As NBA stars like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan pass beyond the age of 30, one of two things happens: Either they quietly give in and embrace a slow decline, or they find a way to delay the inevitable.
The latter option is obviously a much tougher trick to pull off. It requires some combination of extra work, reinvention and craftiness. Sometimes, it takes all three.
Most don't have what it takes to stay on top when the skills that got them there start to erode, but a few find a way.
Sometimes, guys double down on time in the gym, hoping to add new looks and dimensions to their games. For others, increased mental development makes the difference. The most successful age-defiers do both; they work on new tricks while also developing a better understanding of the game.
That last double-down option is, by far, the rarest. But it's not impossible.
We've gathered together more old dudes than you'll find at Denny's at 4:30 p.m. on a week day for our list of the 10 NBA stars getting better with age. These aged players are all north of 30, but every one of them has found a way to hang on (or even improve) by developing into different versions of their former selves.
*All stats accurate through games played Jan. 7, 2013
**PER stats via Basketball-Reference.com
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 16.5 points, 2.6 assists, 1.9 rebounds, 17.1 PER
Jamal Crawford is currently putting up the second-highest PER (17.1) and per 36-minute scoring average (20.4) of his career.
At 32, Crawford doesn't quite have the quickness to get all the way to the basket anymore, but his ankle-breaking handle and lightning-quick pull-up jumper have turned him into the NBA player with the biggest collection of defender-humiliating Youtube clips.
The L.A. Clippers have Crawford playing an optimal role: as a sixth-man gunner off the bench. In that capacity, he's been putting his tools to great use for the NBA's best team.
Most fourth-quarter points in NBA this season: Kobe (244), Durant (228), Jamal Crawford (217), Stephen Curry (167), Joe Johnson (157).— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) January 3, 2013
Once a young chucker without a clear role, Crawford has carved out a perfect niche for himself as he's aged.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 12.4 points, 4.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 19.8 PER
Despite a list of injuries that would make most orthopedic surgeons cringe, Manu Ginobili has found a way to stay effective into his mid-30s.
Critics of Manu can point to his scoring average as a sign of decline, and it is true that he's putting up the lowest per-game average since his rookie year. But on a per-minute basis, the San Antonio Spurs' crafty wing is still getting it done. Per 36 minutes, he's posting 18.4 points, 6.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds.
The shooting percentage is down from his career rates, but has picked up over the last 10 games, in which Manu is hitting 45 percent of his shots. After a slow start because of some nagging injuries, Ginobili is proving that he's the same great player he's always been.
And the craftiness still abounds.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 21.9 PER
Though most of the players on our list are either sustaining or slightly improving their performances in their advanced age, Tyson Chandler is actually having a career year in his 12th season.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year and field-goal percentage champ is absolutely dominating as a 30 year old, anchoring the surprising New York Knicks' defense while scoring at a ridiculously efficient 69 percent from the field.
Because Chandler's defensive brilliance doesn't fully shine through in the numbers, he's been chronically underrated throughout his career.
"In the past 10 games, Tyson Chandler has attempted to tap the ball back to a teammate 27 times." — nyti.ms/13b6TjC— J.E. Skeets (@jeskeets) January 7, 2013
But if he keeps putting together progressively better seasons into his 30s, it'll be hard to ignore him much longer.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 8.8 points, 4.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 17.2 PER
Jason Kidd is no longer a triple-double machine, but he earns a spot on our list because of the way he has completely re-invented himself in order to remain effective as he nears his 40th birthday.
Once a fast-breaking, penetrating do-it-all point guard, Kidd has turned himself into a terrific three-point shooter. The old joke used to be that there was no "J" in Jason, but nobody's laughing at his 44 percent stroke from long range now.
Some of the things that made Kidd great in his younger days are still around; he'll always be a great passer and leader, and his amazing hands will never leave him.
But thankfully, one thing he has moved on from is his brief, ill-fated attempt at a rap career.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.1 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 22.0 PER
It's hard to believe that Anderson Varejao is already 30 years old, especially since he's putting up the best numbers of his career.
The league's leading rebounder gets the job done with a combination of pure effort and underrated intelligence. The former is a contributor to his inability to stay healthy (he played an average of 28 games in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons), while the latter is most evident in his fantastic frontcourt passing.
Varejao has proved that he's not the type of player that will gradually decline. Instead, he'll play with a relentless energy until he drops. For now, that mindset has him playing the best ball of his life in his ninth season.
Most improved players at each position. 1)Jrue Holiday 2)James Harden 3)Paul George 4)Anderson Varejao 5)D.JordanWhat's your list? #NBA— JALEN ROSE (@JalenRose) January 1, 2013
Since when do 30-year-old forwards enter the most-improved conversation? Since now, apparently.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 10.2 points, 8.8 assists, 2.7 rebounds, 16.9 PER
Moving away from the sudden improvements of Anderson Varejao, we have a "quietly sustaining excellence" entry at No. 5.
