The Guys Who Traded Jerseys and Hung on Too Long

Steve Nash - Lakers

Image courtesy of www.lakersnation.com

Last night Steve Nash dipped into the fountain of youth and put together one of his better games as a Laker, posting 19 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. LA’s injury-riddled bench (most of whom were in suits) were hooping and hollering as Nash, on his 40th birthday no less, was jab-stepping, pump faking and generally having his way with 76ers who are 15 years his junior. Remember when Nash used to sneeze these games out? There was an 8-year stretch (’04-‘05 – ’11-’12) when he averaged no less than 9.7 assists per game. Nash hasn’t cracked the 7 assist per game mark in his first two seasons in LA.

It’s a young man’s game and father time has quickly sapped Nash of any semblance of durability during his two injury-riddled seasons with LA. After suiting up for only 50 games last season, his lowest total since the ’98-’99 season, he has managed to only start 8 of the team’s first 50 games this year due to a variety of lower body ailments.

Watching the highlights last night stirred memories of other veterans in recent years who have swapped jerseys for one last run at a ring. Below is my list of Hall-of-Famers (or soon to be HOF’ers) who made the jump late in their career to chase another ring, and instead faded into obscurity.

Karl Malone

Karl Malone

Image courtesy of projects.latimes.com.

“The Mailman” is unquestionably one of the best players to ever set foot on the hardwood. He’s not just one of the best power forwards of all-time but is one of the best players (Top 25 in my opinion). He’s the #2 scorer of all-time, behind only Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, and scored nearly 5K more points than Jordan (caveat: Jordan missed nearly two full seasons during the middle of his prime due to his gambling problems pursuit of playing professional baseball). Karl Malone’s durability and productivity were a modern day marvel.

Let’s put this in perspective. Dirk Nowitzki is 35 years old and while still a productive player, is in the twilight of his career. During his prime Dirk regularly surpassed 2,000 point seasons. Dirk is one of the best players of his generation and one of the most prolific scoring big-men of all time. He currently sits at #13 on the all-time points scored list and is nearly 11K points behind Malone. Dirk would have to put up six more seasons of 2K points per season to surpass Malone. To date, Dirk has only generated five such seasons of 2K+ points. Long story short…this aint happening and demonstrates just how productive Malone was for such a long time.

Let’s compare Malone’s age 24 season in 1987-’88 versus his age 36 season in 1999-’00.

Age 24 season: 27.7 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.4 steals per game

Age 36 season: 25.5 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.0 steals per game

Hardly a drop off in production a dozen years apart…incredible.

In Malone’s final season with Utah, in 2002-03 (which happened to be John Stockton’s final season in Utah by way of retirement), the 39-year power forward slapped up the following line:

20.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.7 APG, 1.7 SPG

How many guys are still the #1 option during their age 39 season? I can only think of Jordan with the Wizards (Jabbar was never a 1st option).

Malone then made the ill-fated decision to team up with Kobe and Shaq in the greener pastures of LA. The Lakers had just come off a disappointing 2nd round exit in the ’03 playoffs at the hands of Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs. They were re-loading in the summer of ’03 and brought on the 40-year old Malone and 35-year old Gary Payton to supplement Shaq and Kobe.

Malone suited up for only 42 games for that lone Lakers season, succumbing to a freak knee injury halfway through the season and making his way back in time for the playoffs. The Lakers vaunted “Big 4” of Kobe, Shaq, Malone and Payton, along with Derek Fisher for big-shot making, made it all the way to the Finals, where Detroit proceeded to run circles through the Lakers in a five game series.

Malone’s career ended after Game 5 of the Detroit series, at 40 years old…in a Lakers jersey. This was the wrong way for a Top 25 player to go out. Instead of chasing success as a role player on a storied franchise, he should have sailed off into the sunset following the ’02-’03 season, with Stockton. The 1-year marriage with the Lakers never felt right from the start and this was never more apparent than in Detroit’s complete demolition of the Lakers in the ’04 Finals.

Hakeem Olajuwon

Olajuwon is one of the most talented players I have ever had the pleasure of watching. Too many young guys (under the age of 20) forget or just don’t know how good Hakeem was in the 80’s and 90’s. He was the best center in the game at that time (and that’s not me speaking). Listen to how his former teammate Robert Horry and his former nemesis Shaq, effuse that he was not only the best center of that era, but the best center of all-time (not sure I agree, but you get the point…this dude was incredible).

Hakeem grew up playing soccer in Nigeria and didn’t focus on basketball until the age of 15. He was a freak of nature and much of this can be attributed to his cat-quick reflexes and incredible dexterity. He could handle the ball like a guard, hit the outside shot and spin big men out of their shoes with his classic “Dream Shake.” He had the full arsenal of weapons and more.

Sadly, his final season was spent north of the border, futilely trying to stay healthy for a 42-win Toronto Raptors team that was dispatched in the first round of the playoffs. Hakeem went out rather meekly, considering how great he was in his previous 17 seasons with the Rockets. Hakeem managed to suit up for only 61 games and average 7.1 PPG and 6.0 RPG during his lone Toronto season.

