The NBA might have an unhealthy obsession with its larger-than-life superstars and individual talent, but it’s still a team sport by every definition. And the pinnacle of professional basketball would indeed be dull and monotonous if it wasn’t for the depth and variety of players you see across the league.
While basketball is the biggest team sport with the smallest number of players per side, there are still 30 teams in the NBA, which means the NBA rosters total hundreds of players. But exactly how many players, in total, are there in the NBA in any given year? Is it a set number, or does it change? These are the questions we’ll be answering today.
How many players are on the NBA rosters in total?
Let’s do some basic math to work out the total number of basketball players in the NBA. We know that each NBA team can sign up to 15 players during a regular NBA season. Assuming each team signs the maximum number of players they are permitted, we have:
15 players per team x 30 NBA teams = 450 total players in the NBA
So using this oversimplified calculation, we can estimate that the total number of players in the NBA is 450.
Total Number Of Players In Recent Seasons
But when we look at real figures, we find that the number of basketball players in any given NBA season always exceeds 450.
Here are the number of NBA players (that registered at least one appearance in an NBA game during the regular season) in recent years.
- 2020-21 Season: 540
- 2019-20 Season: 529
- 2018-19 Season: 530
- 2017-18 Season: 540 (first year to introduce two-way player contracts)
- 2016-17 Season: 486
- 2015-16 Season: 476
- 2014-15 Season: 492
Let’s find out why the number exceeds our estimate and why the total number of players in the NBA during each season has been increasing.
Why Does The Total Player Count Vary Each Year?
Our previous calculation, which estimated that there would be 450 players playing in the NBA, naively assumed there are only 15 players per NBA team. However, this figure is not completely accurate. We also need to consider the following things:
1. Some teams sign less than 15 standard contracts
While the majority of NBA teams will have the maximum permitted 15 players under contract, some teams do not. 15 is just a maximum, and the only other requirements set out by the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement are:
a) Each team must carry at least 13 players (12 active plus 1 inactive)
b) The NBA guarantees a league-wide average of at least 14 players per team
For this reason, there are actually a number of NBA teams that have fewer than 15 players under official contracts. For the 2021-22 season, the following teams went in with just 14 players under standard NBA contracts: Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors, and Utah Jazz.
Teams also have two-way contract players
Since the 2017-18 season, NBA teams will also sign two-way contracts which give the opportunity for G League players to spend some of the year playing in the NBA. While these players are part of the team, there are various conditions, like having to honor their G League commitments and not being able to play in the playoffs unless their contract is converted to a regular NBA contract.
Each team has 2 two-way player “slots” they can fill, and these players do not count towards the 15-man official roster limit. Two-way players are therefore often considered to be the “16th and 17th men” on a roster, in addition to the usual 14 or 15 standard contract players.
…and teams also sign 10-day contracts
Primarily used as a way for a team to manage unpredictable spikes in injuries of permanent players, teams can temporarily sign free agents on 10-day contracts to help make up the numbers. 10-day contract signings can normally only be signed after January 5 in a normal league year, unless the NBA grants a team additional hardship exceptions.
Revisiting our calculation
So, based on these factors, every NBA team roster you see online will typically be made up of 16 to 19 players, because they include two-way players and 10-day contract players signed during the year.
For this reason, the total number of NBA players seen in any given league year will normally exceed 500 players.
- The total number of active players at any given time is 390 since each team can only have 13 active players at any given time.
- Many players spend very little time playing in actual NBA games, but they are still important as insurance and train with the team during practice.
- The number of players participating in the NBA playoffs is substantially lower than the entire season total because only 16 teams participate.
- Fun fact: some players have NBA game appearances but register zero minutes played during the season because the NBA rounds playtime to the nearest minute—and they play less than 30 seconds over the entire season!
How many players have played in NBA history?
Obviously, while prior seasons have each seen around 500 players make NBA game appearances, many of the seasons will see the same faces. In fact, there are 8 players who have played 20 NBA seasons or more! These players are:
- Vince Carter (22 seasons)
- Dirk Nowitski (21 seasons)
- Kevin Garnett (21 seasons)
- Kevin Willis (21 seasons)
- Robert Parish (21 seasons)
- Jamal Crawford (20 seasons)
- Kobe Bryant (20 seasons)
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20 seasons)
There are many other players close to joining these players in the record books, such as Los Angeles Lakers stars Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom have played 19 seasons to date.
Given the fact that most NBA careers span multiple seasons, the actual number of players the NBA has ever seen since its founding in 1946 is actually around 4400. That’s an insanely low number, and not even enough to fill a quarter of Madison Square Garden seats.
NBA Total Player Count Vs. Other Major Leagues
We’ve just established that the number of players who ever suited up for NBA games is under 5000.
By comparison, Major League Basketball (MLB) has seen around 20,000 players in its (admittedly much longer) 150-year league history, while the National Football League (NFL) has seen over 25,000 players suit up for a game since its inaugural season in 1920. The National Hockey League (NHL) comes closest to the NBA figure, with around 8000 players participating in the league since 1917.
All this means that NBA players and former NBA players belong to the most exclusive club in major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada! For many players, the prestige of playing for the NBA will no doubt mean more than their outrageous salaries.