Many moons from now, when the details of this utterly befuddling season have receded from memory, Steve Nash’s remarkable (assuming he stays healthy) 2012 campaign will likely have been lost amid the historical shuffle. Certain events and outcomes are inevitably valued over others: which team wins the title, who wins the MVP award, what font Dan Gilbert uses in his annual screed; all tend to overshadow individual statistical achievements, particularly of those playing on losing teams.
Which is unfortunate. Age and injury typically prohibit players from successfully extending their careers past the age of 35. Indeed, most either retire (West, Cowens, Isiah, etc.) or suffer embarrassment (see: Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Gary Payton, etc.) as they unsuccessfully attempt to capture past glories. That Nash has continued to play at a high level despite his age (37, going on 38), and has single-handedly kept the Suns afloat (seriously, his second-best teammate is Marcin Gortat) is a bonafide miracle.
But, however rare and impressive Nash’s achievements, his is not an exclusive club. While most of the game’s legends have fallen from sight upon reaching their 35th birthday, some have managed to play at an exceptionally high level into their late-30’s. Thus below is a (extremely subjective) ranking of the top 5 “old NBA player” (i.e. post-age 35) seasons of all time. With a not-at-all dated or obvious Kill Bill reference and everything!
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1983-1987) – Kareem remained exceptionally effective until the very end of his career, but no season was as impressive as his 1985 campaign (see below).
Ray Allen (2011-Present) – The last two seasons have only confirmed suspicions that Ray Allen is a better shooter, and player, than Reggie Miller ever was.
Elgin Baylor (1970) – If he’d managed to stay healthy (he played in only 54 regular season games), Baylor would’ve been a lock for the top 5 (he posted a 24-11-5 at age 35). Alas.
Alex English (1989) – Averaging 26-4-4 on 49% shooting at the age of 35 is nothing to sneeze at, but English played on an up-tempo Nuggets team (a style which obviously accentuated his strengths) that was eventually swept by the Suns in the First Round. Not exactly top-5 material.
Michael Jordan (2002-2003) – I pretend Jordan’s second comeback never happened, so . . .
Karl Malone (1999-2003) – Malone’s earned his second MVP in a strike-shortened season which most observers either mock or ignore. And however impressive those other, later seasons, 2000 is inarguably his most impressive.
Steve Nash (2010-Present) – Steve Nash’s 2009 campaign was the hardest to exclude from the top-5, for reasons enumerated above. But even though he enjoyed more team success than Malone did in 2000, the latter’s statistical resume and defensive chops ultimately give him the edge.
Shaquille O’Neal (2009) – Impressive stats-wise (18 ppg, 8.4 rpg, and a league-best 60 FG%), but his team (the Suns) failed to make the playoffs, and his ignominious departure from Phoenix shortly thereafter cast a pall on an otherwise sterling season.
John Stockton (1998-2003) – It’s nearly impossible to differentiate between Stockton’s last six seasons. He averaged 11.6 ppg, 8.2 apg, and 50 FG% over that period, leading the Jazz (with the help of the Mailman, of course) to the playoffs in every one of those years. Yet one would be hard-pressed to argue that any one of those seasons is more impressive than the following.
The Top 5
5.) Karl Malone (2000 – 36 years old)
Say what you will about Karl Malone (and there’s a lot to say), but his twilight years were, to his credit, largely indistinguishable from his peak seasons. Indeed, the 2000 season saw him average a 25-9-4 and finish 4th in MVP voting (although he received no 1st place votes). Furthermore, he managed to buck a personal trend of postseason failures by averaging 27 points and 9 rebounds per game on 52% shooting (though the Jazz would eventually bow out in five games in the Semifinals). Not bad for a serial choke-artist!
4.) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1985 – 38 years old)
While his regular (22-8-3, 60 FG%) and post-season (22-8-4, 56 FG%) stats may appear relatively pedestrian at first glance (especially when contrasted with stat-lines of years past), one must keep in mind that he turned 38 years old in 1985. That he was able to recapture some of his old glory in the Finals (26-9-5, 2 blocks per game, 60 FG%) against the arch-rival Celtics, earn his second Finals MVP, and move Pat Riley to hyperbole (“”He defies logic. He’s the most unique and durable athlete of our time, the best you’ll ever see. You’d better enjoy him while he’s here”), is astounding.
3.) Wilt Chamberlain (1972 – 35 years old)
Wilt was rightly pilloried for much of his career, but his remarkable transformation into a (somewhat) unselfish, team-first player in his final years has been unjustly ignored. Averaging 15-19-4 on 65% shooting for one of the greatest teams of all-time (the ’72 Lakers), posting a 19-23-3 on 60% shooting in the Finals while playing 47 minutes a game(!), and throwing up 24 points and 29 rebounds in the deciding contest are all pretty goddamn amazing feats, if you ask me.
Perhaps “redemption” is too strong a word (especially since he’d already won a title), but Wilt’s penultimate season was in many ways a tantalizing glimpse of what could’ve been had he consistently sublimated his inimitable gifts from the outset. That it took him til the end of his career to, in the words of SI‘s Peter Carry, “shut up . . . those critics who for years claimed that he was a quitter, that he could not win important games” is a sad testament to the missed opportunities which, if they’d been seized, would’ve drastically altered the course of NBA history.
2.) Bill Russell (1969 – 35 years old)
I’m cheating a bit here. Russell turned thirty-five three-quarters of the way through the season, which would seemingly disqualify him from a list purportedly pertaining exclusively to players thirty-five and older. But I’ve never been one who’s cared much for consistency or fairness, especially when it comes to the Celtics.
Besides, how could I ignore a season as profound as Russell’s last? After having already played twelve exhausting seasons in which he had led the Celtics to ten titles and never failed to reach the Conference Finals, he somehow managed to post decent numbers in the regular season (10 ppg, 19 rpg, 5 apg) lead his team past an up-and-coming Knicks squad (which would win the title the following season) in the Conference Finals, and then triumph one final time over his principal rivals, both on a team (the Lakers) and an individual (Chamberlain) level. After coming back from a 1-3 deficit. While coaching.
1.) Michael Jordan (1998 – 35 years old)
As with Russell, so with Jordan. He turned thirty-five in February, playing the majority of the season while “only” thirty-four. But I’m willing to make an exception for MJ. I think he earned it.
While his stats may have fallen short of the lofty Jordan Standard, he still captured the scoring title (28.7 ppg), laid waste to his fellow MVP candidates (92 first-place votes; the Mailman finished second, with 20), led his team to 62 wins, and played in all 82 games (after playing 201 combined games over the two previous seasons). His field-goal percentage may have slipped a little (from 48% in ’97 to 46%), and maybe he couldn’t provide the sort of acrobatic displays NBA fans had become accustomed to, but he was still in a league wholly to himself.
But as was almost always the case with MJ, his stats (as amazing as they were and are) and accolades tell only half the story. Much like Russell, Jordan’s indomitable will was more than a sufficient substitute for whatever age and injury had stripped away. Destroying younger squads like the Nets and Hornets in the first two rounds, battling and beating a ferocious Pacers squad over the course of seven grueling games in the Conference Finals, and, finally, authoring one of the greatest, most iconic sequences in NBA history en route to winning his sixth championship; all imply one of two things: that either a.) he’s an extra-terrestrial; or b.) he was the NBA’s Pai Mei (minus the casual racism and blatant misogyny, of course), impervious to the natural processes which have traditionally undercut lesser mortals, and, coincidentally enough, an inspiration to an especially badass acolyte nicknamed the Black Mamba.
*** Top 5 Old NBA Player Seasons of All Time****