NBA Metrics 101: Which Players Have Had the Steepest Late-Career Declines?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 27, 2018

NBA Metrics 101: Which Players Have Had the Steepest Late-Career Declines?

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    Precious few NBA players end up retiring while they're at their peak. The vast majority stick around far longer—which, we should note, they're well within their rights to do, so long as they can convince one of the league's 30 teams to keep signing checks.

    But when they move into the latter stages of their careers, they often significantly decline. The 2017-18 campaign's crop of veterans proved no exception, as the production of plenty of elder contributors slowed as their ages progressed.

    To objectively determine a baseline for these declines, we're turning to the formula for season score used in previous articles.

    For every player in the NBA who's logged even a single minute during each of the last five seasons, we pulled scores in four different overarching metrics: NBA Math's total points added, ESPN.com's real plus-minus wins, player efficiency rating and win shares. The first two look at volume-efficiency combinations, while the third focuses on per-possession effectiveness and favors offensive production. The fourth element rewards those whose individual merits lead to more victories. Volume and time on the court matter more than they might in other evaluations.

    To standardize four numbers that operate on drastically different scales, we found the Z-scores in each category and summed them to find a player's season score. This was done individually for each of the last five campaigns, and the players featured throughout this article are the men 30 years or older who were subjectively determined to have undergone the most notable drop-offs.

    Veteran contributors such as Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah were also considered. But the reason for the subjective judgment is notable: We wanted to highlight the men who have gotten the chance to spend time on the court and still looked like mere shells of their old selves.

Carmelo Anthony

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    Age: 33

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks

    2017-18 Season Score: Minus-1.353

    2016-17 Season Score: 2.012

    2015-16 Season Score: 5.624

    2014-15 Season Score: 2.732

    2013-14 Season Score: 8.665

    "WOWWWWW," Carmelo Anthony wrote in an Instagram comment section, per SB Nation, following his initial message with three crying-laughing emojis, "Had to comment on this one" and "FOH."

    The message to which he was responding? A claim that "Who would've thought during the 2003 draft that 15 years down the line Kyle Korver would be a better NBA player than Carmelo Anthony," accompanied by pictures of the two players in their Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder threads, respectively.

    Anthony can cry-laugh all he wants, but that became an argument during the 2017-18 campaign. While Korver continued to play underrated defense alongside LeBron James and provide a heavily respected gravitational pull, his new 33-year-old rival bought in to all of his worst tendencies for OKC. Rather than accept a role as a spot-up marksman and use his remaining energy to improve the other aspects of his game, the former New York Knick instead tried to commandeer possessions and play like he was still in his prime.

    Problem is, he's no longer peak Anthony. He's declined in each of the last couple of years, and this was the culmination of the dip, as he diminished the team's floor and ceiling with his unwillingness to make concessions. So while he submitted a minus-1.353 season score, Korver was seemingly content with his more limited role and 1.777 season score (the second time in the last five years he's had the superior mark, thanks to his All-Star effort in 2014-15).

    All together now: Points per game isn't everything.

Tyson Chandler

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    Age: 35

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.6 blocks

    2017-18 Season Score: 0.240

    2016-17 Season Score: 1.350

    2015-16 Season Score: 0.500

    2014-15 Season Score: 8.621

    2013-14 Season Score: 2.834

    During his prime, Tyson Chandler was a game-changing center who rarely got the credit he deserved.

    Most recognized his awe-inspiring defensive abilities as a rim-protecting presence, but his rolling acumen should've received similar praise. Gravity doesn't always have to stem from perimeter shooting, and defenses were forced to respect his ability to set physical screens before he tore down the lane for an alley-oop finish.

    But Father Time has begun to sap Chandler's athleticism, leading to an erosion of skills that hasn't exactly been aided by the Phoenix Suns' propensity for throwing younger contributors into the fire and leaving him on the bench for extended periods. He's only played 93 games over the last two seasons, and he's averaged just 26.3 minutes per appearance.

    Chandler doesn't yet have a negative score in our metric, but he's still just a fading image of his prior self.

    The 35-year-old mustered only 1.28 points per possession as a roll man in 2017-18. And while that might sound impressive and placed in the 86th percentile, it's a far cry from even the 1.37 points per possession he earned last season (95th percentile). These subtle decays don't seem like much in a vacuum, but they're of monumental importance to a player who thrived almost solely because of his work in a select few areas.

Joe Johnson

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    Age: 36

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 6.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks

    2017-18 Season Score: Minus-2.931

    2016-17 Season Score: 0.356

    2015-16 Season Score: 0.014

    2014-15 Season Score: 1.910

    2013-14 Season Score: 2.736

    Though Joe Johnson's fall from grace has been more of a gradual but lengthy one, that still makes for a steep decline from his All-Star days when he was with the Atlanta Hawks. Hell, he's dropped off significantly even since making his last appearance in the midseason classic for the Brooklyn Nets in 2013-14.

    Since then, Johnson has been waived by the Nets, signed by the Miami Heat, signed by the Utah Jazz, traded to the Sacramento Kings, waived by the Kings and signed by the Houston Rockets. All the while, he's lost a grip on a starting job and been almost exclusively relegated to second-unit duties off the bench, from where he can attempt to continue maximizing his isolation habits.

    But even that's not working in Houston.

