If the last few seasons are any indication, one of the NBA’s golden eras might soon be coming to an end.
From 1992-96 the NBA experienced five of it’s greatest draft classes in terms of superstar talent and career longevity. Now that many of those stars have begun retiring, we have a large enough sample with which to gauge the average career span of the modern-day NBA superstar.
There are a number of factors which separate this particular generation from those that preceded it.
For example, the number of high school games many of those guys played was nearly twice as many as their predecessors, due to tournaments across the country that were sponsored by shoe companies offering money to schools that couldn’t resist.
On the flip side, many of those same stars played fewer college games because they either left college for the NBA after just one or two years, or, in some cases, bypassed college altogether.
Improvements in sports medicine and physical training have also prolonged careers from injuries once considered career-threatening.
The modern-day NBA player hasn’t necessarily stopped Father Time, but he has made him wait a little longer than he used to.
The Classes of 1992 and 1993
There are just two remaining players in the NBA from the draft classes of 1992 and 1993—Shaquille O’Neal (’92) and Lindsey Hunter (’93).
Just two years ago, there were five remaining players from 1992 class—Shaq, Doug Christie, Robert Horry, P.J. Brown, and Alonzo Mourning.
Since then four of the five have retired.
While O’Neal, the first player picked in the 1992 Draft, has stated that he’d like to play three more seasons, he might not have a say in the matter.
After making the Western Conference All-Star team last season, O’Neal is now averaging career-lows in scoring (11.2 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg), and has already missed six of his team’s first 21 games due to injury.
Since big men like O’Neal rely more on size than athleticism, he might be able to convince a GM to give him a one-year deal for next season, but likely at a dollar amount that the notorious egomaniac may be too prideful to play for.
If the old adage that teams can never have enough bigs remains true, then it’s realistic that O’Neal could play another two seasons, but three seems highly unlikely.
Two years ago, there were five players remaining from the rookie class of 1993—Hunter, Bruce Bowen, Sam Cassell, Chris Webber, and Bo Outlaw.
Of the 10 players from those two drafts who have retired in the last two years, or are still playing, eight were/are either centers at the time of their retirement (O’Neal, Mourning, Outlaw, Webber, and Brown) or considered defensive specialists (Bowen, Horry, and Christie).
The last two, Cassell and Hunter, were/are considered players/coaches who play(ed) limited minutes.
The Class of 1994
Three of the top five picks taken in the 1994 Draft are still playing, and those are the only three still in the league—Jason Kidd, Grant Hill, and Juwan Howard.
Three others, Jalen Rose, Eddie Jones, and Donyell Marshall have retired in the past two years.
Kidd and Hill, co-Rookies of the Year in 1995, are still starting for the Mavericks and Suns, respectively.
Howard, who has played in 14 of the Portland Trailblazers’ first 22 games this season, will have a much more prominent role with starting center Greg Oden missing the remainder of the season after fracturing his left patella.
If the 1992-94 drafts have proved anything to us it’s that only a handful of players in each draft are able to play more than 15 seasons, and even fewer are able to start in their late 30s.
How does that bode for the players who were drafted in 1995, and especially those drafted in 1996—one of the most star-studded draft classes in NBA history?
If history is any indication, it tells us most of those players from the 1995 and 1996 draft classes will more than likely be out of the league within the next two years, and those who are still in the league will most likely be big men, or will have to become specialists of some sort.
Many of those still around from the Class of 1995 have already accepted roles similar to those of Howard, Outlaw, Webber, Horry, Brown, and Cassell.
The Class of 1995
There are seven remaining players from the 1995 NBA draft. An eighth, Kevin Ollie, went undrafted.
Five of the eight—Antonio McDyess, Rasheed Wallace, Theo Ratliff, Kurt Thomas, and Joe Smith have already accepted roles as reserve centers.
One of the other three players, Kevin Ollie, is filling a Sam Cassell/Lindsey Hunter-type role on the Oklahoma City Thunder as a player/coach.
In fact, in the most recent GM Survey, Ollie was one of only 11 players to receive any votes when the league’s 30 general managers were asked “Which active player will make the best head coach someday?”
Another of the remaining three, Michael Finley, is averaging 5.2 points per game—less than a third of his career average (16 ppg). While Finley can still have an impact, his days appear numbered.
Nobody would be surprised if either Ollie or Finley called it a career at the conclusion of this season.
The lone remaining player of the eight, Kevin Garnett, is the youngest of the group. That should come as no surprise considering he was the only one from the group who made the jump to the NBA straight out of high school.
Garnett is still one of the league’s elite players. How effective he will be, and for how long, might depend on his health.
Whatever the outcome, Garnett’s longevity will also provide a precedent in the debate over whether a player’s age, or his mileage is the determining factor in how long of a career he has.
Garnett is under contract for two more seasons. He’ll be 36-years-old when it expires in 2012. There’s no reason to believe that he won’t at least play both of them out.
How much longer he plays after that remains a mystery. It will be interesting to compare Garnett to Tim Duncan—the top pick in the 1997 NBA draft.
Even though Garnett and Duncan are the same age, Duncan has played two fewer NBA seasons.
To recap, of the 13 players still active from the 1992-95 drafts, only four are starters, six are reserve centers, two are player/coaches, and one, Michael Finley, is a role player.
The Class of 1996
No draft class will see more of a change over the next two years than the one from 1996. One reason is that there are 12 active players in the NBA who were drafted in 1996—almost as many as there are from the four previous drafts combined.
Here is the list (in the order the players were drafted):
Ben Wallace (undrafted)
Chucky Atkins (undrafted)
Of the 12, five are centers, three are shooting guards, three are point guards, and one is a small forward.
Of the five centers, four have started every game they’ve played this season. Marcus Camby, a natural center, has played power forward this season for the Los Angeles Clippers—alongside Chris Kaman.
Even the fifth center on the list, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, has started six games this year, in place of the injured Shaquille O’Neal.
Nash, Iverson, and Fisher, three of the four point guards on the list, have started every game they’ve played this season. The fourth point guard, Chucky Atkins, has a non-guaranteed contract, and has only appeared in eight games for the Detroit Pistons.
The two shooting guards, Allen and Bryant, have both started every game they’ve played for their teams this season.
The lone small forward, Peja Stojakovic, was drafted in 1996, but didn’t join the Sacramento Kings until 1998. So even though he was a member of the 1996 Draft he wasn’t a part of the 1996 rookie class.
There’s no reason to believe that eight of the nine who are everyday starters—should they remain injury-free—won’t at least still be in the league two years from now.
The other three, Wallace, Ilgauskas, Atkins, and even Stojakovic, will probably be out of the NBA sooner rather than later. Wallace and Ilgauskas could easily find homes if they wanted to continue their careers, and Stojakovic will probably end his career in Greece—his adopted homeland, the birthplace of his wife, and the country he played in before coming to the United States.
Atkins, on the other hand, could be out of the league as soon as Jan. 9—the last day before non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed.
It’s likely that Camby and Dampier will soon become reserve centers—just as their predecessors have.
It’s hard to gauge the future prospects of Iverson and Wallace—two guys who both flirted with retirement this year. It’s a possibility that Wallace could play another season, but he could just as easily retire.
Iverson, though, seems to have a much longer list of criteria when it comes to where he decides to play. As a result, this could also be his final season.
Jermaine O’Neal is an interesting study because, like Garnett, he made the jump straight from high school. He has had a history of injury problems, but has proved to be healthy and effective thus far this season.
Whether or not it’s just a coincidence that it happens to be the final year on his current contract is up for debate.
Fisher, who is averaging fewer minutes per game this season (26.5) than in any since he backed up Gary Payton during the 2003-04 season, will probably fade into the same type of role as Hunter and Ollie currently have.
The most interesting cases, though, are those of Bryant, Nash, and Ray Allen.
