This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 13 Point Guard Issue. Subscribe today!
RANKING OF THE GUARD Overall Score 7.31
Leadership 8.52 average: 6.10 rank: 3rd
Defense 5.06 average: 5.93 rank: 21st
Passing/Playmaking 7.61 average: 6.80 rank: 9th
Shooting/Scoring 7.52 average: 6.65 rank: 10th
Tony Parker wants to make one thing clear: He's a young 32. Peek at his basketball odometer, though, and it tells a different story. As of March 20 -- the 67th contest of his 14th season -- Parker has played in 1,189 games, clocked 39,244 minutes and has run, conservatively, more than 2,600 miles on the NBA hardwood in the regular and postseasons. That's not even counting his two years ('99-'01) at Paris Basket Racing and eight summers leading the French national team. Inevitably, that mileage has taken its toll.
"It happens to everyone," admits Parker, who, since splashing into the league at age 19 has been considered one of the quickest men in the NBA. "I'm just not as fast as I was at 20."
The first signs of slowing down? Well, it was evident at the start of this season.
"A month or two goes by and you notice something different about a player," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says. "They've lost a step. Lost a little explosiveness."
Players feel it, too. Parker, a Hall of Fame shoo-in, started sensing it last season during back-to-back games. This year even more so. Proof? Over the past two campaigns, his drives to the hoop have dropped almost 10 percent. This year he's averaging only 6.1 points in the paint, his lowest since '01-02. A balky hamstring has been partially responsible, but not completely.
"For the first time, I'm not really recovering like I used to," Parker says. To help him cheat time, the point guard has a few tricks up his sleeve:
1) JUST ACCEPT IT. "Tony's very malleable," Popovich says. "We talked about it and he understands. He's very receptive to what might have to be done in certain situations -- certain seasons." Over the past few years, he's turned to his old friend Thierry Henry, the legendary French soccer player who spent 20 years on the professional pitch for powerhouses like Arsenal and Barcelona. "We talked about not being the fastest guy in the field anymore," says Parker. Instead of blowing past guys as he could do in the past, Parker now focuses on placing the ball where he wants it-replacing power with precision. "You have to accept what you can and can't do. Understand it. Reinvent yourself." All the greats have done it. Gary Payton using his 6-foot-4 frame to post defenders up. Michael Jordan catching the ball a few feet closer to the basket. Mark Price adding a runner to his repertoire to keep opponents off balance. Jason Kidd, in his 14th season, turning himself into a dangerous 3-point threat, shooting over 40 percent for three straight years. "Slowing down made me focus on my shooting," says Kidd. "It jump-started the next phase of my career."
2) THEN START DROPPING BOMBS. In Parker's case, the most obvious change in his O has been from behind the arc. After spending considerable offseason time with Spurs shot guru Chip Engelland, Parker is attempting 80 percent more threes than he has in the past decade, and he's making nearly 50 percent. Not bad for a lifetime .323 shooter.
3) HIT PAUSE. Back in the day, the Frenchman knew only one speed: fifth gear. That's fine when you've got the fastest engine on the track. But now Parker strategically changes speeds: He takes the ball up nonchalantly, almost lackadaisically, and lulls his defender into a split-second reverie before hitting the gas. "I make it look like I'm falling asleep, then I accelerate," explains Parker. "I have to be sneaky."
4) NO WASTED MOVEMENTS. These days, Parker focuses intently on perfectly rubbing off picks and taking the exact right line to a particular spot to hit his midrange jumper. When it comes to beating an opponent in the half court, economy is the difference. "It is a game of inches," says Parker.
5) PLAY IT SLOW. This has been an acquired skill for Parker: waiting an extra quarter-second or two, especially on the Spurs' bread-and-butter pick-and-rolls. Take a recent game in Indiana, where the Spurs rallied from a 14-point deficit to help Coach Popovich win his 1,000th game. "Down by two late in the game Tony made a pass to Timmy [Duncan] rolling to the basket," explains former Warriors head coach and Spurs assistant P.J. Carlesimo. "Ten years ago, Tony might have turned the corner and been blur before Roy Hibbert could have done anything. But that night Tony set the angle up, ran his man off Timmy, baited Hibbert into coming out and dished softly with his left to Timmy for the layup. A huge play and a perfect pick-and-roll -- a play that typifies Tony Parker."
6) SPACE IT OUT. Cheating time gets even tougher on defense. Ask anyone who's played point guard for a decade or more. It's a young man's position. The average NBA starter is only 26. And everyone knows it's the golden age of the point guard. Westbrook, Paul, Curry, Teague, Conley, Hill. The list isn't short. When he was younger, Parker could get right up into his man and play him straight up. Even if someone got an angle on Parker, he knew he could catch his man. Now it's about giving more room -- a foot, maybe a foot and a half. Nothing you'd notice on your TV, but it's the difference between beating your man to the spot and looking at the back of his jersey as he breezes past.
7) START EARLIER. Other edges? Cutting the gap on pick-and-rolls. If Parker used to pick his man up 5 feet beyond the 3-point arc, now he has to do it at 7 feet. He has to keep his man off balance, literally. "Nudge your opponent," explains Kidd, who likens the tactic to an NFL cornerback. "Not enough to get called for a foul, but enough so it bends his shot." Studying the ball. No matter how fancy someone dribbles, that rock still must come back center when a guy's going to shoot. "Count the dribbles," says Tim Hardaway. "Hand to floor, floor back up. How fast the ball comes up and down. That's how we know opponents are about to do something. What they're going to do."