Bill Russell

The Top 5 Old NBA Player Seasons of All Time

Many moons from now, when the details of this utterly befuddling season have receded from memory, Steve Nash’s remarkable (assuming he stays healthy) 2012 campaign will likely have been lost amid the historical shuffle. Certain events and outcomes are inevitably valued over others: which team wins the title, who wins the MVP award, what font Dan Gilbert uses in his annual screed; all tend to overshadow individual statistical achievements, particularly of those playing on losing teams.

Which is unfortunate. Age and injury typically prohibit players from successfully extending their careers past the age of 35. Indeed, most either retire (West, Cowens, Isiah, etc.) or suffer embarrassment (see: Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Gary Payton, etc.) as they unsuccessfully attempt to capture past glories. That Nash has continued to play at a high level despite his age (37, going on 38), and has single-handedly kept the Suns afloat (seriously, his second-best teammate is Marcin Gortat) is a bonafide miracle.

But, however rare and impressive Nash’s achievements, his is not an exclusive club. While most of the game’s legends have fallen from sight upon reaching their 35th birthday, some have managed to play at an exceptionally high level into their late-30’s. Thus below is a (extremely subjective) ranking of the top 5  “old NBA player” (i.e. post-age 35) seasons of all time. With a not-at-all dated or obvious Kill Bill reference and everything!

Honorable Mention

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1983-1987)Kareem remained exceptionally effective until the very end of his career, but no season was as impressive as his 1985 campaign (see below).
Ray Allen (2011-Present) – The last two seasons have only confirmed suspicions that Ray Allen is a better shooter, and player, than Reggie Miller ever was.
Elgin Baylor (1970) – If he’d managed to stay healthy (he played in only 54 regular season games), Baylor would’ve been a lock for the top 5 (he posted a 24-11-5 at age 35). Alas.
Alex English (1989) – Averaging 26-4-4 on 49% shooting at the age of 35 is nothing to sneeze at, but English played on an up-tempo Nuggets team (a style which obviously accentuated his strengths) that was eventually swept by the Suns in the First Round. Not exactly top-5 material.
Michael Jordan (2002-2003) – I pretend Jordan’s second comeback never happened, so . . .
Karl Malone (1999-2003) – Malone’s earned his second MVP in a strike-shortened season which most observers either mock or ignore. And however impressive those other, later seasons, 2000 is inarguably his most impressive.
Steve Nash (2010-Present) – Steve Nash’s 2009 campaign was the hardest to exclude from the top-5, for reasons enumerated above. But even though he enjoyed more team success than Malone did in 2000, the latter’s statistical resume and defensive chops ultimately give him the edge.
Shaquille O’Neal (2009) – Impressive stats-wise (18 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and a league-best 60 FG%), but his team (the Suns) failed to make the playoffs, and his ignominious departure from Phoenix shortly thereafter cast a pall on an otherwise sterling season.
John Stockton (1998-2003) – It’s nearly impossible to differentiate between Stockton’s last six seasons. He averaged 11.6 ppg, 8.2 apg, and 50 FG% over that period, leading the Jazz (with the help of the Mailman, of course) to the playoffs in every one of those years. Yet one would be hard-pressed to argue that any one of those seasons is more impressive than the following.

The Top 5

5.) Karl Malone (2000 – 36 years old) 

Say what you will about Karl Malone (and there’s a lot to say), but his twilight years were, to his credit, largely indistinguishable from his peak seasons. Indeed, the 2000 season saw him average a 25-9-4 and finish 4th in MVP voting (although he received no 1st place votes). Furthermore, he managed to buck a personal trend of postseason failures by averaging 27 points and 9 rebounds per game on 52% shooting (though the Jazz would eventually bow out in five games in the Semifinals). Not bad for a serial choke-artist!

4.) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1985 – 38 years old)

While his regular (22-8-3, 60 FG%) and post-season (22-8-4, 56 FG%) stats may appear relatively pedestrian at first glance (especially when contrasted with stat-lines of years past), one must keep in mind that he turned 38 years old in 1985. That he was able to recapture some of his old glory in the Finals (26-9-5, 2 blocks per game, 60 FG%) against the arch-rival Celtics, earn his second Finals MVP, and move Pat Riley to hyperbole (“”He defies logic. He’s the most unique and durable athlete of our time, the best you’ll ever see. You’d better enjoy him while he’s here”),  is astounding.

3.) Wilt Chamberlain (1972 – 35 years old)

Wilt was rightly pilloried for much of his career, but his remarkable transformation into a (somewhat) unselfish, team-first player in his final years has been unjustly ignored. Averaging 15-19-4 on 65% shooting for one of the greatest teams of all-time (the ’72 Lakers), posting a 19-23-3 on 60% shooting in the Finals while playing 47 minutes a game(!), and throwing up 24 points and 29 rebounds in the deciding contest are all pretty goddamn amazing feats, if you ask me.

