How Many Players Are There On A Basketball Team?

Most of us know that basketball is a game played between two teams, and that, at least at the start of each game, both teams must have the same number of players on the court.

However, in this article, we will dig a little deeper into the rules governing the number of players in a basketball team, and explain instances where things may not be as straightforward as they seem.

While a standard senior basketball game is played between two teams, each of which has five players on the court at any one time, replacements are allowed during a game and in the intervals between periods for a number of reasons.

Also, the speed at which player interchanges often happen during a basketball game can occasionally mean that a team has, for however short a time, more than five players on the court. If this happens, or is reported to the referee, he can call a technical foul against the offending team, which results in their opponents being awarded one free throw.

What’s The Difference Between A Basketball Roster and A Basketball Team?

The simplest way to explain this is that the roster is the name given to the entire squad named for an individual basketball game by the coach or manager, while the team is the collection of players from among that roster who are on the court at any one time.

A coach usually names more than the minimum number of five players for a variety of reasons. First, and most obvious, players can succumb to an injury in the course of a game, and might need to be replaced. Also, the use of up to five substitutes allows the coach to make changes for tactical reasons.

What makes the answer to the question posed in this article’s title a little more difficult is that the NBA even stipulates that teams can vary the size of their roster depending on what stage the season is at. At the start of a season, a team is allowed as many as 20 players on its roster, but this number will be reduced to 15 as the season goes on. 

How Come Some Basketball Players Hardly Ever Get A Game?

While basketball players do not have to adopt fixed positions on the court, most teams consist of members who specialise in one position over all others, and a handful who are skilled at playing in all areas.

A good example of a specialist position is that of guard. These players are usually the shortest and quickest in a team, and are very good at dribbling and passing, so their main purpose is to use these skills to set up scoring chances for their taller, more physically imposing, team-mates.

The whole squad, that is both the players who are on the court most of the time, and seen as the first choices, along with those not chosen to be on the court at the start of a game, or who are used in specialized positions which may only be required for a small part of it, are together referred to as a roster.

Every player will, of course, be aiming to earn a place among his coach’s active roster, but even this doesn’t guarantee them more minutes on the court than any of their team-mates. Many players that fall into the category of a ‘bench player’ won’t even be given any time on the court, simply because in the coach’s view, the game does not warrant him using their particular skills.

A coach will generally want to be able to call on at least two such players as part of his roster who are specialists in playing particular roles, be it in attack or defense, whom he can add to his team depending on the circumstances his team is in at any point in each game.

Those on the active roster may also have to be at least a little versatile, and be able to cover more than one position on the court. However, the specialist players may only be given game time against certain opponents, because the coach will have some idea of how to expect them to play, and where he can use their particular skills to their greatest effect.

In exceptional situations, at elite NBA level a team coach can ask the league for a hardship exemption which will allow him to replace a maximum of four players who are unavailable through injury. This exemption is intended to help prevent a team from falling out of the league simply because of an unusually high number of injuries.

How Many Basketball Players Are Allowed On The Court At Any One Time?

Five players from each team are allowed to be on the court at any time, but as we explained earlier, a coach can pick a roster of double this size, that is 10 players, for each game at the most senior level, for example for an NBA fixture. The elite-level league’s rules also state that, when a team takes to the court, it must have a minimum of eight players kitted up and ready to play immediately. If a team does not have a full five players on the court within 15 minutes of a game’s official start time, or all five aren’t on the court within one minute of the referee signalling to start the game, then that team will forfeit the game.

The figure of five active players was arrived at over a period of time, but when the game was first invented, by James Naismith in the 1890s, his YMCA class consisted of 18 students, which he split into two teams of nine, simply to ensure that everyone got a game.

However, on the first official drafting of the rules of basketball, it was decreed that the game should be played between two teams of five players, and it has stayed that way ever since.

Teams usually place their most valuable players in their ‘first five’ starting line-up, and there is fierce competition among these and the players on the roster beneath them for each of those precious places. However, as explained earlier, the more versatile a player is, the more likely he is to be able to start every game, as he is likely to be able to adapt to a coach’s different game plans.

Are There Any Variations Allowed In The Number Of Players In A Basketball Team?

Certainly. At college and other junior levels, the sport is all about giving as many players as possible the chance to find where their strengths lie in a competitive environment.

So high school and junior high school teams can have as many as 20 players on their roster, with their match-day squads consisting of 15 of those players. Many, however, don’t have the resources to produce so many players to a competitive standard, so they will vary the number on their roster between 15 and 20 for each game, taking into account factors such as the quality of the opposition, and the importance of each individual game.

At every level of basketball, every coach wants to have enough players on his roster to be able to field his strongest possible line-up, and to have reserves available capable of covering for any of his team who foul out during a game. As we have explained, this is why the answer to our headline question is far more complex than just taking into consideration those players the spectators see in the thick of the action at any one time.