As the regular season comes to a close, so will the careers of some NBA veterans. These men are the last of their draft classes, hardened veterans who have highlights in standard definition. After a decade plus at the top of the game, this may be the last time we see them hit the floor.
1. Dirk Nowitzki
The German legend said he wants to play one more year, but time waits for no man. He’s playing the least amount of minutes since his rookie year and meanders down the court like a creaky steam engine slowing to a halt. This will be just the fourth losing season in Dirk’s 19-year career, and there's a good chance the Mavs will be drafting his eventual replacement in the upcoming lottery.
Few have had the impact on their franchise Nowitzki has. A seven-year playoff drought preceded his arrival in Dallas and in his rookie year, they were 19-31. Over the next 15 years, they would miss the playoffs once: the 2012-13 season when the 34 year-old missed 35 games.
In 2010-11, he led a 57-25 Mavericks team to the franchise’s lone title, defeating the first iteration of James, Wade & Bosh in Miami. He won Finals MVP, a crowning achievement for the 13-time All-Star who leads active players in minutes, points, free throws and defensive rebounds.
He was one of the first big men to make his mark from the perimeter, ushering into the game an often imitated, never duplicated ability to get his shot off from anywhere. In a league that’s evolved into star players seeking greener pastures, Dirk’s been a Maverick all the way through. He wants to leave only after their nose points upward again, but at 23-54, it’ll likely be doom in Dallas until they draft another transcendent talent. Nowitzki may not last that long, though he is under contract for next season.
His two decades of one-legged rainbow fadeaways and three point bombs from his outstretched frame will live on in the game forever - the legacy of one of the greatest we’ve ever seen.
2. Manu Ginobili
Much like Nowitzki, it’s hard to imagine basketball without Manu Ginobili. For what seems like forever, San Antonio’s beloved Argentine has slipped into the lane, drawn just enough contact and artfully laid the ball off the glass for two. He’s never missed the playoffs, willingly has come off the bench for much of his career, and outlasted many a foe. His first and last championships are a decade apart, a true testament to the longevity of his greatness.
Ginobili gave significant thought to retiring last season, after the Warriors easily dispatched a Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs team in five games. Greg Popovich, Ginobili’s coach for his entire career, gave Spurs fans a chance to say goodbye in the last minutes of the season. Should a similar scenario arise this year, expect another adoring ovation for Manu:
3. Richard Jefferson
The end of an NBA career can be a depressing, slow march to an inevitable conclusion. Frustration mounts as the player discovers what the fans usually see first: he’s a shell of the player he once was, unable to cope with age’s inevitable descent.
Richard Jefferson will never be that guy.
At 37 years old on the veteran’s minimum salary, the 17-year pro is playing less than ever before. His friendship with Nuggets president Josh Kroenke brought him to Denver, where the Nuggets are fighting for a playoff berth on the backs of young talents like Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
RJ, it appears, is having a great time. He playfully messes with teammates in their basketball infancy, yaps at opposing shooters in front of the Nuggets bench and throws down the occasional dunk. He details it all on the Road Trippin’ Podcast, an unfiltered and unrivaled hangout with his basketball friends. Jefferson started the podcast last season with Cavaliers sideline reporter Allie Clifton and his lifelong pal, then teammate, Channing Frye. It’s a mix of stories, wine and laughter that’s somehow survived both Jefferson & Frye’s departure from Cleveland.
RJ kept the podcast going during last offseason, which gave listeners some insight into what his life might be like after basketball. His days will be filled with 6-man beach volleyball tournaments, chasing around his son “Lil’ Rich,” yoga at the studio he owns in Hermosa Beach, CA and shooting the breeze with his friends. The podcast was a revolving door of guests like MLB MVP Mike Trout, Olympians April Ross & Lindsey Vonn, Grizzlies coach JB Bickerstaff and Cavaliers beat reporter Dave McMenamin, among others.
Jefferson’s braying laughter and smart-alec humor permeates every episode, no matter the guest or topic.
I feel like his retirement will be the same.
4. Nick Collison
At media day, Nick Collison told Oklahoma City Thunder reporters this season would probably be his last, the final chapter for the Thunder’s elder statesman. It’s been nearly two years since the veteran played significant minutes in an NBA rotation. He’s never averaged over 10 points per game and your grandkids will never watch his highlights. He’s a screener, a rebounder, a player whose value has long been stuccoing any cracks in his team’s facade.
In an article for The Players' Tribune, DeAndre Jordan summed up Collison’s game:
“Whenever a guy like Nick guards me, or a team throws two or three guys like Nick at me, they're in the game for one reason: to make my night miserable. As a big man, you hate that . . . but you also respect it.”
Collison’s retirement is significant though, because it represents the full end of the Seattle Supersonics. Though Jeff Green and Kevin Durant both played in Seattle as rookies, Collison is the last true Supersonic left. He played four years in green and gold and is the last man to play on a Seattle playoff team. He played with guys you actually remember as Sonics like Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Luke Ridnour.
He’s beloved by his teammates and fans in OKC and Seattle alike, a human box-out in relentless pursuit of the next ego-less rebound. I’m sure his Thunder teammates will miss him, just as Rain City hoop fans already do.
5. Jamal Crawford (Just Kidding, He’s Never Retiring)
Jamal Crawford will play basketball until he physically cannot. The 38 year-old master of moves may stop suiting up in NBA arenas at some point, but his play will carry on for years in pick-up games, pro-ams and perhaps the BIG3.
Few love the game like the model son of Seattle basketball, who hosts a summer Pro-Am league that brings world class talent to kids the NBA deserted long ago. Predictably, he dominates anyone tasked with tracking him, mixing in slicing crossovers against Blake Griffin & Zach LaVine with floaters over local high school talent. After the final buzzer, Crawford signs autographs until the last kid leaves.
He held a star-studded game for his bachelor party and never does dribbling drills, insisting on a regimen of shooting and playing pick-up. He has his own move, a behind the back combo-breaker that looks as simple to Crawford as it appears outrageous to anyone else.
Crawford’s two-year deal with Minnesota ends after next season, but the graceful handle that defies explanation will continue to also defy age. Retirement, like defenders caught in a one-on-one with J-Crossover, will find him eluding their grasp for the foreseeable future.
Image Sources: Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports, Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports, Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports, Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images, Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports