The Top 25 Sports Stars on the Fastest Decline
To decline is human, but to have been good enough initially to garner notice on a list such as this one? Now that is divine. (Or so I hope all included take it, as they resolve not to find me/beat me up.)
To get on this list, you have to have been good—extra points for majorly good—and thus, though declining, someone like Derek Fisher doesn’t qualify. Nor does Rashard Lewis (his exploits in the 2009 conference finals aside—I am still bitter you #$*#).
The guys on this list are the elite, or at least...they were.
25. Floyd Mayweather Jr., Boxer
Don’t tell him, but what I’m really trying to do is lay down the impetus for the Manny Pacquiao fight.
If that old bag Mayweather can even read this without his bifocals.
24. Peja Stojakovic, SF, Dallas Mavericks
Fresh off a championship he negatively contributed to, Peja Stojakovic is now, in all likelihood, gearing up for his final run through an NBA season (34 years old in June, PJ hasn’t been much more than an oft-unreliable spot-up shooter in six years).
Stojakovic gave Dallas a major boost replacing the inadequately ACL’ed Caron Butler, but had Rick Carlisle been more stubborn with his rotation and stuck with Peja for even a game longer, the Mavericks would have lost the finals.
23. Mike Bibby, PG, Miami Heat
I initially thought that Mike Bibby was a perfect fit for the Miami Heat.
Turns out Mike Bibby was a perfect fit for South Florida.
(He’s old is what I’m getting at here.)
22. The 2004 Detroit Pistons
As per usual, Chauncey Billups is at the forefront of things (or at the caboose depending on which way you’re picturing this train going), but the once mighty core of the could’ve-been-more-than-one-time champion Detroit Pistons is all but done.
Rasheed Wallace is now retired, Ben Wallace might be soon to join him...and it’s difficult to tell what exactly Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince have left.
Their increasing fragility has kept them off the court for large chunks of the past few seasons, and while their numbers aren’t awful, they’re being put up on one of the worst and most dysfunctional teams in the league, which historically indicates they’re skewered.
21. Ron Artest, SF, Los Angeles Lakers
There was a time when Ron Artest made his name by savagely defending the premier scorers in the NBA.
Now, Ron Artest is making his name by going down to the Social Security office.
20. Brian Urlacher, LB, Chicago Bears
Still a stellar player, Urlacher (now 33) has streaks where he’s playing elite football. The issue here is often that his body is not in compliance.
Injuries, most notably back injuries, have hampered him for the past few seasons. While last year was one of his better seasons, he’s no longer the driving force behind the Chicago Bears defense.
19. Yao Ming, C, Houston Rockets
I’d like to consider this more of an homage/career-eulogy-type entry than anything even resembling derision, because Yao is one of my favorite athletes of all time.
A man of neither pretense nor pretension, he probably faded as quickly as he did out of the exact opposite of blind loyalty to both the Houston Rockets and the Chinese national team.
Yao Ming played basketball, essentially, for 30 consecutive years.
It’s no wonder his body broke down...
18. Gilbert Arenas, PG, Orlando Magic
I suspect Gilbert’s propensity for planking has something to do with rigor mortis.
17. Manu Ginobili, SG, San Antonio Spurs
Like Yao, I find it tough to find fault with Ginobili.
In spurts, he’s still as good as he ever was—the best player on the Spurs and one of the most dynamic players in the league.
But it’s the injuries...
It’s been years since Manu made it to the end of 82 healthy, and while 2010-11 was his finest season in three years, he finished it with a fractured elbow.
16. Raul Ibanez, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
Ibanez eulogy courtesy of Steve Gardner at USA Today:
Like Jeter, the 38-year-old had a resurgent season in 2009 that quieted critics who said he was nearing the end of the line. But the end may now be fast approaching. The similarities between the two don't stop there. Ibanez is also on pace for a career-high ground-ball rate and is hitting fewer line drives. As a result, his .232 average comes with on-base and slugging percentages that are way down over last season and he's on pace for his lowest home run and RBI totals in a decade.
15. Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons
Gonzalez is 35 now, and while his numbers are still extremely respectable, his impact has lessened more considerably.
That said, when you’re declining from “best receiving TE of all time” territory, playing at 70 percent capacity is still pretty good.
14. Carson Palmer, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Should Mike Brown come around, might Carson have a resurgence elsewhere?
The statistics indicate not.
Ever since his horrific knee injury in 2005, the former Heisman winner hasn’t quite been the same guy (despite a semi-miraculous comeback the following season). While I’m not a doctor, in the past few years his body has seemed to me as though it's in phase one of the “breaking down” period.
Carson Palmer is 32 now, and he’ll get a chance to pull a Kurt Warner. I suspect, though, that what he does will be more akin to a Kerry Collins.
13. Donovan McNabb, QB, Washington Redskins
Taken out of his comfort zone in Philadelphia, McNabb looked like a different guy. Perhaps even more indicative of the player we’re currently looking at, he kind of did in Philadelphia too.
Once legitimately a top-three QB in the NFL, it’s arguable now whether McNabb will be able to land a starting job for the upcoming season.
You know what Donovan McNabb's career's favorite movie is?
12. Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers
While Smith is as much of a bulldog as anyone in the NFL, it’s tough for a guy at 5'9" to make up for a loss of athleticism.
That’s what we’re looking at here.
Steve is still putting up numbers, but his days of carrying the Carolina passing game are effectively over. By the time Cam Newton is up to speed, Steve Smith will have had to suck up some pride and become Wes Welker.
11. Randy Moss, WR, Free Agent
Perhaps the most apt comparison for Randy Moss is a guy I chose not to qualify for this list because he hasn’t played professional ball in a year:
Both as talented as anyone ever to play their respective sports, but both so confident/defiant that they refused to add much nuance to their games over the years because, really, they never needed it.
But here’s the thing—you know what happens to those guys when they get into their 30s?
They don’t age gracefully.
10. Terrell Owens, WR, Currently Unemployed
And then there’s Terrell.
Literally the exact opposite of Moss from a work ethic perspective, but so outlandish in his self-presentation that any drop in what was for years the finest WR play that money could buy would instantly equate to his value being outweighed by his requisite distractions.
T.O. put up huge numbers for the Bengals last year (though I would argue they’re a bit inflated), and still no one wants to sign him.
9. Pau Gasol, PF, Los Angeles Lakers
This is probably my greatest reach, but his struggles in the first few rounds of the NBA Playoffs last year so mirrored two of the other NBA bigs yet to be discussed that I’m not sure it’s entirely inaccurate.
Basically, my question is this: What the heck happened?
There were shades of Toni Kukoc in Gasol’s performance (in that an upswing of confidence could produce a 35 and 10 guy, but continued reinforcement of failure could produce a guy capable of making Aaron Gray look like a commodity), which was particularly surprising because I thought we were over this. You know, the whole “baptized in the fires of Kevin Garnett” thing?
I’m really not sure what happened. The only disappearance less explicable was that of LeBron James.
8. Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees
I don’t know baseball, but I still knew this.
Jeter is having his worst season in years, and though he’s picked things up slightly as the season’s worn on, this isn’t the same guy who won over New York with whatever it is he won over New York with.
At some point, we all have to hang ‘em up, cash in our chips and then settle down with Minka Kelly.
It sucks getting old.
7. Brandon Roy, SG, Portland Trail Blazers
This is going to get ugly.
Let’s focus on the positive: For a few years, Brandon Roy was as much an elite player as anyone in the league—capable of going toe to toe with late 20s Kobe Bryant in crunch time, running the floor with early 20s LBJ and basically carrying a youthful Blazer bunch against even the elite defenders of the league. He was unquestionably one of the best five players in the league.
There won’t be longevity here, but in the vein of taller, more reddish curly-haired Trail Blazers, the candle burned brightly when it burned.
(Related: Brandon Roy’s candlelight vigil commences at the start of the 2011-12 season.)
6. Tracy McGrady, SG, Detroit Pistons
Every bit the talent of Kobe Bryant—just none of the attitude and less of the drive.
It’s weird to see a talent of McGrady’s caliber bouncing around from team to team. I think Kevin Durant will go down as a better player than Tracy, but let me say this: That’s McGrady’s fault.
5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
I don’t consider Kobe’s decline to even be an argument anymore, but for all of the Kobe apologists out there, take solace—ranking him so highly and so definitively is not so much an indictment of Kobe at 33, but more so suggestive of how good he was.
Most concerning to me regarding Kobe moving forward? I think he’ll be regressing every year from here on out.
Kobe doesn’t have the body to perform as Jordan did at 36 (he’s substantially skinnier), and to me, his decline is most evident in the quality of shots he’s able to get against elite opponents. He can still go for 40 on Kevin Martin, but against Boston, Miami, Dallas, etc., it’s consistently a lot of long jumpers for the Mamba.
4. Ray Lewis, MLB, Baltimore Ravens
If I put Kobe on this list, I have to put Ray, because they’re suffering from the exact same syndrome.
Their level of play is still extremely high—better than 95 percent of those in their respective leagues—but the level of play they established in their respective primes was transcendent.
So good was Ray Lewis the year after the Ravens gutted their team that he literally dragged them to a .500 record from the middle linebacker position while averaging something like 18 tackles, a sack and a interception per game. That team was designed to lose big and then rebuild. Ray wouldn't let it. I’ve never seen a quarterback have more effect on a game.
Ray can still play, but not like that.
3. Tiger Woods, Golfer
I think Elin got his game in the divorce.
The best explanation I’ve heard for what happened to Tiger is this: Because of all the legal wranglings and the time off for injury, we weren’t privy to Tiger’s age-related decline. He got old before our eyes, except not before our eyes.
I doubt Tiger wins another major.
2. Kevin Garnett, PF, Boston Celtics
Similar to Yao, kind of similar to Gasol and an exact mirror of the No. 1 guy on this list—Garnett is breaking down.
He’s still phenomenally talented and inspiringly intense, but he now equates to a versatile cog more so than a versatile pillar. The difference is you can rely on a pillar but have to fit the cog into some very specific plans. (I think that analogy works...)
Take a look at Garnett’s performances in Games 3 and 4 of the Heat series, because they were the difference in the Celtics season. He had three days off before the Celtics' 16-point win in Game 3 and responded with 28 points, 18 rebounds and his finest defensive performance of the series.
He had one day off before the Celtics' eight-point loss in the next game, and he went 1-of-10 for seven points and 10 rebounds while nearly fouling out.
The two games were must wins, and while I don't question Garnett’s effort (who could?), he didn’t have it for both.
1. Tim Duncan, “PF,” San Antonio Spurs
Save for Yao, this is the saddest guy on the list for me.
Not because Tim Duncan’s “sad,” per se...but because he’s not really Tim Duncan anymore. And he knows it. And he just battles on anyway.
What’s amazing to me (and I realize I’m totally projecting this on him) is that losing doesn’t look like it hurts him any less even when he has no real chance of winning. Did you see Duncan’s face as the Spurs got taken out by the Grizzlies? Disbelief. Fury. The guy will keep doing his thing until his legs fall off...which effectively happened two years ago.