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Drawing a Line in the Sand Between Current NBA Stars and Has-Beens

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Drawing a Line in the Sand Between Current NBA Stars and Has-Beens

It is hard to tell when a player loses "it." Some players never live up to their early promise, while others peak later in their career. Right now, the most interesting case study is Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets. 

It is too early to call D-Will a "has-been," but he certainly isn't a "right now." The idea of comparing him to the best point guards in the league this season is comical. Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving (not to mention healthy versions of Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo) are all a class ahead of Williams.

Other players are also difficult to read. Josh Smith, for example, still has yet to make an All-Star team, but some think he will receive a max contract this summer in free agency. Now, Smith has probably deserved to be an All-Star at least once or twice, so it not like he will be getting paid solely on potential. But that is a vast sum of money for a 27-year-old, nine-year veteran who has probably already peaked.

Then there is Manu Ginobili. By all accounts, a player of his age and with his injury history should be slowing down. But whenever he is on the court, he produces.

While these three players are all tough to pin down, others fall more clearly on one side or the other. The following are either actually either still living up to their star status or getting by on name alone.

Kobe Bryant

Let's just get this one out of the way right off the bat: star.

Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with 15 selections, has been named to more All-NBA teams than Kobe Bryant, who has 14 appearances on the end-of-season list of the league's best 15 players. Only Karl Malone, with 11 selections, has more than Kobe's 10 first-team honors. By the end of this year, Kobe will definitely match Kareem and may also tie the Mailman.

Amazingly, even with all this greatness in his rear-view mirror, he sill has plenty left for today. The performance he just laid on the Dallas Mavericks (38 points on 21 shots, 12 rebounds, seven assists) will forever go down as the "Amnesty THAT" game and serves as a microcosm of his elite play all season.

 

Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade may be in the tail end of his prime, but he is still in his prime. Given that LeBron James is at the center of everything the Miami Heat do on offense, Wade hasn't posted many insane stat lines this season. But the way he struggled in the playoffs last season initiated the "has he lost it?" debate.

But you need look no further than his performance in Miami's close-out Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers to see that there are only a handful of people on this planet capable of playing this sport at his level. His 41 points on 17-of-25 shooting, to go along with 10 rebounds, dumbfounded Indiana and helped the Heat advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

And that was while he was playing hurt.

According to Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports, Wade says he is finally recovered from offseason knee surgery. That means that one of the best players in the game is likely to continue to get even better as the year goes on.

 

Kevin Garnett

It is hard to read too much into Kevin Garnett's individual stats. Since he came to Boston, his scoring has dropped considerably.

But KG has always maintained a high PER (19.4 this season), and his defensive contributions remain significant. According to NBA.com, the Boston Celtics allow a stingy 96.3 points per 100 possessions with Garnett on the floor. When he sits, that figure balloons to 104.8.

His on-court number is better than any player on the team who has played in at least five games, and the inverse is true when he heads to the bench. 

Garnett has been a superstar due to his defense for years, and he remains nearly as effective as ever on that end of the floor. 

 

Paul Pierce 

The longest tenured Boston Celtic is not dead and buried. His ability to perform at an elite level on a game-to-game basis is gone, but he can still ratchet it up often enough to earn star status.

His 35-year-old body is breaking down, and he has lost much of the meager athleticism he had even on his best day. But once the playoffs start, when the pace slows down and there is at least one day off between games, the world will again see him look more like The Truth than he does right now.

This season will almost certainly be the final one in which he can dominate enough to be considered elite, but he still has at least one more great playoff series in him.

 

Tim Duncan

The player Charles Barkley calls "Groundhog Day" is looking more like vintage Tim Duncan than he has in years. His PER of 24.4 is the highest it has been since 2009-10 and fifth among all NBA players this season.

Unbelievably, at 36 years old, he is also averaging a career-high 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes while taking more shots per 36 minutes than he has since 2003-04. And if that's not enough, he has even managed to hit more than 80 percent of his free throws this season—something he has never done before in his professional career.

 

Dirk Nowitzki

The best player in Dallas Mavericks history had his best game of the season during a marquee Sunday afternoon matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers on national television. His 11-of-19 shooting to score 30 points in a shootout against Kobe Bryant should remind everyone about his unique brand of greatness.

