Ranking the NBA's Aging Stars at Quarter-Season Mark

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IDecember 15, 2012

Ranking the NBA's Aging Stars at Quarter-Season Mark

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    The NBA may seem like a young man's game, but don't let the numbers fool you. The "old guys" can still play, and there's a handful who are playing instrumental roles in the success of their teams this season.

    One-quarter of the way through the regular season, there are a number of older stars who continue to put up great numbers. Some are simply mind-blowing in scope, given the fact they are playing big minutes and shooting the ball as well or better than at any time in their career.

    In a league where the average age is 27 and young teams like Oklahoma City are tearing it up with the likes of three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, there are also early-season surprises like the New York Knicks.

    The veteran Knicks are 9-0 at Madison Square Garden and 17-5 overall with a team featuring a mix of former champions, youth and geriatrics. The Knicks are proving that speed is not necessarily a factor in running an up-tempo offense—it's more about precision passing and hitting open shots.

    Likewise, the San Antonio Spurs continue to be a contender despite the fact that Tim Duncan is 36, Manu Ginobili is 35 and Tony Parker is 30.

    Just look at some of the teams that have started fast, and you'll find clubs that are not necessarily fast on the court—and players that are north of 30 who are still producing on a big stage.

    A few NBA old-timers are off to sluggish starts, but most of them are as good as at any time in their long careers. 

    Over the course of 82 games, some of these stars may fade in the midst of a grueling pace, while some will come on even stronger as the playoffs loom and their windows of opportunity shrink with each game.

10. Pau Gasol: L.A. Lakers Power Forward Needs to Recharge

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    This has been a trying season for the seven-footer from Spain, considered by many as the game's most skilled power forward over the past decade.

    There seems to be two schools of thought on Pau Gasol and the deterioration of his game under the direction of former coach Mike Brown last season and now Mike D'Antoni this year. 

    There's no question Gasol has looked lost in both systems, especially under D'Antoni and the hurry-up offense he has tried to instill on a Lakers team lacking in the proper skills to make it go. The Pau critics, who condemn him for being "soft" around the basket, now are shaking their heads and calling for management to trade him.

    The reality is that Gasol is averaging just 12.6 points on 42 percent shooting, the worst of his 11-year NBA career and some five points below last season's mark. He is a career 52 percent shooter.

    Based on his results alone, you'd have to give Gasol a C grade. But, there seems to be more going on here than a once-premier, All-Star player falling off the proverbial cliff because his skills have suddenly collapsed. 

    Pau Gasol is battling both physical and psychological issues. He has not played in six straight games due to tendinitis in both knees that he has probably had dating back to last season. Couple that with a coach who seemed to denigrate his importance to the team and his system from day one, and you've got the makings of a disastrous season.

    Don't expect Gasol's eye-popping low numbers to stay that way. Once he returns to action, the Lakers and D'Antoni will be wise to position Pau in the low post where he belongs and not out on the perimeter putting up 15-to-18 foot jump shots.

    D'Antoni realizes that Gasol is an integral piece; the coach needs to adjust his thinking instead of the player.

    "I'm not going to mess with Pau," D'Antoni said via ESPN.com. "He's too important to the team and he's earned it and he's too good of a player to even go there. That would be a last resort kind of desperate (move).

9. Manu Ginobili: It's All About Pacing and Being Ready for Postseason

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    At 35, Manu Ginobili is still one of the top penetrating off-guards in basketball who can also hit the occasional perimeter shot when his team needs it. 

    Much like last season, Ginobili got off to a somewhat slow start for the Spurs, but his numbers are still productive: 12 points and five assists in just 25 minutes per game. Ginobili is an integral part of San Antonio's quick start to the season. 

    Even after two recent losses, the Spurs have an impressive 18-6 record, and Ginobili is a big reason why. He continues to provide the Spurs with energy and intelligent play, both trademarks throughout his career.

    Ginobili has struggled early this year; he missed the first two games of the season with a back injury. But he is playing solid defense and distributing the ball extremely well in December, good signs for him and the Spurs.

    All told, Manu Ginobili is still a money player as witnessed by his 14.4 points per game average in last season's 14 playoff games for San Antonio.

    Coach Gregg Popovich knows what he has in Ginobili—a consistent star who hustles on both ends of the court and does the little things to win.

    And that has not changed this season.

8. Ray Allen: The Game's Best Pure Shooter Adjusting to the Heat

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    How in the world did the Boston Celtics let Ray Allen leave?

    Management there would tell you that Allen was a top priority, but the reality is that he plays for the rival Miami Heat now, and at 37 years old, he is still one of the best pure shooters in the league.

    The 6'5", future Hall of Fame shooting guard is making big plays for the Heat and could turn out to be the steal of the offseason—as if the Heat needs another big scorer.

    Allen has had to adjust to coming off the bench for the first time in his illustrious 17-year career. So far, so good.  

    Allen's career average is 15.4 shot attempts per game; this season, that number is 8.5. His minutes are down to 27 from his career average of 36.7, but these are all adjustments Allen knew about when he signed to play for the Heat.

    Allen is averaging 12.4 points on 50 percent shooting (46 percent from beyond the arc) for Miami, so his efficiency is as good as it's ever been.

    Boston offered Allen $12 million on a two-year deal, but he took less (just under $10 million for three years) to play in South Florida with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.

    It appears to be a great fit. The Heat are 14-6 with Allen and in second place behind the red-hot Knicks.

    Allen left the Big Three in Boston for the Big Three in Miami. He's the fourth option now, and that seems to be just fine for him.

7. Kevin Garnett: As Tough as They Come

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    Kevin Garnett could have called it quits several years ago and been a lock for the Hall of Fame.

    But that's just not his style. After toiling for 12 years with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Garnett left for greener pastures and world championships in Boston.

    It seems like he could play 'til 40.

    The 36-year-old Garnett is the model of efficiency for Doc Rivers and is averaging 16 points on 54 percent shooting while playing 29 minutes per game, despite losing Ray Allen to Miami.

    Those numbers actually top the previous four seasons that KG played in Boston, and he's playing two fewer minutes than he did a year ago.

    Heading into Friday night's game at Houston, the Celtics were 12-9 and adjusting to the loss of Allen. They brought in Jason Terry to replace him (11 PPG), but no one can really replace Ray Allen.

    Garnett continues to play at a high level. With Rajon Rondo (12.9) and Paul Pierce (3.5) combining for over 16 assists per game, Garnett is in a position to be an effective force for the foreseeable future.

6. Dwyane Wade: Still the Man in Miami

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    Believe it or not, but Dwyane Wade is in his 10th year with the Miami Heat and will turn 31 in January. And, despite the fact that he now shares the marquee with LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen, Wade still owns South Beach when it comes to hoops.

    A vintage Wade performance came during a recent 101-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, where he scored 26 points while making 11-of-13 shots from the field. He also had four rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes.

    This came on the heels of some comments Charles Barkley of TNT had made recently about Wade's overall game, in which he said (via ESPN.com), "He's starting to lose his athletic ability. He's not the same guy. I got a look at him in person. He doesn't explode anymore and he's shooting a lot of fade-away jumpers."

    After the Atlanta game, LeBron came to his defense: "It means Charles Barkley needs to shut up. I mean, the man (Wade) is shooting 80 percent from the floor the last couple of games. That's like, crazy, right? That's why he is who he is. Unbelievable."

    For the season, Wade is shooting 50 percent and averaging 20 points in 33 minutes per game. Granted, his scoring is down from previous years and is the lowest since his rookie campaign in 2003-04 when he averaged 16.2 PPG.

    But Wade doesn't need to score 25 or 30 every night for the Heat to be successful. Instead of taking 18-to-22 shots per game, Wade is down to 15 and being more than efficient.

    Dwyane Wade may be aging, and he may play in the South. But his game has most certainly not gone in that direction.

5. Jason Kidd: Knicks Fans Have Forgotten Linsanity in a Hurry

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    Jason Kidd, at 39 and in his 19th year in the NBA, is playing like a kid. He's one of the major surprises of this young season and is leading the Knicks with smart play and timely shooting.

    Kidd starts and plays about 28 minutes a game in New York, making the most of every second on the court.  He's scoring nine points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 53 percent from beyond the arc.

    Add to those stats an impressive four assists and two steals every night, and you can see why he's considered the premier sage of a player on a Knicks roster that seems to have found the magic formula amid some brilliant team chemistry.

    Tyson Chandler, Ronnie Brewer, Raymond Felton and Carmelo Anthony round out the starting five for a Knicks team that looks and feels like a legitimate threat to go deep in the playoffs.

