This week, Insider has looked at the stars of the 2012 free-agent crop, headlined by Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. In addition to them, another group of players would have inspired similar bidding wars had they been on the market a decade ago. Now that they're in their late 30s, age keeps them from being max-level players, but these free agents still can contribute to a team--and could be valuable pickups when they hit the open market next summer.
Duncan's reputation has suffered for two reasons. For one, Duncan is inevitably compared to his own MVP prime, one that would be difficult to match for almost any player. Beyond that, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's careful handling of Duncan's playing time has prevented him from racking up impressive per-game statistics.
On a per-minute basis, Duncan's defensive numbers remain just as good as they were in his prime. Duncan can no longer make multiple defensive plays on the same possession--like stepping out to thwart the pick-and-roll before recovering to defend the basket--but then again, neither can most big men.
On offense, Duncan has dropped off. The key difference is that he no longer gets to the free throw line on a frequent basis. Historically, about 15 percent of Duncan's offense has come from free throws. That dropped to a career-low 11 percent in 2010-11. Without those easy points, Duncan's scoring efficiency has slipped below average. His role in San Antonio's attack--already smaller than it has ever been--might need to shrink again next season.
Despite those caveats, Duncan remains one of the league's top big men. He ranked seventh among post players in Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement (WARP) statistic last season. His per-minute performance put him as the league's 10th-best player. Duncan probably has another season or maybe two as an All-Star-level player as he ages gracefully at 35. Fittingly, his closest comparison at the same age is former teammate David Robinson, who made his last All-Star team at 36 and started on a championship team at age 38 before retiring.
Presumably, Duncan will join his predecessor in retiring as a lifelong member of the Spurs. In the unlikely event he looks elsewhere, his game and temperament would be a perfect veteran complement to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder won't have cap room in 2012 but could offer some young prospects to San Antonio as part of a sign-and-trade deal.
It's rare that players can turn back the clock in their mid-30s and bounce back after battling injury, but that's just what Garnett did last season. When Garnett's athleticism waned late in the 2009-10 campaign, it seemed we might have seen the last of him playing at an elite level, but he looked healthier and more explosive from the start of 2010-11.
Defensively, Garnett remains as valuable as any player besides Dwight Howard. According to Synergy Sports' tracking, Garnett was the league's most effective defender against the pick-and-roll. No defender in the league is capable of helping his team in more ways than Garnett, who blocks shots, racks up steals and is strong on the defensive glass. On offense, Garnett has become mostly a pick-and-pop player, which means he rarely draws fouls or comes up with offensive boards, but his efficiency remains strong on the strength of making 53.0 percent of his 2-point attempts.
Last season, 14 players rated as more effective than Garnett on a per-minute basis. As with Duncan, limited minutes cut slightly into his value, as do a history of injuries. (He missed 11 games last season.) As a result, Garnett ranked 28th in the league in WARP. Garnett's projections are more pessimistic than Duncan's. Players similar to him tended to drop off at age 36, which Garnett will reach in 2012-13. However, few of them were as effective defensively as Garnett. The exception is Hakeem Olajuwon, who had a strong season at 38 before fading. On a short-term deal, Garnett should be a worthwhile risk.
Because Boston may be set to rebuild if 2011-12 ends poorly, Garnett could be on the move. His game would work well most anywhere. What's more difficult is finding a scenario that might make sense for him. If Garnett's primary goal is adding a championship ring, he could sacrifice pay and team up with the Miami Heat's Big Three, but that prospect seems almost unthinkable. A more intriguing possibility is for Garnett to reunite with former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau in Chicago if Carlos Boozer wears out his welcome and could be moved in a trade.
At 37, Nash is a couple of years older than the other "veteran" free agents on the market. Just five players have posted more WARP than Nash at 37 or older: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone, Robert Parish and John Stockton. So Nash is already an outlier. With the exception of Kidd, who is still going, everyone else in the group was able to play effectively into his 40s. There's no reason Nash can't do the same.
Although last season produced Nash's lowest WARP total since he returned to Phoenix in 2004, the difference was largely attributable to his three-point shooting slipping under 40 percent. Everything else held strong. Nash's assist rate was tops in the NBA and the best of his career. He remains as dangerous off the pick-and-roll as anyone in the league and was sixth among point guards in WARP--ahead of players like Chauncey Billups and Rajon Rondo.
Looking at Nash's three-year WARP projections is essentially useless because there have been few similar players at the same age. Just two players have a similarity score of 90 or better to Nash: Stockton and Mark Jackson. Stockton looks like the best template for the rest of Nash's career. In his final season at age 40, Stockton posted a double-digit WARP. Nash is obviously not a long-term solution in free agency, but he can offer an upgrade at point guard for a couple of seasons.
Nash may be perfectly content to finish out his career with the Suns, who have shown no inclination to trade him despite their dim prospects for competing in the Western Conference. Should that change, the obvious fit is a reunion with Mike D'Antoni in New York if the Knicks strike out on younger point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Nash also could be an asset to the Orlando Magic, whose pick-and-roll game would be ideal for him, or the Portland Trail Blazers now that their offense no longer runs through Brandon Roy.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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