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Average NBA Career Length for Players – Details

22 Nov

Thanks to the lockout you’ve probably read or heard how long average career of NBA player really is, and you can easily google it but… it’s not up-to-date information and there are very few details about it…

For example, how average NBA career length has changed through league’s history?
Is it so much longer now than it used to be? How exactly is it calculated?
How does this average career span differs for NBA starters and deep reserves?

I’ll answer those and many more questions in this post… but let’s start with the description. I collected data from basketball-reference.com for every season from 1946-47 to 2010-11, then I removed multiple occurrences in one season [usually due to trades] and finally counted how many times player appeared on the list.
Simple, right? Such sequence gave me an average NBA career length of 4.869 seasons for 3668 players.

But you’ve already knew that so let’s begin the fun part…

Here’s an average for all players who finished their career in any given year.

Season Ended
In
Average Career Length For So Many Players The Only Year Number of Teams Season Ended
In
Average Career Length For So Many Players The Only Year Number of Teams
1947 1.000 87 87 11 1979 4.553 47 10 22
1948 1.548 31 14 8 1980 4.323 62 18 22
1949 1.653 72 41 12 1981 3.855 55 26 23
1950 1.657 102 62 17 1982 4.525 59 13 23
1951 2.558 52 10 11 1983 5.000 59 15 23
1952 2.412 34 12 10 1984 5.041 49 11 23
1953 2.580 50 21 10 1985 4.978 45 11 23
1954 2.553 38 19 9 1986 5.203 59 15 23
1955 2.905 42 19 8 1987 4.691 55 16 23
1956 3.706 17 8 8 1988 4.679 56 17 23
1957 3.375 24 7 8 1989 4.315 54 21 25
1958 3.917 36 12 8 1990 4.783 60 20 27
1959 3.786 14 5 8 1991 6.241 54 9 27
1960 5.136 22 4 8 1992 5.636 55 12 27
1961 4.167 12 2 8 1993 5.328 61 12 27
1962 3.324 37 20 9 1994 4.852 61 17 27
1963 2.724 29 13 9 1995 6.051 59 12 27
1964 5.227 22 7 9 1996 4.649 57 19 29
1965 3.682 22 6 9 1997 5.658 73 15 29
1966 5.130 23 6 9 1998 5.790 62 12 29
1967 3.462 13 4 10 1999 5.887 71 16 29
1968 2.261 23 14 12 2000 6.696 69 12 29
1969 3.833 30 12 14 2001 7.75 72 13 29
1970 4.864 22 6 14 2002 7.900 60 8 29
1971 3.511 47 23 17 2003 6.403 67 14 29
1972 3.457 46 15 17 2004 7.474 57 8 29
1973 5.029 34 11 17 2005 6.629 89 14 30
1974 4.553 38 13 17 2006 5.500 72 20 30
1975 4.913 46 13 18 2007 5.197 71 20 30
1976 5.732 56 12 18 2008 6.985 67 12 30
1977 4.419 62 23 22 2009 6.057 70 9 30
1978 4.055 55 13 22 2010 6.070 71 10 30

… and as a graph…

So it is longer than it used to be… but the biggest rises occurred around the time when expansions happened so that’s probably just an effect of creating more jobs in the NBA.

Now that we have such basic information covered let’s dig in a bit deeper…

Here’s a historical distribution of career lengths [for those which ended before last season]…

Career Length
in Seasons
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Number of
such Careers
991 501 299 217 152 127 124 113 113 135 115
Career Length
in Seasons
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22+
Number of
such Careers
92 87 56 40 20 15 9 5 1 2 0

Outliers are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish and Kevin Willis ;-)

Here’s a similar breakdown for those who played last season [obviously most of them can become longer]…

Career Length
in Seasons
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Number of
such Careers
67 49 50 38 32 37 34 38 20 21 17
Career Length
in Seasons
12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22+
Number of
such Careers
14 14 3 9 6 2 0 1 0 0 0

Outliers are Kidd, Juwan Howard and Shaq ;-)

Speaking of old players… here’s an average age of players who have just finished their careers in the NBA…

… and average age of those players who have just started…

Keep in mind that before 1976-77 season NBA added 4 new teams to the league and there were some 30 years old rookies… Also we can easily see the effect of recent draft age limit.

That was fun… but all above graphs and calculations counted every player equally…
even if he only got a try-out at the end of season and failed. Shouldn’t he be happy that he got a chance?
Should we even count that as a “career” or was it more a chance at one?

Well, let’s tweak the question a little bit…

What’s the average career length for NBA Players in various rotation roles?

Minimum of 41 games played in a career = 6.18 seasons.

