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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.

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


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Amare Stoudemire, Lamar Odom's "Lucky Game" and What it Means to be a Superstar

After Lamar Odom had 19 points and 19 rebounds as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Phoenix Suns 128-107 in game one of the 2010 Western Conference Finals, the Suns' Amare Stoudemire dismissed Odom's effort as a "lucky game." The Lakers went on to win that series and eventually capture the 2010 NBA Championship but during a red carpet interview at the ESPYs Stoudemire stuck to his guns when an L.A. reporter asked him about that remark:

Starting around the 1:36 mark in the above video, Stoudemire said, "I was just being honest. That's all. But they played great; they did a great job during the season. Congratulations to those guys and Lamar personally for winning another championship. It is a great accomplishment."

"Lucky" literally means "occurring by chance." How unusual was it for Odom to tally 19 and 19 during a 2010 game? He averaged a career-low 10.8 ppg and 9.8 rpg while playing in all 82 regular season games, scoring 19 or more points just eight times; the most rebounds that he had in any of those games was 13 (his season high for rebounds was 22 and he had just one other game with at least 19 rebounds). In 23 playoff games, Odom averaged a career-low 9.7 ppg and 8.6 rpg; the 19-19 game was easily his most productive contest (during the postseason he had two 17 point games--both against Phoenix--plus a 15 rebound game versus Utah).

Stoudemire's comment may have been ungracious and it may have been an unwise thing to say in the midst of a playoff series but--from a literal standpoint--it was quite true: a 19-19 game by Odom is truly something that happened "by chance."

However, in a game of skill nothing really happens purely "by chance." The skill set based reason that Odom had a wide open path to the hoop for layups and rebounds is that the Suns had to double team Kobe Bryant--who still scored 40 points on 13-23 field goal shooting--and then rotate a defender to Pau Gasol, who took advantage of the Suns' scrambling defense to notch 21 points on 10-13 field goal shooting. The Suns managed to create the worst of all possible worlds from their perspective: they neither slowed down Bryant nor corralled Gasol and in the process of focusing on those players they let Odom run amok.

Although the numbers mentioned in the previous paragraphs provide a rough draft version of what happened, this game--meaning both game one of the Lakers-Suns series in particular and the game of basketball in general--can only be completely and deeply understood by actually observing the action with an educated eye. Bryant played with great force, aggression and energy and his actions manipulated the Phoenix defenders like chess pieces being moved around by a grandmaster: Bryant created open shots for himself and his teammates and the disruption left in his wake helped Odom to snare a game-high seven offensive rebounds. Bryant's value is expressed not merely by his statistics but also by the impact that his actions had on both his teammates and on his opponents.

Contrast Bryant's approach with the by now notoriously indifferent way that LeBron James played during Cleveland's series versus Boston, particularly in game two and game five. Many people who watched those games--from Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert to sportswriters to casual fans--say that James quit. That is a very incendiary charge to make--it is the worst accusation that one can make about an athlete other than saying that he intentionally threw a game (throwing a game means purposely trying to lose, while quitting is simply not trying while being indifferent to the outcome). A player's shooting percentage, good or bad, does not really tell us whether or not he quit: a player can try very hard but have an off night (think Ray Allen during the NBA Finals after he set the single-game record for three pointers made and suddenly could not hit the broad side of a barn with a medicine ball) and a player can drift through most of a contest but score some buckets in a flurry to pad his statistics.

The striking thing about James' performance versus Boston in games two and five is how lethargically he played; he rarely attacked the hoop, which means he put no pressure on Boston's defense. If James had been injured and out of the lineup entirely or if the team had had some idea that he would just quit in the middle off the series then the Cavs could have run some offensive sets involving other players--but how do you just take the ball out of the hands of the reigning two-time MVP? The other Cavs' players looked confused and hesitant, waiting for James to be aggressive.

Most of the published comparisons of James' supporting cast with Bryant's supporting cast have been nonsense. Yes, Bryant had the benefit of playing alongside one of the NBA's 15 best players, All-NBA Third Teamer Pau Gasol--but during the 2010 playoffs Bryant also played alongside a one-legged center, a small forward who never quite learned the team's offensive system, a point guard who was older and slower than the starting point guards on the other elite teams, a sixth man who was terribly inconsistent and a bench that was so unreliable that earlier in the season Coach Phil Jackson said that their performances made him feel like vomiting. James' supporting cast was not perfect but it included three players who have made the All-Star team as recently as 2008 plus a fourth player who is a two-time All-Star; the Cavs' remarkable depth and balance enabled them to play "big" or "small" and to overcome injuries, trades and other disruptions en route to posting the league's best regular season record for the second year in a row.

People can crunch "advanced basketball statistics" as much as they want but the major difference between the Lakers and the Cavs during the 2010 playoffs is that Kobe Bryant played aggressively and thus maximized potential opportunities for himself and his teammates, while LeBron James literally acted as if he could not wait for the season to be over so he could rip off his Cavaliers' jersey and head for (what he presumes to be) greener pastures. The phrase "making one's teammates better" is a cliched, imprecise way of saying "Great players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well"--and Odom's "lucky game" is a perfect example of this dynamic. If James had played with more aggressiveness then it is much more likely that one or more of his teammates would have had a "lucky game" versus Boston; that does not mean that James should be held entirely responsible if some of his teammates perform below their expected levels but it does mean that when the best player on the team stops trying hard it is logical to expect that the efforts and productivity of his teammates will be adversely affected.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM