A Word About Aging Superstars

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the impact that aging has on a person. No, it’s not because I see the impact that aging has on my hairline every time I look in the mirror. Rather, it’s because of some of the things being done by aging superstars in the NBA.

As you all know, Tracy McGrady joined the Knicks recently. To date, he has played in 4 games for the Knicks, and has put up point totals of 26, 15, 6, and 23. When he puts up 20 or more points, it’s easy for Knicks fans to get excited that they have T-Mac, not as good as he once was, but still a star. When he puts up 6, it’s easy for Knicks fans to worry that the best player on their team is an old dude who just has nothing left. (By the way, McGrady is only 30, but, given his history of injuries, I think it’s non-controversial to say that he’s on the downside of his career, and group him with other “aging superstars.”)

Following McGrady’s short career with the Knicks reminds me of when I used to watch Lawrence Taylor play for the Giants at the end of his career. He clearly wasn’t as good as he had once been, no longer dominating games, or even making a consistent contribution. But, every time the ball was snapped, there was a sense that LT was going to do something spectacular. And sometimes he did. For moments, he looked like the LT we remembered, rather than an old dude with nothing left.

The point, for me, was that aging superstars can still be superstars sometimes. What they lose, generally, is not the ability to be spectacular at any given moment or for any given game, but, rather, what they lose is the ability to be consistently spectacular. The body can still do what it used to do – sometimes – but injuries take longer to heal, and fatigue sets in more quickly.

Think of Michael Jordan on the Wizards. Over an 82-game season, he wasn’t even good enough to lead them to the playoffs. But at times, he was brilliant. Do you remember the New Year’s Eve game when he dropped 43 points? Or just look at what Jason Kidd did last night: 19 points, 16 rebounds, and 17 assists. He’s not as good as he once was, but, on any given night, he can still be awesome.

If you’re with me so far, raise your hand. Good, it looks like you’re all with me.

If this is right, that aging superstars are still superstars, but only sometimes, I think it means that teams that have an aging superstar as one of their 2 best players are in trouble; they just have too many off nights from one of their top 2 guys to be a real force. I think this means that Dallas is in trouble, it’s hard to see them winning multiple 7-game series with Jason Kidd as one of their best two players (and, with due respect to Caron Butler, Kidd is one of their best two players). On the other hand, I think this yet another reason to recognize that LeBron has a very capable supporting cast; the second-best Cav, Mo Williams, is young, and an aging Shaq still looks like Shaq every once in a while (he had 20 points and 7 boards – on 9-for-13 shooting – on Tuesday night).

The most interesting teams to look at through this lens are the Spurs and Celtics. If the Celtics are healthy, then, at this point, their best two players are probably Rondo and Pierce. It’s not yet clear (to me, at least) whether Pierce is on the downside of his career, or whether he’s just suffering a drop in numbers because of nagging injuries. If he’s healthy, and he’s not yet on the downside of his career, then the Celtics‘ two best players are reliably consistent, and their supporting cast includes two aging superstars — who will like like Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett about once every 2 or 3 games. Not bad. Turning to the Spurs, Tim Duncan pretty clearly fits the profile of an aging superstar. Check out his Game Log; he has multiple games of 25 or more points, and multiple games of 15 or fewer points. If he’s one of their top two weapons, the Spurs are in trouble. But, if Ginobili and Parker are both healthy, and Duncan is their third-best option, that’s a scary team.

All of that said, I have a plan for the Knicks: They should sign the best two young stars they can get. Then they should surround those two dudes with a bunch of aging superstars. Keep McGrady. Add Iverson. Shaq. Ray Allen. Grant Hill. Rotate their minutes, so that McGrady Iverson, and Shaq play heavy minutes during the games when Hill and Allen rest. Then switch, so everyone stays fresh. Once every 2 or 3 games, they’ll look like the Dream Team.

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