roster of athletes who have produced this ably a decade and a half into their playing days is nearly nonexistent. Michael Jordan’s 15th season was his last one, a somber and playoff-less campaign with the Washington Wizards. Neither Larry Bird nor Magic Johnson made it that long, due to injury and illness. Tim Duncan, by the time his 15th season came around, was well along in his transition from focal point to elder statesman. Kobe Bryant, while still scoring at a high clip, was not close to matching James’s efficiency or all-around contributions.
Basketball doesn’t damage its players’ bodies in the way football does, but it is nevertheless a grind. Even Hall of Famers fall victim to diminished bounce and quickness, to nagging injuries, to the simple, physical exhaustion that comes with running and jumping on a wooden floor two and a half hours at a time, 82 nights a year. The average NBA player’s peak comes in his mid-20s, and the early-30s usually portend serious decline, but James is playing and talking like he’ll have none of that. “I want to break the mold of guys, of the stereotype of this prime thing,” he says, as if growing older were a contrived media narrative instead of a fact of life.
If James’s elaborate fitness regimens partly account for his seeming agelessness, his knowledge of the game deserves a greater share of the credit. He can still soar and sprint because he so often doesn’t have to. Against the Washington Wizards last weekend, James logged 20 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds, and one block—the kind of numbers that, for most players, might mark the best game of the season—while hardly leaving cruising speed. He worked patiently on the low block, dipping his shoulder for layups or pivoting into fallaways. He sent passes to every sector of the floor, including a length-of-the-court 75-footer that led to a teammate’s easy dunk. James himself didn’t dunk at all; it would have seemed out of place during that easygoing evening.