NBA shuffles into All-Star crossroads

The biggest fallacy about the NBA All-Star Game is that it's meaningless. It's not meaningless if you follow semiotics (the study of symbols and their relationship with reality) and see the value in this grandiose exhibition. You can't tell me a team picture from the 1955 All-Star Game doesn't give you all the necessary information about how dramatically different the NBA looked five and a half decades ago, or that this shot of Kobe and Shaq together atop a dais again didn't let you know that they'll always be linked as certainly as the characters in "Lost."

This season is unique. If you pay close attention to what's going on this weekend, the 2010 All-Star Weekend in Dallas that culminates in Cowboys Stadium won't just provide a snapshot … it's your crystal ball that will enable you to forecast the future of the league.

The last time the All-Star Game was played inside a domed stadium in Texas was the 1996 gala in San Antonio. It felt like the good old days, with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson back in the league. Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill were among the young players expected to carry out their legacy. A new collective bargaining agreement was in place. The recurring theme was "The NBA Is Back."

But Magic went back into retirement in the offseason. It turned out the number of All-Star appearances in store for Hill and Hardaway could be counted on one hand. And the league lost almost half the season to a work stoppage in 1998.

This time the warning signs are more apparent. Even as we sit at the crest of the high school-player era in the NBA, there's data trickling in that suggests their decline will be steep and sudden as the prominent members of its generation enter their 30s. Meanwhile, the NBA business model no longer works at a time when the faltering economy makes losses less tolerable for owners.
It's possible the owners and players could merge those two paths into a patch of common ground on the road toward the next collective bargaining agreement: Raise the minimum waiting period for entry into the NBA from one year out of high school to two years. This isn't the pivotal issue in this labor dispute, but it's one area that offers benefits for both sides, a potential starting point for compromise.

In more prosperous times David Stern could afford to zero in on the fringe areas of the sport, the cultural aspects that affected perception of the league more than its bottom line. The dress code was one element. So was the age restriction. In 2005, Stern won a cosmetic victory, gaining the one-year wait for players to enter the draft after their high school graduation. Players Association executive director Billy Hunter was willing to make the minor concession that affected players who weren't in the constituency anyway, as long as the union could preserve the basics of a system that allowed its members to earn the highest average salaries in American team sports.

The new rule wreaked havoc on the long-term planning of top college basketball programs, but that was collateral damage. NBA teams could get a little more time to scout prospects, and they didn't have to worry about 18-year-olds making 18-year-old mistakes while on their payrolls.

But at the same time Stern was railing about the negative impact of high school players on the NBA, they were fashioning themselves into the icons of the league. Kobe Bryant was part of the tandem that led the Lakers to three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002. Kevin Garnett, who started the wave of preps-to-pros players in 1995, won the Most Valuable Player award in 2004. LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, just four years out of high school in Akron, Ohio. The next two Finals featured stars with no college experience: Kobe and the Lakers, Garnett and the Celtics and Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. Bryant and James have won the past two MVP awards.

Yet even as James reigns over the weekend, his trip to Dallas granted by the most votes among all players, there are potential signs of what could be in store for him in the next five years. Garnett is an All-Star by reputation more than performance, as his knee has hampered him for the past year. The game will go on without Bryant for the first time since his rookie year while he continues to nurse a sprained ankle.

That's a part of life in their 30s, and quite possibly a consequence of entering the NBA at such an early age. If you measure careers by John Hollinger's player efficiency rating, most players put up their peak number in that comprehensive statistic around age 27. That was Garnett's age when he produced his career-best PER of 29.4 in his MVP season. Same for Bryant, who had a PER of 28 in 2005-06. When Garnett hit 30 in his final season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, his PER fell to 24.1, an 18 percent drop off from his peak. Bryant's 24.4 at age 30 represented a 13 percent drop off from his peak.

Jermaine O'Neal, another high school player who entered the league with Bryant in 1996, had his career-best PER of 22.9 at age 26 in 2004-05. At age 30 he was down to 15.4, a 33 percent drop off. Tracy McGrady peaked earlier and fell off sooner, going from a PER of 30.3 as a 23-year-old, to 18.4 at age 28, then played in only 35 games at age 29 with a PER of 16.3 (a 46 percent drop off from his peak). His recent seasons have been plagued by a bad back and then a troublesome knee that required microfracture knee surgery. Now he's been hindered by the Houston Rockets' desire to move on without him; they've told him not to even bother suiting up while they try to trade him.

All of these high school stars played more NBA games by an earlier age than the typical player. It stands to reason that they'd feel the effects sooner.

