It seems like the entire Western Conference is headed for a decline phase — the Lakers, West champions for the last three seasons, may slowly begin to nod to Father Time soon enough, as their leader Kobe Bryant hits 32 and keeps chugging along. But luckily for Kobe and the Lakers, the core guys competing with him in the conference rat race are all even older. Who’s still going the strongest — Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki or Steve Nash?
It’s a pivotal question, one that will define the race for West supremacy over the next couple of years. Those three men, along with Kobe and his mighty Lakers, are leading the old guard of the West — and if any one of them is going to challenge the Black Mamba, they had better step up while they’ve still got the strength.
Duncan is now 34 years old. Nowitzki turned 32 this summer; Nash is 36 but still going strong. All three are past their primes, but they’re still at the helm of three Western Conference elites.
Duncan’s Spurs have made the postseason every year and won four titles, but they’ve captured just one playoff series in the past two years. Dirk’s Mavs had a catastrophic two-year stretch in 2006 and ’07 — first collapsing in the Finals against Miami, then losing to Golden State in the first round the following spring — and they haven’t been the same since. Nash’s Suns have always been a serious threat, but they’ve never gotten over the hump. After 14 seasons, the grizzled point guard is still hoping to play his first Finals.
The clock’s ticking, and the new school of Western Conference alpha dogs — Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy, Deron Williams — is ready to smash the old guys to smithereens. Who’s still got what it takes to stand up to the whippersnappers?
You could make a case for Duncan. His mobility and diverse offensive game weren’t what they once were, and he can’t command a double-team in the low post every single night, the way he did in his prime. But Duncan’s game is still so polished, so smart, so fundamentally sound, that you still can’t ignore his greatness. He makes everyone around him better — better defenders, better rebounders, better playmakers. He makes the Spurs a perennial Finals contender, even in his old age.
As for Dirk, he still leads a Mavs squad that wins 50-plus games every year, and he’s still got the dazzling array of ways to beat you offensively. Even though he’s older and slower and not quite the same matchup nightmare he was in his late twenties, he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
But Nash is in a league of his own.
He’s the scrawny Canadian with the heart of gold and nerves of steel, and he’s the only truly ageless superstar we have left in the NBA. Watch him today, and he’s still the same great player now at 36 that he was at 30. He’s still the best passer in the game, he’s still an unbelievable playmaker with unmatched court vision, and he’s still one of the best pure shooters in the history of the game.
Say whatever you want about Amare Stoudemire and Jason Richardson, but Nash was the reason the Suns came within two wins of the Finals this past spring. He meant everything to that team — and even with a broken nose, he carried them through the West playoffs. He’s a warrior, and he’s a winner. He just hasn’t yet won the big one.
The real test for Nash will come this season. With Amare gone and the Suns forced to adjust, it’ll be up to Nash to keep the Suns among the West’s elite. This season will be telling — if Nash fails, it’s on him. But if he succeeds, and the Suns make another deep run next spring, we’ll all see how great the veteran point guard really is.
Then again, most of us already know.
NESN.com will analyze 25 key NBA questions this September.
Sept. 5: Who has the comeback of the year — Blake Griffin, Greg Oden or Andrew Bogut?
Sept. 7: Whose career still has life — Shaquille O’Neal, Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson?