The Not So Long Lives of the NBA Point Guard
Perhaps one day, Doc Rivers, coach and head honcho of the L.A. Clippers, will be looked upon as smart for trading Chris Paul, the Hall of Fame point guard. Paul, traded to the Houston Rockets in the off-season, got injured one game into his stint with his new team, and now the hope of the Rockets to overtake the Golden State Warriors and win the title is as speculative as Texas oil prices.
Of course, this is not such a shocking development. NBA players get injured but most of all, NBA point guards, even the best of the best, usually began declining in their early 30’s. It is easy to predict. Paul is 32 and his best years as a PG (perhaps he will do a Jason Kidd and remake himself as a reserve PG) are likely (I stress likely) behind him.
Most of the best point guards have gone out this way. Of course, this is why usually the league now belongs to point guards in their mid to late 20’s like Stephon Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, and Damian Lillard. These are the years where a point guard shines best.
Now look at the all time great point guards and when their time in the league ended.
Bob Cousy — retired at 34 (came back at 41 very briefly), but was statistically in decline at 32;
Isiah Thomas — retired at 32 (achilles injury right before the end);
Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald — retired at 35, but was in decline at 30 where he began playing for the Celtics, as a PG, but on reduced minutes;
Allen Iverson — done at 34 (was he really a PG?), in decline at 32;
Walt Frazier — retired at 34, but gone from the Knicks at 32, to Cleveland, as his numbers were down;
Oscar Robertson — retired at 35, last best year was when he was on Bucks championship team of 1971–72, at age 33;
Tony Parker — still playing for San Antonio, at 34, but in decline since he was 32.
Maurice Cheeks — retired at 36, but in decline at 32, after he leave the 76ers.
Fat Lever — 33
Mark Price — 31
You get it right? The age of 32, for point guards in the NBA, is for the most part, the end, or the beginning of the end, and Paul is there now, at the crossroads and already injured.
Are there exceptions to this general rule? Sure. Steve Nash comes to mind as does John Stockton, who clearly defied the general rule but was arguably not a point guard who relied on quickness as much late into his career. Neither did Jason Kidd once he got older, who goes to Dallas as basically a back-up point guard with a better deep shot to boot.
Gary Payton challenged the rule a little (he declined at 34) and Lenny Wilkins made it to 37 and mostly was a solid player all of those years. Jerry West had a solid career all the way to the end at 35. Magic Johnson had longevity but we will never know how his career would have actually ended because of other things.
But still, in general, point guards begin to show the wear and tear, the lost of that extra gear of quickness at 32. If they want to survive, they have to remake themselves and get a bit of luck, or as in the case of Stockton, continue to thrive in an ideal situation (Utah).
If Chris Paul proves this all wrong this year by coming back and leading the Rockets to NBA nirvana, I won’t be surprised; he is a super talent. But if he begins to come part slowly, and is forced to reduce his minutes, and maybe his role on the team, that won’t surprise either. But the real lesson here are for the new point guards on their way up like Wall and Lillard; the time is now. Irving has a ring; Curry has 2. The window to win for most guards is tiny; perhaps about 5 or so years if you get on a good team. Got to think like the old football coach George Allen did if you are truly hungry: “the future is now,” especially for point guards.