While Bryant’s off-season and in-season workout regimens have become the stuff of legend, there’s no telling when he will see a drop-off in production. Unlike his fellow preps-to-pros stars—Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal—Bryant is a shooting guard.
Will Bryant accept even a slightly reduced role as his total number of games played continues to pile up even if it’s the only logical way for him to continue playing at an elite level?
Bryant is no longer the high-flyer he was when he first came into the league, although he can still drive the paint when a situation calls for it.
Kobe has evolved from dunker to perimeter player and, this season, has added a new layer to his arsenal—a post-game.
It’s quite possible that Bryant’s game will evolve in much the same way as that of Washington Wizards-era Michael Jordan.
Bryant could move to the small forward position, and take on less of a facilitator-role in the Lakers’ offense.
It’s really a matter of whether or not Bryant’s stubbornness—the kind that has made him a four-time champion—will allow him to accept that there are certain checks that his mind will continue to want to write, but his body will no longer be able to cash.
Jordan was able to play until age 40. Bryant not only entered the NBA at a younger age than Jordan, but MJ also sat out three full seasons between 1984 and 2004, and the majority of a fourth season (1994-95).
Kobe will turn 32 next August. The Lakers are trying to lock up Bryant—who can opt out of the final year of his contract next summer. If the Lakers can add five years to his option year, then his contract would expire just before his 38th birthday, and after his 20th season.
It’s hard to believe that any non-center could play 20 seasons in today’s NBA, but if anyone can do it it’s someone who entered the league at 18, and who works harder than any other player in the league.
As for Nash, the only logical comparison is John Stockton. While Nash isn’t a fifth of the defensive player that Stockton was, both are athletic freaks, and basketball savants who continue to defy aging with their ability to knock down open shots and dribble amongst giants.
Stockton played until he was 40. Nash turns 36 in two months. Statistically, Nash’s numbers are as good—and in some cases better—than his career averages.
It would be practically pointless to compare Nash’s numbers to those of Stockton’s, considering the offenses that Nash has spent the majority of his career playing in, so I’ll save you those comparisons.
While much has been made of Nash’s back problems, he’s yet to miss more than eight games in any season since 2000-01.
Nash signed a contract extension this past July that runs through the 2011-12 season. There’s no reason to believe that Nash won’t at least fulfill that.
The only issue past that is whether or not Nash—who prides himself as a citizen of the world—might prefer to hang up his Nikes to pursue other interests, with gas left in his tank.
Ray Allen is an interesting case because he’s a specialist. But unlike like defensive specialists Bowen, Horry, and Christie, Allen’s specialty is shooting.
Reggie Miller and Dale Ellis, two of the greatest shooters in NBA history, both played until they were 39. Allen, 34, is a better all-around player than both of them.
Allen is also a member of next summer’s free agent class.
The Celtics recently re-signed Rajon Rondo to a contract extension that kicks in next season. Further complicating matters, Paul Pierce can opt out of the final year of his contract and sign a new long-term deal.
The Celtics’ decision whether or not to bring Allen back might depend on how far this year’s team can go. If they get to the Finals, they will probably try to bring him back. Lose decisively in the Conference Finals, and the Celtics may decide it’s best to let him go.
With so many teams in line to have significant cap space, there could be a team that strikes out on one of the top-tier free agents that considers Allen a legitimate short-term alternative.
With a roster to fill out and Allen’s contract costing double with the luxury tax, the Celtics could decide it’s best to let him go—even if they win another championship.
Regardless, Allen can play as long as he wants to because every team could use a 40-percent career shooter from downtown.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
There are plenty of young, emerging stars in the league. Guys like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Dwight Howard are amazing talents who have yet to reach their respective primes.
But there’s something to be said about the guys who are on the back-nine of their careers.
When all is said and done, many of the players from the 1992-96 Drafts will be remembered as some of the greatest to ever play the game. Make sure to enjoy them while they’re still around, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.
And that day is closer than you think it is.
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