The aging of the NBA's prodigies
The talk around the office water cooler has been especially grim lately as the realization hits home that, beyond just money, what so many of us are losing in this economic strife is time. Time, as in seeing your 401(k) dialed back to 1997 levels. Time, as in losing a decade's worth of presumed equity in your home. Time, as in the 40 hours each week that soon might be freed up by your downsizing employer (no more water cooler then, either).
Not that this is going to soothe your pain any, but imagine now a trio of cubicle dwellers joining your little gloom squad. Their green-and-white, wine-and-gold and Forum blue-and-gold garb is definitely business casual, but they are facing a significant time-warping of their own: the possible loss of several years from the back ends of their careers.
It's a very different sort of problem from yours or mine. Instead of having to work longer before retirement, a cluster of NBA stars might arrive there sooner than they or anyone else expected. The issue: Did the players who turned pro directly out of high school from 1995-2005 help themselves to four extra NBA seasons, or did they simply start drawing down early from a finite account of available minutes?
In other words, did
There is mounting evidence to suggest that's the case:
• Garnett has been out since Feb. 22 with a muscle strain in his right knee. That makes this consecutive seasons interrupted by a midseason injury break (he sat out nine in a row last winter with a strained abdomen) for a guy who missed a total of 13 games across his first 10 seasons. Recently, Garnett joined
In Boston's second game this season, Garnett became the youngest player to participate in 1,000 NBA games, reaching that threshold at 32 years, 165 days. Obviously, had he spent a couple of years at Michigan (his college program of choice, had he gone), Garnett would have been at least 34 (and 165 days) by the time he clocked quadruple figures in appearances.
• Bryant was a hoops prodigy -- the youngest player in NBA history when he made his Lakers debut in 1996, the league's youngest All-Star the following season and so on -- but prodigies are guaranteed nothing in terms of longevity; just ask
Here's another way to gauge Bryant's mileage:
• James is a tender 24 and physically still is transforming, if not actually growing. But he already has 18,411 on his odometer, a big number even if they're mostly highway miles. The Cleveland forward has been around long enough, playing at such a high level -- five All-Star selections, perhaps a first MVP award this season, a career average of 40.6 minutes that ranks fifth in league history -- that it's fair to wonder if he's still trending up. Or if we've already seen the best of him. James' age would suggest the former, but his games log could argue the latter.
The point, though, isn't to compare their totals or their averages. The point is to gauge where each was (or is) at, at a similar stage of his career. Robertson, through six seasons, had played 44.2 percent of his eventual 1,040 regular-season games, but he already had scored 52.4 percent of his points, dished 49.8 percent of his assists and grabbed 58.7 percent of his rebounds. His final eight seasons -- which included four years as Abdul-Jabbar's sidekick and Robertson's lone NBA championship -- were less productive (though still good enough for six All-Star trips). He averaged 21.9 points, 8.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds, worthy of a max-salary contract today but still a decline across the board personally.
It's just enough statistical evidence to call into question those who automatically say, "Wait 'til LeBron hits his peak at age 27 or 28.'' Maybe James' peak is now, shifted earlier by his hastened ... well, his hastened
"He might have as much mileage on him [by age 30] as an '82 Volvo by then,'' Wizards coach
Modern training techniques, better nutrition and today's lavish salaries (no offseason jobs necessary, a platoon of masseurs, trainers and skill coaches at the ready) suggest that players ought to be capable of sustaining longer careers. Robertson was done at 35, same as West,
For now, it's hard to know what the end results will be for the preps-to-pros players; their sample size is small and we haven't seen their end games. It's like holding off on Lasik surgery because we haven't seen enough septuagenarians come through that particular pipeline yet. Malone, who started in the ABA without benefit of college, stuck around for all or parts of 21 seasons. But
Said Tapscott, a longtime NBA personnel executive before taking over for
So in lieu of answers, we're left with questions: Will the NBA's precocious ones wind up with supersized résumés, challenging all sorts of records for career this and lifetime that? Or is pro basketball activity somehow fixed, like -- some baseball scouts would contend -- the available pitches in a starting hurler's arm? If that's the case, starting sooner might invariably lead to finishing sooner, at least as an impact player.
We do know that several of the players at least talk about feeling old beyond their years. Garnett, though he used to glare at his Timberwolves coaches for yanking him to the bench for rest, would admit quietly how ground down he'd get even in his late 20s. His statistical drop-off since joining the Celtics is largely by design, sure, but also a function of his mileage. Bryant makes frequent references to his elder status, from shooting down queries about the slam dunk contest to his availability as an old guy for the 2012 Olympics. McGrady told SI.com's
It's all just enough to make you wonder what the Brooklyn era of James' career -- or the next Cleveland phase, however the chips fall in 2010 -- really will be like. And whether, when the time comes, we'll know where the time went.