5 NBA Veterans with Only 1 Good Season Left

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2012

5 NBA Veterans with Only 1 Good Season Left

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    The NBA has flourished in the last 25 years on the strength of its stars. More than any other professional league, David Stern's Association has specialized in marketing its stars to the public, successfully creating recognizable icons that NBA fans could identify with and embrace.

    But that strategy has an obvious pitfall: Stars burn out. Eventually, Michael Jordan dims. Hakeem Olajuwon fades away. Larry Bird doesn't shine as brilliantly.

    Newer, brighter stars take the places of their diminishing predecessors. Kobe Bryant ascends. Shaquille O'Neal comes into focus. Dirk Nowitzki lights up arenas. The NBA constellation changes shape over time, but never stops sparkling.

    Rarely do NBA stars burn out spectacularly like explosive supernovas. Instead, they fade gradually from season to season, outshone slightly more each year by the new generation.

    Sometimes, though, aging stars dig deep, gathering the last traces of brilliance from reserves once thought to be bottomless. For these waning stars, one last gasp is all that's left.

    Here are five NBA veterans who've got just one more great season in them before they fade away.

Paul Pierce

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    Paul Pierce is a true rarity in modern sports, having played his entire 14-year career with the Boston Celtics. He's been an All-Star 10 times, won the NBA Finals MVP in 2007-08 and, of course, won a title in 2008.

    Pierce is unquestionably a Hall of Famer, and he'll certainly have his number in the rafters in Boston whenever he decides to call it quits.

    But there's some major wear on his tires.

    Only 38 players in NBA history have played more minutes than Pierce has. And his usage rate is 18th all-time. Aside from playing heavy minutes and having the ball a ton, Pierce's extreme aggression on offense has earned him more than his fair share of contact—he checks in at No. 19 in career free-throw attempts. All that adds up to a long career that has taken its toll on Pierce's body.

    Pierce's prime ended about six seasons ago, when he posted a career-high PER of 23.6 in 2005-06 (per Basketball Reference), but he's maintained a surprisingly high level of play during the twilight of his career. His PER since he turned 30 years old has remained steadily between 17.7 (2008-09) and 19.7 (2010-11).

    But how has Pierce managed to stay so effective at an age when most wing players are barely surviving? According to John Hollinger, Pierce has lasted into his 30s by becoming an exceptionally efficient scorer. He'll have to somehow maintain that impressive efficiency amid demands for more volume this year.

    Because now, Pierce will have to shoulder an even heavier scoring load than in years past. Ray Allen's departure to the Miami Heat leaves Pierce with less help on the offensive end, so No. 34 will need to dig deep in another 82-game battle for Boston's survival in an increasingly young and talented Eastern Conference.

    Jason Terry is on board, and Jeff Green may provide some relief, but Pierce will be alone as the Celtics' only wing capable of consistently drawing contact and earning easy points.

    Pierce's career is winding down, but if he's proved anything during his tenure in Boston, it's that he's as gritty as they come. He won't quietly allow his Celtics to be eclipsed by Derrick Rose and the resurrected Chicago Bulls, the budding Miami Heat dynasty or the upstart Brooklyn Nets—not yet, anyway.

    Paul Pierce has one more great season in him this year. And the Celtics are going to need it.

Kobe Bryant

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    Unlike Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant has actually shown clear signs of decline during his past couple of seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Last year, the lockout-shortened schedule clearly took its toll on Bryant, who logged some of the worst numbers of his illustrious career (excluding his first two seasons, when he started a total of seven games). Bryant's three-point shooting (30.3 percent), field-goal percentage (43 percent), assist rate (23.7 percent) and true shooting percentage (52.7 percent) were all the lowest they've been in over a decade.

    Despite all that, Bryant led the league in usage at a staggering 35.7 percent. Anecdotal analysis of Bryant's game last year supports the statistical proof that Kobe continued to dominate possessions despite his diminishing efficiency.

    Athletically, Bryant is a shadow of his former self. But he's compensated by changing his game dramatically. In place of lightning-quick slashes to the hole, Bryant has substituted a deadly mid-range jumper and the best post-up game from the guard spot since Michael Jordan.

    The career numbers provide even more reason to believe that Kobe is on his last legs, though. Among active NBA players, Bryant is fifth in games played at 1,161. And in that same group of active players, he's logged the third-most minutes.

    When you also consider that Bryant has tallied 220 playoff games during his career (good for third all-time) and has accumulated 8,641 playoff minutes (only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more), it becomes even clearer that Bryant is due for a major decline.

    But not yet.

    The Lakers' mind-blowing makeover this past summer gives Bryant as good a supporting cast as he's ever had. With Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in tow, Bryant will be more motivated than ever to prove he's got one last elite season left.

    Bryant's new running mates should take some of the pressure off of the 34-year-old star, affording him more easy shots and allowing him to play less than the 38.5 minutes per game he logged last year.

    Kobe Bryant is already on the short list of the NBA's greatest players, but after so many games, minutes and shots, he can't be expected to last forever.

    Fortunately for the Lakers, Bryant only needs to put together one final championship-level season before the lights start to dim on his great career.

Kevin Garnett

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    Kevin Garnett is the only star left shining from the 1995 NBA draft. The Boston Celtics' 17-year veteran is 36 years old and has played in 1,255 NBA games.

