To last two decades in the NBA is an incredible accomplishment, mostly because the wear and tear on the human body over that duration of the time makes it almost impossible to do. Only a small handful of players have played 20 or more seasons in the NBA, and only one of them is technically still an active NBA player: Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett.
“Technically” is the best way to put it because we still don’t know if Garnett will return for what would be a record-breaking 22nd season this year. As it stands, he’s tied with Robert Parish and Kevin Willis for the most seasons played in league history, which is pretty incredible, but the number of seasons one plays in a career shouldn’t necessarily be the ultimate measurement for longevity. Games played may be a better judge of this.
Garnett’s contemporary, Tim Duncan, played two fewer seasons and 70 fewer regular season games than Garnett, but thanks to his extensive playoff resume, Duncan actually finished his career with 38 more games under his belt.
In other words, we don’t just judge the longevity of a car by how many city miles it drove. The highway miles matter too when entering a final odometer reading into the record books. Garnett could very well break the record for most seasons played next year, but as it turns out he has a long way to go if he wants to chase the record for most games played. Let’s look at which players had the most miles on their respective “odometer” when they walked away from the sport:
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1,560 regular season games + 237 playoff games = 1,797 games total) – Despite having played fewer seasons than Robert Parish, who’s the current record-holder for regular season games played, Abdul-Jabbar finished his career with two more total games on his resume than The Chief. That’s because Abdul-Jabbar is fourth all-time in total playoff games, putting him just three games shy of being the only player in history to have suited up 1,800 times.
2. Robert Parish (1,611 + 184 = 1,795) – Parish is 14th all-time in terms of playoff games played, and frankly 184 playoff games is a ton. He wasn’t doing a whole lot at the end of his career, but one last deep playoff run with Michael Jordan and the Bulls in his final season did help pad his playoff numbers a little bit before hitting the exits.
3. John Stockton (1,504 +182 = 1,686) – Stockton holds his fair share of NBA records, but it’s still kind of surprising to see that he’s third all-time in total games played, particularly since his teammate Karl Malone (see below) got in an extra Finals run with the L.A. Lakers in 2004. Stockton’s Jazz never won a championship, but they made the NBA Finals twice and always seemed to go deep into the postseason. Those numbers added up over time and helped put him high up in yet another career statistical category. No wonder the guy’s in the Hall of Fame, just like most of the other players in the top 10 of total games played.
4. Karl Malone (1,476 +193 = 1,669) – Malone’s chemistry with Stockton, and how committed the duo was to each other as well as with head coach Jerry Sloan for so many years, fueled his ability not only to play a ton of regular season games, but also a ton of postseason games. His 193 playoff appearances are the 11th most in NBA history.
5. Tim Duncan (1,392 + 251 = 1,643) – Duncan famously holds the league record for having won NBA titles the furthest apart from each other (1999 and 2014), and that’s all anybody really needs to know about how he finished second all-time in total playoff games played. He rested a lot during the regular season, so his totals there are quite a bit lower than some of the other players listed below him here, but the postseason gave him a boost, placing him squarely in the top five in this particular category. Considering he made the playoffs in every season of his career (and had plenty of deep postseason runs), it’s no surprise he made this list.
6. Kevin Garnett (1,462 +143 = 1,605) – As the only active player in the top 10, Garnett has the opportunity to make up some ground on Duncan, Malone and Stockton, especially if the burgeoning young Timberwolves make the postseason this year (which may seem like a long shot, but some have predicted it could happen). However, catching Parish and Abdul-Jabbar is a completely different story. He’s 192 games behind Abdul-Jabbar and 190 behind Parish, meaning he’d have to play two more full 82-game seasons without injury and then make it to the Western Conference Finals both years to have a shot at catching either guy. In other words, it’s possible he climbs to third on this list with one more year in the league, but that’s likely as high as he can go.
7. Kobe Bryant (1,376 +220 = 1,596) – Again, this is what happens when you play in the NBA Finals seven times and win five championships. Bryant’s career regular season games aren’t even in the top 10, but he’s fifth all-time in career playoff games, and that makes a big difference.
8. Kevin Willis (1,424 + 98 = 1,560) – It would be easy to look down on Kevin Willis since he’s one of only two guys on this list with zero chance of getting into the Hall of Fame based on his playing merits, but it takes a certain measure of gumption to last this long in the NBA with 10 separate teams. He’s sixth all-time in regular season games played, but he’s also the second-oldest player to ever have suited up in a game; he was 44 years old when he donned a uniform for the final time. The playoff numbers simply are not there, though he did win a ring with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Still, to make this list with so little playoff experience is pretty impressive.
9. Jason Kidd (1,391 + 158 = 1,549) – He has a ring and plenty of playoff appearances, plus a 19-year career that allowed him to rack up plenty of regular season games too. There’s not much to say other than the guy flat-out played a ton.
10. Derek Fisher (1,287 + 259 = 1,546) – Fisher actually is the all-time leader in playoff games played at 259. He’s an incredible 46 games ahead of Tony Parker and 60 games ahead of LeBron James. There have been only three times in the last seven years when at least one of those two guys weren’t playing in the NBA Finals, and twice they played against each other there. But this is about Fisher, who earned five rings with the L.A. Lakers and played in eight different NBA Finals (including his final trip in 2012 with the Oklahoma City Thunder). He’s 21st all-time in regular season games played, but 10th in games played overall thanks to those 259 postseason appearances. That’s a record that, mathematically, won’t even have a shot at being broken for a least a couple more years.
Playing for 22 years would be an incredible record for Kevin Garnett to break, but it doesn’t necessarily make him the league’s all-time iron man. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish share that honor for now, and it will seemingly be long time before anyone threatens their stranglehold on the top two spots in terms of total NBA games played.
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