NBA Stars of the Past Decade on Their Last Legs
Every NBA player declines eventually.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was an offensive liability during his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant posted some of the worst volume-shooting numbers ever in his last go-round before going out with a 60-point bang. Even Michael Jordan failed to perform like a superstar during his career-ending campaign with the Washington Wizards, though he was still an overall positive...because of course he was.
Stick around long enough, and Father Time gets you. It's a process as inevitable as a Giannis Antetokounmpo finish in the paint during the 2017-18 campaign.
Now, some of the past decade's stars are finally succumbing to the advances of the AARP monster.
To be clear, we're not talking about veterans who have struggled immensely in recent seasons and seen their reputations decline alongside their production. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, as two of many examples, won't be featured. We're also not worried about those who have become specialists and continued to provide enduring value—Al Jefferson and Pau Gasol stand out in that department.
These are the gentlemen who have only recently started to play like liabilities, and perception hasn't fully caught up. We'll use points per game, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and my Total Points Added metric, which accounts for efficiency and playing time.
Get out the tissues. This isn't a pleasant task given how much time we spent enjoying the better days of these five former stars.
Team: Sacramento Kings
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 2.5 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.2 steals, 0.0 blocks, minus-12.22 TPA
As recently as last year, Vince Carter was a beneficial presence for the Memphis Grizzlies.
During his age-40 season (this is his age-41 campaign), he drilled 37.8 percent of his 4.1 deep attempts per game, avoided turnovers and played high-quality defense against multiple positions. Buying into the grit-and-grind mentality for yet another year, he was an ideal role player who aided his squad on both ends of the floor.
That hasn't been the case since he moved to the Sacramento Kings this offseason.
Granted, the sample size is quite small. But Carter has basically been omitted from the rotation in favor of Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic and other younger wings. He's played just 11.0 minutes per game, which is rather concerning considering the Kings spent all summer trying to mix youth and experience in an ill-fated attempt to move up the Western Conference hierarchy.
Sometimes, old age can strike quickly. In a blinding flash, it can force a player into a downward spiral, no matter how enduringly solid they may have looked one year prior. Such is the case for Carter, who has looked noticeably slower and less engaged during his rare appearances on the floor.
But even more concerning is his increased reliance on the three-ball as well as his inefficiency from beyond the arc. Last year, his shooting numbers were excellent, and he relied on triples for 60.4 percent of his field-goal attempts. This year, he's connecting at just a 33.3 percent clip and has taken 68.2 percent of his tries from downtown.
Even if the first figure regresses positively, it's still telling Carter has been forced to lean even more heavily on those spot-up attempts.
Team: Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.6 points, 1.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-9.36 TPA
The world has known for quite some time that Jamal Crawford is an atrocious stopper. That he's continued to function as such on a putrid Minnesota Timberwolves defense shouldn't be even remotely surprising.
Crawford was brought aboard to provide an offensive jolt.
One of the NBA's best ball-handlers, the veteran guard routinely puts opponents on skates, dazzling them with his dribbles and dancing by them with the ball on a string. He's long been viewed as a leading tough shot-maker as well as the perennial favorite to win the four-point-play crown. But in recent years, his reputation has been maintained because he occasionally scores a tough bucket, which overrides memories of the plentiful misses that come between successful attempts.
This year has been no different. Well, it's actually been worse during the first few games of his Minnesota tenure.
Crawford is doing just fine from the perimeter, shooting 44.4 percent on 3.9 attempts per game. But he's struggled immensely from inside the arc, unable to create quite as much separation off the bounce and failing to do anything with his pull-up jumpers. Not only is he hitting a career-worst 31.4 percent of his two-point attempts, but he's also connecting on just 33.3 percent of his pull-up tries. Among the 61 players with at least 20 such attempts, only nine have been less efficient.
So, what's Crawford's enduring role? His overall shooting efficiency should decline as his three-point percentage regresses toward his 35.0 percent career clip (or even the 36.0 percent he hit last year). But the pull-up concerns are real since they're predicated on an explosiveness off the dribble that finally seems to be waning.
He'll provide a few more offensive highlights throughout the year. That doesn't mean he'll add much value to the Timberwolves' cause, though.
Team: Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.3 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-12.39 TPA
Joe Johnson's per-game numbers already don't look particularly promising, but context makes them even worse. The Utah Jazz forward is suiting up as part of the Salt Lake City rotation, and he's chipping in with only 11.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists per 36 minutes. Worse still, those figures are coming while he shoots 39.1 percent from the field and 11.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Both those percentages should trend up as the season progresses and the sample size grows larger. But Johnson is trying to force the action far too much, jacking up shots off the bounce whenever he can because he's not quite quick or overpowering enough to get open opportunities set up by his teammates.
Entering the season, Utah head coach Quin Snyder said he thought Johnson could emerge as the Sixth Man of the Year winner for his Jazz, per Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune. But those hopes already seem to have been dashed by Johnson's slow start to the season, especially because the squad has been so much more successful without him.
When Johnson is on the floor, Utah is getting outscored by an even eight points per 100 possessions. But the net rating skyrockets to plus-9.3 when he's on the pine, meaning his presence has led to a drop of a staggering 17.3 points per 100 possessions. Even last year, the Jazz's net rating only fell by a single point when he played.
Is this veteran as bad as the numbers indicate? Absolutely not. He'll start playing better basketball in the near future, likely when he returns to the lineup following a bout with tendon instability in his right wrist, per the Associated Press.
That doesn't mean he's avoiding last-legs status, though. Johnson can't fill as many roles anymore, and the days of him serving as a high-impact contributor seem to be in the past. Even if he's quietly effective in fewer minutes and with a smaller set of responsibilities, he doesn't bear much resemblance to the star who once suited up for the Atlanta Hawks.
Team: Dallas Mavericks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-14.74 TPA
This is particularly painful.
Dirk Nowitzki has been an inspiration to so many people over the years, and he's established himself as a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. You can count the number of power forwards with superior careers on a single hand. Even in recent seasons, he's submitted fantastic numbers and helped improve the Dallas Mavericks.
But the ill effects of Father Time—and a few nagging injuries over the last few years—have finally taken their toll. Nowitzki just isn't an impact player anymore.
Last season, the German 7-footer posted his first negative box plus-minus since his rookie season. He also finished No. 32 in ESPN.com's real plus-minus among the league's 77 qualified power forwards, somehow canceling out his woeful offensive numbers by playing solid defense.
He's been even worse during the early stages of 2017-18.
Maybe that will change as the season progresses, but a slow-footed Nowitzki has functioned as a defensive liability while failing to generate much offense. He can knock down spot-up jumpers and help space the floor, but finishing from anywhere inside the arc has been highly problematic, to the tune of a 38.2 percent clip from two-point territory. The impact has grown negative enough that Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger even referred to the legendary big man as a ghost who's haunting the Mavericks, just in time for Halloween.
Dallas can take solace in finding pieces for a rebuild while continuing to feature Nowitzki, but he's no longer the same player who knocked down countless one-legged fadeaways in his prime.
Team: Sacramento Kings
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-12.86 TPA
During his 2015-16 season with the Memphis Grizzlies, Zach Randolph took 4.6 post-up attempts per game and scored 0.85 points per possessions, which put him in the 52nd percentile. Even in his mid-30s, he remained an above-average player with his back to the basket. The power forward never possessed much athleticism, but jumping over anything more than a piece of paper wasn't necessary since he had a deep bag of tricks and the combination of quickness and physicality to pull them off.
Last year, Randolph took another 4.1 relevant shots per game, but he was slightly less effective. He notched 0.82 points per post-up possession for the Grizzlies, which dropped him to the 34th percentile.
He's been even worse during the early portion of 2017-18. After transitioning to the Sacramento Kings, Randolph has still averaged 4.0 post-up shots despite receiving only 23.8 minutes per game. But he's now at 0.65 points per possession and all the way down in the 17th percentile.
This would be fine if Randolph were contributing in other areas, but he's not. Though his rebounding is still solid, the veteran power forward remains a glaring liability on the defensive end and hasn't developed a capable jumper to help stretch the floor. Only 42.3 percent of his field-goal attempts came from beyond 10 feet last year, and that number is down to 38.6 in 2017-18.
Unless he suddenly adapts to the modern style of the NBA and starts connecting on some longer jumpers, Randolph will increasingly look like a dinosaur in today's league.