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Posted by Romy

When you’re a fan of a veteran team (that’s a euphemism for old and consequently prone to all kinds of unprovoked geriatric injuries), monitoring the erosion of players’ raw physical abilities and how they choose to react to it — with extreme off-season physique trimming measures and subtle manipulations of their games — can sometimes border on the obsessive. Allow me to personally welcome you to this exclusive club, Knicks fans [1].

But this is not my father’s NBA. Long gone are the rough-and-tumble days when Kevin McHale played on a broken foot in the ‘87 playoffs, had to cut his career short and walk with a Frankenstein-y gait for the rest of his life. Recent advances in technology and medicine — used to maintain better health and diets; identify, repair, heal and monitor injuries and optimize players’ skills on the court — have allowed teams to prolong the careers of their aging future HOFs past their expected expiration dates.

Still, there used to be fairly standard cutoff ages that marked the abrupt end of players’ primes, and the subsequent decline back to the land of the mortals. For perimeter guys, the statistical cliff jump used to happen somewhere between the 12th and 14th season. Bill Simmons referred to this as “The Change”, that mysterious thing that springs up on unsuspecting stars overnight. Well, that “change” has been, for the moment, suspended.

The preparation and sacrifices that become a precondition to surviving a grueling  meaningless pre-season + 82 games + playoff schedule are an around-the-clock affair (and not to be downplayed). But players now laugh in the face of Father Time’s prescriptions of temperance. In some extreme cases, they’re not just slowing down the effects of the inverted U curve of NBA productivity, but flat out reversing them. Forget about Jason Kidd surviving what we used to think of as the "career killer" microfracture surgery and playing an essential role on a 14-4 Knicks team. The curious Benjamin Buttoning of Kobe Bryant post bionic “blood alchemy” treatments in Germany has seen Bryant turn back the clock to his 2005 physical self — with the added benefit of possessing the maturity of a 34-year old. 

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Combined, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have 48 years of combined NBA experience (although that’s probably closer to 52 years given the fact that Duncan has played in a remarkable 190 playoff games alone). Yet they all signed lucrative 3-year deals this past summer. And don’t fool yourself: they’re well beyond playing for a piece of the hall-of-fame pie; Barring any early retirements, all three players will be suiting up into their 40s and flipping the bird at those who said they couldn’t (and voyeuristic women in parking lots alike).

The other thing they have in common and the one I find most interesting is this: that despite being old, they are still considered the cornerstones of their respective franchises (franchises that are all expected to contend to varying degrees), and this, in spite of of the young-er and illustrious company they hold (Rondo & Pierce, Bryant & Howard, Parker & Ginobili).

Let’s take a look at how they did it. 

Mythbusters: “He was great. And then he wasn’t. And it happened overnight”. Conclusion? HOLD OFF ON THE MOTHBALLS. 

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Apogee: League MVP in 2004; 2007-2008: KG’s first championship and Defensive Player of the Year award

Decline: 2009-2011

Reversing course: 2012-present 

KG has dealt with pain in his hip flexor so great since his knee surgery in 2009 that he could sometimes be seen giving it a rub down during the playoffs. “I just admire the guy so much. People have no idea what he goes through to play”, gushed Bradley. After a moribund first half of the season, injuries forced KG to begrudgingly shift over to the Center position, a boon in disguise since it once again gave him the advantage of speed over bigger and slower players.

Sidelined during the 2009-2010 playoffs, and accused of being “all bark, little bite” in the 2010-2011 season, KG’s 2011-2012 playoff averages of 19.2 PTS & 10.3 REB surged to just a hair below his championship contributions (enough to put the Celtics up 3-2 against the Heat before they succumbed to a blitzkrieg of 3s). Just like that, KG was able to ward off dips in production and the threat of extinction. And he wasn’t kind to the naysayers either, repeatedly needling reporters in post-game interviews and telling them he used their harbingers of doom as added fuel. 

The 2012-2013 Prognosis. 

While last year’s anemic bench — anchored by the pesky motley crew of Dooling, Bradley, Pietrus and Stiemsma — could at least stop the bleeding while spelling the starters, this year’s supposedly potent cast has been a collective revolving door. Without a true center on the Celtics’ roster, and subpar rebounding from the PF position, KG is once again the team’s most indispensable player. Consider this: the Celtics are a top 4 defensive team in the league (98 points allowed per 100 possessions) with KG on the floor, but drop to a catastrophic and lonely last in that category in his absence (116.4 pts/100 poss.). But he can’t do it all. Rivers has stuck to his Black Walnut variant “5-5-5 plan”, which limits KG’s playing time to (3) 5-minute stretches per half, and not a second longer. 

After showing he could once again be the best big man in the 2012 Playoffs, KG has looked measured to me in the first 18 games of the season. Could it be that he has learned to pace himself? Given that Doc has stated that the only way to save KG from over-exertion (see: displays of prolific sweating at the 11-minute mark in the 1st quarter) is by binding him to a chair, I doubt that KG’s engine is ever anything other than jammed in the stridency of 5th gear.

My anecdotal evidence is not backed up by numbers, however, which are a shade better than last year’s in all categories but assists (per 36 min). KG is a facilitator by nature, at times almost needing to be coaxed to put up shots; He even admitted that Doc Rivers’ kept his foot firmly up his ass, repeatedly urging him to shoot, lest he fall into one of his damagingly altruistic moods.

Despite Boston’s anticipated embarrassment of riches this season (at least offensively-speaking), the Celtics seem to be in a deferring “scattered jigsaw puzzle” mindset in the early going. This might be attributed to the fact that Rivers and the veterans want to bring the new players along, but they would be wise to return to the recipe that has ensured their ticket to the ECF and beyond: playing through their Big Ticket.

You know the Celtics are in a good hands when KG’s statuesque frame is presiding over the post, arm extended and palming the ball while patiently surveying his options. 

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[1]: pardon my outburst — it isn’t meant to be vengeful in any way, only a gentle nod of understanding from a once all too eager Celtics fan who saw hopes of repeat Championships washed away with the surreptitious slip of a tendon. 

Next installment: Tim Duncan 


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