He is getting older, and his health issues have limited him to just 26 games so far this season, but there is no doubt that Dirk is still on top of the world.

He has the most unguardable shot in the game—his rainbow fadeaway off one foot—and that isn't going anywhere for years to come. At 34, he may not have a ton of great years left in a starring role, but he is still one of the best offensive players in the world, and he will likely remain highly effective for another half-decade.

 

Amar'e Stoudemire

Sometimes numbers don't tell the whole story. With Amar'e Stoudemire, for instance, many statistical measures seem fine. But he isn't the same player he used to be, and without his athleticism, his ability to have a major effect on a game is limited.

His most recent game showed us some flashes of what he can be at his best. He made 9-of-10 shots as his New York Knicks beat the Philadelphia 76ers, with eight of his attempts coming in the paint. After the win, Knicks coach Mike Woodson commented that "it was good to see him around the bucket like he should be."

With a spread offense, he has gotten the bulk of his looks around the rim this season—as illustrated by his high shooting percentage—but for the salary he is making, you would hope he could contribute more than just making layups within a spread offense. His rebounding numbers are at a career low, for example, and he has never brought much on the defensive side of the ball. 

Unfortunately, none of the flaws are likely to be corrected; what we are seeing is the continuation of a multi-year trend. Especially once the shooting numbers begin to regress back toward the mean, New York will be left with a player who accentuates its biggest negative (defense) while adding little dynamic qualities on the other end. And then the Knicks will be left hoping he can continue to finish plays at the rim if they want him to provide any real threat in the playoffs.

 

Joe Johnson

This was the first season since 2006-07 in which Joe Johnson has failed to make the All-Star team. But he is going to have to get used to that, because it will likely never happen again.

That may sound harsh—after all, Johnson has hit multiple clutch shots this season, including a game-winning shot to beat the Milwaukee Bucks, a step-back to defeat the Detroit Pistons and a pull-up in double overtime to outlast the Washington Wizards.

But in Brooklyn, he no longer has the ball in his hands as much as he did while running the Atlanta Hawks offense. According to Basketball-Reference, his scoring has dropped to 16.2 points per 36 minutes—his lowest output since 2004-05—and his assist and rebounding numbers have seen similar dips.

Meanwhile, his PER has fallen to 14.3. To put that in perspective, 15.0 is considered league average. Joe is certainly better than a league-average player, but he is no longer one of the most feared wings in the NBA.

 

Steve Nash

It isn't exactly going out on a limb to say that the former back-to-back MVP's best days are behind him. But the steady decline in production we have seen during his last few years in Phoenix has plummeted since he arrived in Los Angeles.

In fairness, Nash has been hindered with health issues, and the Lakers have been a mess until recently. But his PER has fallen to a mundane 15.7, while his per-36-minute scoring and assist numbers are the lowest since his days in Dallas.

Perhaps worst of all has been the effect he has had on the team defense. During his 1,086 minutes on the floor this season, the Lakers have allowed 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Los Angeles isn't a good defensive team no matter who is on the court, but this is significantly worse than the near-league-average 103.3 points per 100 possessions the team as a whole has surrendered so far this season. 

 

Vince Carter

Vince Carter is actually filling his role admirably this year. But while the media continues to debate his qualifications for the Hall of Fame (I say he should make it), the fact is that he hasn't been a true star since his he was dealt to Orlando in 2009. 

Oddly enough, a player who seemed to rely so much on his athleticism is actually aging incredibly gracefully. His transition to bench contributor has been both encouraging and surprising to see, and it looks like the 36-year-old Carter—whose 17.1 PER this season is his highest since 2008-09—can be a productive role player for several more years.

 

Jason Kidd

It's been over for Jason Kidd for some time now. His renowned vision and basketball IQ have allowed him to remain a solid contributor even as his athleticism has vanished, but this might be the year that the wheels fall off completely. 

He started the year off playing wonderful basketball, knocking down more than half his shots in November, including 48.9 percent shooting from behind the arc. But that was apparently just a hot streak. Over his past 20 games, Kidd has shot 32.4 percent. In his last eight, that number falls to 18.9 percent.

If he can't pick it up considerably before the playoffs begin, it will be hard to even justify putting him on the court.

 

All player efficiency rating numbers used in charts are according to Basketball-Reference on Feb. 24, 2013.

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