    Kidd does get some relief from backup Pablo Prigioni (12 minutes per game), and he probably will move back to the bench when Amar'e Stoudemire returns to the lineup from injury.

    But, for now, Jason Kidd is the toast of New York.

4. Paul Pierce: Truth Is Slow but Somehow Makes It Look Easy

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    He's a 10-time NBA All-Star and has a world championship and NBA Finals MVP (2008) to his credit. Paul Pierce is still "The Truth" and the heart of the Boston Celtics at age 35.

    After a 101-89 loss at Houston Friday night, Boston's record stood at a rather mediocre 12-10, and the team is certainly missing the energy, hustle and scoring of the departed Ray Allen. But Pierce continues to play big minutes (34.3) and carries the bulk of the scoring (19.8) for the Celtics.

    Pierce is not shooting well thus far, hitting only 41 percent of shots from the field (35 percent from long range).  But he helps in other areas, with 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.

    In a two-point win over the Mavericks on Wednesday, Pierce went over the 23,000-point mark, a remarkable accomplishment. He played 44 minutes and is the only 35-year-old in the league who leads his team in scoring.

    Pierce is currently 25th on the all-time scoring list and could surpass Allen Iverson at No. 18 if he stays healthy.  He is on track for 1,200 points this season.

    It's rather redundant to say Paul Pierce is slowing down; he's always been slow. But, his passion for the game and uncanny ability to make big shots when it counts continue to set the 6'7" small forward apart.

3. Zach Randolph: One of the Best Offensive Rebounders Has Memphis Rolling

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    Zach Randolph is averaging 12.5 rebounds per game this season, the best of his 11-year NBA career. 

    The 31-year-old, 6'9", 260-pound power forward is critical to the early success of the Memphis Grizzlies, who find themselves at 14-6 to start the season after losing Friday night at Denver.

    When Randolph clears the glass and scores close to his average of 17.2 PPG, the Grizzlies win. 

    Randolph is healthy this season, and he creates an imposing front line with center teammate Marc Gasol, who averages 15.4 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks.

    This could be the year that Memphis makes a run in the playoffs, as they match up well with stalwarts like the San Antonio Spurs. A healthy, productive Zach Randolph is key to that success.

2. Tim Duncan: Managed Minutes Keeps Him Fresh and Productive

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    Tim Duncan may be 36 and a step or two slower, but he is still considered one of the top big men in the NBA.

    Consider these stellar stats to start the season: 17.8 points on 51 percent shooting, 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.6 blocks, all in 30 well-supervised minutes.

    Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has been widely criticized in the past for keeping some of his older players out of games in order to rest them. The team was actually fined $250,000 last week by the league because "Pop" decided to leave the uninjured Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home from a game in Miami in order to rest them.

    At 18-6, the Spurs have the third-best record in the NBA, after Oklahoma City and New York. Duncan is a major reason for that. 

    He'll be 37 by the time the playoffs roll around, and judging by the way his coach manages his minutes (30 per game this year), we could be seeing Tim Duncan for a number of years to come.

1. Kobe Bryant: An MVP Season from an All-Time Performer

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    Now in his 17th season, Kobe Bryant continues to excel at levels that border on the ridiculous.

    Bryant leads the NBA in scoring at 29.3 and is shooting 47 percent from the field (38 percent from three-point range). His Lakers are a dismal 10-14 to start the season, but could easily be 5-19 if it weren't for No. 24.

    There are some critics who keep mentioning how the Lakers have gone 2-12 when Bryant scores 30 or more points, but Kobe looks for his teammates to score and wants them to be involved.

    But when teammates fail to convert, Bryant eventually takes it upon himself to score baskets. He scored 42 in a loss to Cleveland and then put in another 31 in a loss this past week to New York. But Bryant is averaging five assists a game, including a seven-assist game Friday in a win over Washington.

    Kobe Bryant may retire after the 2013-14 season when his current deal expires. I wouldn't count on it.

    If the Mamba can walk and lift his arms, he'll continue to play another year or two. That is, unless the Lakers win a championship—in which case, Bryant may just dribble off into the sunset.

    His legacy is signed, sealed and delivered. This just shows that it's not yet time to put Kobe Bryant out to pasture. He's got a lot of work left to do.