Why Lakers superstar LeBron James is undeniably the greatest 36-year-old in NBA history

Robert Marvi
8 Min Read

So far this season, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has been playing at his usual outstanding level. Through 21 games, he’s averaging 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game as he’s helped keep his team towards the top of the NBA.

He’s even stepped up his 3-point shooting, as he’s making 41.3 percent of his attempts from downtown. He has shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc for an entire season only once in his career, and it’s an area where he’s always been up and down.

In doing so, he has established himself as the NBA’s early favorite for the MVP award.

All of this is that much more impressive when one remembers that the Akron, Ohio native is 36 years of age and has even more mileage than perhaps any 36-year-old in NBA history due to his 10 trips to the NBA Finals.

Many around the league are in awe at what the Akron, Ohio native is doing at his advanced age.

“I don’t listen to the talking heads…but they be like, ‘Oh, he’s not going to be this this year,’ and I’m just like, ‘You’re all just some dummies,'” said Chris Paul on The Old Man and the Three podcast. “Y’all don’t know. … I’m not surprised by it because I know how he trains, I know his discipline. All that stuff y’all seeing, it ain’t going away no time soon.”

After suffering the first significant injury of his career in his maiden voyage with the Lakers in the 2018-19 season, many thought James was washed up. Instead, he put forth another amazing campaign last season while leading the Purple and Gold to the NBA championship and copping Finals MVP honors.

Since people have been debating for years whether James is the greatest basketball player of all time, all this begs the question of whether he’s the greatest 36-year-old in league history.

To answer this question, we must take a look at what a few other all-time greats did when they were the same age.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant and Wesley Matthews

When James first established himself as an elite player, the one who stood in his way of becoming the best in the game for several years was late Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.

Like James, Bryant was known for his obsessive dedication to maintaining his fitness and conditioning, especially during the offseason. As a result, Bryant was also able to play at an elite level at an advanced age.

Unfortunately, he suffered a torn Achilles when he was 34, which forced him to miss the 2013 NBA Playoffs and undergo a lengthy rehab process.

When he returned early in the 2013-14 season, Bryant only managed to play six games before injuring his left knee and again missing many months of action.

He turned 36 in the summer of 2014 and appeared to be healthy for the start of the new season. Many felt that if anyone could come back from a torn Achilles and still be an elite player, it would be Bryant.

However, that was not the case at all. The Philadelphia-area native struggled mightily with his shooting in the 2014-15 campaign, making a paltry 37.3 percent of his shots and averaging 22.3 points a game, which was very low by his standards.

Clearly, Bryant was nowhere near the level that James is at today at the same age, which no doubt led to the Black Mamba deciding to retire the following season.

Karl Malone

Karl Malone

Malone was another player who was well-known for his fanatical offseason training regimen. Like James, he also had an impressive physique that combined brute strength and power along with speed and explosiveness.

Malone is in the discussion for being perhaps the greatest power forward ever, and he aged quite gracefully. In fact, he won his second and final regular season MVP in the 1999 season when he was 35.

That season, the Mailman averaged 23.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

The next season, when he was 36, Malone actually upped those numbers to 25.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a game despite seeing his minutes drop to 35.9 per game from 37.4 a game the previous season. For good measure, he also tossed in 3.7 assists per game.

As impressive as those numbers are, they fall a bit short of what James is doing this year, primarily due to his much greater passing skills and assist numbers.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

If Michael Jordan or LeBron James isn’t the greatest of all time, then perhaps Abdul-Jabbar is. Like James, Bryant and Malone, Abdul-Jabbar was absolutely dedicated to keeping his body right every single offseason.

The University of California, Los Angeles product was also ahead of his time, as he did a lot of yoga and swimming to prevent injury and keep his stamina and endurance at a high level.

Abdul-Jabbar turned 36 late in the 1982-83 season when he averaged 21.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots per game. During the playoffs that year, he stepped up his production to 27.1 points and 3.7 blocks per game, leading the league in both categories during the postseason.

The next season, which was his true “age 36” season, he put up 21.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 rejections a game.

When it comes to longevity, James still needs to surpass Abdul-Jabbar, who is the true king of that category. For good measure, he won the NBA Finals MVP in 1985 at age 38, which is mind-boggling, to say the least.

He did so by averaging 25.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.5 blocks per game as the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics for the first time in a championship series.

At Age 36, James is the Best

When one considers all facets of the game and his overall impact, one would have to conclude that James is, indeed, the best 36-year-old in basketball history.

His high assist average is what separates him from fellow all-time greats like Malone and Abdul-Jabbar at the same age. One must also factor in the fact that James is essentially playing full-time point guard on a fast-break team in spite of all the mileage he carries.

If James continues to play at this type of level through the end of his current contract when he’ll be 38 and leads the Lakers to a couple more championships, he should convince more observers that he may, in fact, be the greatest NBA player of all time.

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Robert is a native of Santa Monica, Calif., and a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been an avid NBA fan since he was a little kid in the mid '90s and fell in love with the Nick Van Exel-led Lakers teams. He truly cherishes the Kobe Bryant-era of Lakers basketball and the five world championships that came with it, and is looking forward to the team's next NBA title.