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Tim Duncan has been Hall of Fame-bound for some time, but his legacy beyond the five championship rings and repeated 50-win seasons is also his longevity – a sustained run of success aided by his coach's desire to preserve him by providing ample rest, his own dedication to fitness and a willingness to subjugate his game so that others could flourish.
At 39, Duncan is the second-oldest player in the NBA – a mere 37 days younger than the league's eldest graybeard, Andre Miller – and will soon become one of only two dozen players to extend their careers into age 40. Yet Duncan remains a productive, starting contributor for a San Antonio Spurs team that has been contending for titles since he was drafted first overall in 1997. And to Duncan, the secret to remaining relevant in his 19th season comes down to something that neither he – nor Coach Gregg Popovich – could control.
"A lot of luck, honestly," Duncan told Yahoo Sports. "Same coach. Same organization. And just lucky to stay healthy."
Duncan's good fortune has allowed him to delay Father Time's inevitable knockout and outlast every other member of his draft class. The ability to consistently have a prominent role on a team destined to play meaningful games despite his advancing age has helped Duncan stand out among peers, rivals and fellow future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. Garnett, just 24 days younger than Duncan, is mostly a foul-mouthed mentor, passing along wisdom and four-letter encouragement to the young pups in Minnesota. Bryant, 37, is struggling to carry the Los Angeles Lakers as he once did, and now just walking to his car after games has become a chore.
Dallas has attempted to replicate what the Spurs have have done by finding a supporting cast to relieve the burden on 37-year-old Dirk Nowitzki. But the Mavericks haven't won a playoff series since winning the title in 2011.
Other remaining players born in the 1970s are mostly holding on in reserve roles.
Growing old in the NBA is never fun and the transformation is now being felt in the next generation, as perennial All-Stars of the legendary draft class of 2003 have entered the stage of their careers when they have to adapt.
This season, one of the league's best-kept secrets became evident when LeBron James was forced to have a second round of back injections, exposing the vulnerability of even the game's most physically imposing player. James, in his 13th season, has been diligent in protecting his back, doing pregame workouts on a stability ball, stretching and wearing heat packs while resting on the bench.
Dwyane Wade doesn't feel it is a coincidence that James's routine has become more intense now that his former teammate is approaching his 31st birthday.
"It’s the other side," Wade, 33, said of turning 30. "LeBron’s body has taken a beating. It’s just about adjusting your game and your body. Some nights it’s going to feel amazing; some nights, it’s not going to feel as good.
"You feel different when you turn 30," he said. "It’s like the day you turn 30, you wake up that next day and you’re like, ‘I feel different.’ In this league, it’s all about being able to adjust your game around how your body is feeling."
James wouldn't always tape his ankles as a rookie, but has now taken more elaborate steps to prevent injury and maintain his presence on the court. That has involved changing his diet, incorporating yoga and relying on high-tech recovery devices.
"I noticed my body changed at like 26," said James, adding that he became more serious about a maintenance routine in his third or fourth season. "You try to be proactive throughout the years. When you get to a certain age, you understand what needs to be done to help your body be ready for the season, ready for the game, or whatever the case may be."
Carmelo Anthony, one of James's best friends in the league, is amused that no one noticed James’ routine until now. "Y'all just now catching that," he said. "He always did that."
Anthony, 31, noticed a difference once he turned 30 and said he started "to pay attention to things you haven't paid attention to in the past." That includes stretching, elastic band work and doing preventative care hours before hitting the floor. He also makes sure his body remains warm throughout a game day.
"I think all of us have been proactive about our situations and that’s why we’re all playing at a high level still," James said of himself, Anthony and Wade. "I’ve had a pretty good regimen for a long time now."
Wade started to abandon his trademark reckless play before turning 30, assuming a more deliberate approach when he teamed with James and Chris Bosh in 2010. Injuries also forced Wade to keep his game closer to the ground and rely more on angles, timing and intelligence instead of athletic superiority and speed. "Fans and people expect you to stay the same all the time. Every athlete wants to. Every athlete wants to be that 19-, 20-, 21-year-old, but you can’t," Wade said. "You got to adjust to where you’re at, your body, and the pounding and beating that you’re taking and still try to be effective and a good player."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been with Wade through the transition from dunking daredevil to steady cruise ship.
