LeBron James is nearing the end of his 14th NBA season, and he somehow manages to keep getting better with every passing year. He averaged 26.4 points per game this season, while posting career-best averages in both rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7). His playoff numbers are also near career-bests in most categories.
Beyond the numbers, though, LeBron's playing at an extremely high level, and his athleticism, basketball IQ and court vision all seem to be the best they've ever been.
As incredible as he is, we do know that an inevitable decline is coming eventually. Here are five things to look for that'll first begin to tell us that LeBron has lost a step.
James has made this specific play at various points throughout his career, and even has a couple of them to his credit this season. But these take an incredible amount of energy and athleticism to pull off, and the moment we see these disappear from LeBron's repertoire entirely will be a sign that he's been forced to dial it back a bit to conserve energy for the more consistently needed parts of his game.
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His usage rate dips below 30 percent
LeBron doesn't just play an insane amount of minutes considering all of the miles he has on his body after 14 NBA seasons; he's as involved in his team's offense as much as almost any player in the league.
According to Basketball Reference, James has had a usage rate of at least 30 percent for 12 straight seasons -- a number that would put him (at least) in the top 10 in the league in that category every single year. He led the league in minutes per game with an average of 37.8 this season and still managed to have the energy to dominate his team's offensive possessions.
At some point, that simply won't be possible anymore, and James will need to begin to facilitate for his teammates. Speaking of which:
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He'll average double-digit assists for the first time
LeBron averaged 8.7 assists per game this season, which was the most he's had since 2010, and the highest number he's posted in his NBA career. He's not a point guard, obviously, but he has the ball in his hands on plenty of his team's possessions and has demonstrated an incredible level of court vision time and time again.
James will continue to set up his teammates for easy looks as his career progresses, both in transition and in his team's half-court sets. He may not have anything left to prove, but there's a pretty good chance he decides to showcase his abilities as a distributor more often the moment he's officially on the downside of his career.
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He'll begin shooting a higher number of 3s, making them at a lower rate
LeBron's three-point shooting percentage during the regular season was the best it has been in three years, but that's nothing compared to what he's done through the first two rounds of the playoffs. James has made 46.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc this postseason, while averaging close to six attempts per game.
If that trend continues, it'll only feed his confidence level, and that might not be the best thing for the twilight of his career. A sure sign that James is beginning his decline will be when he starts launching more and more threes as a way to preserve his body from taking the poundings that come with drives to the basket. And as we've seen with virtually every player near the end of their respective careers, those shots will almost certainly start falling at a lower and lower percentage.
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He won’t make it to the NBA Finals
LeBron's teams have made it to the Finals a ridiculous six straight seasons, and the way that the Cavaliers have torn through the first two rounds of the playoffs without losing even once, a seventh consecutive trip to the championship round seems like a foregone conclusion.
That's a testament to James as the greatest player of his generation, and barring injuries to him or to any of his key teammates, LeBron's teams will continue to play for titles as long as he's playing anywhere near the level we've become accustomed to seeing.
The moment one of his teams doesn't make it back to the Finals we'll know that the slow march to the end of LeBron's incredible career has officially begun.