When Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan faced off for the 50th time in an NBA regular season matchup over the weekend, nostalgia filled the air inside AT&T Center in San Antonio. The two fierce competitors, widely pitted as rivals for the "Best Player of their Generation" tag, have been in hard-fought battles for a combined 80 games in the regular and post-season, with Duncan edging Bryant 41-39 in their matchups.
Together, both men have won 10 of the last 20 NBA titles since Bryant entered the league in 1996. Although the San Antonio Spurs are set as top title contenders now and in the near future, both Duncan and Bryant are no longer the individual dominating forces they used to be, as evident in their statistical performance.
The Post-Jordan era of the NBA, ushered in and dominated by both men, is undeniably coming to a close. And digging inside the numbers not only of the two, but also of two other NBA icons of their generation in Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki paints a better picture and a deeper appreciation of what the end of an era looks like.
Here’s a surprising fact: Bryant, Duncan, Garnett, and Nowitzki remain starters for their respective teams even after all the mileage their bodies have accumulated, a testament to the hard work each superstar has put in training their physique to achieve this legendary longevity.
Out of the group where none is younger than 37, only the 39-year-old Garnett plays less than 25 minutes per game at 15.7. And get this: the Black Mamba is on the court for 30.9 minutes a game with the 13th highest usage rate (defined as the estimate percent of team plays used by a certain player on the court) in the league at 28.7.
At age 37, Bryant dominates the ball more than younger superstars like John Wall and Kevin Durant. Seems like Kobe hasn’t aged a bit, until you look at how this unreal usage affects the Lakers compared to how the other aging superstars contribute to their team’s success.
Bryant (16.2 ppg) is a close second to Nowitzki (17.4) in terms of scoring average out of the four. But the points per game clip doesn’t necessarily translate to team success, as the Lakers find themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings at 3-21.
Though that’s not exactly the Mamba’s doing, Bryant’s performance on the floor isn’t really helpful. His Offensive Rating (points added per 100 possessions) and Real Plus/Minus (how the player affects the team’s performance when on the floor) are dead last among the group, at 88 ORTG and -4.53 RPM, respectively.
On the other hand, Duncan leads the pack with a 107 ORTG and 6.25 RPM. In fact, his ORTG is the second-best among active players over 35, next to Spurs teammate Manu Ginobili.
Duncan provides a stark contrast to Bryant: Kobe can dominate ball possessions like the Kobe of old, but old Kobe can’t save his team from losing unlike his hero-ball exploits in the past. Old Man Riverwalk, though, can find himself losing touches, but still contribute to a winning Spurs team that has the second-best record in the league.
Meanwhile, Nowitzki comes in second to Duncan in ORTG and RPM among the four, and remains a huge cornerstone behind the surprising success of the Dallas Mavericks this season. KG’s production, though, is middling as a consequence of low playing time and usage. Instead, he’s more valuable as a steadying defensive anchor and a mentor to the young Timberwolves squad that’s primed to compete in the coming seasons, if not now.
The most telling stat in determining how these NBA legends are still helping their teams in the twilight of their careers is Win Shares, the estimate number of wins the specific player contributes. And Nowitzki narrowly beats Duncan here (2.9 WS to 2.5 WS, respectively) while KG adds a modest 0.8 WS to Minnesota. Kobe? Out of the four, and even among all players over 35, Bryant tallies the only negative score at -1.1.
What this possibly shows is more proof that Bryant chose the right time to ride towards the sunset at the end of the season, with KG riding close perhaps when his contract ends in 2017. And that it should come as no surprise if Nowitzki and even Duncan decide to stick it out some more. What’s undeniable though is the legendary era these four icons brought to the basketball world, and that there will be none quite like these men ever again.
(All stats from basketball-reference.com as of Tuesday.)