According to an ESPN article from 2011, an average NBA career lasts for approximately five years. To triple that average and still remain an impactful player in a sport that is quite reliant on athleticism, explosiveness and tiresome scheduling truly is a remarkable feat. Only 151 players in NBA history managed to reach that longevity milestone.
The most recent additions to that respectable club of players have been Dwyane Wade, Zaza Pachulia, David West, Udonis Haslem, Kyle Korver, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, all of whom are currently playing in their 15th NBA season.
The 15-year veterans has thus far been a solid indicator of reaching the legendary status. After all, to warrant a roster spot for that long definitely requires an exceptional level of talent, skill, and durability. Even though the wear and tear of multiple 82-game seasons certainly takes a toll on all NBA players, a certain group of household names has successfully evaded the relentless hand of father time, carrying their respective teams to formidable achievements even outside of their primes.
5. Charles Barkley / Hakeem Olajuwon (1998-99)
With Clyde Drexler calling it a career and Hakeem Olajuwon entering his 15th season, it was clear that the Rockets’ championship team is slowly starting to reach its expiration date. To remedy Drexler’s departure, the team brought in Scottie Pippen in a sign-and-trade from Chicago. This helped in establishing a HOF-bound frontcourt trio completed by Charles Barkley, who was also entering his 15th season in the league.
The advancing age of his stars certainly didn’t go in Rudy Tomjanovich’s favor, making him one of the rare individuals to welcome the idea of a lockout shortened season with open arms. The 1998-99, or rather the 1999 season, eventually kicked off on January 20, which helped the Rockets exceed their preseason expectations. On the back of a nine-game winning streak in March, they finished the season with a 31-19 record, good enough for the fifth seed in the West.
After missing half of the previous season, Olajuwon managed to play the entire 50 games, and Barkley followed suit with 42 games despite nagging hernia issues. Shorter season enabled both of them to shine in the areas they have continuously dominated the NBA for one final time.
While he didn’t receive All-Defensive team honors, Olajuwon still posted incredible defensive numbers with 2.5 blocks and 1.6 steals per game, and Barkley dominated the boards with 12.2 per game, good for second in the league. What is fascinating though is that they both finished the season with an identical PER of 23.1, which was tied for third-best PER for 15th-year players entering this season.
The Rockets’ solid regular season run unfortunately didn’t translate to the postseason. In the first-round face-off against a much younger Lakers team led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, the youth expectedly prevailed in a short four-game series. That very defeat marked the beginning of a playoff drought in Houston that would last until 2004, and the emergence of Yao Ming and the new Rockets era.
4. Tim Duncan (2011-12)
Throughout the years, Tim Duncan has become a true epitome of NBA longevity. The pillar of the famed Spurs system never missed more than 20 games in a season, all while consistently logging heavy starter minutes (came off the bench in just three out of 1392 career games) and dragging the team deep into the playoffs year in and year out. Even in his 15th season, Gregg Popovich remained extremely dependant on the Big Fundamental’s contribution on both ends of the floor.
In 2011, the Spurs were given enough time to recuperate from a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the eighth seed Grizzlies. This was due to yet another lockout, which delayed the start of the season up until Christmas. Amazingly, the Spurs managed to further extend their outstanding run of 50-win seasons despite 16 games being carved out from the schedule. That was their 13th consecutive season with 50 wins, a streak that eventually grew to twenty, and that was now cut short as a result of Kawhi Leonard’s prolonged absence.
The Spurs ended the season boasting a league-best record of 50-16, with 35-year-old Duncan as the leading rebounder and blocker, and the second best scorer on the team. His numbers further increased in the playoffs, where he was a close to averaging an 18 point double-double while blocking two shots per game. Even though Duncan didn’t get any notable considerations for individual awards, his consistency as both the offensive and the defensive centerpiece on the best team in the league definitely deserves proper recognition.
That 15th season didn’t prove fruitful for Duncan, as he, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili hit a wall in the Western Conference finals against an up-and-coming Thunder team led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. However, just the fact that he led his team that deep into the playoffs at that stage of his career makes Duncan’s 2011-12 season one of the best old-man seasons in NBA history. Fortunately for the Spurs fans, Duncan still had more of the same left in the tank after that season, giving them three more amazing years and a championship ring in 2013-14.
