Basketball players in their mid to late 20s are considered to be “in their prime”. This is the time in a player’s career where they peak in terms of overall basketball ability. Most guys peak athletically in their early 20s, but as they grow old, like Vince Carter has, they accumulate knowledge about the game faster than their athleticism dwindles, and in their age 27 or 28 seasons, they have the peak combination of power and basketball intelligence.
Once age 30 rolls around, most hoopers’ IQ grows slowly while their athleticism wanes away rather quickly, and thus their career comes to an end just a few years later. But some players’ acumen outlasts their lack of athleticism and they are able to play late into their 30s.
These players often excel at leveraging their lack of speed and agility into opportunities. Al Jefferson is one of those players. Jefferson, a mid-2000s style big man who shines with his back to the basket, has seen his speed disappear over the last few season as he gets to be old. But this hasn’t taken away from his effectiveness.
Jefferson is currently posting his career-best shooting percentage from the field at 52.8 percent. This is thanks to the advantage of wit he has over the player guarding him. I talked to Jefferson this week at Pacers practice and asked him about being a vet in the league with a vanishing playstyle:
“I think my play style has faded out, but I think when you have a guy like me on the team it’s great that [my coaches] still do a great job of running plays for me and getting me involved,” he said. “Guy’s don’t know how to defend my style of play anymore”.
He’s right. His speed certainly hinders him on defense, but on offense, he knows how to score in ways that younger opposing bigs don’t know how to stop.
Alex Len was a recent victim. The poor man. He is tasked with guarding Jefferson in a pick-and-roll with the unpredictable Lance Stephenson handling the ball. Big Al receives a pocket pass after rolling into the lane and Len jumps out at him with his hands up; great defense against modern bigs who can nail jumpers and mid-range looks. But it’s not enough against the wiser Al, who has seen this defense before. Jefferson simply shot fakes and entices the youthful Len in a manner that causes him to lean forward just a bit. Once Len’s center of gravity changes, Big Al takes the ball down, essentially an up-and-under from 10 feet out, and scoops past Len for the easy floater:
Somewhere, Bill Walton smiles. The result on that basket is two points. The stat that makes the two points possible is years of experience, where Jefferson has a 14-5 lead on Len. He’s a former All-NBA player, you don’t think he knows how to beat an over-contesting defender? His molasses level speed limits his ceiling as a player, but his sense of the game and upper hand in experience make it possible for him to succeed in spite of his old-age limitations.
Jefferson’s 14 years of experience pale in comparison when set up next to Dirk Nowitzki’s 19. Nineteen years! Dirk started playing in the 1990s, and it shows in multiple facets on the court. You thought Jefferson was sluggish, but Al would smoke Dirk in a 40-yard dash.
Sometimes, the Mavericks score before the 40-year-old Nowitzki crosses half-court on your television screen. Other times, Dirk is the lynchpin making sure Rick Carlisle’s offense doesn’t crumble at the seams. He’s currently averaging a career-high effective field goal percentage and he is absolutely clowning every young guy who guards him.
In his “10 things I like and don’t like” column from Jan. 12, ESPN’s Lach Lowe coined Dirk’s time around the elbow as “office hours,” perfect nomenclature for the teachable moments Dirk creates for defenders. His filthy touch from literally everywhere on the court makes his shot fakes deadly and his ability to read the situation presented to him better than anyone else on the court shows with his clever maneuvering around defenders.
Shane Larkin is in his only his fourth season and is nearly a foot shorter than Nowitzki. He gets matched up with Dirk on a switch and does his best to get a stop during office hours. He starts off doing a fairly decent job using his arm to keep Dirk from getting into his body and using his speed to stay in front of the German big man. But Nowitzki has a bucket to get. During his 19 years in the league, he has faced tougher defenders than Shane Larkin. He spins inside to the lane, shot fakes, gets Larkin off his feet, slides to the side and fades away for an easy (for him) jumper:
Dirk operates in the same situation here, but on the block. Josh Huestis is all over him in the post. Nowitzki slows down, assesses the situation and dribbles into the lane. He pulls the ball down and hits Huestis, a third-year player, with a simple head fake. That is all it took for the German to get the space he needed to rise up and fade away for a score:
Dirk has survived to this point with an unrivaled precocity despite his evaporating athleticism. But there’s one last vet with less sagacity than Nowitzki or Jefferson, but more speed and springiness.
You’re probably thinking of who I am describing, none other than Vince Carter. Carter is a year ahead of Dirk in his 20th NBA season, an unbelievable feat in and of itself. Carter, like Dirk, is somehow still setting career highs at this stage in his NBA tenure. He is shooting a bonkers 60 percent from 10 to 16 feet, 6.5 percent better than any season of his illustrious career.
He somehow has thrown down 10 dunks too. He’s 41 years old! And he can still get up for breakaway jams like this:
Just nasty. But Vince can still use his acumen to score when his athleticism isn’t needed. He combines the two here, faking a drive inside with a ball fake before going over to the wing. The ball fake gives him just enough space to rise up and can the jumper from the 10 to 16-foot distance he has been so great from:
Vince has one skill that neither Dirk nor Jefferson has kept, a modicum of defensive prowess. His 1.9 steals per 36 minutes are far and away a career best for him and on the impact side, his 1.1 Defensive Box Plus Minus is a career high too.
Watch him here as his film watching, athleticism and veteran discernment all combine on one defensive possession. Dante Cunningham rolls after setting a screen, but Carter knows the play already. He sprints down the lane with Cunningham, with his arm extended to block the pass. Low and behold, the pass comes and Vince taps it away, leading to a fast break opportunity for Sacramento:
The 2000s are over. Vinsanity is in our rearview mirror. MVP Dirk is a thing of the past. Al Jefferson’s All-NBA days are behind him. But these guys have a skill that few other players yield: experience. Jefferson said it best when he admitted some younger guys don’t know how to defend his skills anymore and it applies to all three of these former stars. As long as their brain capacity doesn’t suddenly vanish, these guys will continue to be effective in their limited minutes, even with their flat-footed play style. No matter what happens to these old farts, one thing is for sure, they will be near the top of the league in one stat for the rest of the season.
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