The aging of the NBA's prodigies
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 Miller and 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.
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