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|What do these three have in common? They've all managed to put off The Change.|
I was there when it happened to Julius Erving: Nov. 9, 1984, Philly at Boston, the night his five-year rivalry with Larry Bird went up in smoke. Bird outscored Erving 42-6 in three quarters before words were exchanged and, incredibly, two of the league's biggest stars started fighting at midcourt. Imagine two kids getting their picture taken with Santa, then imagine their faces if Santa got into a brawl with the Easter Bunny. That was Bird fighting Erving. Their scuffle was so preposterous that it overshadowed the real story: Julius Erving had gone through The Change. He was great, and then he wasn't. And it happened overnight.
Sift through NBA history and you'll notice that, for modern superstars, The Change occurred somewhere between the 900th and 1,200th career game (including playoffs) for everyone except Karl Malone and John Stockton, who fended it off because of their extraordinary work ethics, their signature play (an unstoppable pick-and-roll that they could have run into their 50s), Utah's altitude (which may have given them a conditioning advantage) and the little-known fact John Stockton is actually an alien. An NBA career is really pressure over time: knees are Shawshank's prison wall, games are Andy's rock hammer, and that hammer just keeps chipping away. Eventually, your career gives out. That's the rule.
Or, that was the rule. Because Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are fending off that rock hammer in ways that have to make us wonder if we're headed for a historical revamping along the lines of the steroids era blowing up baseball like an "Angry Birds" grenade. Everything we thought we knew about basketball is changing ... and for all the right reasons, too. (Well, unless you're Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo.) They are beneficiaries of undeniable advantages over everyone who played before them: better doctors, surgical procedures, dieting, drug testing, trainers, computers, video equipment, workout equipment, workout regiments, airplanes ... even pillows are better.
Check out the career numbers (regular season and playoffs) for Allen, Pierce, Nash, Nowitzki and Bryant for games, minutes, minutes per game and seasons played.
All right, get ready for a second group of perimeter stars that also includes two other pieces of information: the season they went through The Change, as well as their drop in win shares from the previous season. (Note: I'm not a huge fan of win shares, especially because the stat doesn't show how someone like Jason Kidd or Gary Payton slipped defensively almost overnight, but it's the simplest statistical way to show a player's decline.) And keep in mind, Bird's career and Magic's career ended prematurely; Jordan missed multiple seasons because of his two retirements; and Kidd is obviously still playing (post-Change). Anyway ...
Translation: If you're a perimeter guy, no matter how talented you are, you should go downhill between Season 12 and Season 14 unless you're a freak shooter (like Miller) or an actual alien (like Stockton). So how do you explain our five aforementioned career freaks? Let's look at them again through last Wednesday's games measured by the per-36 minute averages for points/rebounds/assists, field goals/free throws/3s attempted, and percentages for field goals/free throws/3s, as well as advanced metrics for usage rate (the percentage of possessions which involve that player when he's on the floor), player efficiency and win shares per 48 minutes:
I know, I know. You expected a sports column, not an AP math exam. But for each player, the differences between 2008 and 2011 are so subtle, you can barely tell the years apart. If Jennifer Aniston looks as good three years from now as she does right now, you'll know she had some work done. If Obama's hair doesn't look any grayer than it does right now, you'll know he colored it. But five elite players defying all laws of career gravity like that?
Really, it's the first wave of something Malcolm Gladwell and I tackled 13 months ago, when we wondered if Kobe's generation would accomplish things we had never seen before. I listed those modern advantages (training, dieting, etc) and mentioned that basketball players have a better chance of succeeding now. Gladwell piggybacked the point by bringing up capitalization rates (how efficiently any group makes use of its talent), deciding that "there isn't more talent than before, but there is -- for a variety of reasons -- a more efficient use of talent." Somehow we never connected the dots to Gladwell's concept of outliers: that outside factors can affect someone's success or failure more than we realize.
