He’s got four more years left and only one NBA championship. According to ESPN’s panel of experts—which includes writers, analysts and editors who cover the sport—that’s the outlook for Lakers star LeBron James in surveys taken ahead of the NBA’s restart at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
The Lakers enter the remainder of this season, which will get underway next week with a slate of eight “seeding” games before the postseason starts, among the favorites to win a championship. According to the ESPN panel, James and his crew had better pull in a trophy this year because his number of chances are waning.
In all, 63.4% of the panel thought that James would win just one championship with the Lakers. There were 17.1% of those polled thought he would not win a championship at all going forward. 19.5% thought he would win either two or three.
James has won three championships in his career, two coming in Miami and one coming in his return endeavor in Cleveland in 2016. He has made nine appearances in the NBA Finals. James is far off from the all-time record for championships, held by Boston’s Bill Russell with 11.
But in stacking up with other greats of more recent vintage, James could do himself some favors by winning at least one more championship. Kobe Bryant finished with five and the player to whom James is most often compared, Michael Jordan, won six.
James has better individual numbers than both players, but fewer rings. That deficiency costs him in the debate over the greatest player in league history.
As one of the voters, writer Kevin Pelton, noted, “Additionally, every championship closer to Michael Jordan’s total of six reduces the amount by which LeBron has to exceed Jordan’s individual stats to have a chance to win the GOAT discussion.”
Only Four More Years of LeBron James?
Of course, one factor in how many more trophies James can win is how much longer he is prepared to play. He is 35 now and will turn 36 on December 31 of this year. Players naturally break down over time.
But James has defied expectations of a breakdown to this point. Even at this late age, he is averaging 25.7 points and leading the league with 10.6 assists, taking on the added burden of acting as the team’s de facto point guard, a role he is playing for the first time in his career.
This despite having played in 239 career playoff games and three Olympics.
But the ESPN panel mostly felt that James had only four seasons left in him after this one. That would mean James retires in 2024, at age 39. That was the feeling of 41.5% of the respondents, with another 26.9% saying he would retire even earlier than that.
That flies in the face of what James said earlier this season when he compared himself to Tom Brady, who will turn 43 in early August.
“Me and Tom Brady are one and the same,” James said, according to Reuters. “We’re going to keep playing until we can’t walk no more. As long as I still feel great and as long as I can still play at a high level … I will play this game until I physically can’t or … mentally I’m a little checked out. Then you could start looking at that. I have no idea when that happens but I’m not there.”
Lakers’ Long-Term Plan Could Extend LeBron’s Career
None of this appears to take into account the Lakers’ overall plans for building the team.
The Lakers have Anthony Davis likely hitting free agency this offseason and he probably will sign a long-term deal to stay with the team—if not in 2020, then in the near future, after the league has had time to account for financial losses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and stabilize economically.
James can be a free agent in 2021, when the Lakers are expected to have a mass of cap room. They could potentially pursue Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo but there could be a long list of other stars available, like Washington’s Bradley Beal, Boston’s Gordon Hayward, Clippers Kawhi Leonard and/or Paul George, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo or Utah’s Rudy Gobert.
If the Lakers arrange their signings correctly, they could land one of those guys while keeping both Davis and James.
That, obviously, would change James’ title trajectory. And if it takes pressure off him physically, that kind of move could extend his career.
Four more years and one more title seems a safe bet. It’s likely James will wind up with more.