The other day I brought this up to Lakers athletic trainer Gary Vitti and director of athletic performance Chip Schaefer as they sat in the visitors' locker room of the Utah Jazz. Between them they have 44 years of NBA experience and have taped ankles for 13 championship teams. They didn't dispute my premise. It's simple math. More games mean more wear and tear. Not only that, there could be impact on the growth plates in the legs, which can be stunted by repeated pounding and can keep a teenage player from reaching his full height.

Vitti mentioned the additional games could only increase the risk of a random, catastrophic injury (such as the career-wrecker suffered by Shaun Livingston). He also referenced the theory of Dr. Hans Kraus, whose studies of the lagging fitness levels of American students compared to their European counterparts led to the formation of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Dr. Kraus maintained that the human body has only a finite number of sprints, jumps and landings in it; after that point, it has nothing more to offer.

There's no guarantee that postponing NBA wear and tear with a couple of years of college can preserve top performance longer. I looked at PER numbers for the members of the 1992 Dream Team -- who all went to college before entering the NBA -- and saw a wide variety of results. Magic Johnson had a negligible 1 percent drop off from his peak PER when he turned 30, while Chris Mullin had a 30 percent drop off at age 30. But Larry Bird and Karl Malone didn't even post their top PER numbers until they were in their 30s.

Michael Jordan went to college for three years and took a year and a half off in his late 20s. In his first full year back, at age 32, he produced a PER of 29.4 -- only 7 percent off the peak of over 31 he sustained for four years from age 24-27.

Some players, such as Clyde Drexler, declined at age 30 and experienced an uptick in later years.

Only one thing is constant: Prominent high-school-to-pro players all had a double-digit percentage drop off in PER from their peak to age 30. It even applied to old-school Moses Malone, whose 20.6 PER at age 30 represented a 23 percent decrease from his peak of 26.8 at age 26.

Jordan, who missed most of his second season with a foot injury, had played in 230 games by his 25th birthday. When LeBron turned 25 on Dec. 30, he had already played in more than twice that amount: 506 games.

For players, there's greater value in being an asset in your mid-30s than in your teens. The argument for players getting to the league as soon as possible is that it gets their years under the rookie scale out of the way sooner so they can expedite their second contract, paid at market rates. But that logic comes undone if it comes at the expense of seasons in their 30s.

Take David Robinson. He played for four years at the Naval Academy, then spent two years fulfilling his military duty requirements after graduation. He was 24 when he played in his first NBA game. He was 37 when he played in his last game, the championship clincher of the 2003 NBA Finals. He also made over $10 million in his last season, compared to a total of $6 million in his first four seasons. His delayed, extended career enabled him to play more seasons as a proven veteran commanding larger salaries instead of burning out at a younger age.

That's the incentive for the union to go along with a two-year post-high-school age limit. Especially since it wouldn't cost any of the current members a thing.

I've always believed that talent should trump arbitrary age restrictions, that if a player is good enough to be drafted, he should be allowed to play for money at the highest possible level regardless of the date on his birth certificate. You know, the same rules that apply to tennis, acting and virtually every other corner of our capitalistic society. But looking at these numbers makes me think waiting for two years is in the players' best interests.

McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal are two of the three highest-paid players in the league this season, both making more than $22 million, and neither will get a salary anywhere near that for his next contract. They're not in position to continue cashing in on the pay scale they established because their bodies broke down and they couldn't maintain the performance. Whatever value they have to their teams is only in the form of an expiring contract, whether it comes off their books at the end of the season or can be used to entice a trade from another team looking to clear salary cap space. In McGrady's case in particular, this isn't working out for either side.

Age limits aren't a primary factor in this round of collective bargaining discussions because the economic issues are too severe. Stern and the owners want to rework the paradigm. They'd like to make the NBA more like the NFL, where there are fewer guarantees behind the contract lengths and dollars. One hard-line owner even told CBSSports.com: "If they don't like the new max contracts, LeBron can play football, where he will make less than the new max." Well, if the average NBA salaries decline to the point there's a negligible difference, the next LeBron very well might play football, and the NBA will be worse off for it.

Or what if the next LeBron reaches that most impressionable age in 2011 and there is no NBA on television because of a lockout, so there's only the NFL to capture his attention in November and December, and that's the time he decides he wants to follow in the footsteps of Peyton Manning?
The league is only as good as its top talent. We always get a referendum on the state of that talent at All-Star Weekend, which is why it's important to pay attention to the one game that doesn't count in the standings ... this weekend more than ever.