For Prime Out Loud!
Last week, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus performed a thorough investigation of these concerns. His articles should be digested in full. But the upshot is that scoring guards of Gil's ilk peak soon and decline rapidly. Combined with Dave Berri's recent proclamation that NBA prime, lone believed to strike around 27, in fact arrives at 24 and then drops off from there. Open up the skies, we've got an issue to address: Exactly what is prime, and how did it get so reified?
Here's the way we grew up, grew up hard: Players hit the league with all the physical tools in the world, but lack the intelligence, discipline, or feel for the game to necessarily employ them -- or at least make the most of them. Obviously, there are guys who have dominated from Day One, but they can always refine themselves. Anyway, then the functional players absorb a little bit of coaching and advice, and maybe get initiated into the dark art of veteran tricks. Gradually, like a fine wine, they grow deeper with age. Then they burst forth like a beautiful flower, an exquisite combination of youth's vigor and experience's wisdom and patience. That lasts for a while, until the body starts to go, and an increasingly resourceful player hangs on for dear life as his career slips away. Then they die, but not before retiring.
But when faced with this model, whose logic seems to underlie Berri's revision, you're still left with a remarkably inflexible understanding of prime. We don't even know if it's a plateau, a gentle arc, or a triangle with an absolute point. It could be all three combined! Pelton indicates that primes have different lengths, and vary by player type, but still leaves us wondering how deterministic it all must be. If the very notion of prime is based on a player honing his skills -- by no means a given or natural development -- couldn't the length, or shape, of one's prime vary depending on his ability to adapt again?
Armed with only these questions and some rudimentary graphical skills, Tom Ziller and I set out in search of proof that, if prime depends on an initial process, there is also a second "moment of truth," when a player can alter his game and either prolong his salad days or at least stabilize himself in the midst of decay.
This graphs depicts the careers of Karl Malone and Dominique Wilkins, with performance measured in terms of PER. We are not claiming that Malone and Wilkins were wholly identical players, but both were athletic power forwards who, as young men, dunked a lot and intimidated people. Malone was better than Wilkins once both became stars, which for our purposes means registering a PER value of 20 or better. He also got to play with John Stockton, which probably helped a little. But the similarities here are nonetheless striking. Malone enters his prime at 23; Wilkins, 24. At 29, Malone is trending downward, Wilkins upward. The two intersect, and Nique hits his career-high PER in 30. Then, Malone begins to increase, and Wilkins decreasing. They then intersect again at age 30, but coming from opposite directions this time. Malone is on an upswing, a second wind behind his back, while Wilkins has topped out. By 34, when Nique's PER has dropped below 20, Malone's is at an all-time high, surpassing even the triumphs of his youth. Malone stays over 20 until age 40.
Based on these numbers, and what we know about these two players' games, it's safe to say that Malone learned to deal with aging far better than Wilkins, and was able to adjust or alter his play to remain effective as he aged. He even did so again in 2003-04, when he was a valuable contributor as the fourth option on the star-studded Lakers. Granted, context was on his side throughout, but even if Stockton's the culprit, we still see Malone learning to better use (or use differently) the team around him.
We see this same effect when comparing Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant, similar perimeter-oriented players, albeit with a marked talent gap -- one even more intuitive, and readily demonstrable, than Malone/Wilkins. Carter's graph is Kobe's in miniature, except for the fact that at age 29, the gulf opens up even further. No player has as intelligently tinkered with his game, and re-learned his movements, as Bryant. That's why he remains well above star level to this day, while Carter trailed off several seasons ago.
The adjustment postulate becomes essential when discussing Arenas. Gil is a combo guard who, while capable of running an offense, is primarily a scorer who relies on burst. While broad-shouldered, Arenas is still relatively small by NBA standards. This will wear a player down; that's why, as Pelton note, players like him fall off fast. Anyone remember the young Steve Francis? Once upon a time, he could bring tears to your eyes. If Arenas changes his game -- into what, only he and his future coaches can know -- he could last longer than projected. Since this adjustment is equal parts psychological, circumstantial, and just plain idiosyncratic, right now it's all conjecture. There's just no reason to rule it out.
With this in mind, though, here's the PER trajectories of Isiah Thomas and Steve Nash. Thomas knew how to play one way, was a master of it, and peaked extremely early. His best years actually came before the rings, though one could argue that his PER was effected by sublimating himself for the team effort (yes, I know, "The Secret"). Nash, on the other hand, is even more esoteric than Kobe when it comes to monitoring his body and retooling it to account for age. He's slowed down with age, but somehow gotten faster on the court. His arrival in Phoenix is strange: It both turned him into more of a pure distributor, and yet pushed the tempo even higher than Nash had seen in Dallas. That's not to say that Arenas could become Nash, but this shows what a unique course the career of a small, quick PG who likes to score can be if he makes a conscious effort to intervene.
And, primarily because it was such a bummer to look at, here's a comparison of Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Jason Kidd, three big point guards known for their comprehensive ability out on the floor:
Kidd, thought of as a great survivor, adjusts at age 30 merely to level out and -- already below a PER of 20 -- put off further decline. Though given how useful Kidd has proven to the Mavs this year, and the fact that PER just doesn't seem to like him (his peak is one of the few seasons he lands over 20), maybe it's worth taking the actual numbers worth a grain of salt. What's significant is the curve: Kidd couldn't make himself better with age, just stay level at his 30-year-old self. Magic's is almost awe-inspiring: He's into the stratosphere for his entire career, rendering "peak" and "prime" practically meaningless. When he does reach the "moment of truth," nothing changes. He was so good, he didn't have to adjust. Then there's Oscar, arguably the greatest all-around player in the game's history, undervalued as a playmaker and hailed for his consistency. He peaks at 25, and it's downhill from there. He experiences a slight bump at 31, but then spends the rest of his career below star level. Ugh.
It's hard to know what to make of this last graph. Maybe it undermines our credibility, but we found it too strange and dramatic to not display. However, it makes the question of adjustment, and the role it plays in projecting prime, all the more glaring. Prime is different for every player, like fingerprints, as much a function of how he ends up at and sustains star-level performance, not simply how long it lasts. For these reasons alone, reports of Mr. Arenas's death would seem to be a bit premature.