Nash, Pierce, Kobe, Allen and Nowitzki? NBA outliers. All of them. Their extended primes might last 15-20 percent longer than anything we've seen from a perimeter player before. A closer look:
Nash: He's already the career free throw percentage leader (and along with Mark Price, one of two players over 90 percent). He should be able to leapfrog GP, Isiah, Oscar and Magic on the career assists chart and settle at No. 3 (behind Stockton and Kidd). And if he bumps his career field goal percentage from 49.1 percent to 49.5 percent, he could retire as a virtual 50-40-90 guy.
Twenty years ago, Nash's troublesome back would have derailed his career much like Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson and Mark Price were betrayed by their bodies. No more. In 2011, if you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. When Steve Nash turns 38 next month, he will be playing point guard at a level that nobody 35 years old has played it. Unless, of course, he snaps because his bosses blew up a Western Conference finalist and saddled him with Vince Carter (the one guy in the league who represents everything that Nash is metaphorically against), then either retires or hires Robert Horry to repeatedly body-block him into a scorer's table until his back gives out.
Pierce: This has been his "Linda Hamilton in 'Terminator 2'" season -- he showed up in spectacular shape and swayed his Hall of Fame chances. With Pierce's shooting touch, high basketball IQ and herky-jerky half-court game, I see him playing at this level for two more seasons after this one, followed by a three-year drop-off and retirement ... and if it plays out that way, he's a serious threat to retire with 27,500 points (moving him into the top nine all time) and official John Havlicek 2.0 status. It's true. Insert "lame joke from a Lakers fan saying that Springfield needs to get the wheelchair ready" here.
Allen: I hope you enjoyed the "Reggie Miller versus Ray Allen" debate. It's been over for a year. Right now, Ray ranks second in 3-pointers made (2,543, just 17 behind Reggie; nobody else is within 800 of them) and second in 3s attempted (6,388), only he's made 40 percent of them (one of 40 players who can say that). He's also the fourth-best free throw shooter ever (89.4 percent). Given his phenomenal work ethic, we can safely say 25,000 points, 3,000 made 3s and a 45-40-90 career percentages are in play. I just don't think we're seeing that again. His extended prime made him the most efficient shooting guard who ever lived; throw in his clutch shooting numbers (see sidebar) and it's been a wildly underrated career.
Other than Reggie, you know who the biggest loser is here? Sam Presti, who made a totally defensible trade when he was rebuilding Seattle around Kevin Durant in 2007 (Allen and the rights to Glen Davis for the rights to Jeff Green, Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract) and never imagined he was giving up five or six more killer Ray Allen seasons. I can't wait for the "40 for 40" documentary about the 2007 draft in 10 years.
Nowitzki: I can't decide if he's moving into the Barkley/Malone discussion (for best modern power forward not named Tim Duncan or Larry Bird) or the Larry Bird/Rick Barry discussion (for best offensive forward ever), but there's definitely been some moving. It's a junior version of the Kobe/Michael thing: Nowitzki's peak can't come close to matching Bird's peak, but his freaky consistency and legendary summer work ethic makes a Bird/Nowitzki career comparison closer than you'd think.
For 11 straight seasons, he's been the best player on a contender. Grab any Dirk season from 2001 to 2011 and it will look something close to his career numbers (22.6 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 48 percent FG, 38 percent 3FG, 88 percent FT, 23.8 PER, 0.213 WS/48, 27.0 usage rate, 58.1 true shooting). And he hasn't slipped even a little. I asked ESPN's Marc Stein, the Gayle to Dirk's Oprah, whether 2011 Dirk looks any different than 2001 Dirk or 2007 Dirk. His response: "He's a little creakier, but it's not like his first step was ever the key to his game. He's shooting the ball as well as he ever has. He's like a surgeon now, he just carves up anything you throw at him. [Erik] Spoelstra told me that, too -- he said the stuff [Miami] did in 2006 just doesn't work anymore."
Quick tangent: For whatever reason, basketball fans don't care about career NBA numbers like baseball fans care about baseball numbers. I see four reasons for this: (1) baseball has been around almost twice as long as basketball; (2) baseball's signature threshold numbers are famously identifiable (500, 3,000 and 300), as are the players who broke its major records, whereas your average sports fan would struggle to answer questions like "Who leads the NBA in career scoring?"; (3) statistics matter more in baseball because it's an individual sport; and (4) we need to throw ourselves into baseball statistics because the sport itself is so f------ boring. If we were eating lunch and I told you, "Johnny Damon has 2,571 hits right now," that would mean something to you. If you're a true baseball fan, you would process that information in 0.008 seconds and think, "He needs 429 for 3,000, that's doable!" But if I told you "Dirk Nowitzki has 21,925 points right now," you wouldn't think anything other than, "That's a lot."
Well, only 19 players have ever topped 25,000 points. Only 10 players (I'm including Kobe, who will get it next week) have topped 27,000. Only five players have topped 30,000. Only two (Kareem and Mailman) have topped 32,500. And then there's Dirk, who should be close to 23,000 by the end of this season and grinding out 1,700-1,900 points for at least three after that ... and we haven't even covered the final phase of his career, his late 30s, when he hangs on for an extra four years as the greatest version of Sam Perkins ever. Barring injury, we'll have our first foreign-born player in the 30,000 Point Club. Throw in longevity, durability and eye-popping shooting percentages (for his career, he's a 48-38-88 guy right now) and suddenly we're talking about one of the best 15-18 players ever and the best foreign-born player other than Hakeem. Pretty high stakes. Twenty years ago? He'd already be in the Fat Sam Perkins stage. With equally horrible hair.
Last footnote on Dirk: With advanced metrics slowly taking over basketball for better and worse, Dirk should be one of the big retroactive winners historically, a little like how the sneaky-great Tim Raines dropped the "sneaky" about two years and 550 homicidally impassioned pro-Raines sabermetric essays ago. I was there for Dirk, and I was there for Bird. It's no contest. (These three YouTube clips explain everything: "Why You Don't Mess With Larry Bird," "Larry Bird 47 Points vs. Portland (the Left-handed Game)" and "Larry Bird Greatest Passer of All-Time.") But Nowitzki's PER, win shares and true shooting percentages are better, and as long as you throw out MVPs, titles and overall impact, and you skew longevity, you can make a great case that Dirk Nowitzki was better than Larry Bird. I will now light my game-worn Bird jersey on fire with me in it.
Bryant: Not much at stake historically other than MJ's six rings, Kareem's scoring record, Magic's "Greatest Laker Ever" title and Jordan's undisputed title as the GOAT. You know, just the usual stuff. Even with some subtle signs of slippage -- specifically, his 3-point accuracy and his willingness/ability to get to the line, both reflections of an ailing right knee -- when I caught him in person on Tuesday night (the Utah blowout), it looked like the same Old New Kobe to me: he scored 21 points in 26 minutes, controlled the game and even shifted into Eff You Mode once (when Raja Bell angered him in the third quarter, prompting Kobe to demand the ball and then shoot a gorgeous 12-foot turnaround in his mug).
He's gone from being a breakaway running back to being one of those guys who grinds out 4.4 yards a carry. Keep the chains moving. That's all he does now. It's like he calculated exactly how many jumps his knees had left, put his last 435 or so quality bursts in reserve like Vin Diesel's nitrous canister in a "Fast and Furious" movie, then vowed never to break one out unless he absolutely needed it. On a breakaway in the third quarter on Tuesday, with fans screaming for a dunk, Kobe jumped off two feet and gingerly shoved the ball through the rim. Sorry, everybody. You can't waste that nitrous canister switch in a blowout.
