Rare is the NBA player that lasts into his late 30s that isn't, or at one point wasn't, a star. Case in point: there were nine players during the 2015-16 season who played at least 500 minutes and were age 37 or older by February 1st, the league's cut-off date for determining "how old" a player is during a given season. Of those nine, seven of them (all but Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni) had made at least one All-Star team at some point during their NBA career; five had made the team at least ten times.
Let's talk about those five.
There was Kobe Bryant, whose real career ended, for all intents and purposes, when he tore his Achilles back in 2013. He hung on valiantly these last few years, gutting through injury after injury and hoisting shot after shot, but he was never the same. It was a minor miracle that he stayed healthy through last season's extended circus of a farewell tour, but no reasonable person would tell you that he was a positive force on the floor, let alone anything resembling the player he once was.
There was Kevin Garnett, who also hung up his jersey for good this offseason, but didn't make it through last season in one piece. Injuries and age kept KG off the court for all but 38 games. When he did suit up, he garnered south of 15 minutes a night, and his role became more that of mentor and guide to the next generation of T-Pups than basketball player as the season wore on.
There was Tim Duncan, who exited stage right this offseason as well, and unsurprisingly in a much quieter way than Kobe or even Garnett. He didn't even show up to his retirement press conference—not that we really expected anything less. Duncan looked more or less the same on the court as he always had for the Spurs, but for first time in his career, you could say he wasn't the player that defined the Spurs as a team. He had a below-average usage rate, his Player Efficiency Rating dipped below 21 for the first time in his career, his metronomically consistent per-minute averages dipped outside of their norms, and his defensive rebounding numbers tailed off to their lowest point since his first two years in the league. He's still Tim Duncan, so of course he led the entire damn league in Defensive Win Shares despite finishing 187th in minutes played, but he was no longer a star in the truest sense of the word.
There's Paul Pierce, who announced last month that the upcoming season will be the last of his storied career, but who already was a shell of himself for most of his reunion season with Doc Rivers in 2015-16. Pierce began the season as a starter and ended it getting spot minutes when he wasn't being DNP-CD'd, shooting 36 percent from the field and 31 percent from three in between. He couldn't herk and jerk his way past perimeter defenders anymore, and he couldn't stay in front of them on the other end, either.
And then there is Dirk Nowitzki, who, even while increasingly resembling a mummy, still manages to put forth a near-star level performance. His per-minute numbers at age 37 last season look remarkably similar to those he compiled at age 27. There was a three percent drop in shooting from the field and three percent from three, and he went to the free-throw line only about two-thirds as often, but otherwise he appeared to be largely the same player. The man can barely move anymore, but his ability to be both tall and devastatingly accurate with his jumper at the same time have extended his tenure as a foundational offensive force beyond that of any of his peers.
What Nowitzki is doing at his age, at his size, is quite literally unprecedented. In NBA history there have been 17 seasons where a player 6'10'' or taller, aged 30 or older, has attempted at least 100 three-pointers and 500 two-pointers and connected on at least 44 percent of his tries from the field and 35 percent of his tries from three. Eight of those seasons belong to Nowitzki, who has now done it every single season since turning 30.
His mere presence on the court, along with the warlock wizardry of the great Rick Carlisle, has been enough to carry the Dallas Mavericks to the playoffs in all but one of those seasons—the exception being the year where Nowitzki himself missed 29 games. Even with a revolving group of castoffs at nearly every spot around him in the lineup during that time, Nowitzki has consistently been, well, consistent. He just keeps picking and popping and posting and toasting and letting fly with that high-arching jumper, then watching it splash through the net before casually jogging back on defense.
And there's no sign of any of this letting up; his gravitational force is still as strong as ever. He's paired with five different teammates (Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis in 2013-14, J.J. Barea in 2014-15, and Raymond Felton, Deron Williams, and Barea again in 2015-16) over the past three seasons in pick-and-roll combinations that yielded at least 1.10 points per possession, according to data gleaned from the NBA's SportVU cameras. His post-ups are still among the most productive in the NBA as well: the Mavs scored 1.13 points per possession on Nowitzki post-ups last season, per the SportVU data, third best among players with at least 250 post-ups. They were at 1.15 points per possession in 2014-15 and 1.21 in 2013-14; each of those figures was the best in the league.
Teams know they have to stay attached to Nowitzki in pick-and-roll coverage, so it leaves the lane wide open for whichever teammate happens to be rubbing his man off Nowitzki's screen. Teams know he can still get off that one-legged fadeaway whenever he wants, so they have to send an extra man at him when he catches the ball in the post—and even that doesn't always help. Those two skills have helped Nowitzki maintain his status among the league's stars (he was an All-Star as recently as the 2014-15 season), but even if the ability to get off that post-up jumper fades away, he should still be able to transition into another phase of his career as a sort of seven-foot Miami Heat–era Ray Allen if he wants to.
All Allen did for two years in Miami was run around, drag defenders away from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and knock down open jumpers when his man leaned even an inch toward one of those stars. Is there anyone in their right mind that doesn't think Nowitzki could do the same if he happened to find himself surrounded by star teammates at some point? The big German's undying loyalty to Mark Cuban and the Mavericks in an era where more and more stars find themselves playing for other teams late in their careers is admirable, to be sure, but because Cubes has struck out time and time again when star-chasing in free agency, Nowitzki has been unable to unload his burden in the way that so many other star players have. Those strikeouts have given us all a chance to see Nowitzki do unimaginably rare things these past few seasons, but it'd be nice if, at some point in the next few years, we could also see him freed of having to carry the entire team on his back.
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