Final Destination: NBA Legends Facing Down Father Time

The road to retirement is a long one, and it’ll always start with this: He’s slowing down. He’s not the same player anymore. As they say, you can’t cheat death and you can’t escape Father Time when the hands start squeezing you, your breaths become shorter and the life starts dripping out of your legs. Final Destination.

But in this new age of the NBA, there are more ways than ever to prolong your career. New surgeries, nutrition, around-the-clock trainers, Yoga, even all of the splendid amenities that come with playing professional basketball, they all help to do what no one thought possible even 10-15 years ago: make a player’s relevancy last for longer than 15 years.

Just look at guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Tim Duncan and Ray Allen. The oldest player on that list is Nash at 37 (doesn’t that sound incredible). The youngest player out of that whole group is Kobe (who will turn 33 in about a month). Every one of these All-Stars was relevant (Nash is probably the only one you can make a case for that he wasn’t) before the turn of the century, which is mind-boggling considering it’s now halfway between 2011 and 2012.

So now it’s becoming a game: when will these players fall off? Age doesn’t quite matter as much as miles. If you push yourself to a certain degree, it can work both ways: yes, you may stay in shape and become a better player, but the grind of a 24/7, 365-day season could end up costing you a year or two of shelf life. It’s a fleeting thing, this Father Time. You never know when it’ll hit.

But what about next year? How will some of these old-timers play? Will the fall off? Do they have one year left in them? I did some research and tried to match the players up with guys from the past who are most comparable. The one thing about all of these players that separates them from the others? They’ve had no major injuries. Nicks here and there, but nothing really major, just the type of injuries you would expect from players who are nearly 15 years in the league.

Kobe Bryant: 33 years old (as of next season), 48,000+ minutes, 14 seasons
Dirk Nowitzki: 33 years old, 41,000+ minutes, 12 seasons
Steve Nash: 37 years old, 38,000+ minutes, 14 seasons
Paul Pierce: 34 years old (as of next season), 40,000+ minutes, 12 seasons
Ray Allen: 36 years old, 45,000+ minutes, 14 seasons

I took one comparison and tried to match up the minutes played. For example, Bryant has amassed 48,000 minutes. MJ didn’t reach that number until his final season in a Wizards’ uniform, so that’s the season I will be comparing to…

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Ray Allen (2010-2011)- per 36 minutes: 16.5 ppg…3.4 rpg…2.7 apg…1.0 spg…49, 44 & 88 percentages
Reggie Miller (2002-2003)- per 36 minutes: 15.0 ppg…2.9 rpg…2.9 apg…1.1 spg…44, 36 & 90 percentages
It’s pretty obvious which way Allen is going. His numbers have been dropping every season since he came to Boston (with the slight exception of 2009, when KG was hurt). But if Miller is the blueprint, Allen should be fine. In Miller two final seasons after 2002-03, he saw his production drop (predictably) before rising back to nearly 17, 3 & 2.5 (per 36) in his final season at 39 years old. This might be because that happened to be the year Artest missed because of his suspension and the entire organization was in flux.

Still Allen should have at least two more years of the production he’s giving now considering he’s younger and probably an even better shooter than Miller ever was. With his numbers slightly down, but his shooting percentage is higher than it’s ever been, it’s obvious what’s happening with Jesus: he’s getting less shots, but the ones he IS getting are great looks.

Kobe Bryant (2010-2011)- per 36 minutes: 26.9 ppg…5.4 rpg…5.0 apg…1.3 spg…45, 32 & 83 percentages
Michael Jordan (2002-2003)- per 36 minutes: 19.5 ppg…5.9 rpg…3.7 apg…1.5 spg…45, 29 & 82 percentages

This is a tough comparison. Jordan was 39, turning 40, and retired after the season so Kobe is entering territory that not many perimeter players have ever gone to. The amazing thing about Bryant’s year last season was while his averages were down, so were his minutes. Per 36 minutes, he actually averaged the third-highest point total of his career (that’s either a good thing or a bad thing if you’re a Laker fan). Still, he fell off in the playoffs.

Actually, maybe a better comparison for Kobe is John Havlicek (53,000+ career minutes). The season he crossed Bryant’s minute barrier (48,000), Havlicek averaged (per 36) 17.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.9 apg with 45/82 percentages at 36 years old. The following season, his last, those numbers dropped slightly to 17, 4 & 4 with 45/86 percentages. That doesn’t tell us a whole lot besides Bryant’s numbers will probably drop slightly. Really, there is no way to tell what will happen with Kobe. He’s in uncharted waters to a degree for similar off guards. He could play one more great year and fall off or maybe slide into retirement. Who knows?

