Most NBA players can’t stick in the league. The average length of a player’s career was 4.8 years, according to our own Larry Coon in 2011. That fact makes the lengthy careers of some of the game’s greats that much more impressive. Some players are no longer effective when they lose their athleticism, but others age gracefully and continue to produce for their respective teams.
The following players may or may not still be a focal point, but they are still playing at a relatively high level compared to other players around the league (some of whom are more than a decade younger than them). The players on the list have been arranged from oldest to youngest.
Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs)
Duncan will turn 40 years old during the playoffs and while the offensive load has been taken off of him, he is still impacting games for the Spurs. He’s been sidelined with a knee injury for the last five games and has rested against sub-par competition this season, but that’s to keep him fresh for the playoffs. The 41-8 Spurs are on track to make the playoffs for the 19th consecutive time, coinciding with head coach Gregg Popovich’s first full year coaching and the selection of Duncan first overall in the 1997 draft. With a postseason berth, San Antonio would tie the fourth-best playoff streak in NBA history.
While a lot of their success can be attributed to their All-Star Kawhi Leonard, the five-time NBA champion is still an impact player even at his advanced age (by NBA standards). His player efficiency rating (a somewhat comprehensive measurement of a player’s impact) is above average at 17.38. Duncan is still somehow averaging 7.5 rebounds per game (putting him in a tie for 32nd in the NBA) in a, by far, career-low 25.9 minutes per game. However, this year’s average is a far cry from his career average of 10.9 boards.
Most impressive is Duncan’s calming presence on the court, helping keep his team even keel and on course to meet the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. It’s not just his demeanor either; on the court, he covers up for miscues and prevents other mistakes from happening. According to the advanced metric defensive real plus-minus, Duncan is the number one player in the league with a valuation of 6.83. That is just incredible. Not only is he a lock for the Hall of Fame, he’ll go down as one of the best players ever.
Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs)
Ginobili is certainly an interesting player. Fans of the Spurs like his tenacity, veteran smarts and ability to get under the skin of opponents. Meanwhile, opposing players and fans probably think he flops too much, occasionally plays dirty and gets lucky. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as it usually is. The Argentinian was drafted in 1999 with the 57th overall pick. He didn’t start playing in the NBA until 2002-03, but has been a productive player for nearly 14 years (all with the Spurs).
While he is out four to six weeks after a recent groin surgery, the four-time NBA champion has still been playing well even at 38 years old. In his reduced role, he is averaging 10 points, 3.3 assists and three rebounds this season. To be clear, Ginobili was never a superstar – as his best statistical year was in 2007-08 when he averaged 19.5 points per game. But keep in mind that San Antonio has never been a statistically-driven team and the crafty left-hander was an integral cog on the franchise’s championship teams. He fits their system perfectly, and he was talented enough to be named to two All-Star teams, receive two All-NBA Third Team nods and win Sixth Man of the Year in 2008.
When he decides to retire, he’ll likely be a Hall of Famer given his NBA accolades as well as his success as the focal point for the Argentinian national team.
Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks)
One of the best foreign-born players in NBA history, Nowitzki has ruled Dallas with owner Mark Cuban for over a decade. The seven-foot sharpshooter was drafted in ninth overall in 1998 and now, nearly 18 years later, he is still significantly helping his team – as they currently sit as the sixth-best team in the Western Conference. Nowitzki is still averaging 17.7 points per game, which leads the Mavericks. That’s not as productive as his career-average (22.1 PPG) or his best year in 2005-06 (26.6 PPG), but it still puts him tied for 3oth in the NBA with Atlanta’s Paul Millsap. Even more incredible is his PER, which is 19.87.
Nowitzki has his signature one-legged, fadeaway jumper from about 15 feet out on the right side of the basket and he consistently gets left open at the top of the arc for his three in transition as the really-late trailer. The 2011 champion has popularized those moves, leaving his mark on the league. Like Duncan and Ginobili, he’s Hall-of-Fame bound and deserves some credit for the “stretch-four era” because of his unique combination of shooting skills and size.
Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers)
Bryant has played more than half his life in the NBA. Not many people can say that. In 1996, he landed with the Lakers – via a draft-day trade with the Charlotte Hornets – when he was only 17 years old, so his parents had to co-sign his contract. Now, after a 20-year career that included five NBA championships and countless individual accolades, Bryant is still going strong in his final year. Bryant said he’d retire at the end of the 2015-16 season and that’s probably good timing since his body has been breaking down in recent years.
He’s going out with a bang, and he’s certainly still getting up a bunch of shots. The 2008 MVP is still averaging 16.7 points per game, which is tied for 36th in the league with both Gasol brothers and Nikola Vucevic. He certainly isn’t scoring as much as his career average (25.1) or as much as he did during his prolific career-high season (35.4 in 2005-06), but he’s still been effective at times. He’s even had a “vintage Kobe” week lately – averaging 29.3 points per game in his last three contests, highlighted by 38 points in a victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves. In that game, he hit seven of 11 shots from behind the arc and 11 of his 12 free throws. He also contributed five rebounds and five assists along with a couple steals (just to remind the league of his 12 All-Defensive team selections). Bryant is somewhat rejuvenated this year on his farewell tour as he heads off into the sunset as a sure-fire Hall of Famer and arguably a top-10 player all time.
Jamal Crawford (Los Angeles Clippers)
Of all these players, Crawford is the only one to play for multiple teams. The 35-year-old is a two-time winner of the Sixth Man of the Year award, joining Kevin McHale and Detlef Schrempf as the only players in NBA history to have at least two such awards.
Crawford is a solid scorer and the perfect sixth man, as he provides instant offense when the starters take a seat. Now with his sixth team, the Clippers, he is still close to his career average in scoring. He’s averaging 13.1 points per game on the year in only 25.7 minutes a night, compared to his career average of 15.5 points per game.
Crawford is also known for having some of the best handles in the game, making a name for himself with his killer crossover and ability to create his own shot. Crawford is also known for leading the league in four-point plays. He likely won’t be a Hall-of-Famer, but after nearly 16 years in the league, Crawford is still going strong and says that he wants to continue playing for several more seasons.
Dwyane Wade (Miami HEAT)
The 34-year-old is the youngest of these players and is still going strong, averaging 18.7 points per game. Even though injuries have slowed him down a bit in recent years, he is still a focal point for the HEAT. His best year was in 2008-09, when he averaged just above 30 points a game. While he isn’t as explosive as he used to be, he still has the craftiness to get to the hoop – scoring and creating for others.
Most impressive is his PER of 21.28, which ranks 27th in the league right behind his teammate Chris Bosh.
Wade likely still has several years in the league before he’ll retire, but when he does, he’ll have at least three NBA championships, 12 All-Star selections and many other accolades to his name. He’ll also have a pretty strong Hall of Fame argument, although he’s not a lock like some of the players on this list.
Which veterans continue to impress you? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
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