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LeBron James Is Indestructible

For all the many things LeBron James is praised for, from his ability to set up his teammates to his capacity to take over a game, his most underappreciated quality may be his most obvious: He’s always there.

Since entering the league in 2003, James has never sat out for more than 15 percent of a season (regular and playoffs combined). Among players of his caliber, past and present, that’s unprecedented. Stephen Curry had ankle issues at the start of his career; both Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant experienced late-season injuries that forced them to miss the playoffs in, respectively, 2000 and 20131; and Michael Jordan broke his foot in his sophomore season. Then there’s James. He’s never missed a playoff game, and even though he has the sixth-most regular-season minutes of all time among players at the same point in their careers (within their first 14 years in the league), the most severe injuries he’s incurred are a sore back and knee and some untimely cramps.

Quantifying a player’s durability is a bit tricky because the NBA doesn’t keep track of games missed due to injury, which leaves us no way to distinguish physical issues from other reasons for missing games, such as paternity leave or regular rest. The best we can do, then, is to look at the number of games a player appeared in as a portion of the number of games they could have appeared in. The higher the percentage of possible games played, the more durable the player is.2

This year, James appeared in 74 out of a possible 82 games during the regular season and has played in all 12 of the Cavaliers’ playoff games — that’s a 91 percent appearance rate. By itself, that statistic is unremarkable. But when you put it in context — James has played in at least 85 percent of his teams’ games in every season of his career — you see something special.

Here’s James compared to the five inactive players with the highest career win share since 1980.3

The only other past superstars who’ve played in a higher percentage of their teams’ total games are Karl Malone and John Stockton. (It’s fitting that a player nicknamed “The Mailman” appeared in 100 percent of potential games 10 different times in his career.) But even they had their injuries. In Malone’s case, he tweaked his right knee in his final season and missed nearly half of the regular season. (To be fair to Malone, he was eight years older than James and five seasons deeper into his career.) Meanwhile, Stockton injured his MCL in 1997, forcing him to sit out the first 18 games of that year.4

He’s been equally great when compared to the five other active players with the highest career win share.

Truth is, James has been even healthier than those numbers would suggest, because potential games played is a conservative estimate of durability. Some of the games James missed weren’t because he was injured, but rather because a coach decided to rest him for meaningless games at the end of a regular season. (A philosophy that Malone is happy to remind people didn’t exist in his day.)

All this is even more impressive considering the bruising style of basketball James is known for. Among active players, no one has gone to the free-throw line more than James. It’s almost unbelievable that a player who plays such physical ball has stayed so healthy since, as we’ve seen in this year’s playoffs with Blake Griffin, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas, it only takes one misstep to end someone’s season.

Footnotes

  1. Duncan, however, was incredibly healthy most of the time — he still ranks No. 3 among the retired greats we looked at.

  2. Keep in mind that is only a rough measure, and there’s no way to adjust it for changes in the way the game is played. James has missed more games for rest than players did in the past, which deflates his durability percentage somewhat relative to theirs. On the other hand, getting that rest may have made him more able to avoid injury than those past players, which would inflate his numbers.

  3. We’re only counting win shares earned after the 1980 cutoff point, which is why Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leader in win shares, is not on the list even though he played part of his career in the ’80s.

  4. Stockton was three years older than James at the time, but he was at the same point in his career — the 14th season.

Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn. His work can be found on NPR, The Outline and The Awl.

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