Will the NBA's preps-to-pros stars suffer on the back end of their careers?
Players such as Kobe, LeBron and KG have put on a lot of mileage at a young age
It's hard to project these career arcs because this is essentially new ground
The talk around the office water cooler has been especially grim lately as the realization hits home that, beyond just money, what so many of us are losing in this economic strife is time. Time, as in seeing your 401(k) dialed back to 1997 levels. Time, as in losing a decade's worth of presumed equity in your home. Time, as in the 40 hours each week that soon might be freed up by your downsizing employer (no more water cooler then, either).
Not that this is going to soothe your pain any, but imagine now a trio of cubicle dwellers joining your little gloom squad. Their green-and-white, wine-and-gold and Forum blue-and-gold garb is definitely business casual, but they are facing a significant time-warping of their own: the possible loss of several years from the back ends of their careers.
It's a very different sort of problem from yours or mine. Instead of having to work longer before retirement, a cluster of NBA stars might arrive there sooner than they or anyone else expected. The issue: Did the players who turned pro directly out of high school from 1995-2005 help themselves to four extra NBA seasons, or did they simply start drawing down early from a finite account of available minutes?
In other words, did Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the others who entered the league as teenagers just time-shift several years onto the front end of their careers that now won't be there at the back end?
There is mounting evidence to suggest that's the case:
• Garnett has been out since Feb. 22 with a muscle strain in his right knee. That makes this consecutive seasons interrupted by a midseason injury break (he sat out nine in a row last winter with a strained abdomen) for a guy who missed a total of 13 games across his first 10 seasons. Recently, Garnett joined Hakeem Olajuwon as the only two players ranked in the top 40 in points, rebounds, steals and blocked shots, but he is well beyond that in minutes -- No. 26 in NBA/ABA history at 39,569. That's more than Charles Barkley, Jerry West, Nate Thurmond, Larry Bird, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor -- and Shaquille O'Neal, who at 37 is four years older than Garnett.
In Boston's second game this season, Garnett became the youngest player to participate in 1,000 NBA games, reaching that threshold at 32 years, 165 days. Obviously, had he spent a couple of years at Michigan (his college program of choice, had he gone), Garnett would have been at least 34 (and 165 days) by the time he clocked quadruple figures in appearances.
• Bryant was a hoops prodigy -- the youngest player in NBA history when he made his Lakers debut in 1996, the league's youngest All-Star the following season and so on -- but prodigies are guaranteed nothing in terms of longevity; just ask Mozart. Bryant, 30, ranks only 74th on the all-time minutes list (33,855 through Tuesday), but he jumps several spots if you factor in postseason use (another 5,947, more than Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone and Reggie Millerand double Garnett's playoff total).
Here's another way to gauge Bryant's mileage: Michael Jordan played 930 regular-season games for the Chicago Bulls, from November 1984 to April 1998. Bryant, when he steps on the floor Wednesday night in Houston, will be making his 930th regular-season appearance for the Lakers.
• Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal aren't scaling the heights of the minutes list -- McGrady (27,462) has played fewer than Clarence Weatherspoon (27,735) -- but then, that's the point. Both guys have battled numerous injuries, especially in recent years, and are viewed by many as players in decline. McGrady, 29, who arrived in 1997 out of Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C, will have missed 128 of his teams' last 492 games by the end of this season (he's done for 2008-09 after microfracture knee surgery). O'Neal, seven months older, was drafted out of his South Carolina high school in 1996. He played light minutes warehoused on Portland's bench for four seasons, but logged light minutes again the past four seasons, averaging 51.5 appearances due to injuries. This season, if he finishes healthy, he'll max out at 71 games.
• Dwight Howard's fans better hope he is, indeed, a man of steel. By the time the Orlando center turned 23 on Dec. 8, he had logged 12,590 NBA minutes. By comparison, Shaq had played fewer than 9,000 by that birthday. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar turned 23 at the end of his rookie year, after playing 3,534 minutes for Milwaukee. Olajuwon was only halfway through his first NBA season when he turned 23, and Patrick Ewing, Robert Parish and Wilt Chamberlain weren't even in the league yet. Howard (14,003) already has played more than Ralph Sampson (13,591) did in his injury-hobbled career.
• James is a tender 24 and physically still is transforming, if not actually growing. But he already has 18,411 on his odometer, a big number even if they're mostly highway miles. The Cleveland forward has been around long enough, playing at such a high level -- five All-Star selections, perhaps a first MVP award this season, a career average of 40.6 minutes that ranks fifth in league history -- that it's fair to wonder if he's still trending up. Or if we've already seen the best of him. James' age would suggest the former, but his games log could argue the latter.
