Year 19: LeBron James vs. NBA legends

Published October 8, 2021, 2:20 PMMiguel Flores

How does LeBron James stack up against legends who played over 19 seasons in the league?

LeBron James is entering Year 19. Let that sink in. When the season tips off in several days, LeBron's career will have spanned the life of a full-grown adult.

And yet, expectations for James and his Los Angeles Lakers are still very high. The Lakers are expected to be an NBA Finals contender, the best team in the West. LeBron, on the other hand, is still a fringe MVP candidate—if he plays enough games—and is still expected to inch closer to the top of the all-time scoring list.

That's a lot to put on the shoulders of a 36-year-old, especially since very few players of LeBron’s age end up still dominating the league. Here, we look back on some notable Year 19s in NBA history to set some expectations that James might inevitably break.

To recap, LeBron's Year 18 wasn't one of his best, mainly due to an ankle injury that caused him to play just 45 of the 72 games last year. When he was healthy, LeBron was still putting up All-NBA numbers, finishing the season with averages of 25.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.8 assists on 51.3 percent shooting. Those numbers are normal for LeBron, but almost impossibly good for players 18 years into their career.

The Lakers brought in some help this season, probably to lighten LeBron's load. LeBron did show some signs of aging when he returned in the playoffs against the Phoenix Suns. Still, it's hard to count the King out until he actually shows signs of decline. As this list will prove, he's already way past the level of anyone who played as long as he has.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1987-1988)

There are only 20 players to play 19 or more seasons in the NBA. Recently, thanks to advances in modern medicine and players being generally more careful with their health, the average NBA rotation players’ careers have lasted longer than in the past.

When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played 20 seasons from 1969 to 1989, longevity was unheard of in the NBA. Abdul-Jabbar lasted that long in the league because of his vegan diet, which was novel at the time, and a change in playing style.

Many remember the Lakers of the ‘80s for “Showtime”. But when they needed buckets, the Lakers slowed down and waited for Kareem to post up and launch his signature skyhook. In his Year 19, Abdul-Jabbar was just on the verge of his decline, averaging 14.6 points in 80 games with 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, but he was still an All-Star. When the playoffs came, Abdul-Jabbar was still pivotal to the Lakers’ run to back-to-back titles with several iconic moments, including their classic finals showdown against the Detroit Pistons.

Like James, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t suffer a lot of major injuries and starred in a few movies. LeBron is also just 3,020 points away from passing Kareem on the all-time scoring list. Will James average enough points in the coming seasons to catch up?

Jason Kidd (2012-2013)

From an immature playmaker, Jason Kidd carved out a 19-year NBA career as one of the most respected veterans in the league.

At one point, Kidd was arguably the best point guard in the league, leading the New Jersey Nets to NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. When his athleticism left him, Kidd started relying more on his biggest asset – his mind. He was the starting point guard for the Dallas Mavericks team that upset the Miami Heat in the 2011 finals.

During his final few years in the league, Kidd was still a solid passer and reliable spot-up shooter. In Year 19, Kidd was traded by the Mavs to the New York Knicks, who made a run to the Eastern Conference semifinals thanks in no small part to Kidd’s leadership. Kidd averaged just 6.0 points and 3.3 assists, but he played 76 games in the regular season and brought a veteran voice to a team filled with young players like Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith.

Kidd retired later at the end of that season and became head coach for the Brooklyn Nets a year later.

Tim Duncan (2015-2016)

The San Antonio Spurs legend is inarguably the greatest power forward of all time. Duncan was also one of the most low-key superstars of all time, so he doesn’t get the love that most players of his caliber inspire.

The way he and the Spurs adapted late into his career was a major boon for him. Duncan and the rest of the Spurs Big Three in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker showed their age with collapses in the playoffs from 2010 to 2012. By the time 2013 came around, the Spurs perfected their beautiful egalitarian motion offense that allowed their stars to flourish in lesser roles and gave their young players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green more responsibility.

The Spurs made two more NBA Finals appearances late in Duncan’s career, losing to the Heat in 2013 then avenging the loss in the 2014 rematch. After that season, the Spurs were overcome with injuries to several key players like Leonard so they couldn’t get deep into the playoffs against the younger cores of the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Thanks to a low-key lifestyle, the Spurs’ inventing load management, and swimming in the offseason, Duncan managed to play 19 seasons. In his final year, Duncan barely played, averaging 8.6 and 7.6 rebounds in 60 games.

Like the WWE only allowing the Undertaker to wrestle at Wrestlemania, the Spurs preserved Duncan for the playoffs, where he got a fitting send-off – fighting like hell but losing to the Thunder in the second round. There was no retirement tour and no ceremonies for his final game in every arena. Tim Duncan said goodbye to the NBA by playing his heart out and quietly leaving the arena.

John Stockton (2002-2003)

There will probably never be another John Stockton. There will probably be other once-in-a-generation talent but Stockton’s longevity and iron man streak will probably be never replicated.

In his 19 seasons, Stockton didn’t miss a regular-season game in 16 of them, including his final four seasons. When he had minor injuries from his rough style of play, you could count on Stockton to be available in the Utah Jazz’s next game.

This longevity allowed Stockton to top the all-time assists list by more than 3,200 dimes and the all-time steals list by 601 swipes. In his final season at age 40, Stockton was still finding his old partner Karl Malone in the pick-and-roll, while making guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Matt Harpring look amazing. The Jazz didn't make the playoffs but Stockton still averaged 10.8 points and 7.7 assists.

Stockton’s assists and steals records are seemingly unbreakable because of his longevity. If LeBron breaks the all-time scoring record, he might need to play another season to ensure he keeps it.