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Dirk, Kobe Forestalling Decline

The Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks have had plenty of nationally televised games over the last decade, but rarely one with as much (or, alternatively, as little) on the line as there was on Sunday. At this point of the season, they are usually fighting for homecourt advantage in the first-round, not locked in a pitched battle for the No. 9 seed. Not much has gone right for either team this season, but both remain worth watching, if only for the presence of Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. On Sunday afternoon, the two combined for a vintage shootout, with Kobe’s 38/12/7 outpacing Dirk’s 30/13 in one of the most thrilling games of the season.

While the NBA game has changed dramatically over the last 10 years, Dirk and Kobe seem to exist outside of time. Since their games are built on fundamentals, there hasn’t been that much slippage as they’ve gotten older. They do many of the same things in 2013 that they were doing in 2003. A 35-year-old can’t play above the rim as well as a 25-year-old can, but the basics of playing below the rim don’t change with age. Dirk and Kobe are pure shooters with impeccable footwork and excellent size for their position. They can get a clean look at the basket against almost anyone, even players nearly half their age.

Kobe, now in his 17th season, has outlasted almost all of his contemporaries. The average NBA career is only 4.5 seasons long, so Kobe has witnessed the entire league turn over three times. At a time in his career when most great players are a shadow of themselves, he is still one of the most productive players in the NBA. He’s already played in more career regular season and playoff games than Michael Jordan. Players with that many games on their knees are usually in a steep decline; he’s averaging his highest number of assists since 2004 and best field goal percentage since 2009.

Dirk, in his 15th season, has had a rougher year. Like Kobe, he has been remarkably durable his entire career, but that changed this summer, when he underwent seemingly “routine” knee surgery. No knee surgery, however, is ever routine for a basketball player. Dirk ended up missing the first two months of the season and seemed a step slow when he finally returned. He’s only started to look like himself in the last few weeks. Sunday’s game may have come too late to save the Mavericks season, but it’s a sign he still has MVP-caliber play left in him now that he’s regained his timing.

Perhaps the most impressive part of both of their games is the work they’ve put into them. You don’t just wake up one morning and become a great shooter; it takes an endless number of hours in endless numbers of empty gyms to perfect and hone a great shot. Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour” rule is probably a gross underestimation of the time Kobe and Dirk have put into their craft over the years. At their age, making the game look effortless requires an unbelievable amount of effort behind the scenes. They don’t need the money and they don’t need the aggravation, after all they've accomplished, the only reason to play is love of the game.

There are 11 players in NBA history with 10 All-Star Game appearances, a regular season MVP and an NBA Finals MVP: Kareem, Magic, MJ, Bird, Moses Malone, Wilt, Russell, Hakeem, Duncan, Shaq, Dirk and Kobe. There’s no right or wrong answer for how you to rank them, just being on that list is an honor in and of itself. At that level, the normal rules of aging don’t necessarily apply. 75 percent or 80 percent of a Top 15 player is still better than the prime of many All-Stars. Duncan, at 36, might be the first-team All-NBA C this season; Kareem won a Finals MVP at 38.

As long as Kobe and Dirk can stay healthy, they’ll be able to play at a fairly high level. A player’s body is like a car: the more miles on it, the more routine maintenance it needs. Injuries, more than a decline in effectiveness, are what often get the greatest players. Dirk got a first-hand glimpse at his own mortality as his knee injury lingered this season. Karl Malone was still a starting PF on an elite team at 40, but he retired after a knee injury knocked him out of the NBA Finals. Jordan, if he got back in shape, could probably play in an NBA game at the age of 50, but it’s ridiculous to think he could stay healthy over an 82-game season.

Realistically, in the age of LeBron and Kevin Durant, Kobe and Dirk aren’t winning MVP awards anymore. Kobe no longer has the athleticism or energy to consistently dominate games on the defensive end, while Dirk’s rebounding and free-throw numbers, the canaries in the coal mine for his declining footspeed, have been dropping steadily for years. Nevertheless, their elite shot-making ability would make them deadly as a second or even third option. Chris Bosh shoots 55 percent as a release valve in Miami; it’s hard to imagine how efficient Dirk could be with a steady diet of open shots.

As you get older, there’s no shame in embracing a secondary role. If anything, Jason Kidd’s legacy has been enhanced by his turn as a role-playing shooting guard for the Knicks at 40. Steve Nash, at 38, is still one of the most efficient offensive players in the NBA. How much fun did Bill Walton have as the sixth man for the 1986 Boston Celtics? A Hall of Famer who embraces a smaller role can extend his career well into the late 30’s. Kobe and Dirk are still “only” 34 years old. That’s how old Jordan was when he retired for the second time, but his decision to come back three years later make you wonder if he left too early.

In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious why he didn’t “leave on top” after the 1998 NBA Finals. He loved to play basketball and thought he still could at a high level; he didn’t want to regret not giving it one more chance before it was too late. And if he still wants to play at 50, how could he not regret choosing to walk away from his age 35-37 seasons? With the way LeBron is going, it would be nice to have an extra ring or two on his resume. There are only so many years an athlete has to play the game before their body gives out; why not use every last one of them? Players like Dirk and Kobe don’t come around very often; for their sake, and for ours, I hope they play as long as they possibly can.

 

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