Dirk Nowitzki (2010-2011)- per 36 minutes: 24.2 ppg….7.4 rpg…2.7 apg…0.7 bpg…52, 39 & 89 percentages
Karl Malone (1997-1998)- per 36 minutes: 26.0 ppg…9.9 rpg…3.8 apg…0.8 bpg…53/76 percentages

I went with the Karl Malone comparison because there really isn’t anyone else to compare Dirk too. I originally thought Larry Bird would be the choice, but because of his back issues and the fact that his minutes didn’t completely stand up, I thought this comparison between two consistent power forwards could work better.

Amazingly, Malone’s production didn’t drop off for another three years. It wasn’t until he was 38 years old did we see his numbers per 36 minutes go to 21 & 8. Still, this year (1998) was the last time the Jazz made the Finals, and it also marked the end of Malone’s prime. The next year, his scoring (26 to 22.9 per 36) and his rebounding (9.9 to 9.1) dropped off and he entered a new era where he was still an All-Star, but wasn’t really all-world (even though he won an MVP in the lockout year, which REALLY should have an asterisk).

Dirk has actually already hit that point. We might not realize it, but his prime was about a four-to-five year stretch between 2004-2009. His minutes are the lowest since he became a starter, and his rebounding is slowly going. In his prime, he averaged close to 10 rebounds a night. Last year, he was at 7.0. Because he seems to have the same lasting powers as Malone, plus he has an unstoppable jumper, Dirk will continue to be an All-Star for probably three more years, averaging something like 22 & 6 a night with ridiculous percentages.

Will he ever put up MVP-type numbers again? I doubt it, although he did just finish up busting everyone a few months ago, so who knows.

Paul Pierce (2010-2011)- per 36 minutes: 19.6 ppg…5.6 rpg…3.4 apg…1.0 spg…50, 37 & 86 percentages
Alex English (1990-1991)- per 36 minutes: 15.7 ppg…5.2 rpg…2.2 apg…0.8 spg…44 & 85 percentages

English didn’t hit Pierce’s minute totals until his final season because he so rarely played deep into the postseason – only 2,427 total playoff minutes – and often had long summers. Still, English’s numbers during the entire decade of the 1980s are eerily similar to Pierce’s career arc. It wasn’t until his final season that his play dropped way off.

During that year at 37 years old, English’s scoring dropped 50 percent, as did his assist numbers, while his shooting fell off the map as well (49 to 44 percent). Not a great sign for Pierce fans.

We can also use the Havlicek comparison again (since it works here as well). At 33 years old, Hondo’s minutes matched up with the Truth’s and he averaged (per 36) 20 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 5.2 apg with 46/83 percentages. In his final four seasons, Havlicek’s points dropped every year, and his rebounds and assists ever year but one. With his percentages staying relatively the same, basically, Hondo just couldn’t do for 40 minutes a night anymore (more like 25-30 a night).

If Pierce follows this formula, next year he should still average about 17, 5 & 3 a night (with the potential for much more when the C’s call on him).

Steve Nash (2010-2011)- per 36 minutes: 15.9 ppg…3.7 rpg…12.3 apg…0.7 spg…49, 40 & 90 percentages
John Stockton (1996-1997)- per 36 minutes: 14.7 ppg…2.8 rpg…10.7 apg…2.1 spg…55, 42 & 85 percentages

Incredibly, Stockton played another six years after he hit Nash’s minute barrier, and somehow, his 36-minute numbers didn’t suffer at all. Six years later, he was still putting up 14, 3 & 10 with a couple steals every 36 minutes. The difference though, and it’s a big one: Stockton’s minutes dropped from 35 a night during 1996-97 to 27.7 in his final year while his shooting percentages at that point were the lowest we had seen from him in nearly a decade. He couldn’t do it for a full game any longer.

Nash is a few years older so even if we add that into the equation – Nash stays in just as great a shape as Stockton did – the two-time MVP should slowly fall off. That’s a good thing. If Nash were to play until he’s 40, that would give him a few years to move into retirement, a few years to watch his numbers dwindle.

The thing with Nash is that while hit scoring and percentages will take a slight hit next year, he’s averaging the most assists he ever has. I think he’ll have one more year before he starts to slide. But if Nash can get on a good team, his minutes should drop and we might not even notice the slide.

What do you think these guys will put up next year? Who is most likely to fall off?

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