Shortest vs Tallest NBA Player -Dive Into the Extremes of the NBA

Posted on 03 November, 2023 by Dimitrije Curcic

Will you have a better playing career if you are the shortest or tallest NBA player? It seems logical that the game played "above the rim" should be more suitable for the "giants".

However, we did an in-depth analysis of players who led the league in height and their colleagues on the other side of the scale. It turns out that, unless your name is Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, tallest players are not more successful than their shorter fellas. In fact, their careers are very comparable.

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Top 10 shortest and tallest players in NBA history

Shortest and tallest NBA player by season

Over the past 72 NBA seasons, 18 different players had the tallest NBA player title, while 19 names have been on the other side of the height scale. We're dealing with 37 basketball players as the leaders of the NBA height extremes. 

The list below displays the comparative overview of the shortest and tallest NBA players by season:

The data from the list are graphically presented on the chart below:

Changes in shortest and tallest players height have been following the evolution of how the game is played. The gap between the two groups was steadily growing until the 80s and then took a steep rise during the next decade. The gap started to narrow down during the first decade of the 21st century, followed by an even faster decline over the past 8 years.

Last season, the gap between the shortest and tallest player was the smallest in the last 30 years. We can expect this trend to continue in the future, as we're heading towards "positionless" basketball.

Shortest vs Tallest - a historic comparison

With the introduction of the 3-point line, the focus of the offense shifted from the paint to the perimeter, making the job very hard for the tallest players. We can say that Kareem was the last dominant tallest player in the league. Yao Ming had a good run, but it's interesting that his shooting percentages from the mid-range were better than from the paint.

Nowadays, there is not much room for the giants in the NBA. Boban Marijanovic, the tallest active NBA player, has an insane efficiency but averages only around 10 minutes per game.

On the other hand, even though he had struggled with injuries, Isaiah Thomas is also facing a reduced role in the team. One of the main MVP candidates just a couple of seasons ago is facing a huge problem, as guys who are guarding him are also getting taller and stronger.

Looking at the sum of the tallest and shortest player careers, here is how they stand head to head

The stats are not a surprise. Basketball, especially the NBA type of basketball, is a game played above the rim. It's logical that the shortest players in the league are making a much smaller impact on the game. 

On the other hand, just two players from the list of the tallest take most of the credit for their supremacy. But we'll get to that later. 

Here is how the average career of the shortest/tallest NBA player would look like:

The only aspect dominated by the shortest players is in assists. For about the same number of minutes spent on the court, the prototype of the average tallest NBA player would average 6 more points and 8 more rebounds per game, while shooting 51% from the field, as opposed to 43% by his shorter colleague.

The difference is also evident in Win Shares, both offensive and defensive. As the number of total games played and the number of minutes spent on the floor by both groups is nearly the same, these stats are pretty much valid.

Along with the stats, we also compared how many times players from both groups won some NBA awards - MVP honors, along with All-Star selections, All-NBA and All-Defensive teams. Here is how they stand:

After this comparison, the gap is even wider. But during the 72 years of the NBA, only the 3 shortest and 5 tallest players are deserving of all awards.

During the 50s, a 5'10'' Slater Martin was a 6-time All-Star and 5-time All-NBA second team member. Ralph Beard, also 5'10'' guard, added another All-Star appearance for the group of shortest, along with All-NBA first team honor. Until Isaiah Thomas' two All-Stars and one All-NBA second team a couple of seasons ago, no other shortest player got any of the NBA awards.

It's nothing different for the group of the tallest guys, neither. We'll show you in the graphic below how much Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar contributed. Aside from them, George Mikan (3x All-NBA first team, 1x All-Star), Manute Bol ( All-Defensive second in 1986), and Yao Ming (8x All-Star, 2x All-NBA second team, 3x All-NBA third team) are the only players from the list of the tallest with some of the NBA awards under their belt.

Giants of the 60s and the 70s

We've already mentioned a couple of times that two players take the most credit for the dominance of the tallest players over their shortest compadres. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the NBA for 20 years as no other players have done before or after them. 

To illustrate how these two giants (for their era) stand way beyond anyone from the group, take a look at how big their share is in total tallest player stats:

While playing only 35% of the total games and 50% of total minutes, these two NBA legends scored 60% of the total tallest players' points. They grabbed 60% of the rebounds, dished 70% of the assists, and collected 60% of the Win Shares from the group.

Looking at the awards, their impact is even greater. Wilt and Kareem combined 10 NBA MVP honors, along with 20 All-Star, 18 All-NBA, and 8 All-Defensive team selections. It's easy to beat the shortest players group when you have two of the best players in NBA history in your team. 

Let's imagine for a moment that Kareem and Wilt never played the game. We replaced them with the next tallest player and this is how tallest players stand versus the shortest in this case:

Without Chamberlain and Jabbar, it turns out that the difference is almost insignificant. Both groups are also comparable in practically every aspect. 

Even though the number of 7-footers increased during the 80s, influenced by Wilt and Kareem, they never made the same impact on the game, not even close as those two legends.

In the end, as all these figures show, it seems that there's no big difference whether you're the shortest or tallest NBA player. After all, the NBA is not a place for height extremes, at least not for a long time.

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Dimitrije Curcic
Dimitrije Curcic
Dimitrije Curcic has been playing basketball for over 22 years. Like Manu Ginobili, he’s a left-hander whose moves led him to a better career-shooting percentage than the Argentine himself. After playing professionally for 10 years, Dimitrije moved to coaching for two seasons before he became a basketball statistician for StatScore, and FanSided contributor for the San Antonio Spurs. Dimitrije loves to tell hoop stories through numbers and graphics and has been featured on Fansided, FiveThirtyEight, Eurohoops, and TalkBasket among the others.