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Steve Aschburner

Not as efficient, but a little more hirsute: Ray Allen of 2002, with the Bucks.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

'Old' pros constantly battle with image of younger selves

Posted Apr 7 2012 10:45AM

CHICAGO -- Doc Rivers complained late Thursday about the casual way in which his team went down at Chicago, as if they played all night with their collars popped, their shades and headphones on. "We were the 'cool Boston Celtics,' " Rivers said. "You could see it, walking around, walking the ball up, couldn't get the ball inbounds. Nobody wanted to work. It was a joke. We were the 'cool Celtics.' "

At least it was different. Usually, they're referred to as the "old Celtics," which tends to dismiss and patronize great players who have performed well enough and lasted long enough.

The NBA landscape is full of them: Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and of course the Celtics vets, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. They're old, OK? Not in civilian years but definitely in pro basketball years. Even Rivers, in praising the leadership of his stars earlier in the evening, flippantly referred to them as "dinosaurs."

It's a funny thing: Players are accustomed to hearing endless comparisons to peers. Stick around for 10 or 15 seasons, though, and a fellow is likely to hear himself compared to his own self. His younger self. That's the matchup that can sting the most. Frustrate the most, too.

How exactly does one shadow-box with the past? It's one thing for Paul Pierce to match up with Luol Deng, or Kevin Garnett to tangle with Kevin Love. It's something entirely different for Allen, Pierce or Garnett in 2012 to duke it out with their 2005 versions.

Can their current selves ever beat their best selves? Seems like more people recall old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (balding, begoggled, an offensive role player for the Showtime Lakers) than young Kareem (full Afro and sideburns, a laser glare and that lethal sky hook he seemed to brandish every other time downcourt for the Milwaukee Bucks). Certainly, young Kareem would kick old Kareem's butt, based on our recollections.

"I think people do do that," Allen, 36, said Thursday. "So you kind of re-invent yourself, so when you put a [different] brand of basketball out there ... they say, 'OK, I appreciate what he does in this role on this team, in this era of his career.' It shows you're doing different things."

Allen is a perfect example. Glimpse a photo of him from his earliest days with the Bucks and he's almost impossibly young. Full head of hair, raw athleticism, a cocky dare in his eyes. Now he shaves the hair he has left. He doesn't appear to have an ounce more body fat, but his body yelps at him now, like the sore right ankle that demands his care and attention these days. Check out his eyes and the look there is more calculating.

"Efficiency," Allen said. "When I first got into the NBA, I took, like, crazy shots. You took whatever shot was available because your athleticism got you by and you [could] just jump over somebody and take a shot. But now you understand when it's time to score, and you understand the game and making your teammates better and moving the ball around and getting that great shot.

"And then there's an evolution to the game where, by the fourth quarter, if you've made certain things happen, then I don't have to take a tough shot. You swing the ball and I'll get Avery Bradley an easy shot because we've been playing the right way the whole game."

Allen even went to Rivers on Thursday to suggest that Bradley go back into Allen's spot in the starting lineup -- an unthinkable concession five or 10 years ago, but one way the NBA's all-time 3-point king might be winning the comparisons with his younger self.

"People who are purists in baskeball and appreciate the smaller things, they almost love a player more when they get older," Allen said. "Because they play the game in a fashion that you love watching and they make their teammates better."

Sometimes the difference between past and present is simply size. Consider Duncan. San Antonio's seemingly ageless big man -- he's not, he'll turn 36 April 25 -- has produced with the consistency of a McDonald's quarter-pounder, from one corner of the globe to the next. This season, pro-rated to 36 minutes, Duncan is averaging 18.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.9 blocks, 16.0 shots and 5.6 free-throw attempts. Six years ago, at age 29, he averaged 19.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.1 blocks, 15.3 FGA and 6.9 FTA. Across his career, for every 36 minutes, Duncan has averaged 20.6, 11.5, 3.1, 2.3, 15.7 and 6.8.

Not bad for a guy listed in a recent boxscore, with coach Gregg Popovich managing his minutes, as "DNP-OLD."

Then there's Nash, 38, who has coped for a decade with back pain but told this week that he'll be seeking a three-year contract this summer as a free agent. Nash's scoring (12.8) and shot attempts (9.2) are down from what Suns fans have come to expect -- he attributes that to expediting Phoenix's ball movement and thwarting defenses keyed on him -- but the real takeaway is this: In Nash's first MVP season (2004-05), he averaged 16.3 points, 12.0 assists and 1.0 steals per 36 minutes, while shooting 50.2 percent on field goals and 88.7 percent from the line. Seven years later, his respective numbers are 14.1, 12.4, 0.8, 53.8 percent and 88.3 percent.

Among the oldest Celtics, Pierce is the most constant, possibly because at 34 he is the least aged. "I don't know if Paul has changed at all," Rivers said. "Paul has a timeless game, and he never looks like he's going that fast, never looks that athletic. But at the end of the game you look at the board and see 26 points and 14 rebounds or something, and you think, 'How did that happen?' "

Garnett has been plugging the Celtics' center spot since the All-Star break, using his wiles and milking some physical advantages over opponents that he might no longer possess over power forwards. The intense 7-footer, who will turn 36 next month, said he doesn't get bound up by comparisons to his younger MVP self and, frankly, the dropoff -- especially defensively -- hasn't been as stark as the calendar would suggest.

"I feel like I've given so much to the game as far as dedication and effort and passing that [along], along with summer [preparation] that I don't think someone else could sustain," Garnett said, shifting into talk of this NBA generation's oldsters. "I don't know anybody our ages, who's doing this at 35, 36 years old, playing these types of minutes and being this productive."

Joe DiMaggio, deep into his Hall of Fame career as the ultimate Yankees centerfielder, once explained his determination to perform at his highest possible level -- or to exit gracefully. "I always think, there might be someone out there in the stands who's never seen me play," DiMaggio said.

Does that stir the echoes for some of these players?

"No offense to any fans, but when I play basketball I play for this team, my teammates, my coaches," Garnett said. "I can't worry about somebody in the stands -- if they've never seen me play, that means they don't know basketball. Fans, I actually have a love for and they have their favorite players, but when I play, I play for the team I'm on and the guys I'm playing with, and for myself and my family. It's more important at the end of the day that I gave my all."

It's our good fortune that so many still can.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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