Perhaps “redemption” is too strong a word (especially since he’d already won a title), but Wilt’s penultimate season was in many ways a tantalizing glimpse of what could’ve been had he consistently sublimated his inimitable gifts from the outset. That it took him til the end of his career to, in the words of SI‘s Peter Carry, “shut up . . . those critics who for years claimed that he was a quitter, that he could not win important games” is a sad testament to the missed opportunities which, if they’d been seized, would’ve drastically altered the course of NBA history.

2.) Bill Russell (1969 – 35 years old)

I’m cheating a bit here. Russell turned thirty-five three-quarters of the way through the season, which would seemingly disqualify him from a list purportedly pertaining exclusively to players thirty-five and older. But I’ve never been one who’s cared much for consistency or fairness, especially when it comes to the Celtics.

Besides, how could I ignore a season as profound as Russell’s last? After having already played twelve exhausting seasons in which he had led the Celtics to ten titles and never failed to reach the Conference Finals, he somehow managed to post decent numbers in the regular season (10 ppg, 19 rpg, 5 apg) lead his team past an up-and-coming Knicks squad (which would win the title the following season) in the Conference Finals, and then triumph one final time over his principal rivals, both on a team (the Lakers) and an individual (Chamberlain) level. After coming back from a 1-3 deficit. While coaching.


1.) Michael Jordan (1998 – 35 years old)

As with Russell, so with Jordan. He turned thirty-five in February, playing the majority of the season while “only” thirty-four. But I’m willing to make an exception for MJ. I think he earned it.

While his stats may have fallen short of the lofty Jordan Standard, he still captured the scoring title (28.7 ppg), laid waste to his fellow MVP candidates (92 first-place votes; the Mailman finished second, with 20), led his team to 62 wins, and played in all 82 games (after playing 201 combined games over the two previous seasons). His field-goal percentage may have slipped a little (from 48% in ’97 to 46%), and maybe he couldn’t provide the sort of acrobatic displays NBA fans had become accustomed to, but he was still in a league wholly to himself.

But as was almost always the case with MJ, his stats (as amazing as they were and are) and accolades tell only half the story. Much like Russell, Jordan’s indomitable will was more than a sufficient substitute for whatever age and injury had stripped away. Destroying younger squads like the Nets and Hornets in the first two rounds, battling and beating a ferocious Pacers squad over the course of seven grueling games in the Conference Finals, and, finally, authoring one of the greatest, most iconic sequences in NBA history en route to winning his sixth championship; all imply one of two things: that either a.) he’s an extra-terrestrial; or b.) he was the NBA’s Pai Mei (minus the casual racism and blatant misogyny, of course), impervious to the natural processes which have traditionally undercut lesser mortals, and, coincidentally enough, an inspiration to an especially badass acolyte nicknamed the Black Mamba.


*** Top 5 Old NBA Player Seasons of All Time****


15 Responses to “The Top 5 Old NBA Player Seasons of All Time”

  1. hmm, how about Karl Malone at 40 (he played better than MJ) or John Stockton at 40?

    Posted by doosiolek | January 26, 2012, 2:35 pm
    • Yeah, I had a hard time excluding Malone’s last season. He obviously played well, but I don’t know if he was as impressive as he was in the few years preceding 2004.

      Posted by Sean Cribben | January 27, 2012, 12:56 pm
      • Hi Sean,

        I’d like to elaborate a bit more on my first comment.

        With regard to the Mailman I was rather referring to 2002/2003. I know technically he was 39, but you counted MJ in and they were both born in 1963 so if we do an exception for MJ why not for Malone?

        At almost 40 Malone had PER of 21.7 while playing heavy minutes (36 a game) and played all but one regular season game whilst co-leading his team to the playoffs.

        With regard to Stockton he turned 41 in 2002/2003, yet he played all 82 games and was scoring at a great efficiency (20th in the NBA in FG% and 15th in TS%). He was 5th in APG, but was 1st in Assist Percentage. He was 12th in SPG, but was 4th in Steal Percentage. He was 10th in Offensive Rating and 12th in Win Shares/48 minutes. Oh yeah, his PER was 21.

        I think John should have been ranked 1st on your list. At 41 he was basically as good as ever with the exception that his minutes dropped, but when he played, he was still one of the four best point guards in the NBA, next to Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Steve Nash.

        Posted by doosiolek | January 29, 2012, 6:09 am
        • Thank you for your comments.

          Malone’s 2003 campaign was impressive, no doubt, and that’s why I included it in the “Honorable Mention” section. But I think he was much better in 2000.

          As for Stockton: as great as he was in his final years, he was nowhere near as impactful as the five guys who made the final cut. MJ, Russell, Wilt, and Kareem all put up huge numbers AND won titles, while Malone’s 2000 (regular) season was off-the-charts good. I would never argue that Stockton’s twilight seasons weren’t amazing, but it’s not even close when contrasting them with the efforts of those other players.

          Posted by Sean Cribben | January 31, 2012, 5:31 pm
          • If you look at it this way then you’re definitely right, but I thought that age was the most important factor in your article.

