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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fountain of Youth: Life Begins at 40 for These NBA Players

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

Ponce de Leon never found the fabled Fountain of Youth. Maybe that's because he never met Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Kevin Willis. They seem to have discovered the secret to eternal (or at least prolonged) youth.

It is rare for a pro basketball player to continue playing past his 40th birthday and almost unheard of to be productive at that age. Before John Stockton only two players logged significant minutes in the season during which they reached their 40th birthday: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Abdul-Jabbar turned 40 near the end of the 1986-87 season, during which he averaged 17.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg. He made the All-Star team and his L.A. Lakers won the NBA title that year. He increased his averages to 19.2 ppg and 6.8 rpg in the 1987 playoffs, but his statistics declined in his final two seasons.

Parish was still a credible center when he turned 40 before the start of the 1993-94 season, during which he produced 11.7 ppg and 7.3 rpg for the Boston Celtics, who did not make the playoffs. Parish played three more seasons, setting an all-time record with 21 seasons played, but his numbers dropped dramatically. In 1996-97, his final season, he played less than 10 regular season minutes per game for the eventual champion Chicago Bulls and appeared (briefly) in only two of their playoff games.

Michael Jordan's career has traversed a tremendous arc, starting as a young buck shattering scoring records for a mediocre Chicago Bulls team. Then he became the driving force behind the Bulls' "three-peat" run of championships. After that he retired at the height of his abilities, a la Jim Brown. Jordan's ensuing attempt to play pro baseball was scuttled by his refusal to cross picket lines during Major League Baseball's labor problems in 1994.

Jordan's remarkable comeback to basketball in 1995 saw him ascend once again to the top of the NBA as he led the Bulls to three more NBA titles. After that Jordan seemed to ride off into the sunset for good, at least as a player--but he soon realized, as he put it, that he had a competitive "itch" that needed to be "scratched."

This second comeback brought his career full circle; he was once again a high scorer on a mediocre team--except as an old Wizard he scored less and lost more than he did as a young Bull. Jordan's second comeback ended after two seasons with no playoff appearances and a pink slip from Wizards' owner Abe Pollin, so it certainly was not an unqualified success. On the other hand, Jordan had some notable accomplishments during his last tour of duty in the NBA.

In 2002-03, the season during which Jordan turned 40, he played all 82 games, averaging 37.0 mpg, slightly lower than his career average of 38.3. He produced 20.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.8 apg and 1.5 spg. He twice captured Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors in 2002-03: from December 30-January 5 he averaged 22.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 5.3 apg and 2.25 spg as the Wizards won three of four; from February 24-March 2 Jordan posted 24.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 4.8 apg, again leading the Wizards to three wins in four games.

During 2001-02 and 2002-03 he rang up eight 40-plus point games, with the Wizards winning seven of them, including a pair of victories against the Nets, the Eastern Conference Champions in both seasons. Just days after his 40th birthday, Jordan scored 43 points in an 89-86 victory over the Nets on February 21, 2003, becoming the oldest player in pro basketball history to score at least 40 points in a game. Jordan scored just enough points as a Wizard to retain the career ppg title at 30.1 ppg, edging Wilt Chamberlain.

Most importantly, Jordan's performance--and the standard of professionalism that he set for practices and games--lifted the Wizards from 19 wins to back to back 37 win seasons. That 18 game improvement indicates that Jordan still had the impact of a superstar. He may not have been able to "attack the citadels," as veteran NBA Assistant Coach Johnny Bach picturesquely describes the young Jordan’s bold forays to the hoop, but Jordan did hit several game winning shots. The team's winning percentage had declined for three straight years before Jordan donned a uniform and early returns in 2003-04 suggest that the Wizards will not get close to 37 wins without Jordan any time soon.

Time has hardly dulled the sharpness of Karl Malone's game (or his famed elbows, which have already provided free dental work to Steve Nash and Corey Maggette this season). Playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant has decreased Malone's scoring, but his passing and rebounding skills are still quite evident.

Malone, who turned 40 on July 24, 2003, became the oldest player to post a triple double (10 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) in a 103-87 win over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on November 28, 2003. This broke a record that Elvin Hayes had held for almost 20 years; Hayes was a 38 year old Houston Rocket when he totaled 16 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists on April 13, 1984, also versus the Spurs.

Malone is pursuing Jabbar's career scoring record and his first NBA title. Coming in to the 2003-04 season Malone needed to average 24.5 ppg while playing all 82 games to pass Jabbar. Clearly, he will neither play in 82 games nor approach 24.5 ppg. Assuming he plays at least 70 games in 2003-04 and 2004-05 Malone will need to average a little over 14 ppg to claim the top spot. Only a severe injury or completely unanticipated sudden loss of skill will deprive Malone of the career scoring crown.

