With Vince Carter’s NBA career seemingly now over at 42 years young, I started to wonder whether NBA players are playing longer. There’ve been a fair few long-toothed retirees recently – Kobe Bryant was 37 and Dirk Nowitzki was 40 in their final seasons, for instance.
A couple more come to mind from earlier decades – Bob Cousy retiring (for a second time) at 41 in 1970 or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at 41 in 1989. A quick scrape of basketball-reference.com suggests these legendary players are, in fact, outliers. But even so, All Stars, at least, have been retiring older.
Here’s a chart of all 503 All Stars listed on basketball reference. Their age in their final season against the season:
There’s limitation here. I didn’t feel like getting IP blocked for scraping every NBA player ever, so I decided to focus on a small subset – NBA All Stars. This is problematic for a number of reasons, noteably that All Stars are (probably?) more skilled and athletic than the average player, therefore more likely to play longer even if they do drop off. They probably also have longer, guaranteed contracts – meaning they stick around a few extra years regardless.
But as you can see from the following chart, the mean age of an All Star in their final season has increased in the past ~70 years.
So, the next obvious question is what’s going on? Some part of this is that athletes and the league are richer – NBA players aren’t likely to be working other jobs or have better offers elsewhere. Also medicine has advanced greatly and so some of what used to be career ending or degrading just isn’t anymore.
I wondered whether it might also be about better “load management”. That stars just play fewer, more strategic minutes per game nowadays, meaning they have fewer injuries and put less of a toll on their bodies. But a quick scrape suggests that isn’t So. Career minutes per game seems about the same for guys retiring recently as it did six decades ago.
If anything it seems that All Stars are playing far more. There’re definitely playing more total games. Some of this is due to more games in seasons and playoffs as the league has expanded. Private charters have also become a thing etc.
But better gear, medicine and sports science must come into it somewhere. Players and teams have access to so many more resources than they ever did, such as conditioning coaches, dieticians, chefs, masseuses and other therapists. This reminds me of a brilliant article from a few years ago, delving into all that Lebron James and his team go through to help him recover between games. The techniques are full on and constantly evolving.
But while they show their careers are lengthening, none of this really captures the impact over a career, which players and positions survive longest, and how a big a drop off there is. Maybe that’s what I’ll stick my nose in next.