Through the years, we have seen players come and go in the NBA. Some players had unfortunate and short-lived careers, while a selected few won it all and ascended to the league’s Mount Olympus. Some players stayed for a long time with their steady presence, while some made an indelible mark in the short time that they had with the NBA. All these are part of what makes the NBA the NBA.
No matter how good players are in the NBA, at one point, all of them will see the light dim in their respective careers — and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But what age do NBA players decline, to be exact? Let’s find out.
At What Age Do NBA Players Start to Decline?
Much like any person in the world — and in any sport, for that matter — NBA players go on a decline at a certain age. A player’s decline is usually attributed to many things, mostly relating to their physical condition and how well they can perform their respective roles in the team. Compared to college players, professionals have virtually unlimited time to play basketball. However, it is when they reach a certain age that nature inevitably catches up to them and signals the start of the end for them.
An NBA player usually peaks at around the age of 27. Some players peak earlier, and some players peak a little later, but it is usually around this age when they are at the height of their physical condition. A player at their peak is at their fastest, strongest, and best in general.
What comes after the peak is the decline. The decline is the period where the players start to lose the advantages of their peak- they now tire easily, run slower, jump lower, and, unfortunately, are more prone to injury. Most players enter their decline during their mid-30s, but there are times when a player declines earlier or faster due to injuries. On the other side of the coin, there are NBA players who managed to prolong their peak and play at the highest level for a long time.
What Factors Affect the Decline in NBA Players
It is safe to say that age is the defining factor for a player’s decline in the NBA. As a player gets older, their speed, athleticism, and overall health also decline. A player on a decline takes on a lesser load in carrying their team and would often wear their veteran hat to finish off their career.
However, while age is one of the biggest factors, it is not always the case — especially for players who experience a decline early in their careers. As unfortunate as it may sound, some young players experience a decline even before experiencing their peak, and that is because of injuries. Injuries can derail an NBA player’s career and even stop them from reaching their full potential, physically and mentally.
One of the famous examples is Derrick Rose. He was the youngest MVP in NBA history before experiencing a series of season-ending injuries that ultimately hampered him from getting back to form. Players such as Greg Oden, Brandon Roy, and Grant Hill are some of the players who come into mind when talking about injury-riddled potential.
Who Has the Longest Prime in the NBA?
There are a lot of players in the NBA’s history that dominated for many years. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and Karl Malone tore up the league consistently year in and year out. However, if we are to question who played the most years in their prime, the only answers are Kareem Abul-Jabbar and LeBron James.
Kareem and LeBron are the top 2 scorers in NBA history. The NBA has seen tons of super scorers, but only Kareem and LeBron were able to sustain their scoring long enough to reach the top of the list. Kareem ranked in the top 20 for points per game for 17 straight seasons, while LeBron did it for 20 years with no signs of slowing down as of writing.
What these two legends share is the fact that they came into the NBA as two of the most dominant rookies the league has ever seen. Kareem famously won his first MVP award during his second season in the league, while LeBron was known as the greatest NBA prospect out of high school. Even in their late 30s, the two were able to compete for championships and were still recognized as the best players of their season. These two are the definition of longevity.
Lebron James Redefined How NBA Players Should Age
To this day, LeBron James is unanimously considered the greatest NBA prospect out of High School. LeBron played for St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in his hometown, Akron, Ohio — and he was a man among boys. LeBron was a 6’3” forward who could do it all on the floor with his athleticism. By senior year, LeBron was 6’7” and 225 lbs. While many prospects through the years have the same skill set and physical attributes as High School LeBron, no one has transitioned to the NBA the same way the King did.
LeBron entered the league at 18 years old and won Rookie of the Year. LeBron improved every season in a way that nobody in the NBA has ever done because just when you thought LeBron had reached his peak already and was primed for a decline, he simply came back better. It also helped that LeBron seemed to be immune to injuries, considering that he spends millions just to treat his body day in and day out. He revolutionized what it means to be a professional athlete and redefined how long NBA superstars should be superstars.
