Leading up to Bulls media day on Sept. 28, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman will preview the upcoming NBA season with daily features on everything related to the Association. Today the pair analyze which players may take a step backward late in their careers.
Mark Strotman: I've got to admit, this was much harder to "predict" than the breakout candidates. Maybe that's the optimistic side in me, or it's just a healthy sign that the NBA has plenty more rising stars than fading ones heading into the 2015-16 season.
But why not kick this one off with some controversy? When Pau Gasol signed a three-year, $22 million deal last offseason he was breaking down. He had missed 55 games the previous two seasons, averaged a career-low in points one of those years (2013, 13.7) and averaged a career-low in minutes the other (2014, 31.4). So naturally he comes to the Eastern Conference at age 34 and turns back the clock entirely with arguably a career year in his 14th NBA season.
But he'll surpass 40,000 career minutes sometime in December, returns to a somewhat crowded Bulls frontcourt that won't ask as much of him this season (addition of Bobby Portis, healthy Taj Gibson, progressing Nikola Mirotic) and has the recent string of injuries — even last year he missed Games 4 and 5 against the Cavs despite playing 78 regular-season games. Maybe "breaking down" isn't the right phrase for it, but I don't expect another All-Star campaign or All-NBA Second Team selection. At some point he's got to slow down. My guess is it happens this upcoming year. That being said, as long as he's hitting from 17 feet and grabbing his fair share of rebounds he'll be an important piece to the Bulls' championship-aspiring group. I don't want to make it sound like he's going to fall off the map.
Vincent Goodwill: It’s not earth-shattering to believe the Bulls will scale back Gasol’s usage coming up this season. Gasol just turned 35 in July, and last season served as his turn-back-the-clock year, which means there was considerable doubt as to whether his great days were long gone. Now, he’s efficient around the basket, an adept mid-range shooter and incredibly smart on both ends of the floor. It’s not likely his skills will erode before our eyes, but his body will be a question.
The list of bigs past 35 who posted a season with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 22 (Gasol’s PER was 22.7 last season, 11th in the NBA) read like this: Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal. So while it’s not impossible for Gasol to have a repeat performance, chances are the Bulls aren’t wont to put that load on him, so his body is fresher down the stretch.
One player who could take a step back is Nowtizki, who just turned 37 (!) in June and is entering his 18th year. Only Paul Pierce and Vince Carter remain from that draft class in addition to Nowitzki, as Dallas has failed to put a roster around him for him to take a true step back in terms of responsibility. His offensive rating dropped seven points last season, but he still made the All-Star team. Me thinks those days are over, and considering he’ll be playing with the difficult Deron Williams as his point guard, along with the franchise still smarting over the loss of DeAndre Jordan, putting too much on his plate could backfire.
And considering Duncan is the only player known to make a deal with Father Time (me and Roger Goodell have the evidence after a crack investigation), Nowitzki can’t keep this going, right?
MS: Well I'm going to keep our trend of Hall-of-Famers suffering from down years going by picking Tony Parker. Again, I don't think we're saying these guys are going to transform into Nazr Mohammed from one year to the next, but with a lot of these players — as is the case every year — it's more, "It's got to happen at some point, right?"
I believe it happens with Parker in 2015-16. Last year his PER (15.9) was 20th among starting point guards who played at least 50 games, and personally it was his worst mark since the 2003-04 season, when he was 21. His usage went down for a fourth straight season while his assist percentage decreased a third straight season; his turnover percentage was also his worst mark since 2011. In last year's playoffs he was pitted against Chris Paul in the first round and was dealing with multiple injuries, so take this with a grain of salt, but he averaged 10.9 points on 36 percent shooting. It was ugly, and injuries are bound to catch up with him at some point.
The NBA's transformation to a point guard-dominant league is in full motion, and a 32-year-old Parker with nearly 40,000 minutes (and 203 playoff games, or two and a half extra seasons) could get passed by this season. Gregg Popovich will have a plan to make sure Parker is ready for the postseason, to be sure. Still, his arrow is trending down.
VG: Could Dwight Howard be on the downturn? Seems hard to believe, but Howard will be 30 come December and his numbers were down across the board as he battled a right knee injury that caused him to miss half the season.
When healthy, he’s still one of the more impactful pivot men in the league, especially on the defensive end. But he experienced that debilitating back injury his last season in Orlando, didn’t have the impact in Los Angeles many thought he would’ve and is now entering his 12th season. Many don’t realize this, but Howard is the shortest center in the league, standing at barely 6-foot-10. His athleticism and strength enabled him to overcome his vertical limitations but if injuries are starting to catch up with him, his effectiveness will continue to wane.
Despite the game placing more of an emphasis on the swingmen and small guards, if Howard was at his best while playing alongside MVP runner-up James Harden, then the Rockets would be mentioned with Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City as title contenders. Instead, they’re a step behind.
He barely played 30 minutes a game last season, so his per-36 minute numbers of 19.0 points and 12.7 rebounds rank right up there with his career averages. But how many big men get healthier past the age of 30? Even Alonzo Mourning’s body began to break down before his kidney disease was discovered before the 2002-03 season. Ewing’s last All-Star appearance came in Year 12. Olajuwon, the rare player who seemed to get better into his 30’s, made his last All-Star appearance in Year 13. Howard is far from done as an impact player, but expecting him to be the feared force every night of the year could be asking a bit much.