Oscar Robertson, another do-everything, statistical marvel, turned 22 early in his rookie NBA season; James turned 19 early in his. Through six seasons, Robertson was averaging a triple double: 30.4 points, 10.7 assists and 10.0 rebounds (actually 9.95, rounding up) in 460 games, based on totals of 13,998 points, 9,887 assists and 4,579 rebounds. James, with 22 games left in his sixth NBA season, is at 12,396 points (27.5), 2,989 assists (6.6) and 3,135 rebounds (7.0).
The point, though, isn't to compare their totals or their averages. The point is to gauge where each was (or is) at, at a similar stage of his career. Robertson, through six seasons, had played 44.2 percent of his eventual 1,040 regular-season games, but he already had scored 52.4 percent of his points, dished 49.8 percent of his assists and grabbed 58.7 percent of his rebounds. His final eight seasons -- which included four years as Abdul-Jabbar's sidekick and Robertson's lone NBA championship -- were less productive (though still good enough for six All-Star trips). He averaged 21.9 points, 8.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds, worthy of a max-salary contract today but still a decline across the board personally.
It's just enough statistical evidence to call into question those who automatically say, "Wait 'til LeBron hits his peak at age 27 or 28.'' Maybe James' peak is now, shifted earlier by his hastened ... well, his hastened everything. The Cavs' superstar got to the NBA quicker than legends of the past, developed more rapidly, learned to dominate individually sooner, figured out how to prod older teammates and found ways to win games at an earlier age than so many of his predecessors. But he also has endured more wear and tear, put in longer hours, flown more airline miles, embraced more off-court opportunities-slash-distractions and, for a few years when he might have been strolling across campus for a psychology mid-term, he was picking himself off floors in Milwaukee, Denver and Indianapolis.
"He might have as much mileage on him [by age 30] as an '82 Volvo by then,'' Wizards coach Ed Tapscott said.
Modern training techniques, better nutrition and today's lavish salaries (no offseason jobs necessary, a platoon of masseurs, trainers and skill coaches at the ready) suggest that players ought to be capable of sustaining longer careers. Robertson was done at 35, same as West, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier. John Havlicek broke some sort of barrier for wing players, lasting right up to his 38th birthday. The Pacers' Miller averaged 14.8 points, only 3.5 off his career average to that point, at age 39. Jordan turned 40 when he averaged 20.0 with Washington in 2002-03 (after, admittedly, nearly five seasons off in two stints for premature "retirements'').
For now, it's hard to know what the end results will be for the preps-to-pros players; their sample size is small and we haven't seen their end games. It's like holding off on Lasik surgery because we haven't seen enough septuagenarians come through that particular pipeline yet. Malone, who started in the ABA without benefit of college, stuck around for all or parts of 21 seasons. But Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby, the other pre-Garnett pioneers, flamed out too quickly to matter.
Said Tapscott, a longtime NBA personnel executive before taking over for Eddie Jordan as Wizards coach: "I don't think we've had enough generations of young guys go through to say, 'These guys have managed to add four years to their careers' or, 'These guys will find themselves debilitated by early injuries.' ''
So in lieu of answers, we're left with questions: Will the NBA's precocious ones wind up with supersized résumés, challenging all sorts of records for career this and lifetime that? Or is pro basketball activity somehow fixed, like -- some baseball scouts would contend -- the available pitches in a starting hurler's arm? If that's the case, starting sooner might invariably lead to finishing sooner, at least as an impact player.
We do know that several of the players at least talk about feeling old beyond their years. Garnett, though he used to glare at his Timberwolves coaches for yanking him to the bench for rest, would admit quietly how ground down he'd get even in his late 20s. His statistical drop-off since joining the Celtics is largely by design, sure, but also a function of his mileage. Bryant makes frequent references to his elder status, from shooting down queries about the slam dunk contest to his availability as an old guy for the 2012 Olympics. McGrady told SI.com's Ian Thomsen that he wasn't a spring chicken anymore -- back in November 2006. "I feel like the last few years, my game has diminished a little bit,'' T-Mac said then. "I don't know if it's because I'm older, because of the injuries or what, but I feel that I'm a step slower.''
It's all just enough to make you wonder what the Brooklyn era of James' career -- or the next Cleveland phase, however the chips fall in 2010 -- really will be like. And whether, when the time comes, we'll know where the time went.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.
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