    Though Johnson could get a shot in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals since Chris Paul has been ruled out with a hamstring injury and the Rockets are searching for replacement options, he logged just 22 minutes per game after joining the squad as a midseason addition. Throughout the playoffs, he's suited up just six times for a total of 41 minutes.

    The 36-year-old is a step slower on the defensive end, unable to lock down perimeter foes like he did throughout his athletic prime. He's also struggled to become a consistent marksman from beyond the rainbow (27.6 percent during the regular season), which makes his off-the-bounce scoring his primary calling card. Problematically, he registered just 0.53 points per isolation possession in the regular season (sixth percentile) and failed to score on his only attempt in the playoffs.

    If he's going to last beyond this contract, which expires at the conclusion of Houston's playoff run, he'll need to develop a new signature skill.

Tony Parker

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    Age: 36

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 7.7 points, 1.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.0 blocks

    2017-18 Season Score: Minus-2.220

    2016-17 Season Score: Minus-1.043

    2015-16 Season Score: 1.919

    2014-15 Season Score: Minus-0.688

    2013-14 Season Score: 2.990

    Even potential Hall of Famers aren't free from the detractions of old age. And yes, Tony Parker qualifies as such. Basketball-Reference.com even gives him a 93.9 percent chance of enshrinement, leaving him behind only 11 other active players, including Anthony and another player on this list.

    Still, no matter how deadly he was in his prime, the French floor general was always going to have trouble in the later stages of his career. He was never a suffocating defensive presence, and he topped out from beyond the rainbow in 2014-15 when he connected at a 42.7 percent clip on 1.3 deep shots per game—which was never going to be a sustainable rate with higher volume. Since then:

    • 2015-16: 41.5 percent on 0.9 threes per game
    • 2016-17: 33.3 percent on 1.1 threes per game
    • 2017-18: 27.0 percent on 0.7 threes per game

    Parker's game was instead predicated upon speed. With deft control of the basketball, he could jet past defenders caught leaning the wrong way and complete a wrong-foot finish at the rim or pull up for a mid-range jumper. But that's hard to do when you're slowing down, and the 1-guard's numbers reflect that.

    His shooting percentage within three feet and the frequency of his shots in that area were below his career norms in 2017-18, and he settled for more long twos than he has since 2009-10—when that was a more acceptable offensive strategy. Maybe if he'd connected on more than 37.4 percent of those twos from at least 16 feet, his drop-off wouldn't seem quite so severe.

Zach Randolph

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    Age: 36

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.2 blocks

    2017-18 Season Score: Minus-0.973

    2016-17 Season Score: 0.277

    2015-16 Season Score: 1.217

    2014-15 Season Score: 5.788

    2013-14 Season Score: 3.813

    Without Zach Randolph on the court in 2017-18, the Kings recorded a minus-4.5 net rating. When he played, that plummeted so the Western Conference bottom-feeders were outscored by a whopping 13.3 points per 100 possessions. They were bad in just about all scenarios this season, but Randolph proved himself nearly unplayable despite what his seemingly respectable counting numbers tell you.

    No member of the roster had an inferior on-off differential.

    Whatever mentoring he can provide for the younger pieces of the Sacramento outfit will remain beneficial, but Randolph should be spending a lot more time on the pine these days. He's a woeful defensive presence devoid of the hops necessary to protect the rim or the lateral quickness that aids players in today's switch-happy NBA. And while he can still function as an effective per-minute rebounder, that's no longer enough to balance his inefficient scoring.

    Yes, it's encouraging Randolph took 2.5 treys per game and made 34.7 percent of them. But that drags him away from the offensive glass and doesn't prevent him from still fancying himself a post-up scorer on all other possessions. That back-to-the-basket ability used to function as the power forward's primary asset, but he mustered only 0.86 points per post-up possession in 2017-18 (46th percentile), falling below the league average for the second consecutive season.

Dwyane Wade

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    Age: 36

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.7 blocks

    2017-18 Season Score: Minus-1.168

    2016-17 Season Score: 1.617

    2015-16 Season Score: 2.610

    2014-15 Season Score: 2.486

    2013-14 Season Score: 3.863

    Dwyane Wade still has enough left in his tank to provide the occasional string of highlights, as he did while exploding for 28 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 2 of this postseason's opening round. But those are mere mirages at this stage of his career and mask the declines that have left him unable to impact the proceedings like he did throughout his first lengthy stint with the Heat.

    Aside from the fluky start to his brief tenure for his hometown Chicago Bulls, Wade has rarely shown three-point abilities. He's still a slashing guard who counts on convincing pump fakes to get his defenders in the air and create space and/or contact. And that's troubling as he loses the elite burst that allowed him to capitalize on those lanes with a lightning-quick first step during his best years.

    Wade just can't gain as much airspace these days. He's resorting to more veteran tricks than ever before, but the declines have still left him unable to shoulder a heavy scoring load or contribute beneficially on both ends of the floor.

    Ever since leaving Marquette and entering the Association as a member of the vaunted 2003 draft class, Wade has submitted above-average scores in offensive box plus-minus. But not this year, as he checked in with a putrid minus-2.4 while splitting time between the Cavaliers and Heat. Worse still, that took the place of his previous career low (0.4), earned just one year earlier.

    Without the ability to obtain frequent trips to the charity stripe or knock down triples, he doesn't have any viable methods of keeping his efficiency levels in the green.

       

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and accurate heading into games on Saturday.