"I love seeing guys like Dwyane go through this process, and his evolution and constant adaptation in staying ahead in that first fight with Father Time," Spoelstra said. "He's changed so many of his habits to be able to play at a high level that, really, it's unheard of. You try to find comparisons for Dwyane as a shooting guard as productive as he was even last year, and you just can't find many."
Anthony, now in his 14th NBA season, had a serious knee procedure last February and has had to change his level of offensive aggressiveness as he attempts to simultaneously adjust and return to form.
"I think it's continuing to do what I do best, but picking your spots now," Anthony told Yahoo Sports.
"With the team that we have, let them and me figure out what's going to win the game. That’s something I didn't want to learn and believe in when I was younger. I used to sit back and watch the stars and the great guys, what they do and how they approach the game. Because at the end of the day, you know you're going to be able to get yours. It's just a matter of letting them rock out first."
Duncan can't remember the exact marker for when he decided to be more strict about his diet or began more strenuous training exercises such as boxing and tossing tires. He just felt a difference in a left leg he could no longer straighten and the loss of athleticism that would never return.
Popovich also made the transition easier by giving Duncan the occasional night off, reducing his work load – Duncan has played fewer than 31 minutes every season since 2009-10 – and shifting the offensive focus to Manu Ginobili, then Tony Parker, and now to Kawhi Leonard and newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge.
"I’ve had a lot of miles on my body throughout the years," said Duncan, who turns 40 in April. "But the last couple of years, I could definitely tell a difference. Based on that, my game has changed. Based on that, my preparation has changed. I had to change my diet because my metabolism changed. It’s just realizing what’s happening and what point in your career you’re in and what your body is going to do with you."
Bryant is undergoing his own adjustment and the process hasn't been pretty in what might be his final season for the league's third all-time leading scorer. When Bryant started his 20th season last month, the NBA had 14 players who had yet to turn 20. Wade, who spent three years in college, laughed at the possibility of sticking around as long as Bryant.
"That ain’t a goal for me. That’s a long time. I’m sure Kobe didn’t think he’d play 20 years. It’s amazing. And he’s been through a lot. He’s been through a lot of injuries but he’s still out there. And he’s still, you know, Kobe Bryant," Wade said. "It’s amazing to see a guy who has played 20 years in the league. Makes me feel old, for sure, just watching him. I don’t know how many people come in with the goal, 'I’m going to play 20 years.' I think you take it step by step. For years I said, 'I want to make it to 10.' I made it to 10 and I was like, ‘I’m solid.’ Then, you keep going from there. But 20? No way."
James certainly had career preservation on his mind when he put friendship on the shelf and left Wade and Bosh in Miami to play with younger talents in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. All season, James has referred to Love as "our main focal point," looking for the three-time All-Star to assume more team responsibility while Irving prepares to return from a fractured kneecap. James can't fully resist his natural urge to take over games, but he is starting to take a slight step back.
And, following a cue from Duncan and the Spurs, James is playing fewer minutes in his return to Cleveland, averaging just above 36 the past two seasons. Early in his career, James averaged more than 40 minutes a game. During a blowout win over Atlanta last Saturday, James took the need for rest into his own hands when he headed straight to the bench – despite no official stop in play – with the Cavaliers up 26 in the third quarter.
James still remains optimistic about the possibility of playing all 82 games, one thing he has, surprisingly, been unable to accomplish in his career. Coach David Blatt said recently, "Right now, he wants to play, and we won't fight that unless it becomes necessary to do that."
Duncan hasn't played all 82 games since 2001-02 – before Wade, James and Anthony were drafted – and right around the time iron-men attitudes started to subside.
"I think it’s an understanding. I think people are finally starting to come around and not worried about the machismo part of it, where you just want to be out there and grind it out," Duncan said. "Bottom line is, you want your team to get to the playoffs and once that time comes, you want to be as fresh as possible."
And even after that, Duncan said, "Hope for the best."
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