Hakeem should have been given the red carpet during his final season in Houston. Unfortunately, for Malone, Olajuwon and Ewing, their final seasons were spent in unfamiliar jerseys and arenas, where fans witnessed only a shell of the player that they once were.

This brings us to Ewing…

Patrick Ewing 

For how great Ewing was, he just was never good enough. He career arc aligned almost perfectly with some of the best big men players to ever play the game.  McHale, Bird, Moses Malone, Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Olajuwon, David Robinson, Reggie Miller, Jordan and a young Tim Duncan all stood in Ewing’s path at various points in his career.

Ewing was a prolific player and during his prime he was very nearly unstoppable in the low-post. He had the ability to back down smaller players on the block and had a feathery touch from the wings and the high post. He was able to lead the Knicks to the ’94 Finals, smack in the middle of his prime (age 31 season) and again was a key cog in the Knicks ’99 Finals team, but suffered an Achilles injury in the Eastern Conference Finals that knocked him out for that match-up with the Tim Duncan & David Robinson led Spurs.

Between his rookie year (1985-86 season) and his age 35-season (1997-98) Ewing never averaged less than 20 PPG and 8 RPG. For 13 straight seasons he averaged at least a 20 and 8, and during his best years he put up over 25 PPG and 11 RPG. During his age-27 season, he put up the following stat line:

28.6 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.2 APG, 4.0 Blocks per game. 4 blocks per game!! What?? And he suited up for all 82 games.

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His durability and consistency year-in and year-out were only rivaled by Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon during this era.

Ewing’s near unparalleled individual success and relative team success given the unbelievable talent during this 15-year stretch should have ensured that he retired a Knick whenever he so pleased. Instead of honoring his legacy and his service to the organization, Scott Layden made one of his numerous poor decisions as Knicks GM by shipping Ewing across the country to Seattle. Granted Ewing was on his last legs, he should have never been treated this way.

Ewing would suit up for 79 games with Seattle (RIP) during his age 38-season and slap up a respectable 9.6 PPG and 7.4 RPG effort. He spent his final season in Orlando in 2001-02, playing 65 games and averaging 6.0 PPG and 4.0 RPG.

Ewing’s career never should have ended on a 44-win Magic team who had no one of value outside of Tracy McGrady and a nearly past his prime Darrell Armstrong.

Kevin Garnett & Paul Pierce 

Paul Pierce + Kevin Garnett

Image courtesy of bleacher report.com

These two former Celtics are quickly becoming the Karl Malone and Gary Payton of their generation.

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It’s a little sad seeing Garnett play these days. He’s a bit role player on a team that is hoping to sneak out a #3 seed in a historically terrible Eastern Conference (currently the Nets are only three games out of the #3 seed). Father time has officially caught up with KG. Last year he showed flashes of his dominant self, in averaging 14.8 PPG and 7.8 RPG. I get that he is only averaging 22 minutes a game this year (versus nearly 30 minutes per game last year and that he’s not the focal point of the offense anymore) but he’s just not the force that he used to be.

Although he could have retired and no one would have blamed him, he decided to team up with Paul Pierce and other current/former all-stars to form a “super team” in Brooklyn that had a 1-2-year window to win a title (shrinking by the day).

Time will tell if Brooklyn can make a run and secure a high seed in the playoffs. My bet is that they get the #4 seed and home-court advantage, win their first round series against Atlanta/Chicago/Washington and succumb to either Indiana or Miami in the 2nd round.

Not every player has the foresight and luck to finish out on top of Mount Olympus. Heck, even Jordan returned to the league after his second 2-year absence, as a beefy small forward for the Washington Wizards, who failed to make the playoffs in each of his two seasons on the team (I considered adding him to the list but his 2-year Wizards run was more his decision to prove that he could still play rather than making another legitimate run at a ring). Duncan’s Spurs lost an epic 7-game series last year…who knows if Duncan will ever sniff the Finals again? Shaq’s career concluded on the end of the Celtics bench, during the 2011 season when the team was still in only Year 4 of the Ray Ray/Pierce/KG run.

Bottomline: Great players…Hall of Fame players enjoy incredible careers and incredible moments. Due to their desire to play longer, chase a title or chase records (or a combination of all three of these factors) they extend their careers by wearing strange-looking jerseys and assuming lesser roles. It’s in their DNA to continue fighting, to continue clawing for one last chance to make it to the final stage.

Unfortunately, for many of the all-time greats, injuries and ineffectiveness ultimately determine when they are done for good. We’ll see if this remains true for Pierce and KG with Brooklyn.

About Jim Armstrong

Jim is a life-long sports fan and split his childhood between the ‘burbs of Chicago and central NJ, while throwing in a summer living outside of Boston into the mix. This explains his passion for the 90′s Bulls, late 90′s/early 00′s Knicks and late 00′s Celtics (he will explain in a future post). Jim never played a minute of college basketball or football but did complete a Tough Mudder recently and continues to play in basketball leagues year-round. If this doesn’t make him an expert, then I don’t know what does. Jim crunches numbers for a living and enjoys applying these analytical skills to his sports obsessions. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with his family, fishing and writing.

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