Are Older Players Getting Better? Aging throughout NBA History

Tim Duncan retired last year at 40 years old after 19 seasons. Kevin Garnett was 40 and played 21 seasons. Kobe Bryant was “only” 37, but bowed out after 20 years in the League. Are these oddities, or are players today playing longer and having more success in their twilight years than ever before? Is everyone eating Tom Brady’s avocado ice cream?

The Quantity of Older NBA Players is Increasing

*For the rest of this post, all ages referenced will be determined by a player’s age on February 1 of a given season.

In 1955, there wasn’t a single NBA player who logged 1000 minutes over the age of 35. Only three percent of 1000-minute players — a good proxy for rotational players — were over 33. Fast forward to the year 2000 and 17 percent of 1000-minute players were at least 33, a testament to improvements in sports nutrition and health. Below are all of the elder statesmen — 33-year old players and older — as a percentage of players who logged at least 1000 minutes in a season since the shot clock (1955):

There’s a steady upward trend in all age groups (represented by the thick trend lines), with the exception of the 39 and 40-year olds. Otherwise, beginning in the late ’60s, more players were able to contribute into their mid 30’s and by the early ’70s, the occasional 35 or 36-year old was still kicking around. By the end of the ’80s, seniority rapidly crept in and a larger portion of rotational players were between 33 and 36. Those players spearheaded a group of 37 and 38 year olds (the gray line) that have made up a small percentage of contributors since the late 1990s.

In 1955, about three percent of the 1000 minute players in the league were at least 33 years old on Feb. 1. Today, it’s the 36 year-olds that are hovering at about three percent. In other words, 36 is the new 33.

So there’s been a clear uptick in the quantity of contributing older players from the last century. But what about quality? Are players maintaining all-star level performance at older and older ages?

The Quality of Older NBA Players is Increasing Too

In order to evaluate this, we need a metric to estimate quality players. Let’s use Win Shares, which allows us to go back to the shot clock, and let’s set the mark at a 7 Win Share season. While this is a bit crude, it gives us a good approximation of all-star (or near all-star) level performance; in the 3-point era, 81 percent of all-stars (760 of 935) have had at least 7 Win Shares. In 2017, 40 players finished with at least 7 Win Shares.

In the early days, older players were never good players. Between 1955 and 1968, there was only a single 7 Win Share season from someone at least 33 years old (Bill Sharman, 1960). Then, the aging legends of the ’60s left their mark with monster seasons: Bill Russell (at 34) posted 11 Win Shares in 1969 while leading Boston to its 11th championship, Jerry West (33) finished with 13 en route to the 1972 title and Wilt Chamberlain (36) produced a whopping 18 in his final season in 1973.

12 years later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar raised the bar, posting an 11 Win Share season in 1985 at 38. Tracy McGrady just turned 38.

Jump another decade-and-a-half and John Stockton set the standard again, hitting double-digit Win Shares at 39, in 2002. (Karl Malone did it the year after at 39 too). While this latest crop of aging players hasn’t quite had the same box-score success at the end of their careers, Duncan, Garnett, Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash have all had all-star level seasons at advanced ages.

Let’s look at all of the 7 Win Share contributors to approximate all-star or near all-star quality players in their mid to late 30’s:

All of these age groups still show positive trends, but the story is a little fuzzier since the samples are so small. There were more 33 year-olds logging these kinds of seasons in the late ’60s and early ’70s than there have been in the last few years. (The same trends hold if we use a rate state like WS/48.) While there were clear longevity gains from the original players of the ’40s and ’50s, the prevalence of talented graybeards hasn’t budged too much since the ’70s.

If we plot a linear trend line starting in 1970 running to today, it’s still positive in every age category. However, the slope of every line is gradual, closer to zero. Not one 33 year-old notched 7 Win Shares this year, whereas in 2010 there were eight. The 35 and 36-year olds have progressed slightly, although the graph looks cyclical. Perhaps were entering another upward trend of older players who produce big seasons.

Oh, and don’t look now, but LeBron turns 33 this year.

Note: Players come into the game at a younger age today, and this might be contributing to some of the regression seen in older players since peaking around the early 2000s. In other words, today’s 35-year olds logged more minutes than 35-year olds from the ’70s. Of the 33 players in the NBA’s 40,000 minute club, nearly forty percent entered the league recently after 1995.