As Charles Barkley is so fond of saying, Father Time is undefeated. It’s obviously true that age eventually beats the great athlete, but decline isn’t so linear. For a while, careers fall into a holding pattern, where learned skill compensates for diminishing athleticism.
The talent leaves the athlete’s body as he learns how best to use his talent. As the game slows down, the body slows down too. It's a race. Sometimes, his diminished quickness can even inspire a more versatile, unstoppable approach.
In 2010-11, Dirk Nowitzki wasn't nearly as mobile as he was a half-decade earlier. The younger Dirk was also statistically better during the regular season, often leveraging an overwhelming advantage against overmatched opponents. Dirk was incredible in his late 20s, but he wasn’t unguardable, and he met his Waterloo in the playoffs.
In his 30s, Dirk learned to master offense out of the high post. Though slower than in his prime, he gained a facility with passing out of double teams. Dirk wasn’t quite the individual offensive force we saw in 2006, but there was no way to shut down or even fluster the older gentleman. That’s why he hoisted the trophy long after many had written him off as perpetually cursed or soft.
We’ve seen a similar process play out with the guy who won titles after Dirk. LeBron James probably isn’t quite the athlete he was with the Cavs. These days, he more than compensates for what he’s lost with an improved outside shot and, when needed, a violent post game. I’d hazard that losing to Dirk in the 2011 NBA Finals helped inspire this growth.
To be clear, LeBron James, at age 28, is still one of the fastest, most powerful forces in sports. If his athleticism has waned, it didn’t wane enough to spare Jason Terry last season. This is a matter of degrees, a step here or there.
One thing I’ve noticed is that LeBron almost never dunks out of a half-court drive anymore. This used to be a common feature of his game. For example, this half-court drive situation accounts for 10 of the dunks in his top 20 dunks of 2008-09 YouTube compilation. Based on the play-by-play records from that season, there were likely more.
I went through video of LeBron's 419 restricted-area baskets from last season, and found only six such plays. He did it in December against the Magic, twice in January against the Bulls and Lakers, thrice in March against the Bucks, 76ers, and Pacers. There were also three unassisted dunks when LeBron wasn't quite driving from the far out perimeter (Blazers, Lakers and Magic). In the playoffs, LeBron uncorked a nice perimeter driving dunk against Milwaukee, and we have the cool camera angle to prove it.
Again, these plays were once relatively commonplace. Subjectively, younger LeBron appears trimmer, quicker. He accelerates in the half court and semi-transition as though shoved by an invisible hurricane gust. The older version has ebbed on speed and gained on power.
LeBron doesn’t get to the foul line like he once did, but he still spends about as much time at the rim. A beautifully designed Heat offense finds him off cuts and in transition. He doesn’t have to generate his own offense like back when Larry Hughes was the second option. In 2012-13, more than half of LeBron’s buckets at the rim were assisted. In 2006-07, roughly one-third of such shots were assisted by teammates.
Credit the King for knowing how to expertly use his improved offensive help. If young LeBron bluntly imposed himself on the game, older LeBron has truly mastered it. The world’s greatest player just submitted his most efficient season. He shot an unprecedented 64 percent in February. If he lacks a bit of that old burst, nobody misses it yet.
Today's LeBron James is showing the effects of age. For now that doesn’t matter because improved skills and an improved situation have outpaced natural physical decline.
We’ll never see Hall of Famers like LeBron and Dirk combine what they learn over an entire career with what they can do at their absolute athletic peaks. Youth is wasted on the young, as it’s said. We’re fortunate to get the next best thing, to see the greats improve overall, in spite of what age steals.
Right now, Dirk is losing his battle with age. For now, LeBron is winning.