Bobby Fischer, Max Von Sydow, Watson His Computerized Self: it's not a good look to get into a chess match with mortality, if only because no one has won yet. But while Father Time is undefeated, that doesn’t mean his matches only last two or three moves. Thanks to improved diets (Dwight Howard excepted), state of the art strength and conditioning practices and various different modes of self-preservation, some things we probably don't know about and the happy accident of having been born into the often freakish body of an NBA athlete, today's players are able to play longer—and better—than ever before.
Thanks to those aforementioned innovations and information, another act is available for aging players who are looking for one. Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce have all extended their primes—and, once those passed, their careers as viable, high-level contributors—much longer than anyone would have thought possible not so long ago.
Gerald Wallace does not quite fit into this group—he's had a long career, and in some ways a great one and in many more ways an admirable one. But he also seems, on the cusp of 31 and in the first season of a four-year, $40 million contract, very close to the end. The advances and examples listed above would suggest that a player like Wallace might have a good deal more left in him than he has shown this season. But it's possible that Gerald Wallace doesn't, mostly because there has never been a player quite like Gerald Wallace.
Wallace is a former All-Star and one of the game's more revered gamers. He has also looked, this season, overpaid and overcooked. In some sense, this isn't a surprise: anyone who has watched Wallace play over the course of his career had to know that his rugged, violent style wasn't going to allow longevity. Before the season began, former ESPN projecto-genius and current Memphis Grizzlies front office magus John Hollinger projected Wallace’s PER and points per 40 minutes would shrink by less than a point. Instead, both have stepped on a banana peel.
Knowing that Wallace was due for a decline and understanding how that decline might look—and how suddenly it could happen—is not at all the same thing. In an era in which players all across the league have been able to sharpen different tools to account for a natural decline in physical ability, nearly all of Wallace's abilities seem to have deserted him at once. It's a collapse so complete that it defies analysis; even Wallace himself seems baffled by it.
After a career that began with three mostly lost years in Sacramento, pile-driving garbage-time dunks and generally learning on the job after just one year at Alabama, Wallace made a quick ascent—he became a fantasy basketball beast, and a vital player on playoff teams in Charlotte and Portland. He was, during the Nets' miserable last year in Jersey, the team's best and most admirably engaged player. It's not that Wallace isn't getting the third act he deserves, although he isn't. It's that the third act seems barely to be happening at all.
This isn't about being overpaid. This is about competing with the best small forwards in the world one year, then mutating into arguably the worst shooter in the league among players that play at least 30 minutes a night, the next. In his last 20 games, Wallace has shot 34% from the floor, 15.6% from behind the three-point line, and 65.2% on free-throws. He’s averaging just 6.7 points per game; his 11.8 PER is more than four points below the mark he posted last season.
This is all painfully palpable in watching Wallace on the court, but the issue goes beyond numbers. Wallace doesn’t run the floor like he used to, even as recently as last season. He has no burst in transition, no quickness to drive by a single defender in a half-court set, and because his shot has never been anything to write home about, no way of getting separation or, to be frank, respect from defenses that would much rather double Brook Lopez or swarm Deron Williams than pay him any mind. All Wallace’s production this season has been spoon-fed. After re-watching much of his season before writing this article, this is both increasingly obvious and increasingly miserable to watch.
Synergy Sports ranks him as the NBA’s 353rd most efficient player. On offense he often sets off-ball screens, then drifts behind the three-point line, out of everybody else’s way. Plays are hardly ever called with his number in mind. Among his Brooklyn teammates, Wallace’s usage percentage is higher than those of Keith Bogans and Reggie Evans; that’s it. Those are the only teammates who end fewer possessions on the whole team. He averages fewer points per game than Andray Blatche, a bench player who sees the court 12 fewer minutes per game on average.
Is it possible that a good chunk of Wallace’s athleticism has simply been beaten out of his body, or is he simply a victim of circumstance? Brooklyn is one of the slowest teams in basketball, 29th in pace, averaging only 90.94 possessions per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com/Stats. This style stands in opposition to everything that ever made Gerald Wallace the Gerald Wallace he once was. Only 15.7% of his baskets are coming on fast break points this season, also according to NBA.com/Stats; this is the second lowest figure of his career and by far the lowest since 2007.
Or could the answer just be that Wallace doesn’t know, after his years as one of the league's most eccentric centerpieces, how to play beside really talented players? Williams, Lopez, and Joe Johnson headed into the season as Brooklyn’s first three offensive options, leaving Wallace in a peripheral role he hasn’t experienced since 2004. Third acts aren’t supposed to be trips back in time; this is where Wallace is supposed to either re-invent himself or find some late-career reward. Or, to lose the narrative for a moment, this might well have been the time when Wallace—who’s sacrificed so stanchion-crashingly much for his teams—was supposed to be picked up in turn, and allowed to enjoy a lucrative and successful late career as a role player. But it looks like there is, at the moment, no obvious role that Wallace could play with distinction, or even especially competently.
There are questions, of course, all hypothetical and all without obvious solutions—could Wallace turn things around, change his game to save it? Might he have had a different fate if Portland hadn't traded him last season? There are no obvious responses, or none beyond the bleak ones that Wallace keeps serving up on the court. He asks as much of himself as ever, and that's as much as any player of his generation has asked. He just no longer seems to have any answers that work.