Now in his 21st year in the league and approaching his 39th birthday, LeBron is still considered one of the best players in the league. History dictates that LeBron should have declined about five years ago — or even earlier since he peaked early. Yet he averaged 28-8-6 last season and is still the main scoring option and facilitator of the NBA’s largest franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers.
At this point, people simply gave up on guessing when LeBron would end his peak and are just enjoying the show while it’s still here.
Top 5 NBA Players in their Prime
Unlike LeBron and Kareem, some of the NBA’s greats did not have the luxury of playing at their peak for decades. However, these NBA greats made the most and won it all during their prime:
1. Michael Jordan
His Airness played for 15 seasons between 1984 and 2003, retiring a total of three times in the process. Jordan won the Rookie of the Year award in 1985 and took the league by storm at the start. By the end of his career, Jordan was playing for the Washington Wizards and was still great but significantly far from his prime years.
Jordan, in his prime, is arguably the greatest basketball player in history. His first ring with the Bulls in 1991 signified the Jordan era, where he would go 6-0 in the Finals, six Finals MVP awards, and four regular season MVPs.
2. LeBron James
LeBron has been in his prime for the past two decades and has revolutionized how long an NBA star should shine. In fact, if we were to be entirely strict about when LeBron’s actual prime was, we would have two options: Miami LeBron or Cleveland LeBron Part II.
Miami LeBron is one of the scariest entities in the NBA — he defended relentlessly, he was hungry every game, and he scored at will. Miami LeBron won two MVPs and two rings in the process. In 2014, LeBron came back to the Cavs to fulfil his promise of bringing a trophy to his hometown. In 2016, LeBron went against all odds to beat the 73-9 Warriors in 2016 for his third ring. The years after that proved that LeBron was arguably the greatest Playoff performer of all time.
3. Shaquille O’Neal
Prime Shaq was the stuff of legends. In his prime, literally, nobody on the face of the earth could go toe to toe with Shaq, and this was validated by his 3-peat with the Lakers from 2000 to 2002. NBA teams did not have any response against him, and, at one point, NBA fans were simply waiting for the trophy to be awarded to the Lakers. Shaq won every Finals MVP for his rings with the Lakers and also won the 2000 MVP award. Shaq averaged 28.6 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 3.5 APG, and 2.6 BPG — the true definition of dominance.
4. Wilt Chamberlain
Every list in history has Wilt’s name on it. He was objectively the greatest player in the ’60s — winning four MVP awards, among many other achievements. What made Wilt’s prime special was the fact that we were able to record some of the most absurd stat lines in the NBA’s history. Up until today, Wilt’s numbers have never been replicated.
Wilt has 118 50-point games — 45 of those came from 1961-1962 alone when he averaged 50.4 points for the season. In January 1962, Wilt dropped 73 points vs the Bulls and casually dropped 62 points the following night against the Celtics. He once pulled down 55 rebounds against the great Bill Russell in 1960 and of course, famously scored 100 points in 1962.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Before LeBron, Kareem held the record for most points in the NBA — and for good reason. Kareem won Rookie of the Year in 1970 and won the regular season MVP the year after that. He basically played in his prime until he retired in 1989 — winning six championships, six MVPs, 10 All-NBA First Teams, and 5 All-NBA Defensive First Teams, among many things. Nobody could argue how dominant Kareem was during his peak, and his achievements showed for it.
Wrapping Things Up: What Age Do NBA Players Decline?
A player’s decline often comes after their peak, usually in their late 20s. During their prime, NBA players are able to do more because they are simply at the height of their physical conditions. Come their mid-30s, most NBA players have already faded into irrelevancy or are signed for their locker room contributions instead. However, some players like LeBron have defied the odds and are still at their best 20 years in the league. A player’s NBA career can be short-lived but impactful, so for us fans, the best thing we can do is appreciate the greatness of each player while they are still there.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.