Not many players are able to dominate and perform at the highest level once they reach an advanced age. It’s just normal, it’s how it’s supposed to be, as even if the athletes take elite care of their bodies, father time will eventually catch up to them.
Just a handful of players are able to make an NBA roster at age 35, let alone start or be productive. Durability is often taken for granted but when you look back in time, there aren’t many players that have been able to stay on the court for that long.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki could be exceptions to that rule, and that’s one of the many reasons why they were so great. To put it into context, today we’ll compare Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, and Michael Jordan and how they fared during their age-35 season.
Wilt Chamberlain is considered by some as the greatest athlete in the history of the NBA. He did parkour, could literally dead-lift people, and even went on to have a Hall of Fame career in volleyball once he was done playing basketball.
However, he wasn’t quite the same player at age 35. As a matter of fact, Wilt the Stilt posted a career-low (at the time) average of 14.8 points per game, although he did grab 19.2 boards per contest. He’d end up retiring just one year later.
Shaquille O’Neal was reckoned around the league for being an unstoppable force on both ends of the court. However, even a freak of nature like him lost some of his bounce and got often hurt towards the sunset of his career at age 35.
The Miami Heat traded a 35-year-old Shaquille O’Neal away to the Phoenix Suns and he averaged just 13.6 points per game that season, far below his career average of 23.7 points per game. He did stay in the league until he was 38, though.
Larry Bird is one of the greatest players of all time and there’s just no denying that. However, we should also say that he didn’t have the longest career in the league, especially compared to other superstars. That’s mostly because he made it to the NBA at 23 years old.
The Hick from French Lick was already a veteran in his 13th season in the league and father time was catching up to him. He was only able to play 45 games that season and retired afterward, even though he averaged 20.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game.
I could never think a player could make it to the NBA Finals 9 times out of 10 in the modern era but hey, LeBron James isn’t your ordinary player. He led the league in assists per game at age 35, was an MVP candidate, and took the Lakers back to the Finals after 10 years and to their league-high 17th NBA Championship. He became the first player to win the Finals MVP award with 3 different franchises and one of the oldest players with Finals MVP award.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this year’s run by LeBron James is the fact that he’s still in great shape. It looks like he can still play at an elite level for another 3 or 4 years and that he could take his career even longer if he embraces a lesser role on a team.
Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time but believe it or not, he was a bit of a late bloomer, if compared to today’s standards. Jordan spent a couple of years at UNC before making it to the NBA as a 21-year-old and didn’t win his first ring until he was 27.
Jordan retired for the second time at 35 years old right after winning his 6th NBA Championship and his second three-peat. He was the MVP, Finals MVP, All-Star MVP, made the All-NBA first team, was the Scoring champion, and also made All-Defensive first team. He averaged 28.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.7 steals per game on 46.5% shooting while playing all 82 games and 38.8 minutes a night. Simply the GOAT.