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1983-84)
Coming into the 1983-84 season, the Showtime Lakers were in full swing. They have won two championships in the past four seasons, and were ready to redeem themselves from a soul-crushing sweep in the 1983 Finals, courtesy of Moses Malone. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stubbornly refusing to exit his prime, Magic Johnson just entering it, and James Worthy recovering from a broken leg that took him out of the playoffs the season prior, the level of optimism in L.A. was at an all-time high.
For Kareem, the 1983-84 season became the fifteenth straight season of scoring 20 points and grabbing seven or more rebounds (only Karl Malone has more such seasons). His sky-hook and general offensive ingenuity fueled by Magic’s impeccable vision remained an unsolvable enigma for the opposing frontcourts, propelling the Lakers to the top of Western Conference standings for the third consecutive time.
Other than becoming the first player to average 20 points in his 15th NBA season, KAJ finished the season top ten in field goal percentage and blocks per game. The absolute highlight of his season, however, came on April 5, when he officially became the best scorer in NBA history with this beautiful signature shot over Mark Eaton.
With approximately 230 points being scored per game, Lakers style of play was both efficient and pleasing to the eye. The fast-paced brand of basketball is what attracted tons of viewers at the time, with Lakers arguably becoming the main factor in the popularity surge of the NBA. The ’84 Finals, often dubbed as the “Greatest Finals of All Time” (which the Lakers lost 4-3 to Larry Bird and the Celtics), was a definite peak of that era. Despite playing in his 15th season, Abdul-Jabbar still managed to be a premiere weaver of NBA history at the time, and that individual season will surely go down as a testament of his remarkable, all-time great career.
2. Kobe Bryant (2010-11)
A quarter of a century later, another Lakers’ legend was about to enter season no. 15. Even though Kobe Bryant just led the team to two consecutive NBA championship titles, the speculations of his reported decline started getting more traction. The fact that he underwent an arthroscopic knee surgery over the summer certainly didn’t help in that regard, but the Lakers explosive 13-2 start to the season not only silenced the doubters but also allowed Phil Jackson to carefully dose Kobe’s minutes in the recovery period.
Over the course of the regular season, Kobe proved that a notable downturn at that stage of his career will remain out of the discussion. It became clear, however, that he was willing to adapt his game to better suit the growing physical limitations. He toned down on finishing his plays at the rim, and resorted to more mid-range jumpers, keeping himself out of risky situations that could take a further toll on his body.
The transition was effortless. Kobe’s statistical production was practically identical to his MVP 2007-08 campaign, he managed to play in every single game of the regular season, and the Lakers finished the year off as the no. 2 seed. Back in the day, his dominance might have easily been taken for granted due to its perpetuity, but Kobe received the deserved public acclaim in 2010-11: he finished fourth in MVP voting, while also receiving sixth straight NBA All-Defensive First Team honors.
With Kobe still being (healthy) Kobe, Lamar Odom winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and solid contributions from Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace, the second threepeat of Bryant’s career seemed like a realistic scenario. It all started good with a confident 4-2 win over the Chris Paul-led Hornets, but the Lakers came crashing down hard in the conference semi-finals. The inspired Mavericks team, that would proceed to win it all on the wings of Dirk Nowitzki, absolutely trampled all hopes of reclaiming the title in Los Angeles.
With Phil Jackson retiring after a disappointing second-round exit, Kobe’s dream of matching Michael Jordan’s six championship titles slowly started fading away. However, when you look at it in a vacuum, Kobe’s 15th season was yet another one of his classic, individually dominant seasons that further solidified his place in the pantheon of basketball.
1.b. Karl Malone (1999-00)
Unfortunately for Karl Malone, the largest obstacle that prevented him from decorating his career with the most valuable piece of jewelry was absolutely out of his control. Michael Jordan shattered the dreams of climbing the winner’s podium for a series of outstanding players back in the nineties, and Malone was arguably the most prominent casualty of Jordan’s spell of dominance.
The news of Jordan’s second retirement in 1998 came as a blessing after years of frustration. Malone immediately showed his relief by winning an MVP award, becoming the oldest player to do so at the age of 35 (and the only MVP snubbed from the All-Star Game). Surprising for many, the championship title remained out of reach yet again in the 1999 NBA playoffs – the unstoppable force of Michael Jordan got replaced by the youth and balance of the Portland Trailblazers in the conference semifinals.
