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Jerry Sullivan: LeBron good as ever in 15th season

It's hard to believe, but LeBron James is in his 15th season in the NBA. James was a mere kid of 18 when he burst on the scene in the fall of 2003. Nowadays, he sounds like a typical dad, lamenting how his job keeps him away from his kids.

After the Cavs' morning shootaround in Toronto on Thursday, James said the only thing that makes him remotely contemplate retirement is his three children. He has 13- and 10-year-old sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce, and a 3-year-old daughter, Zhuri.

"LeBron Jr. is a damn good basketball player, too," James said. "On this road trip, I’ve already missed four of his games."

But LeBron was quick to point out that he's a long way from hanging up his Nikes. "I’ve got too many sneakers to sell,” he joked.

"The game will let you know when it's over with," he said. "I kind of look at retiring for me as like getting engaged. I didn't know if I was ready or not, but I just felt like it was the time. The timing was right, the vibe was right. Did I know I was ready for marriage? No.

"I never had anybody in my family that had been married before. So I had never experienced it. We'll see, but right now I feel great. I don't feel 33."

It shows. At 33 years old, after playing more than 50,000 minutes in the regular season and playoffs, James is playing better than ever. Statistically, he's having his finest NBA season. At the season's midpoint, he was the favorite to win his fifth Most Valuable Player award, and his first in five years.

Heading into Monday's home game against defending champ Golden State, James is averaging 27.1 points a game, exactly his career average. But he's above his career averages in rebounds (8.0), assists (8.8), field-goal percentage (55.4) and three-point percentage (38.0). He's shooting a career-high 77.8 percent from the foul line.

James is also third in the league in minutes at 36.9 a game. Not bad for an old man. When I asked Cavs coach Tyronn Lue if he would start monitoring LeBron's minutes as he looked to the playoffs, he answered a flat, "No."

There's no slowing James down (thought he's not the defensive player he once was). It's not as if the most powerful player in the NBA is going to allow a coach to reduce his playing time. In his 15th season, he's still the king, still looking to add to his remarkable legacy.

Lately, people have compared him with Tom Brady, and the parallels are striking. Like LeBron, Brady got better later in his career, putting up numbers in the last five years that are better than his career norms. At 40, Brady is likely to win another MVP.

James has made it to eight NBA Finals, including seven in a row, and won three titles. Brady is looking to reach an eighth Super Bowl and win a sixth championship. He's gunning for a seventh straight AFC title game appearance.

Brady is seven years older than LeBron, and in rarefied air as an elite quarterback at 40. But hoop fans would argue that it's more physically demanding to play NBA ball at the highest levels for 100 games, including the postseason, at an advanced age.

"His age is not really a factor," Lue said. "The 15 seasons since he came out of high school is the biggest difference. Back in the day, when guys played 15 seasons, they were 36, 37 years old.

"People would appreciate it if they saw every day how he takes care of his body, the way he eats and conditions and gets his work in. It runs with the elite. I see Kobe (Bryant) and (Michael) Jordan and those guys did the same thing. The most important thing is taking care of your body."

At 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, James is a physical freak, a point guard in a power forward's body. He's been described as part Magic Johnson, part Karl Malone.

James is currently 12th on the NBA's career assist list with 7,832 and will one day become the only player in the Top 10 in scoring and assists.

James is seventh on the NBA's career scoring list with 29,927 points. He's on pace to reach 30,000 at home against Oklahoma City a week from Saturday, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

"I've already went further than I thought I would go," James said. "So, everything else at this point is extra credit. I'm at 15 years in, I've been in this spotlight for half of my years, maybe more. I'm 33 now, this (national exposure) started when I was 15, so yeah, more. Eighteen years I've been in this light, so I've exceeded everything I've ever dreamed about."

That hardly means he's content. James wouldn't be performing at such a high level if he wasn't driven to even further achievement. It's winning that matters most. He gets criticized for losing five times in the Finals, in the way Brady is diminished for losing two Super Bowls and four AFC title games.

But James is building a strong case as the best ever to play. He might become the NBA's all-time scoring leader, and he's never been seen primarily as a scorer. He's always thought of himself as a facilitator first and a scorer second. Top 10 on the assist and scoring lists tells you a lot.

He's a basketball junkie, and he knows he's chasing Michael Jordan's legacy. Jordan won six Finals and didn't lose any. He was the MVP and scoring champion at 32, 33 and 34. But at some point, sustained greatness can surpass championship perfection. James is to Jordan as Brady is to Joe Montana.

James is a fiercely competitive man. After winning two titles in Miami, he returned to his native Ohio and willed the Cavs to the 2016 title, snapping Cleveland's 52-year championship drought. Months later, he signed a three-year, $100 million contract, which has an opt-out clause after this season.

It's unclear where he goes after this season. There's talk of him going to a major city like LA or New York to polish his legacy. Maybe a super team in Houston, or staying in Cleveland. James said he wants to "break the mold" that says NBA players can't get monster contracts when they reach their mid-30s.

But he has more urgent business. The Cavaliers, who won 13 in a row and 18 of 19 earlier this season, have lost seven of their last nine (eight games on the road) going back to a loss at the Warriors on Christmas Day. That includes the first back-to-back, 25-point losses of James's career, culminating in a 133-99 beatdown in Toronto.

Early in the day, James said the lull was typical of the Cavs in recent years, but bristled at the suggestion that they were a team that could simply "flip the switch" because they generally hit their stride at playoff time.

"No, no. I didn't say that," James said. "I didn't say about hitting a switch. I didn't suggest anything. I don't play around with hitting the switch. That's not how the game is played. You don't cheat the game like that."

LeBron was in a snarky mood after the Thursday night humiliation on TNT (he even questioned my defense when I asked about theirs). During a timeout, he had been seen screaming at an assistant coach on the Cavs' bench -- sort of like Brady reaming out his offensive coordinator during that game in Buffalo.

"Listen, we all got to be accountable for our actions," James said after the loss. "We have to be accountable for how we play, how hard we play, what we do for one another. There's just some plays that you should come up with, that you should make. When you're losing, you tend to not want to make those plays."

A year ago, the Cavs went 10-14 to finish the regular season. They won their first 10 playoff games and eventually lost to Golden State in the Finals in five.

The Cavs are struggling right now. Their defense has been abominable. But if LeBron's teammates tend to coast now and then, confident that he'll be his usual dominating self in the postseason, who could blame them?

Come playoff time, James has a way of rising to the moment. However this chapter ends, he probably has several more in him. He talks about breaking the mold, but when they made LeBron, they threw away the mold.

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