Less than 12 minutes per game for a career = 2.01 seasons.
More than 12 minutes per game for a career but less than 20 = 5.01 seasons.
More than 20 minutes per game for a career but less than 25 = 7.59 seasons.
More than 25 minutes per game for a career but less than 30 = 9.21 seasons.
More than 30 minutes per game for a career = 10.88 seasons.
NBA All-Star at least once = 11.36 seasons.

So yeah, it’s not an one-dimensional question and it really depends on how good a player is perceived to be ;-)

BTW, dimension also matters… average careers for players with…
Height of 7 feet or more = 5.78 seasons.
Height from 6-7 to 6-11 = 5.43 seasons.
Height from 6-3 to 6-6 = 4.51 seasons.
Height 6-2 or below = 4.12 seasons.

P.S. If you are interested in an average career length for NBA Coaches and GMs click on the link ;-)

 
69 Comments

Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Scrutiny

 

Tags: , , , ,

69 responses to “Average NBA Career Length for Players – Details

  1. Dre

    November 23, 2011 at 04:43

    Excellent excellent work. Could the following sum it all up –
    NBA careers are increasing in length because
    1. There are more jobs
    2. Players have gotten a little more resilient.
    3. Players start younger.

    And how many minutes you get to play is telling as to how long you’ll stick around.

     
    • wiLQ

      November 23, 2011 at 16:24

      Thanks, and yes, I could have used so few words in this post… but I chose not to ;-)

       
      • Dre

        November 24, 2011 at 04:30

        wiLQ,
        No no no :) I don’t want you to post super small posts I just wanted to make sure my takeaway was right for it.

         
        • wiLQ

          November 25, 2011 at 14:07

          “No no no :) I don’t want you to post super small posts”
          I know, it was a joke ;-)
          BTW, I don’t think you have to interpret my posts the same way as I do, quite the opposite! I try to present case/data the best I can but critical outside eye can see points I’ve missed… which Leszczur’s comment proves nicely.

           
  2. Alex

    November 23, 2011 at 07:15

    It would be nice to see these analyzed as medians as well, to help check some of the outliers.

     
    • wiLQ

      November 23, 2011 at 16:20

      Median for all players is 3 but because I didn’t attempt to use fractions of seasons I think this angle is a little too boring… But thanks to your comment I’ve added a table with historical distribution of career lengths ;-)

       
      • Alex

        November 25, 2011 at 02:08

        Thanks! I think it’s informative though because it becomes obvious that players shouldn’t be expected to play for 5 years. A good portion of guys only play for a year, and half only play 2 or 3. The NBA is neither as lasting or lucrative as people might think.

         
        • wiLQ

          November 25, 2011 at 14:12

          “I think it’s informative though because it becomes obvious that players shouldn’t be expected to play for 5 years. A good portion of guys only play for a year, and half only play 2 or 3”
          I agree I should have mentioned something about distribution of those careers so thanks for your point.

          “The NBA is neither as lasting or lucrative as people might think.”
          True, true. Probably it’s true even for most of the players’ opinion ;-)

           
  3. Leszczur

    November 24, 2011 at 08:44

    Just one technical note – if you use multiple graphs – it would be good to have them numbered. It will make it easier to comment when instead of “Average NBA Career Length for Players in Seasons” I would be able to say “Graph 1” ;-)

     
    • wiLQ

      November 24, 2011 at 12:48

      What have happened to “first one”, “second one” etc? ;-P

       
  4. Leszczur

    November 24, 2011 at 10:40

    Even though it’s interesting – this post lacks some historical perspective. Especially since you give us some hints on what affects length of an average career.
    So here are my 2 cents on what probably had an influence on how long players were able to play:
    1. In the early years of the NBA – players used to have other jobs as well since rarely it was enough for them to lead a decent life out of NBA salary.
    2. Labor talks. Establishing NBAPA in 1958. Establishing in 1964 a pension plan for NBA players (famous threat of boycotting the All-Star Game), 1975 when players got the medical insurance covered by the league, 1983 – first agreement on substance abuse.
    Probably all those changes affected careers but I believe the 1983 agreement virtually transformed the league. If you will look for a trend in career length between 1960 and 1983 you will see it is virtually flat. After ’83 it shoots up significantly. Could it be due to putting a stop to league-wide cocaine use?
    3. Changes in player habits. When bigger money is on the line – players will adjust their behaviour. Not only they cut down on substance abuse, smoking, drinking etc, but many of them adjust their diet and exercise programmes.
    4. Medical care. These days players have access to state of the art medical facilities, best surgeons, much more effective procedures and treatments like hyperbaric chambers (for faster healing), plasma injections, microfracture surgeries etc. Many injuries which 20 years ago would end players career – nowadays are just a bump on the road. It’s also worth mentioning that better shoes play major role in keeping those feet and joints healthy for a longer period of time.
    5. Better scouting. I may go here on the limb by saying scouts influence career length, but I see a chance that worldwide talent screening will translate into more and more stronger/healthier players being selected over time.