            For instance what is more impressive? When 35 y.o. player averages 25ppg or when 40 y.o. player averages 23ppg?

            In other words, for a player 35+ MJ had the best season, but to me Stockton’s last season was more impressive. This guy seemed ageless.

            MJ on the other hand was past his prime, but being 35 is not like you’re a grandpa exactly.

            Anyway, I got your point. Thanks for your article.

            Posted by doosiolek | February 2, 2012, 11:04 am
  2. Sean, interesting assessment. I agree with your rankings, but have to take issue with what you wrote about Wilt. History is written by the winners, and Russell’s 11-2 edge over Wilt in titles makes for the narrative of “Russell was selfless and cared only about winning, while Wilt was selfish and didn’t care about winning.” Maybe it was simple as Wilt just being a really bad free-throw shooter. This by itself was more than enough to swing the four playoff Game 7s that Wilt’s teams lost to the Celtics (62, 65, 68 and 69); if you flip those, then the title gap shrinks from 11-2 to probably 7-6 and we’re looking at their careers very, very differently. From what I’ve read, he worked hard on his free throws and tried every technique, including under-handed like Rick Barry, but he had a mental block here which he just couldn’t shake, and it cost him dearly.

    Wilt is regarded by most (including me) as lesser than Russell because of the wide title disparity. From what I’ve read, it ate at him constantly until he died. That, in my view, is punishment enough. The whole “Wilt was selfish and didn’t care about winning” argument strikes me as unnecessarily cruel.

    Posted by E-Dog | January 27, 2012, 3:39 pm
    • I see what you’re saying. I don’t think Wilt was entirely selfish, but he did seem to measure success differently than Russell. He’s still a top-5 player in my book, but I feel as though he was his own worst enemy at times.

      Posted by Sean Cribben | January 27, 2012, 4:12 pm
  3. Please… the snailman…if Mike hadn’t retired the bulls would have had 8 in a row and if jerry reinsdorf hadn’t let Phil get away then mike wouldn’t have left and you could have added two or three more rings to the bulls era.

    Posted by Glen Mathias | January 29, 2012, 2:57 pm
  4. Karl Malone age 40+ in the playoffs had a double double against the Rockets, Spurs, Minnosota. Including a 30 point 13 rebound performance against Houston and played 47 minutes! Malone had only missed 6 games his entire career prior to freak accident at 40 years old. The man was a freak of nature. Not even Jordan did that at 40 years old, oh wait he didn’t even make it to the playoffs..

    Posted by Travis | January 29, 2012, 11:54 pm
  5. Karl Malone age 40+ in the playoffs had a double double against the Rockets, Spurs, Minnosota. Including a 30 point 13 rebound performance against Houston and played 47 minutes! Malone had only missed 6 games his entire career prior to freak accident at 40 years old. The man was a freak of nature. Not even Jordan did that at 40 years old, oh wait he didn’t even make it to the playoffs..

    (oh and I forget, he did it in the company of GARY PAYTON, KOBE BRYANT, SHAQUILLE ONEIL !!! some of the biggest ball hogs on the planet)

    Posted by Travis Tempest | January 29, 2012, 11:59 pm
  6. All talk of double-doubles, and, yes, of triple-doubles, is commentator talk, fluff and quite worthless. Both teams are playing to win the game. Unlike football with huge squads and numbers of players on the field, basketball has 5 on a side….and its easy to see who is affecting the outcome both positively and negatively. Statistics are often fun, but there are no stats on the Larry O’Brien Trophy (formerly Walter A. Brown) just the name of the winning team…and…there is still, after all these years, no “I” in team.

    Posted by Emkay | February 1, 2012, 4:18 pm
    • I think you’re wrong. Statistics are not only fun, but are very useful.

      The only problem with stats is that they may be misleading, but the only reason why that is, is that they simply are not advanced enough.

      For instance if a player is averaging 30ppg against below-average defense and 10ppg against above-average defense on paper he is scoring 20ppg, but we know that in the playoffs he’ll face good defences and thus we know he’ll not be as good as another player who constanly scores around 20ppg no matter what defense he play against.

      Posted by doosiolek | February 2, 2012, 11:14 am
  7. We’ve got a couple of guys who don’t really look like they’re slowing down and are really racking up the mileage. Steve Nash (30 points on 16 shots, 10 assists, 1 turnover in only 29 minutes last night!) Ray Allen (He’s shooting as good as he has ever done it in his career) Dirk (Ummm..) and Kobe (No player has played this well with this much mileage on his knees, simply amazing)

    Posted by stillshining | February 2, 2012, 9:32 am
    • People like to point out how much mileage is on Kobe’s knees, but they tend to forget that when a player does not skip college, he plays basketball as well and it’s not like he is resting.

      For instance Kobe played a total of 1103 minutes in his 1st NBA season whilst Blake Griffin played 1165 minutes in his final year at college.

      Posted by doosiolek | February 2, 2012, 11:18 am

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