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DETROIT — 19-year-old Golden State Warriors forward Anthony Randolph’s eyes grew wide as he ascended toward the basket. The only thing standing between him and a poster dunk was 42-year-old Dikembe Mutombo of the Houston Rockets. Randolph probably was envisioning the “SportsCenter” highlight when Mutombo swatted the ball away.
Randolph reclaimed the ball and challenged the old man again. This time, all he got for his trouble was an offensive foul and a quick seat on the bench next to an unhappy coach Don Nelson.
“We need NBA Classics to show more of the Mutombo games so some of the youngest guys can learn,” Mutombo later told the Houston Chronicle.
“That young boy tried so hard. He kept telling me, ‘I’m going to get you before the day’s over.’ He tried, but he didn’t get a chance to dunk on Dikembe Mutombo. He’s not going to be able to tell his grandkids, ‘I got Dikembe with one.’”
The NBA is at a fascinating juncture with a dynamic convergence of brilliant, young players and older, established stars.
The league has spent considerable energy and resources to promote the likes of Chris Paul, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams and Brandon Roy.
But old hands Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal have been featured players on the last three championship teams. Add Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Grant Hill, Derek Fisher, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess and you have a wealth of 30-somethings still playing at a high level.
But it can’t go on forever. With James almost a lock to win Most Valuable Player honors, and his Cavaliers heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference title, the 2009 playoffs might signal a passing of the torch.
“It is a new era,” said McDyess, who at age 34 averaged a double-double for the last 30 games of the regular season. “There is a new generation coming in. It seems like every young guy now is a freakin’ amazing athlete, an amazing talent. From one to five (positions), it’s like everybody coming in now is an outstanding athlete.
“In the past you would have a shooter that couldn’t jump, or an athlete that couldn’t shoot or somebody was strong but not fast, you know? Now they got it all; they are big, fast, they can run, jump and shoot. You look at it, I think you are going to start to see some of those younger teams get to the Finals. The new phase of the league is coming in.”
Maintaining an edge
There have been many examples this season — beyond James’ domination — of younger players making their mark against old masters.
Devin Harris (New Jersey Nets) scored 41 and completely dominated Kidd (Dallas Mavericks) in a match of point guards who were traded for each other. The Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge, whose game is a spitting image of a young Rasheed Wallace’s, had 53 points in two victories over Wallace and the Pistons. Nash of the Phoenix Suns had a couple of embarrassing moments against Paul of the New Orleans Hornets.
“It’s tough, but you have to have a strong head,” Wallace said. “You’ve got to come to terms with (getting older). You can’t sit out there and think, ‘I can still run up and down and jump like I used to.’ Nah, you have to play the game from a higher mental aspect.”
For the most part, the vets still rule. Of the 16 playoff teams, 10 would be considered mostly veteran. Wisdom, in most cases, still is trumping youth and raw talent.
“I have a saying and maybe it’s the fact that I’m coaching and not playing anymore,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “But the saying is: Don’t underestimate greatness at any age. I really believe that.
“You can’t ever relax on these guys. There’s a reason that Nash and Shaq are going to the Hall of Fame on a first vote. There’s a reason Kidd is going to the Hall of Fame on the first vote. And Dirk. And Grant Hill is a Hall of Fame player who happened to miss a few years.”
The money players are making, clearly, will motivate older players to take care of their bodies. And advances in nutrition and training methods have helped any player willing to put in the work.
“The one consistent thing I’ve seen is that no matter what situation you are in, the guys who really commit to working and commit to perfecting their craft and skill will have consistency and longevity,” said former Pistons guard Allan Houston, now in player development with the Knicks
Micro-fracture knee surgery shortened Houston’s career, but his old Knicks teammate and Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing played 18 seasons and retired at the age of 39.
“You know,” Ewing said, “something I always think about is why I didn’t know all the things I know now at the beginning of my career. If I had known all that, they would have had to change the rules of the game for me.
“It’s all about staying focused, staying in shape and knowing that everything you’ve lost with your athleticism through age, you make up in knowledge.”
“At this age, even a minor injury can make you look like you are moving in mud,” McDyess said.
“I knew I had to change my game and work on something else if I was going to survive in this league. You learn angles, you learn to anticipate plays, you learn guys’ tendencies on the court. You’ve got to know the shortcuts and the ins-and-outs.”
Pistons assistant Dave Cowens, another Hall-of-Famer, walked away from the game healthy and capable at 34.
“I could’ve played more but I was having this issue and that issue,” Cowens said. “But if I was getting the money these guys are getting, I’d still be playing. It’s so much easier now. The travel is easier, all the health care you get. And it’s such a different financial situation.
“But even when I was at the end, I never felt like I was at a disadvantage on the court because I was older. Actually, I felt like I had an advantage because I knew how to do things to make the game easier to play.”
Understand, today’s aging group of all-stars and champions aren’t going to step aside willingly.
“Nobody wants to pass the baton,” Houston said. “The same thing that’s made you a professional all these years has made you a competitor. I am not going to go into a gym right now and let some 20-year-old at the YMCA beat me. You are a competitor. You just have to know when and how to pick your spots.”
There is a thin line, though, between staying competitive and being delusional. Kidd understands he’s the out-going model when it comes to point guards. But that didn’t stop him from leading the Mavericks into the playoffs.
“One, you enjoy the time that you were promoted (by the league) and you enjoy that spotlight,” Kidd said. “But your job, it doesn’t change. It’s still basketball. You go out there and put yourself in a position to win and do what you can, even as you get older. Things might be a little different. But just accept them and enjoy it. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Kobe Bryant did an interview during All-Star weekend and he was asked by Magic Johnson if he was ready to pass the torch as the game’s best player to James. Bryant was incredulous.
“No,” Bryant, 30, said, politely. “Not at all. I may never be ready to pass that torch.”