Dirk Nowitzki broke a bit of news over the weekend by tweeting during a Q-and-A with followers that he will play two more seasons and decide after that whether he wants to continue his NBA career. This isn’t all that surprising because his contract runs for two more seasons, after which Nowitzki will be at an age where even stars generally leave the game.
Nowitzki turned 34 in July, so he’ll be that age next season and 35 for the 2013-14 season. Since the institution of the three-point line, only 11 players 34 or older (as defined by their age on Feb. 1) and 6-foot-10 or taller have logged at least 1,500 minutes and posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 20.0 — a general approximation for an All-Star — in any season, according to Basketball-Reference. Those 11 players pulled the trick a combined 23 times, with three players — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon — combining for 12. Players 36 or older under that Feb. 1 definition accounted for just eight of those 23 seasons, with the above-mentioned trio hitting the minutes/PER double six times in 36-plus seasons.
Nowitzki, of course, can remain a very productive sub-20.0 PER player, as most of the players on this list — and many others — have done before. And as by far the best perimeter shooter in this group, Nowitzki has a chance to age in a different way, especially if the Mavericks can continue supplying him with skillful pick-and-roll partners and legitimate centers to ease his burden on defense. Nowitzki has already increased his three-point attempts in each of the last two seasons as part of a team-wide evolution in Dallas that could also help prolong his career.
But the painful thought of Nowitzki’s career ever ending naturally leads to another thought: Will he finish it in Dallas? And how many legendary players still have a shot at playing with only one team?
By my count, there are seven Hall of Fame locks or players approaching that category who have a chance at wearing only one NBA uniform. They are:
• Nowitzki: Given Nowitzki’s love of Dallas and that the Mavericks have $0 in guaranteed money on the books beyond the 2013-14 season, it seems likely that he would return on a cheap deal if he decides to play past that 2013-14 season. There certainly aren’t any cap obstacles in the way, even if the Mavs manage to sign a max-level free agent next summer. If they don’t, Nowitzki will have to look around the league and see who can offer him a chance at another title, how much they can offer and whether he’d like to change teams.
• Kobe Bryant: Bryant’s deal, the largest per-year contract in the league, also expires after the 2013-14 season. He will make a hair above $30 million in that final season, a deal so cap-cripplingly large that some folks around the league wondered if the Lakers might use the amnesty provision on Bryant before that season. That was probably never a realistic option, and the acquisitions of Steve Nash (on a three-year deal) and Dwight Howard (whom the Lakers would surely like to re-sign beyond next season) signal that L.A. is willing to break the bank over the next two seasons in pursuit of a ring. If the Lakers do get Howard’s signature on a long-term deal, they’d have only Howard and Nash on the books for 2014-15, giving them flexibility to bring back Bryant on a more realistic contract and fill out a competitive roster. Still, Howard and Nash would earn just north of $30 million combined in this scenario, meaning Bryant might have to “settle” for something in the $10 million annual range to keep the books as clean as possible. And as always with the Lakers (and any team), a dozen things could change between now and then to obliterate this cap projection. But there’s no obvious reason as of now why Bryant might need to go elsewhere.
• Tim Duncan: Duncan’s new three-year deal, with a player option on the back end, essentially puts a wrap on this discussion. Duncan, 36, has repeatedly said he will be a Spur for life.
• Manu Ginobili: This is where things get at least a little interesting. Ginobili is already 35, and his deal expires after next season. The Spurs could in theory carve out max-level cap room next summer by renouncing all of their free agents, including Ginobili and Tiago Splitter, whose cap holds swallow up all of the team’s potential cap room as things stand now; Ginobili’s hold will be big enough to do the job on its own.
With Duncan locked up and Tony Parker on the books for another two seasons after 2012-13, will it be time for San Antonio to move on from one of its three core players? Would Ginobili, as loyal to San Antonio as Duncan, actually want to move on at age 36?
The Spurs don’t have a history of attracting big-name free agents, so they may well conclude (again) that it makes the most sense to re-sign Ginobili on the cheap and continue hoping the young talent on hand progresses. That would especially make sense if the Spurs get indications Duncan will decline his player option for 2014-15, leaving San Antonio with only Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Parker absolutely guaranteed to be on the roster that season.
And before you ask: Ginobili should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer despite his so-so raw stat totals (just over 10,000 regular-season points) and meager two All-Star appearances. He’s an international basketball legend who didn’t come to the NBA until he was 25 and played his entire career under a coach who prioritizes long-term health above short-term minutes totals. Ginobili should finish his career with one of the 35 or 40 highest PERs of all time, and his per-36 minute numbers project to just about 20 points, five assists and five rebounds per game — historically elite territory.
