Folks around the NBA often debate when players enter their prime, and players around the league will often give different answers when asked.
According to our research department, the average age of an All-NBA player is 27.7 years old. This dates back to the season the award debuted in 1946-47. In fact, the average age of an All-NBA recipient has been within one year of that mark in each season for the past 20 years.
That’s strikingly similar to a paper published by sports economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, which suggested that the peak performance of an NBA player is when they are 26 (via VICE Sports):
“[We] looked at the impact various factors have on NBA performance. Aging was one of those factors, and what we found is that player performance tends to peak around 26. After that, players start to decline: slowly at first, and then precipitously.”
Only twice (1996-97 and the following year in 1997-98) has the average age of those selected to the All-NBA team exceeded 30 years old. Those seasons were inflated partially because they were the final two seasons that Michael Jordan (34) played before coming out of retirement in 2001. They were also his final two selections in his career.
Others older than 30 who received the nod those seasons included: Karl Malone (34), Hakeem Olajuwon (34), Patrick Ewing (34), John Stockton (34) and Reggie Miller (32). The 1998-99 season represented a changing of the guard with Kobe Bryant (20), Kevin Garnett (22), Allen Iverson (23), Antonio McDyess (25), Jason Kidd (25) and Chris Webber (25) all receiving their first All-NBA recognition.
Overall, All-NBA selections have come after Age-30 seasons in less than one quarter (24.0 percent) of the instances. Since 2000-01, the rate has dropped to just 21.1 percent.
An interesting takeaway is that only a dozen players have ever made an All-NBA team after turning 35.
Kareem Abdul-Jabaar accomplished it three times while Malone achieved this feat on three occasions. Tim Duncan, the oldest player to reach All-NBA status since 1986, is the only other player to be named to All-NBA honors two times after turning 35.
This is particularly fascinating because LeBron James turned 34 years old on Sunday. While he has shown that the typical aging curve does not impact him the way it has so many others, it’s also true that he will soon be entering a point in where few have been considered among the best in the league.
Players including Bryant, Jordan, Ewing, Dominique Wilkins and David Robinson all earned their final All-NBA nods when they were 34.
For all intents and purposes, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar is once again an MVP candidate this season. Kevin Pelton recently suggested that James is defying the undefeated Father Time (via ESPN):
“Even an aging curve with gentle decline like James has experienced so far during the regular season will typically get steeper (downward) as a player heads toward his mid-30s. That makes it all the more surprising that instead of declining sharply, James has instead trended the other direction … [But] as he reaches his mid-30s, declining athleticism could finally become an issue for James, particularly if his improved 3-point shooting proves fluky.”
It’s worth noting that James reportedly spends an annual $1.5 million taking care of his body, which has likely improved his career longevity despite the absurd workload he has had thus far.
But when signing players to longer-term deals, it’s important to keep in mind how rare it is for someone to be considered one of the best players as they get older. As such, it’s no surprise many deals offered to players past 30 are often considered the worst in the NBA.
Alberto de Roa contributed research to this report