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Never Can Say Goodbye: When Is It Time For an NBA Player To Retire?

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 06: Shaquille O'Neal #33 of the Cleveland Cavaliers watches on the bench against of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden November 6, 2009 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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Andrew UngvariSenior Writer IDecember 6, 2016

If the last few seasons are any indication, one of the NBA's golden eras might soon be coming to an end.

From 1992-96 the NBA experienced five of it's greatest draft classes in terms of superstar talent and career longevity. Now that many of those stars have begun retiring, we have a large enough sample with which to gauge the average career span of the modern-day NBA superstar.

There are a number of factors which separate this particular generation from those that preceded it.

For example, the number of high school games many of those guys played was nearly twice as many as their predecessors, due to tournaments across the country that were sponsored by shoe companies offering money to schools that couldn't resist.

On the flip side, many of those same stars played fewer college games because they either left college for the NBA after just one or two years, or, in some cases, bypassed college altogether.

Improvements in sports medicine and physical training have also prolonged careers from injuries once considered career-threatening.

The modern-day NBA player hasn't necessarily stopped Father Time, but he has made him wait a little longer than he used to.


The Classes of 1992 and 1993

There are just two remaining players in the NBA from the draft classes of 1992 and 1993—Shaquille O'Neal ('92) and Lindsey Hunter ('93).

Just two years ago, there were five remaining players from 1992 class—Shaq, Doug Christie, Robert Horry, P.J. Brown, and Alonzo Mourning.

Since then four of the five have retired.

While O'Neal, the first player picked in the 1992 Draft, has stated that he'd like to play three more seasons, he might not have a say in the matter.

After making the Western Conference All-Star team last season, O'Neal is now averaging career-lows in scoring (11.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg), and has already missed six of his team's first 21 games due to injury. 

Since big men like O'Neal rely more on size than athleticism, he might be able to convince a GM to give him a one-year deal for next season, but likely at a dollar amount that the notorious egomaniac may be too prideful to play for.

If the old adage that teams can never have enough bigs remains true, then it's realistic that O'Neal could play another two seasons, but three seems highly unlikely.

Two years ago, there were five players remaining from the rookie class of 1993—Hunter, Bruce Bowen, Sam Cassell, Chris Webber, and Bo Outlaw.

Of the 10 players from those two drafts who have retired in the last two years, or are still playing, eight were/are either centers at the time of their retirement (O'Neal, Mourning, Outlaw, Webber, and Brown) or considered defensive specialists (Bowen, Horry, and Christie).

The last two, Cassell and Hunter, were/are considered players/coaches who play(ed) limited minutes.


The Class of 1994

Three of the top five picks taken in the 1994 Draft are still playing, and those are the only three still in the league—Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, and Juwan Howard.

Three others, Jalen Rose, Eddie Jones, and Donyell Marshall have retired in the past two years.

Kidd and Hill, co-Rookies of the Year in 1995, are still starting for the Mavericks and Suns, respectively.

Howard, who has played in 14 of the Portland Trailblazers' first 22 games this season, will have a much more prominent role with starting center Greg Oden missing the remainder of the season after fracturing his left patella.

If the 1992-94 drafts have proved anything to us it's that only a handful of players in each draft are able to play more than 15 seasons, and even fewer are able to start in their late 30s.

How does that bode for the players who were drafted in 1995, and especially those drafted in 1996—one of the most star-studded draft classes in NBA history?

If history is any indication, it tells us most of those players from the 1995 and 1996 draft classes will more than likely be out of the league within the next two years, and those who are still in the league will most likely be big men, or will have to become specialists of some sort.

Many of those still around from the Class of 1995 have already accepted roles similar to those of Howard, Outlaw, Webber, Horry, Brown, and Cassell.


The Class of 1995

There are seven remaining players from the 1995 NBA draft. An eighth, Kevin Ollie, went undrafted.

Five of the eight—Antonio McDyess, Rasheed Wallace, Theo Ratliff, Kurt Thomas, and Joe Smith have already accepted roles as reserve centers.

One of the other three players, Kevin Ollie, is filling a Sam Cassell/Lindsey Hunter-type role on the Oklahoma City Thunder as a player/coach.

In fact, in the most recent GM Survey, Ollie was one of only 11 players to receive any votes when the league's 30 general managers were asked "Which active player will make the best head coach someday?"

Another of the remaining three, Michael Finley, is averaging 5.2 points per game—less than a third of his career average (16 ppg). While Finley can still have an impact, his days appear numbered.

Nobody would be surprised if either Ollie or Finley called it a career at the conclusion of this season.

The lone remaining player of the eight, Kevin Garnett, is the youngest of the group. That should come as no surprise considering he was the only one from the group who made the jump to the NBA straight out of high school.

Garnett is still one of the league's elite players. How effective he will be, and for how long, might depend on his health.

Whatever the outcome, Garnett's longevity will also provide a precedent in the debate over whether a player's age, or his mileage is the determining factor in how long of a career he has.

Garnett is under contract for two more seasons. He'll be 36-years-old when it expires in 2012. There's no reason to believe that he won't at least play both of them out.

How much longer he plays after that remains a mystery. It will be interesting to compare Garnett to Tim Duncan—the top pick in the 1997 NBA draft.

Even though Garnett and Duncan are the same age, Duncan has played two fewer NBA seasons.

To recap, of the 13 players still active from the 1992-95 drafts, only four are starters, six are reserve centers, two are player/coaches, and one, Michael Finley, is a role player.


The Class of 1996

No draft class will see more of a change over the next two years than the one from 1996. One reason is that there are 12 active players in the NBA who were drafted in 1996—almost as many as there are from the four previous drafts combined.

Here is the list (in the order the players were drafted):


  • Allen Iverson
  • Marcus Camby
  • Ray Allen
  • Erick Dampier
  • Kobe Bryant
  • Peja Stojakovic
  • Steve Nash
  • Jermaine O'Neal
  • Zydrunas Ilgauskas
  • Derek Fisher
  • Ben Wallace (undrafted)
  • Chucky Atkins (undrafted)

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