     
    • wiLQ

      November 24, 2011 at 13:14

      Wow, that’s a long and thoughtful comment, thanks ;-)
      1. How other jobs did affect length of NBA careers? I’m pretty sure playing “just a game” was preferable than working at a factory or in an office.
      2. Pension plan was for RETIRED players so again, what could be the effect for playing career?
      Do you suggest players stopped to receive their pension plan?
      Although adding medical insurance is a good point.
      “If you will look for a trend in career length between 1960 and 1983 you will see it is virtually flat. After ’83 it shoots up significantly”
      I would call it “a return to established level around 5” ;-)
      3. IMHO it’s very overrated and affects only small [but visible] group of people. Why? Because there are still many players who gain weight and have problems with their behavior!
      4. That’s a good point but it’s also a better topic for history of injuries… ;-)
      5. I totally disagree with that one, scouts focus on skills, potential and whenever this player is good enough to stick for a couple of seasons not on “can this guy play 15+years”.

       
      • Leszczur

        November 24, 2011 at 14:29

        “1. How other jobs did affect length of NBA careers? I’m pretty sure playing “just a game” was preferable than working at a factory or in an office.”
        This may be true today but not necessarily was then. Remember that we are talking about times where NBA was the owners playground. They had decided entirely about contracts (you got them in your mail and there was not a lot of negotiating going on). And if the player had to work then the physical preparation part (whatever it was back then) would be affected. That could lead to injuries etc and eventually shortened careers. I remember reading about players working in factories or driving the cab.

        “2. Pension plan was for RETIRED players so again, what could be the effect for playing career?”

        Just assurance to treat your career seriously and focusing on it.

        “I would call it “a return to established level around 5″ ;-)”

        I disagree. Between 1960 and 83 average was about 4.25. Between ’84 and today – it’s 5.8. I’d call it a 40% increase in a 30% bigger league!

        “3. IMHO it’s very overrated and affects only small [but visible] group of people. Why? Because there are still many players who gain weight and have problems with their behavior!”

        Kobe and Nash are indeed unique in their approach, but on average players are much more aware of thei bodies than they were in the past. Here and there you’ll have the Eddy Burger Curry, but as a whole league is getting healthier.

        “4. That’s a good point but it’s also a better topic for history of injuries… ;-)”
        True.

        “5. I totally disagree with that one, scouts focus on skills, potential and whenever this player is good enough to stick for a couple of seasons not on “can this guy play 15+years”.”
        That’s why I said I was probably going too far. But then again those who play the +15 years are usually the ones with superb skills ;-)

         
        • wiLQ

          November 24, 2011 at 14:57

          1. It’s still owner’s playground hence the lockout ;-)
          But seriously IMHO huge turnover in early NBA days had a lot to do with changes in the league itself and was at best marginally influenced by other factors you’ve mentioned. But I could be wrong and maybe there was a lot of destroyed knees and leaving for a better job elsewhere.

          2. Wow, you’ve nicely ignored the fact that average for 1983-89 was only slightly better than before and it exploded after 1989 which contradicts your point about first agreement on substance abuse.

          3. OK, that may be true but how can you prove it’s influence?
          Again with analysis about history of injuries?

           
          • Leszczur

            November 24, 2011 at 15:53

            “2. Wow, you’ve nicely ignored the fact that average for 1983-89 was only slightly better than before and it exploded after 1989 which contradicts your point about first agreement on substance abuse.”
            But it was better! And it does not have to contradict my point.
            There must be a long therm effect of a substance abuse even if the player stopped frying their brains with drugs.
            So what we could see in fact was a “lag time” or a washout period for the league between change of the rules and when the results of the change actually were visible.

            “3. OK, that may be true but how can you prove it’s influence?
            Again with analysis about history of injuries?”

            I honestly don’t think I can prove anything here. This was a pure speculation and the influence even if present is a marginal one. Injuries are much more affected by the current state of medical knowledge or even NBA rules than “fat guys scouting college players somewhere in Poland” ;-)

             
  5. Leszczur

    November 24, 2011 at 12:56

    One last thing. I checked on b-r.com what happened in 2002 so the average shot up to almost 8 years. As it turnes out we had 29 players who were 35 or older, and 10 of them were 37 or older.

     
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