Stockton continued to rank among the yearly assists, steals and field goal percentage leaders when he turned 40. He long ago placed the career assists and steals marks out of sight. His 15,806 regular season assists (10.5 apg, second best career average to Magic Johnson’s 11.2) are almost 5600 ahead of Mark Jackson. How big a difference is that? A player with 5600 assists would rank in the top three dozen playmakers of all-time, ahead of Hall of Famers Dave Bing, Walt Frazier, Gail Goodrich and Hal Greer.

Stockton's 3265 regular season steals (2.2 spg) are 751 ahead of Jordan, who ranks second on the career list with 2514. Scottie Pippen, the highest ranking active player, is nearly 1000 steals behind Stockton. Stockton's durability is even more remarkable considering that he is only 6-1, 175 pounds.

Kevin Willis has never been a star of the magnitude of Jordan, Malone or Stockton but he does have an NBA championship ring, an All-Star game appearance (1992 as an Atlanta Hawk), over 17,000 career regular season points and nearly 12,000 regular season rebounds. He is currently playing in his 20th NBA season. Willis plans on playing two more years after 2003-04, which would enable him to surpass Robert Parish for most seasons in an NBA career. He is no longer a starting player and does not log heavy minutes, but Willis is still in outstanding physical condition and provides a valuable inside presence as well as locker room and practice floor leadership for the San Antonio Spurs as they defend their NBA title.

What are the common denominators among the 40 and over set in the NBA? Good genes and the good fortune to avoid a career ending injury definitely play a role, but each of these players increased his chances for longevity by having tremendous dedication to fitness and conditioning. This enabled them to not merely stick around for many seasons but to be durable enough to seldom miss a game.

Stockton played all 82 games in an astonishing 16 seasons, plus all 50 in the lockout year. Until 2003-04 Malone never missed more than two games in a season, with many of the absences due to suspension, not injury. Jordan was sidelined for most of his second season by a broken foot, but he did play 80 or more games in 11 years despite his high flying style of play that left him exposed to a lot of contact. Willis did not display quite the same level of durability as the others, but he has always been respected and admired for his intense workout regimen that not only helped to lengthen his career but also produced one of the most impressive physiques in the league.

There are several players whose work ethic and ability to avoid serious injuries make them potential future members of the NBA’s 40 and over club. Prior to 2003-04, Malone's Laker teammate Gary Payton never missed more than three games in a season. Kevin Garnett has never missed more than five games in a season. Tim Duncan has played all 82 games in four of his six seasons and logged 81 in another year. Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller displayed impressive durability for much of their careers and are closer to 40 than those three, but nagging injuries may force them out of the game before their 40th birthdays.

Life Begins at 40

Player Year Statistics/accomplishments



Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1986-87 17.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 56.4 fg% (fifth in NBA) in reg. season; 19.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg in playoffs.
All-Star. Won NBA title.









Robert Parish 1993-94 11.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 49.1 fg% in reg.season; DNQ for for playoffs.






John Stockton 2001-02 13.4 ppg, 8.2 apg (fifth in NBA), 51.7 fg% (fifth in NBA), 1.85 spg (10th in NBA) in


reg.season; 12.5 ppg, 10.0 apg, 2.8 spg
in playoffs.






Kevin Willis 2002-03 4.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg in reg.season; 2.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg in playoffs. Won NBA title.






Michael Jordan 2002-03 20.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.8 apg, 82 games, 3031 reg. season minutes; DNQ for playoffs.
All-Star.






Karl Malone 2003-04 14.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 3.7 apg, 50.6 fg% after 24 games.

Note: Statistics/accomplishments are listed for each player for the season
in which he turned 40.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM

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2 Comments:

At Thursday, July 22, 2010 6:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steven

David,

Curious to hear what your take on this is. I realize that its difficult to compare two players who were both teammates and played different positions, but who did you feel was the superior player between Stockton and Malone?

In spite of Malone winning the two MVPs, I've always felt that the Mailman was more replaceable than Stockton.

 
At Thursday, July 22, 2010 11:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Steven:

You are quite correct that it is difficult to compare Malone and Stockton precisely for the reasons that you mentioned. That said, the edge that I would give Stockton over Malone is that Stockton was a better performer in the clutch. Malone was a marvelously conditioned athlete who worked on the weaknesses in his skill set (free throw shooting, passing, etc.) but he often had the propensity to not play his best when the stakes were highest. Most players' field goal percentages drop during postseason play because the competition is tougher but Malone's field goal percentage fell from .516 to .463, including 10 postseason runs in which he shot .455 or worse, which is terrible for a power forward who went to the hoop so frequently.

 

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