Just do yourself a favor and save the retirement home jokes for the NBA’s elite older players.
Before 35-year-old Chauncey Billups tore his left Achilles tendon on Feb. 6, he was one of a handful of guys proving NBA effectiveness isn’t tied to an age range. Even calling Phoenix’s Steve Nash (38) and Grant Hill (39) “effective” misses out that the pair are the lifeblood of an otherwise nondescript Suns season. You already know about the Celtics’ Big Three, highlighted by Ray Allen (36), who’d be my No. 1 pick to be voted most likely to play past 45.
Elsewhere in the West, Marcus Camby (37) and Kurt Thomas (39) have helped hold together the Trail Blazers with their play on the frontline. The list goes on of course, but the fact an aging Billups still leaves such a void for the contending Clippers got us thinking toward the future. We wanted to forecast: Who will be the players best suited for success in their 30s?
Here are 10…
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Kemba Walker, 21 years old: He’s only a rookie, but his toughness makes looking into the crystal ball easier. He might be a shoot-first point at heart who’s able to control with the ball in his hand, but so was Billups as a Celtic rookie. He can learn to become a more complete passer with every year; What’s not up to debate is Walker’s conditioning and aforementioned grittiness. His month-long marathon last March at UConn from Big East tourney to NCAA title showed he can push his body to the limits and never let his production slip.
Stephen Curry, 23: Touch like his from three isn’t likely to fade, and neither will he physically fall apart, thanks to his father’s precedent. Dell Curry played 1,083 games over 15 NBA seasons and will no doubt be the road map for the younger Curry’s style in the next decade or longer. His usage rating is low for a green-light scorer, averaging 23.1 in his career according to Basketball-Reference. That’s on par with Charlie Villanueva, C.J. Miles and Rudy Gay, not Kobe. It also means he’ll still get his without the ball in his hands all the time.
Kevin Love, 23: Currently making his living with the best rebounding and three-shooting combo in the league â€” though both would be excellent enough to stand on their own â€” Love’s skillset is a shoe-in for long-range success. Some might see this as a knock on his athleticism, but it’s actually a compliment to his hoops IQ. Let’s call him what he is then: an extremely intelligent player whose youth belies his ability to find just-as-effective veteran shortcuts.
Nicolas Batum, 23: In his fourth season I’m still unsure how to classify Batum’s ever-expanding game, which leads me to believe he’s got one of the highest, hidden ceilings in the league. He can dunk on you (looking at you, Wizards) or drop nine three-pointers (looking at you, Nuggets). His defense is rapidly improving and is aided by his tremendous length, and yet he’s never shot less than 45 percent in a season from the field, and averages 37 percent from three. At 23 with almost four years of experience, he’s learned the ropes of the league while still saving his legs â€” he averages 25 minutes per game â€” in the process.
Rajon Rondo, 25: Going for 32 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds on Sunday against Chicago foreshadows Rondo’s career going forward as Jason Kidd‘s do-it-all successor. Don’t forget, he’s learning from three of the best right now in KG, Allen and Paul Pierce. One red flag is undeniably his history of injuries, but they come from the Celtic’s bloodthirsty competitiveness and not a chronic problem. The will to win reminds me of another Boston great, Larry Bird. He played through injuries to the point where he couldn’t walk, and something tells me Rondo will be no different going forward. Plus, in measurable attriubutes, Rondo owns the sixth-best assist percentage over the past five years, and that’s a stat line that can stay consistent with age.
Dwight Howard, 26: A Cybex machine disguised as a center, Howard’s shape will allow him to play as long as he wants. It’s not to say his Atlas-upper body would defray a twisted knee here or an ill-timed sprained ankle there, but his health record (nearly spotless) points toward him becoming another version of Karl Malone for the next decade or longer.
Luol Deng, 26: Defense, as Bruce Bowen or Bill Russell showed, paves the way for a long and effective career. Since he arrived in 2004 after his year at Duke, Deng (as well as Howard) are the youngest in the top 18 players with defensive win shares, an estimate of wins provided by a player solely because of defense. Quick, but 6-9, he can check guards through power forwards now. In age, that range will decrease but his on-ball guarding won’t. Think of how Grant Hill is used by Phoenix (often guarding an opponent’s best player) and you can imagine Deng in 10 years.
Kris Humphries, 27: He may be the NBA’s most despised player, according to Forbes, but Humphries will be on a roster for a long time because of his positioning when the ball is in the air. As Dennis Rodman (39 when he retired) and Camby have proven, along with countless rebounders before them, hops only go so far on the boards. Don’t hold Humphries’ casting on a certain family’s reality show against him. He’s pretty smart on the hardwood.
Chris Bosh, 27: Every aging star must come to terms with being a secondary player â€” and Bosh is well ahead of the curve here. How do you change your game while not losing what made you a star in the first place? Young guns looking to roam in Super Packs like the Heatles would be best to look at Bosh for the answer, after he went from a top-10 scorer to his new, but no less effective role. Fewer opportunities means knowing how to make them count, and he’s becoming more comfortable in South Beach Year Two by picking up the scraps and taking over when needed. And unlike Humphries, he’s not superb at rebounding technique, so having LeBron and Wade to share the workload with is saving his legs.
Joe Johnson, 30: Johnson can stroke from anywhere. This isn’t a revelation as much as it is a confirmation he’ll be doing it for years, ala Ray Allen and Reggie Miller. To prove this, just in case you forgot about him, he went into cold-blooded assassin mode beginning in mid-January by going for at least 23 in six of seven games (all in 11 days). He’s on the edge of his 30s already, but he’s a guy who will play late into his next decade because he can knock down shots, flat-out, and probably flat-footed.
Who do you think will be the best at each position as they get older?
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