    Nobody is supposed to last this long, but Garnett's never been much for precedent. He was the first player in over 20 years to enter the NBA draft out of high school, and for almost two decades, he's played the game with a fierce disregard—which, at times, has bordered on disrespect—for opponents.

    Garnett's fanatical desire to win at all costs has made him one of the most hated players in the league, but it's also kept him going as his physical gifts have left him.

    Over the last five seasons with Boston, Garnett's age has forced him to change the way he plays. With his athleticism fading, Garnett transformed himself into a defensive anchor, screen-setter and mid-range assassin. During his tenure in Boston, Garnett has been one of the NBA's best defensive players, impacting the game in ways traditional stats don't measure. Fortunately, there are more advanced ways to document Garnett's value.

    ESPN's John Hollinger said the following of Garnett's 2010-11 season:

    Of course, the offense is just a sideshow -- where Garnett really shines is on defense. Opposing power forwards sometimes got numbers on him, but that was because KG was busy shutting down other players with his help defense. The Celtics, already a great defensive team, gave up 6.19 points per 100 possessions fewer with Garnett on the floor, according to basketballvalue.com. His Synergy numbers sparkled -- among power forwards, only Chicago's Taj Gibson outrated him -- and the more advanced "regularized" adjusted plus-minus metric estimated he was worth more than six points per 100 possessions to Boston's defense -- the most of any player in the NBA last season.

    And last year, Garnett's value remained practically unchanged.

    But his knees are creaky and the minutes are piling up. It's amazing that Garnett has retained the productivity of a legitimate star into his middle 30s, but sooner or later, his body won't let him continue to shine.

    This year, KG will be able to summon one last brilliant season, if only through sheer will power and defiance. But he'll be 37 by the time the postseason rolls around, and it's difficult to imagine him continuing to be effective into his late 30s.

    KG has one final season to rage against the encroaching darkness of mediocrity. Don't expect him to burn out without a fight.

Tim Duncan

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    People have been trying to write Tim Duncan's career obituary for years, citing declining production, injuries and age. "This year" is always the year the San Antonio Spurs icon's career is supposed to fizzle out.

    But it never seems to happen.

    Sure, cursory analysis shows that Duncan's scoring, rebounding and blocked-shot numbers have been in steady decline since 2008. But anyone who points to those cumulative stats as evidence that Duncan's slipping is missing the point.

    Duncan's really just playing less. The Spurs have made a concerted effort to decrease his minutes since 2006, and it's been working. Duncan has actually been nearly as productive of late as he was during his run as a perennial MVP candidate from 1999 to 2006.

    A look at Timmy's per 36-minute averages (again, courtesy of Basketball Reference) reveals that his prorated stats are still MVP-worthy. For example, last year, Duncan averaged 19.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes. His career averages, on a per 36-minute basis, line up almost exactly with those figures.

    So, in short, Duncan can still get the job done at a phenomenal rate. He just can't do it in big minutes.

    Expect to read a lot about the Spurs' ever-closing window and Duncan's fading skills as we near training camp. But don't believe any of it.

    There will come a time when Duncan's body won't even let him play the 28 minutes per game he's been averaging the past two seasons. But that time is not now. Duncan's still got something left, and he'll be as crafty and polished as ever this year.

    Of course, another 82 games, plus the Spurs' usual playoff run, won't be kind to Duncan's legs—he's the same age as Kevin Garnett. His run will come to an end sooner than later, but it's much more likely to come after one last hurrah this season.

    The greatest power forward to ever play has one more year left in him.

Shawn Marion

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    Shawn Marion hasn't been a star for a while now, but the Dallas Mavericks combo forward has remained an excellent role player since leaving behind the run-and-gun offense of the Phoenix Suns in a midseason trade during the 2007-08 campaign.

    A four-time All-Star with the Suns, Marion made stops in Miami and Toronto before landing in Dallas, where he played a critical part in the Mavs' championship run two years ago.

    Marion's game has always been based on his superior athleticism. He's a remarkably quick jumper whose lift, combined with a wholly unorthodox offensive game, have made him an effective offensive player. On defense, Marion's length and versatility have made him a massive annoyance for opponents.

    But after a renaissance year in 2010-11 that saw Marion post the best numbers and highest efficiency since his days in Phoenix, the Matrix regressed last season. His scoring averaged dipped to 10.6 points per game, the lowest average since his rookie year, and he was far less efficient from the field.

    Marion's decline could be attributed to a championship hangover, but there's just too many examples of players like Marion—who desperately need their athleticism to get by—struggling to survive after their gifts start to dissipate.

    The Mavericks struck out twice after taking big swings at Deron Williams and Dwight Howard this past offseason. But they rummaged through the scrap heap and came up with an interesting, but possibly very good, collection of talent to put around the ageless Dirk Nowitzki.

    The Mavs need Marion this year more than ever.

    Marion will be counted on to defend and rebound as he always has, but may also be forced to shoulder a larger scoring load without Jason Terry around this year.

    If Marion's struggles last season were attributable to letting his foot off the gas after winning a title, and possibly the lockout-shortened training camp, he should be able to get in shape and showcase his unique combination of athletic talents for one more season.

    But after this year, during which Marion will turn 35, betting on the 13-year veteran to keep things going is highly questionable. And if Marion needs a reminder of what happens to stud athletes after they lose their bounce, he can look down the bench at teammate Vince Carter, whose career fell off a cliff after his hops left him.

    Marion's star has been fading for a few seasons, but it'll shine for one more year before age and declining athleticism snuff it out for good.