Ray Allen wants a contract extension after his megadeal expires at the end of this season, when he will earn nearly $19 million. Ray is 34 now and will by 35 in July 2010, when the Celtics would, in theory, be negotiating a new deal. That is old by NBA standards, and we’ve seen small signs that Walter Ray’s body has begun aging over the last few seasons. He’s had multiple ankle injuries, a minor elbow tweak last season and an uncooperative hamstring that bothered him against Orlando in the post-season. Nothing serious, but evidence that Allen’s body is suffering from the wear and tear that comes with playing nearly 40,000 NBA minutes (regular and post-season).
So it’s fair to ask: Should the Celtics sign Allen to an extension? What about a multi-year extension? One part of answering this question is to look at the career arcs of similar players and see how badly they declined after age 35. Using the archives on Basketball Reference, I searched for every NBA player since 1979-80 (when the league introduced the three-point shot) who averaged at least five three-point attempts and 13 overall field-goal attempts per game in an individual season. Allen’s been right at those numbers since arriving in Boston (and well above them before), and I assumed some of the players with this sort of attempt distribution would be similar to Walter Ray—that is, they would be long-range sharpshooters who did much more than just shoot threes.
The players who appeared most on this list fell into two categories: 1) Shooting guards with heavy offensive loads; 2) Poing guard chuckers, i.e. Tim Hardaway and Baron Davis. It is the first category we’re most interested in.
Of that group, five retirees appear more than anyone else: Reggie Miller (7 seasons), Glen Rice (5) Vernon Maxwell (4), Mitch Richmond (3) and Steve Smith (2). Of those, only Reggie Miller offers a hopeful health history. The other four guys—Richmond, Smith, Maxwell and Rice—all fell off dramatically in their mid-30s, and none of them lasted in the league past the age of 36. All of them suffered nagging knee injuries that hurt their ability to run around screens, hang in on defense and get the proper lift on jump shots.
(Side note: Ray appears on this list 10 times, easily the most of any player ever. Peja Stojakovic is on there six times, and his game has fallen off a cliff at age 32).
A 35-year-old Richmond played just 37 games for the Wizards in 2001 due to knee injuries, and he barely played at all the next season with the Lakers—his last in the league.
Rice’s right knee went out in his first season with Houston (2002, when he turned 34), though his PER had slipped below league average a year earlier with the Knicks. Rice was never the same player after having surgery on that knee, and the Clippers waived him 18 games into the 2004 season. He never played in the league again.
Vernon Maxwell never averaged more than 10.7 points per game after turning 32, and he suffered a string of knee injuries starting at that age in 2000. He was out of the league at 35.
Steve Smith’s minutes per game declined from 29 in 2002 (when he was 32) to 20 in 2003 and just 13 in 2004, when he averaged just 5.0 points per game. Knee tendinitis and a back strain pushed him out of the league in 2005, also at age 35.
Obviously, none of these players is Ray Allen, and every player’s injury history is the result of some unique combination of body type, personal fitness and health, luck and age. And there are few players, if any, who work as diligently as Ray to keep themselves in shape and maintain consistency in their games.
Still, age is a part of the equation, and Ray is clearly hitting the point at which his game will decline. The Celtics have to ask the question: How quickly will it decline? And if it does, can Ray adjust in some way and remain a productive player?
Because the track record of similar players suggests that offering Ray anything but a one-year deal would be a risk.
But Reggie Miller offers us hope. A brief look at him and some additional thoughts on Ray, after the jump.I had honestly forgotten how durable Reggie Miller was until I refreshed my memory a couple nights ago. The guy played at least 81 games in 10 of his 18 seasons in the league, and only in his final season, at age 39, did he miss more than 10 games. Ray has a similar record of durability; he didn’t miss a game until his 6th season, when he missed 12, and he didn’t miss a significant amount again until 2007, when he had surgery to remove bone spurs from both ankles. Rice and Richmond had similarly sunny injury histories before their bodies started breaking down at Ray’s age, but the fact remains that Ray has missed just 12 games in two seasons with the Celtics.
Miller also remained a productive player until his retirement. He shot 40 percent from three-point range at age 38, never played fewer than 28.6 minutes per game in any season and recorded an above average PER (16.6) in his last season with the Pacers. (No wonder Danny Ainge tried to lure him to Boston for a shot at a ring in 2008).
Miller was still chucking, too. He attempted 12.3 shots per 36 minutes in his final season, essentially the same per-minute number he recorded in 2005 and just about two fewer attempts/36 than he tossed up in his prime.
And best of all, he changed his game in his final season, when he could no longer hit the three (he shot just 32 percent from deep). He took twice as many foul shots per game that season than the prior year and ended up averaging nearly five more points per game—14.8, up from 10.0. That is really, really impressive stuff from a 39-year-old guy.
Ray will have to make some adjustment in order to remain a productive player as he ages. What that adjustment is uncertain. Does he become merely a spot-up shooter instead of someone who curls around screens, feints on the perimeter and occasionally creates a mid-range shot off the dribble? Does he try and get to the line more?
If the Celtics believe Ray can adapt to his age, an extension might be worth the risk. But don’t kid yourselves—any deal longer than one year is a risk.