On a more fundamental level, Ginobili is one of those rare players who rates as “very good” to “excellent” in just about every phase of the game — scoring, long-range shooting, passing, defense on and off the ball, shot selection, etc. Toss in his international career, both in pro ball and in playing for Argentina, and Ginobili has a no-brainer Hall of Fame case.
• Tony Parker: Parker is not at that level quite yet, but if he puts together a few more seasons like his stellar 2011-12 campaign, he’ll be there soon. He’s the youngest guy on this list at 30, and he’ll have turned “just” 33 by the time his contract expires after the 2014-15 season. Duncan’s new deal expires at the same time even if he opts into the final season, and it’s hard to see the Spurs committing more than two years of guaranteed money to Ginobili after next season. In other words: The books are going to be very clean in San Antonio if and when Parker hits free agency ahead of the 2015-16 season.
But how will the roster look? Parker will have suitors if his game holds up over the next few seasons, and the road map going forward for San Antonio is murky. One wrinkle: Only $3.5 million on Parker’s $12.5 million salary for 2014-15 is guaranteed, a contract quirk that introduces a bit of uncertainty into the process and could make him an even more attractive trade target. But he should still be so good by then that it’s hard to see any team that has him in June 2014 deciding that buying him out is the right move.
• Paul Pierce: The Celtics have flirted with moving Pierce, most famously toward the end of the 2006-07 season and reportedly last year before the trade deadline. Pierce has two years left on his deal, but only $5 million of his $15.3 million salary in 2013-14 will be guaranteed by the time the 2013 offseason rolls around. That cuts both ways: On the one hand, the Celtics have spent so much on salary over the next three seasons that slicing Pierce’s deal away early wouldn’t provide meaningful cap room in next summer’s free-agent market. And they’ve already spent enough on 2014-15 salary that they might be right up against the cap in the summer of 2014 even before considering any future deal for Pierce, or his cap hold.
In other words: Why not just keep the guy?
On the other hand, the nonguaranteed portion of Pierce’s deal would make him a more appealing trade target if Boston underperforms and decides to enter into an honest rebuild by flipping as many assets as possible.
Pierce will turn 35 in October, so he’ll be at a natural retirement age by the end of his current deal.
• Dwyane Wade: Some are already speculating about the 2014 free-agent class as if it includes Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. That’s technically accurate because all three can terminate their Heat contracts before the 2014-15 season. But if things are going well in Miami, it’s hard to see any of them — and especially the oldest one, Wade — turning down $20 million to enter free agency. The three stars have player options for about $22 million apiece for 2015-16, meaning it will again be up to them whether they want to stay.
The Heat may not want to pay the mammoth tax bills that will come every season these guys are around, but they still have the amnesty provision in the bag and a few mid-sized contracts (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony) expire after 2014-15, providing at least a little relief. And the decisions on the Wade/James/Bosh trio aren’t really up to the Heat, unless they are willing to deal either Wade or Bosh for another franchise player who might become available. (Who?) Wade will be 34 when he hits free agency if he stays in Miami as long as possible under his current deal, right at the age where Nowitzki is now — the age of taking a massive pay cut and facing some interesting choices.
As things stand now, here’s a quick list of some future candidates to join this group as they pile up career accomplishments. All of these players have signed extensions to their rookie deals, so they’ve passed Step 1. There’s little point in considering the one-team possibility before a player takes that step.
• Kevin Love: The three-year clock starts ticking now in Minnesota, with rivals, including even the big-spending Lakers and Knicks, set to have potential flexibility when Love hits free agency.
• LaMarcus Aldridge: Three relatively affordable years on his deal (about $15 million annually) as the centerpiece on a rebuilding team. Portland will get calls.
• Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook: Signed through 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively, on a Thunder team that figures to contend as long as both are there.
• Derrick Rose: Locked up through 2016-17 on a Bulls team that might have to amnesty Carlos Boozer to have meaningful cap space before the summer of 2015, depending on what happens with Taj Gibson and others between now and then.
• Rajon Rondo: Playing under one of the league’s best contracts (average of $12 million per year), which expires after the 2014-15 season, at which point Rondo will still be in his prime. What will the Celtics look like then?
• Blake Griffin: The Clippers got the first goal accomplished this summer, signing Griffin to extension that runs through 2017-18. Next step: Doing the same with Chris Paul.