Maybe he'll never soar through the air like he once did, and maybe he no longer has the luxury of saying, "We need a basket -- I think I'll just beat my guy off the dribble, get into the paint and beat their big guys to the rim" like you or I would decide to go grocery shopping. But Kobe's arsenal of Jedi Mind Trick upfakes, stutter-steps, spin moves and start-and-stops rivals everything Jordan had. He brings it every quarter and every play, much like Jordan did, which is the highest compliment you can give somebody. And he knows Gasol, Fisher, Odom and Bynum so well by now that, as crazy as it sounds, Kobe's chemistry with his teammates might be his single best asset.
You could say he's delivering nearly the same production as before, just in a slightly different way: a less dominant version of Jordan's final Chicago season. For All-Star Weekend next month, NBA.com is creating highlight reels from every Kobe season since 1997; these sneak peeks from 1998 (his second season, when he had Griffin-like ups) and 2005 (his athletic prime) illustrate how much his game has changed over the years. Kobe 1.0 relied on phenomenal athletic ability alone. Kobe 2.0 blended that athletic ability with a scorer's mentality. Kobe 3.0 was basically Kobe 2.0 with better teammates and a better attitude. Now we're watching Kobe 4.0, someone who should be slipping ... only he wouldn't let it happen.
Of course, if you believe what Kobe told Peter Vecsey last week in a rare interview, his body is starting to break down. Kobe admitted that he didn't practice for the first two months of the season and "has very little cartilage under his right kneecap, it's basically bone on bone." Hmmmmmm. Could there be some gamesmanship there? Why would Kobe -- the guy who kept everything under wraps for so many years, the guy who tried to pretend last spring that beating Boston didn't matter because he didn't want to show any signs of weakness -- suddenly be admitting his mortality and pulling the Fred Sanford Memorial "Look Out Elizabeth, I'm Coming To Join You!" routine?
Whatever his shelf life looks like, one thing's for sure: We've never seen anyone do this before. No perimeter player has ever made first- or second-team All-NBA after passing the 1,200-game mark; Kobe will almost definitely do it this year. He's going to hit 27,000 points next week in a season in which he passed Oscar, 'Nique, Ice, Hondo and (this weekend) Hakeem on the list. And he's fighting off The Change like nobody since Karl Malone.
Full confession: I never liked Kobe. (Crap, you knew that. I forgot.) But it's tough watching any great player go through The Change. Especially in basketball, the most naked of our professional sports: Just 10 players wearing sleeveless jerseys and shorts, with fans sitting as close as three feet away and devouring every expression, every nuance, every move, everything. When a baseball player slips, we give him the benefit of the doubt: Maybe it's a slump, maybe it's his catcher, maybe his arm is bothering him, maybe he's playing in the wrong ballpark ... you could never definitively say, "Write that guy off." Same for a football player: Maybe his quarterback sucks, maybe his hammy is bothering him, maybe it's the offense, maybe it's the system, maybe it's his offensive line, maybe it's his coach. We realize after the fact football players are washed up, or right at the very end. In basketball, you know right away.
I thought that day was coming for Kobe Bryant. He had other ideas. So did Nash, Pierce, Nowitzki and Allen. Everything we ever thought we knew about basketball is being rewritten. Twelve-year primes are going to stretch to 15. Fifteen-year careers are going to stretch past 20. The 20,000 Point Club will become the 30,000 Point Club. It's not just that records will be made and stretched, or that we'll be seeing things we've never seen before. For the first time, basketball records might actually start mattering beyond "100 points," "72 wins," "33 straight," "11 rings" and "However Many Points Kareem Ended Up With."
And if you want to think about something truly frightening, consider the following four things ...
1. LeBron James passed 16,000 points a few weeks ago. It took him fewer than 600 games.
2. Barring injury and a prolonged lockout, by the end of his 10th season (2012-13), LeBron should be sitting at 22,000 points.
3. If LeBron plays the next seven and a half seasons 85 percent as well as he played the previous seven and a half seasons, he'll be sitting at 30,000 points, 7,500 assists and 7,500 rebounds ... and he'll be 33 years old. A few months older than Kobe right now.
4. Like it or not, we are all going to be witnesses.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller "The Book of Basketball," now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.
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