I’ve been watching a lot of preseason NBA ball this past week, and it looks like Charles Barkley is still correct. Eventually Father Time conquers all.
There’s a litany of aging NBA stars playing out what may be their last professional contracts over the next couple of years – Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen if he signs somewhere, and maybe even Tim Duncan (that group in 2006 would have been the best team ever). I’m leaving Dirk off the list not because he isn’t an aging star but because it looks like his style of play will allow for a gentler slope of decline. Timmy probably belongs off the list with Dirk for a similar reason and because Pop takes such good care to protect him from the rigors of the 82 game season.
I’ve seen all of the Lakers preseason games, and 36 year old Kobe Bryant bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to 38 year old Michael Jordan of the Washington Wizards. The skillset is still there. He has all those familiar moves carefully crafted over an NBA lifetime spent winning scoring titles and championship rings. But the grace is gone, that athletic lift that put Kobe in another stratosphere.
Bryant has always taken and made a lot of tough shots. That’s part of his mystique. He can get up a shot with a chance to go in from anywhere at any time against anyone. But it’s getting to be more difficult to add easier, more efficient scoring possessions to those tough ones. The blow-by ability off the first step is harder to come by. The explosive dunk over the top of a help defender in the lane is a rarer highlight. Losing that ability to slash into the paint at breakneck speed and fly through the air at the rotating defender cuts down on trips to the free throw line. One drive per game that used to result in a drawn shooting foul that is now counted as a missed shot or a turnover becomes a huge hit to a player’s efficiency rating.
For the first three preseason games, Bryant has a TS% of 0.416. He has scored 34 points on 36 shot attempts with only 11 free throws attempted in 3 games and 0 made three pointers (he’s only attempted 1 three-pointer). Three games is a meaninglessly small sample, especially in the preseason. And the first two games weren’t so bad (3-13 in game 3 brings the total efficiency down a lot), but I watched the games, and I see real problems. Too many fade away jumpers against set defenders. Too few open shots off quick hitting attacks. Too many dribbles to get into the lane. It doesn’t take much in terms of a slower step or lower elevation to put the defense in position to impact those field goal attempts.
I saw all the same things with Jordan in Washington. A string of games where he seemed to play pretty well but when you looked at the box score his shooting was under 45%, and he barely got to the line followed by a putrid 30% shooting game and very few high 50% or unicorn-rare 60%+ shooting games to balance things out. In his youth and even the tail end of his prime, MJ would pepper his game log with really great shooting nights to offset the mediocre games. As a Wizard that just didn’t happen because even when he was making the majority of his tough shots, he still wasn’t getting himself enough easy opportunities (free throws and layups). So games that would have been 50+ points on 70% shooting for a younger MJ wound up being 35 points on 55% shooting for #23 in blue. They were exciting to watch, all the more so because so many of his makes were on tough, contested shots, but the end result was that what should have been a spectacular game was merely a good game. This is the territory that Kobe appears to be entering.
The problems Steve Nash faces are even more obvious. Once the premier fast break and pick and roll point guard of the league, Nash now lacks the quickness to get by defenders or turn the corner coming off screens with a live dribble. Pressure defense bothers him because he’s not a threat to blow by an off-balance defender and get into the lane. His handles are still good. His shot is still pure. And he was never a speed demon. Logically it would seem like his game could survive getting slower, but that little bit of separation he used to get is narrower than ever. He can still bounce in a perfect pocket pass or whip a lefty behind the back no look to the corner, but his scoring threat is severely reduced, which in turn means those open passing lanes are harder to come by as the opposing defense reacts less and less to his attempts to drive and shoot.
The defense is going too. Kobe can still put in a very solid effort one on one, but his days of wreaking havoc on opposing team offensive schemes are gone (and have been for a few years really). Nash was never much of a defender. Even KG isn’t dominant defensively anymore. He’s still sound in his rotations. He’s still seven feet tall. But he doesn’t close out on shooters like he used to. He can’t switch and stay in front of a dribbling guard for multiple seconds to snuff out a possession. His show and recover and other help defense actions are all a step slow.
Shaquille O’Neal was the first superstar I saw go from hyper-talented but raw rookie to dominant superstar to faded legend. I missed the first stage of that arc with the Jordan / Barkley generation, and I missed the first two stages with Bird and Magic. But the KG / Kobe era is close to me because I’m the same age as those players. To me they still seem like they should be young bucks in the prime of their careers, but stardom in the realm of athletics doesn’t work that way. So it’s time to lower our expectations and just enjoy the good moments when they come up. I’m sure Nash has one more game in his bones where he controls the tempo, gets the defense on a string, and makes his teammates all look like stars. And Pierce will hit a game winner and shout to the stands. And Bryant will toss in 50 hard-fought points. It just won’t happen often, and it won’t be easy.
Neil Young told us that it’s better to burn out than fade away. MJ and Kobe have taught us that even when your athletic flame has burnt out, you can still hit a fade away. Thank god that highlights are forever young.