Ranking the 30 best NBA seasons from players over 35 years old

Utah Jazz, Karl Malone(Photo by JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images)
Utah Jazz, Karl Malone(Photo by JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images) /
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NBA (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images) /

The NBA is a young man’s game. That is, the league is constantly experiencing an influx of talent, players with increasingly more skill and athleticism nurtured by advancing technology and medicine. Players’ personal athleticism peaks in their mid-20s, and physically things begin going downhill from there.

Every year something around 50-to-70 players enter the NBA player pool, in addition to another few dozen hoping to catch on with a team. That means every year 50-70 players are being pushed out of the league. To hang onto a spot in the league, let alone rotation minutes is a difficult feat for all but the very best as they move through their 30s.

Some players do resist the inevitable movement of Father Time, extending their high-level play from earlier in their career clear into their late-30s. Those players, often some of the very best to ever play the game, defy the odds and tack on extra seasons to already distinguished careers. These are the players who top the career stats leaderboards, who reinvent themselves to continue contending, who fight to stay relevant as long as possible.

To highlight some of the very best elder statesmen in the history of the league, we have compiled here a list of the 30 greatest seasons ever for a player 35 or older. Any season where a player turned 35 beforehand or during could be considered. The regular season and playoffs were factored in, as were awards, team success, games played and standing among their peers.

52 seasons made the semifinals before the list of 30 was decided upon. All due to respect to Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Chris Paul, Gary Payton, Artis Gilmore, Julius Erving and Dikembe Mutombo, who all came close to making the list. Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller and Robert Parish all made the list but had other seasons in the honorable mentions.

In total two MVP seasons were included in the counting, along with four Finals MVPs, over 15 All-NBA seasons and one scoring champion. The ages range from 35 to 40, from 1968-69 to 2019-20. We begin in the Rocky Mountains and a player who made sweet jazz running his team’s offense until he was in his 40s.

. PG. Utah Jazz. John Stockton. 30. player. 118

The 30 best NBA seasons from players over 35 years old — 30. John Stockton, 2001-02 (39)

It is fitting that we begin our rankings with a season from John Stockton, the league’s career leader in both assists and steals by a wide margin. A member of the Dream Team and 10-time All-Star, Stockton played at a high level until he was 40. He appears on this list several times, an incredible feat given the age constraints of the project.

That doesn’t even include his age-40 season, 2002-03, which fell in the “honorable mentions” category, or his age-36 season when he missed 18 games but had a strong postseason en route to an NBA Finals berth.

No player short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and possibly Karl Malone maintained an elite level of play like Stockton as late into his career. He missed just 22 games over the course of his entire career. That included four-straight 82-game seasons from ages 36 to 40, all of which he played at a high level. The drop-off in his game was noticeable, but never drastic. He likely could have continued playing even after he retired at 41.

In the 2001-02 season, Stockton was 39 and still running pick-and-rolls with Karl Malone like clockwork. He averaged 8.2 assists per game, fifth in the league, and was 12th in win shares. It seems redundant to emphasize age on a list like this, but he did that at 39! In fact, he turned 40 before the end of the season.

He was no defensive slouch either, a significant positive on that end due to his strength on-ball and preternatural ability to jump passing lanes. He was seventh in the league in steals with 152, or 1.9 per game, and fourth in steal percentage. Despite being old enough to have completed a term as President of the United States, Stockton was a valuable player on a 44-win playoff team.