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When Superstars Get Old

The thing about NBA superstars is, even when they get older and their play declines, it's tough for the rest of us to realize it. It's just the nature of basketball. The NFL, for instance, presents us with stars that are relatively faceless--unless your last name is Manning--so we're able to observe their decline with some objectivity. Ladanian Tomlinson may still look like Ladanian Tomlinson in his Vizio commercials, but on the field, he's a shell of his old self, and it's obvious, because all fans see is a guy with a visor wearing a number 21 jersey, hobbling his way to three-yards-a-carry. 

But that's the thing--on the basketball court, Allen Iverson still looks like exactly the same guy that won an MVP. Jason Kidd still looks like the best point guard in the world. Tim Duncan has the same goofy tattoos and ho-hum look on his face that he did when he was quietly putting together one of the best NBA careers of all time. Our eyes decieve us; these are the best players in the NBA, we think.

But, they're not. Not anymore. It's tough to divorce ourselves from realties we've come to accept as intuitive truths, but look closely, and you'll notice that Jason Kidd's defense is comically bad these days, and Tim Duncan no longer dominates the way he used to. And Iverson, however enduring his ethos as counter-culture hero may be, is as hobbled these days as Tomlinson is for the Chargers or Jordan was for the Wizards.

These guys get old. Example: last year, the Spurs were without Manu Ginobili in the playoffs. Facing the Dallas Mavericks, you had to figure Tim Duncan would have a field day, no? No. For the first time in 11 postseason appearances, Duncan averaged less than 20 points-per-game, and averaged less than 10 rebound-per-game for the first time since his rookie year. And while ppg dipped only slightly below 20 (19.8) his rebounds dropped off badly from the year before (14.5 in '08 to 8.0 in '09). But more than that, it was the way the Spurs played. 

Suddenly, it was Tony Parker's team, and Duncan had been reduced to a solid-but-unspectacular option in the low-post. Even Manu Ginobili acknowledged it at Spurs media day this year: "When you're 32, 33, 34, you're not going to be the same player you were at 25. I think it's natural, everybody goes through that. He's gonna be an all-star, and if not 20 and 10, he'll give us 19 and 9.5. But now, we have Tony..." In other words, the torch has been passed.

And while the dip in production may seem minimal--although the rebounding disparity from last year's playoffs was not--more significant is the evolution of the team in response to Duncan's decline. Or Dallas, as Nowitzki and Kidd get longer in the tooth. Or Memphis, who added Iverson, but will likely look to Rudy Gay to lead them for most of the year. The personalities of the teams undergo a makeover, and the perception throughout the league changes.

Where the Spurs used to give off some indomitable aura of efficiency, now they're a team that revolves around two injury-plagued stars (Ginobili and Duncan) and a very good point guard (Parker). Suddenly, a team like the Denver Nuggets or Portland Trail Blazers need not cower in their presence.

Or the Mavericks, a team that used to shred opposing defenses with offensive brilliance and Dirk's dead-eye shooting. Suddenly, they're a team that relies on two aging superstars--Kidd and Nowitzki--to make their offense go, and have to hide both stars on defense. Meanwhile, the additions of Shawn Marion (for the Mavs) and Richard Jefferson (for the Spurs) are supposed to solve the problems?

It's a tough pill to swallow for fans of these teams, but it's reality. The superstars aren't the same anymore, and the names "Iverson" "Duncan" and "Nowitzki" don't strike fear into opponents' hearts the way they once did. Suddenly, like Boston sports fans realizing the Patriots aren't that dominant anymore, reality has a bias toward younger, more athletic teams like the Denver Nuggets. It may take us a while to catch on, but the games speak loudly already, and it's only appearances and reputations that have kept these superstars atop their pedestal.