Father Time is undefeated in his battles with the greatest basketball players who’ve ever lived. Eventually every superstar hits a point where they can no longer play at the high level they were once capable of.
A team can take the proper precautions by estimating when a player is due to decline based on the wear and tear his body has taken over the years playing in the NBA.
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The mistake that most people make in trying to determine this point is that they fail to take into account the extra games that these players have played in during the postseason.
Greatness in this league is attached to winning, and the players considered legendary in the NBA are ones who’ve won championships. A price is paid for NBA titles, and it’s most tangible in the amount of extra games played by the athlete year after year in competing for them.
These extra games eventually add up to multiple seasons in the case of players with prolonged success in keeping their team as title contenders.
Here’s some examples of legendary players and the years they’ve started to decline, taking into account their playoff histories.
Next: Tim Duncan Has Played In 247 Career Playoff Games
May 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9, behind) blocks a shot attempt by San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Duncan has played in 247 playoff games in his career. That total is only going to increase as the Spurs compete for a championship this season. His decline as a reliable offensive weapon has taken full effect this season. Including the playoffs, Duncan has played in 1,639 NBA games in his career. That’s the equivalent of about 20 seasons worth of games, even though he’s only been in the league for 19 actual seasons. His playoff career adds about 3 seasons to his mileage, but he’s missed portions of seasons due to injuries and player lockouts, so it offsets slightly. Still, based on his statistics, he stopped being a reliable offensive contributor during his 19th season, which is an exceptional age at which to finally reach your limit.
Next: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Nov 7, 2015; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Former Milwaukee Bucks Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) and Oscar Robertson waves to fans before game against the Brooklyn Nets while promoting the new team arena at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
If we use double digit point totals as the minimum for consideration of decent offensive contributor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remained a solid production source on offense for his entire career. Including the playoffs, Abdul-Jabbar played in 1,797 career games, which translates to about 22 seasons, which is absolutely stunning. His most significant decline occurred during his last season, which would have been his 21st in the league.
Next: Kobe Bryant
Apr 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) smiles as he addresses the crowd after the Lakers defeat of the Utah Jazz in the final game of his career at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Kobe Bryant attracted attention this season for his dramatic decline. Like Duncan, Bryant had the benefit of two lockouts during his career to give his body some rest for his long term status in the league. Altogether, Bryant played in 1,566 regular season and playoff games, which adds up to about 19 NBA seasons of mileage. Bryant played in 20 actual seasons, but the time he missed from injuries and lockouts wiped a year off his on-court odometer. Although his point totals remained lofty until the end, Bryant’s decline is best attached to his plummeting field goal percentage, indicating his need to do more to put up similar numbers. Under this criteria, his decline occurred during what represented his 18th season in the league from a games played standpoint.
Next: Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O’Neal teamed with Bryant for numerous long playoff runs. O’Neal played in 1,423 games during his regular season and playoff career, which translates to about 17 NBA seasons. He played in 19 actual seasons, but two lockouts and a few injuries spared him of some mileage. Due to a combination of physical beatings down low and relatively poor conditioning, O’Neal’s decline happened sooner than other players of his status and longevity. His decline started to occur around what translates to his 14th season of NBA games.
Next: Tony Parker
May 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker (9) dribbles the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9, left) defends in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Tony Parker has been Duncan’s co-pilot for many of the Spurs’ long playoff runs. In total, Parker has played in 1,289 NBA games in the regular season and postseason, which equates to about 16 NBA seasons. This is a great example of wear and tear being prolonged due to championship runs, as Parker has only played 15 actual seasons in the NBA. He’s coming off his worst regular season performance since his rookie year, and it’s safe to say his body is finally starting to decline in what represented his 15th year in the league based on games played.
Next: Scottie Pippen
Feb 14, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Team Millsap forward Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks (4, left), legend Scottie Pippen (center), and guard Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky (11, right) during the 2015 NBA All Star Shooting Stars competition at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Scottie Pippen joined Michael Jordan on numerous playoff runs for the Chicago Bulls, and even some with the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. All in all, Pippen played in 1,386 NBA games in the regular season and playoffs, which is equivalent to about 17 NBA seasons. This is the same number of actual seasons he played in the league. Pippen’s decline didn’t take full effect until after the Bulls’ dynasty had officially ended and he had taken his talents elsewhere. The downward slope of production hit full effect in what would have been his 13th season in the NBA.
Next: Manu Ginobili
May 2, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili (20) drives to the basket as Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Anthony Morrow (2) looks on in game two of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Manu Ginobili has joined Duncan and Parker in fighting through long stretches to earn the Spurs multiple championships. Ginobili has played in a total of 1,116 NBA games including both the regular season and playoffs. That equates to about 14 NBA seasons based on games played, which is the actual number of seasons Ginobili has played in the league. Like Duncan, Ginobili’s decline has been most evident this past regular season, which means that it took about 13 years of NBA games to finally start significantly affecting the performance of an all-time great player like Ginobili.
Next: Magic Johnson
Apr 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers former player Earvin “Magic” Johnson introduces Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (not pictured) before a game against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. Bryant concludes his 20-year NBA career tonight. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Magic Johnson was the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers during their championship runs of the 1980s. He played in 1,096 total NBA games for both the regular season and playoffs during his illustrious career, which translated to about 13 NBA seasons based on games. Johnson’s career was cut short due to his HIV diagnosis during his prime, so there was never a decline to observe. He made a comeback attempt at age 36 during the 1995-1996 season at age 36, but his career circumstances are too unusual to really be able to pinpoint how much mileage his body was able to take based on the grind of the NBA schedule. One thing is for certain, though: he hadn’t slowed through what equated to 13 seasons in the NBA. His playoff games added a whole extra season to his 12 year career before he first retired in 1991.
Next: Julius Erving
Dec 1, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Julius Erving shares Philadelphia 76ers legend Moses Malones jersey with family members and fans during a halftime ceremony during a game with the Los Angeles Lakers at Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers won 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Julius Erving played significant time in both the NBA and ABA, but both count equally towards his mileage as a professional basketball player. He played in 1,432 total games in each league’s regular season and playoffs. That translates to about 17 seasons on his odometer, even though he only played 16 actual seasons of professional basketball. His decline hit full effect in what would have been his 16th season based on games played, yet he remained a terrific scorer until he retired.
Next: LeBron James
May 2, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second half in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 104-93. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
LeBron James is the interesting case on this list, because not only is he still an active player, but he hasn’t hit his decline yet. The rest of these legends who rank high in total playoff games can be used to predict how soon James’ inevitable decline is going to happen. Each player on this list had unique career circumstances and different playing styles, but enough diversity exists to make an educated estimate about how many years James has left playing at the level he’s at right now. To this point, James has played in 1,171 total games combining the regular season and playoffs. That’s the equivalent of about 14 seasons of mileage, and especially eye-opening because James has played in only 13 actual NBA seasons. The average season based on games played that the players on this list started to decline was about 16 seasons. The Cavaliers should realistically expect about 3 more years from James at his transcendent level, which would bring him to 34 years old before his decline is expected to take place.