In the following 1999-00 season, Malone’s 15th, the Jazz were still considered an elite team despite the advancing age of the Stockton-to-Malone duo. Malone sustained the MVP level of production in that season as well, proving that his game is immune to any adverse effects of aging. He logged heavy minutes averaging 36 per game, making his appearance felt in every single matchup of the season. Over the course of a full load of games, he posted incredible numbers with 25.5 points and 9.5 rebounds for a PER 27.1, which was unparallelled for a player with that many years of experience.
The MVP award was almost unanimously given to Shaq, but Malone left his mark as the only player older than 35 to finish top five in MVP voting. His final stats resembled that of a generational power forward at the peak of his prime, not a 36-year old who fought through the wear and tear of 15 NBA seasons. Sadly, he failed to cash in on one of the last opportunities to win the title, as the Trailblazers proved to be an unsurpassable hurdle for the second consecutive season. Despite repeatedly falling short of winning a title, there is no denying the fact that the Mailman raised the longevity bar to an extremely high level, and that he will forever be considered an NBA titan that has continuously proven that age is just a number.
This season, however, it seems that the bar might be raised a bit higher.
1.a. LeBron James (2017-18)
Barkley and The Dream jointly shined for one last time. Duncan had an efficient season carrying the Spurs to the best record in the league. Kareem proceeded to dominate the opposing frontcourts with his unguardable sky-hook. Kobe adjusted his game and still put up amazing numbers. Malone further proved that the league is yet to see a power forward of his caliber. However, none of them got better in their 15th season.
LeBron James, on the other hand, just completed arguably the best season of his career. It is easy to fall into the trap of recency bias when considering historic performances, but just a simple look at LeBron’s achievements this season proves that the King rightfully deserves the throne in this context:
- played in all 82 games for the first time in his career, leading the entire league in minutes played per game
- averaged career best in rebounds (8.6) and assists (9.1), while posting a career-high 18 triple-doubles
- led his team in points, rebounds and assists for the fifth time in his career, most in NBA history
- posted the best PER (28.6) among players in their 15th season or later
- won four Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards and became the first member of the 30,000/8,000/8,000 club
Stating that he is aging like fine wine doesn’t do justice to the insane production he blessed the Cavaliers fans with this season. At 33 years of age, LeBron is at the peak of his prime, an absolute behemoth in both physical and mental aspects of the game; his cerebral approach to the game coupled with extraordinary physical attributes continues to boggle the minds of NBA fans, throwing his opponents in a state of despair game after game, season after season.
What allowed James to remain the most impactful player in the league is the extreme care he takes of his body. Hyperbaric chambers, cryotherapy, NormaTec technology, personal chefs and trainers, you name it – LeBron is fully invested into preserving his body, and it definitely shows. To put it into context, the $1,500,000 he allegedly spends on maintaining his fitness level matches Abdul-Jabbar’s total salary in 1984-85! Even when you adjust for inflation (~ $3,500,000), it is still an eye-opening indicator of the evolution of the NBA over the past 30 years.
James isn’t shying away from exploiting every resource at his disposal. He is a man on a mission, looking to overturn that negative NBA finals record, but also aiming at achieving his ultimate individual goal of surpassing Abdul-Jabbar as the leading NBA scorer of all-time. Considering the determination and ferocity put on display this season, such an epilogue is starting to seem more plausible by the day.
Even with one of LeBron’s most memorable regular season campaigns, various shortcomings within the Cavs organization prevented them from realizing their full potential. Basketball is, after all, a team sport, and every single detail on and off the court has to be in sync in order to match or surpass expectations that have been set for the season. Finishing the season off as the fourth seed in the East might take away from James’ historic individual season, so the Cavs will have to switch into a higher gear if they want to turn it into something truly memorable as they head into the playoffs.
Playoff success, or lack thereof, will not only determine LeBron’s final position in these rankings but will also have a crucial impact on his overall legacy. To further reinforce his candidature for the greatest basketball player of all time, LeBron will have to extend his run of NBA finals appearances to eight. Anything lower than that will be considered a huge disappointment.
Whether the Cavs and LeBron can turn it up a notch after his fantastic, but the exhausting regular season will surely be one of the focal points of the entire postseason. One thing stands, however; we have just witnessed an otherworldly season by a one-of-a-kind player. No matter what the immediate future holds for him, it’s only fitting to forget where loyalties lie for a second and take a deep bow to the King.