Steve Nash's career arc has been one of the strangest in NBA history. He struggled through most of his 20s, but turned in a pair of MVP seasons in his early 30s. After keeping up that high level of play for a few seasons, Nash has seen his minutes drop, but has remained ridiculously effective and efficient as he pushes 40.
The only three-time member of the 50-40-90 club, Nash is actually on pace to do it again this year. He's hitting 53 percent from the field, 41 percent from three and hasn't missed a foul shot all season.
Sure, he suffered a freakish injury and has struggled (along with every other Los Angeles Laker) to find a place in his team's offense. But he's still the same devastating shooter and pick-and-roll operator he's always been.
It's truly amazing that he has remained so productive in his later years. He must have a hell of a workout plan.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 19.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, PER 20.0
Despite his age, Paul Pierce is enjoying his highest per-36-minute scoring average (21.2) and PER (20.0) since he was 29 years old in the 2006-07 season.
No longer a dominant one-on-one threat, Pierce tends to pick his spots a bit more judiciously on offense. He relies on more screens and frequently works as a catch-and-shoot player in the Boston Celtics' offense. Don't be mistaken, though; he's still got enough smarts and sneaky bursts of athleticism to get to the rim when he needs to.
He's certainly not jumping over anyone, and it's probably fair to say he's had an "old man game" for quite a while. But Pierce is finding ways to stay productive as the years wear on.
The Celtics' second all-time leading scorer means more than ever to his team with Ray Allen now wearing a Miami Heat jersey, and he's delivering in a big way. Boston is nearly seven points per 100 possessions better with Pierce on the floor than when he's off of it (via 82games.com)
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 14.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 18.9 PER.
You probably know (or can read in the stats above) that Kevin Garnett's per-game averages are down a bit. But as is the case with a number of the players on our list, his lower outputs on a night-to-night basis are really the products of reduced playing time—not a drop-off in skill.
Garnett is playing just under 30 minutes per game this year, but he's still as productive as ever when he's on the floor.
Per 36 minutes, KG is averaging 18.2 points, 8.6 boards and 2.8 assists, numbers right in line with his production of the last few years. In fact, Garnett's shooting efficiency has remained exactly the same as it was last year—his 55-percent true-shooting percentage hasn't budged an inch.
But those are examples of KG sustaining excellence in his late 30s. That's great, and impressive enough to make this list. But based on his impact on his team, KG is actually getting better.
Last season, Garnett made the Celtics about 1.6 points per 100 possessions better on D when he was on the floor. This year, that number has ballooned to 12.3 points per 100 possessions (via 82games.com). Put another way, Boston can't stop anybody unless KG is anchoring its defense.
That improvement, along with the stasis of his offensive numbers, makes Garnett one of the very best "old" players in the game.
Oh, and his hustle and tenacity are both only getting more intense as he ages. Just ask the fans whose laps he landed in when saving the ball against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 4.
That's a Tommy Point!
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 25.5 PER
This is getting ridiculous.
Tim Duncan is 36 years old and having the best season (based on PER) that he's had in seven years. Doesn't he know that he's supposed to break down at some point? The way he's playing right now, he's not doing much to dispel the rumors that he's actually some kind of emotionless basketball robot.
Perhaps even more amazing than the efficiency figures is his defensive presence.
Duncan is averaging 2.5 blocks per game in just 30 minutes per contest. When adjusted to a per-minute basis, the 36-year-old Duncan is blocking shots more frequently than he has in any season of his career (via Basketball Reference).
And in case you were unaware, all he does is win:
Tim Duncan how now won 71.5% of the games he has played in. This is the highest % in NBA history for those playing at least 1000 games.— Not Bill Walton (@NotBillWalton) January 7, 2013
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 30.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 25.6 PER.
Kobe Bryant isn't just one of the best old players in the NBA; he's one of the best, period.
By adding a post-up game and keeping himself in absurdly good shape, Bryant has traveled well into his 30s without any decline in production. In fact, he's currently having the fourth-best season of his career from a statistical perspective (his PER has only been higher in 2002-03, 2005-06 and 2006-07).
Yes, everybody knows the Los Angeles Lakers have fallen flat this year, and some have pointed the finger at Bryant for shooting too much.
But the guy is hitting 48 percent of his shots! His true shooting percentage is at 59 percent, the highest of his entire career! Shouldn't everyone just sit back and think about how insane it is that Bryant has played over 1,300 career games (including the playoffs) and is still averaging more than 30 points per contest?
Love him or hate him, the fact that Bryant is still physically capable of doing what he's doing is utterly remarkable.
If he keeps up his current pace, Kobe will become the only 34-year-old player to ever average more than 30 points per game.
And now that Bryant might have to shoulder an even heavier load, watch for him to take things to an even higher level.
BREAKING: Tough injury news for @lakers: Dwight Howard (torn labrum) out at least a week; Pau Gasol (concussion) out indefinitely.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 7, 2013