No matter how bright an NBA star shines, there comes a time when that high level of play begins to decline. It’s just a simple matter of aging – after all, people (including professional athletes) aren’t immune to Father Time.
While there are many factors that can affect a player’s career path, there is only one absolute truth – Father Time is, and always will be, undefeated. We’re looking at the top 20 NBA players of all time to see how their careers and level of play arced from their NBA debut until their retirement.
Average Superstar Career
Win shares is a phrase that helps basketball experts and fans alike determine how valuable a specific player is – that is, it helps divide the credit for team success to each member of a team. In other words, the best players wind up with a higher number of win shares. Looking at the top 20 NBA players of all time, we averaged their win shares over their careers, and there is an understandable and predictable arc that they all went through on their way to the top – and all the way through their last years leading up to retirement.
These numbers include players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Julius Erving, and Kobe Bryant. At the beginning of their careers, their win share numbers were at their lowest. When they reached the peak of their success (usually from year five through around year 11 or 12), the win shares were at their highest, and that number naturally drops off as their career begins to wind down.
The Roller Coaster of Win Shares
We looked over the careers of the biggest names in basketball – Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant – and compared their career-long win shares with the NBA average.
Michael Jordan has a pretty high win share arc, especially when compared to the league average (which glides along from just under 10 to about 13 and then back down again). A noticeable dip occurred early in his career during the 1985-86 season when he was sidelined by a broken foot for 64 games before being cleared to return to action. The six-time NBA champ’s career peaked, win share-wise, in years seven through nine before slowly starting to decline.
LeBron James, who is still very much playing ball, has a win share arc that is similar to Jordan’s. Playing in his 15th year, James still seems to be playing at peak intensity. James has been to the same number of All-Star Games as Jordan, and while he doesn’t have quite as much hardware as His Airness, his career may be far from over and Father Time hasn’t made his appearance known quite yet.
Kobe Bryant played in the NBA for a solid two decades and racked up tons of accolades, from 18 All-Star Game appearances to five NBA championship titles. His career win share arc, however, doesn’t match the ones of the other two pictured here and, in fact, tracks well below the superstar win share average. Many blog posts have sprung up on why that is, examining how his high scoring ability doesn’t necessarily equate to great defense and how that can negatively affect a player’s win share score.
We looked at some of the top NBA players in history to see how long they were able to play in their prime. Some managed to stay there for over a decade, while others were only there for a couple of years.
Karl Malone played in the NBA for 19 years and spent a majority of that time in his prime. He spent most of his career playing for the Utah Jazz and earned 14 All-Star selections, 12 All-NBA selections, was a two-time MVP, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Reggie Miller comes in second, remaining in his prime for 11 years. He’s also a Hall of Famer after spending 18 years with the Indiana Pacers. Wilt Chamberlain, the man of many records (including the single-game record for the most points – 100), remained in his prime for seven seasons as did Dirk Nowitzki and Moses Malone.
At the other end of the scale, we find Tim Duncan at two years, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at three. Julius Erving, Shaquille O’Neal, Artis Gilmore, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James tallied four.
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Prime were defined by determining a player’s max win shares and calculating the standard deviation. All seasons spent above the max win share minus one standard deviation level were counted as prime years.