We have all experienced it, one of our all-time favorite players begins hitting the golden years of their career and can no longer provide us with jaw dropping plays on a nightly basis. Kobe Bryant fans are probably still trying to pick up the pieces of this inevitable truth today. There is no shame is aging if you are a professional athlete, the tricky part is aging gracefully.
Of course the NBA is filled with type A, dominant personalities. If a player is good enough to be an All-Star during their career you can pretty much bank on them having a false perception of themselves, especially after father time has begun his deterioration of their athleticism and skill. It then becomes up to the athlete how they chose to handle that reality. This is the art of aging gracefully. Many former All-Star caliber players have a hard time accepting a role off the bench after once being the focal point of a team. Some of the greatest examples of graceful aging can be found with players like Ray Allen, Bill Walton, and Derek Fisher. But there are some players on this list who, once they hang em up for good, will be looked at as some of the most graceful superstars to ever face the fact that we all get old.
15 David Lee
Early on in his career David Lee was just a quality bench player for the New York Knicks. It was in 2009 when things changed for Lee, was finally given the chance to be a full-time starter, and boy did he take advantage of his the opportunity. In his first season as a starter he averaged a double-double for the season. He elevated his game to even greater heights in 2010 when he was named to his first All-Star team, and ultimately finishing the season averaging 20.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per night.
Lee then signed an incredible $80 million deal with the Golden State Warriors. His play somewhat leveled off, but he was good enough to make one more All-Star appearance in 2013. Then father time creeped up and bit Lee. He suffered an injury in the 2014-15 preseason and lost his starting spot to the younger and more energetic Draymond Green. It was the first time since early on in his career that Lee was forced to come off the bench. Since then, Lee has remained a bench player, having brought his talents off the bench for Boston, Dallas, and currently San Antonio. He still possesses the talent needed to play at the NBA level, but his athleticism and quickness prevents him from logging major minutes at this point in his career.
14 Jameer Nelson
When the Orlando Magic acquired Jameer Nelson in a draft-night trade back in 2005 they were looking to add depth at the point guard position and even perhaps find a stable backup for aging superstar, Steve Francis. However, in his first season Nelson showed he was ready to be more that just a back up. He was able to earn major minutes as a rookie, in large part thanks to his maturity and his ability to lead an offense with poise and efficiency. The Magic were ultimately forced to create a spot in the starting line-up for Nelson, which meant booting Francis from his starting point guard position.
Nelson would end up spending ten season in Orlando, leading them to many playoff runs, including a trip to the NBA Finals in 2007. His best season was in 2009, he was selected to the All-Star team after averaging nearly 17 points a game during the first half of the season. Unfortunately Jameer was forced to miss the the second-half of his only All-Star season season due to a shoulder injury. Since leaving the Magic, Nelson enjoyed stints with the Mavericks and Celtics, he is currently with the Nuggets playing the role of veteran point guard, helping to lead a group of young players, and teach them the tricks he has learned over the past dozen years in the league.
13 Roy Hibbert
As a player who has started nearly every game since his rookie season, coming off the bench surely took some getting used to for big Roy Hibbert. During his time with the Indiana Pacers, Hibbert became a dominant defensive presence. This is not to say that he had no offense, however he was most known for being a rim protector and a great pick and roll option. His efforts in Indy earned him two All-Star appearances, once in 2010, and again in 2014. In 2015, things began to unravel for Hibbert. It seemed, as it sometimes does to big men, that he had lost a step, he just seemed slower and less nimble.
After a season with the Lakers, Hibbert opted to sign with the Charlotte Hornets during free agency. Charlotte was taking a flyer on a center who seemed to have lost his ability to keep up with the competition, but they knew there was some potential left in Roy. Hibbert was never able to find the fountain of youth, however, and he now spends his days coming off the bench for the Denver Nuggets.
12 Devin Harris
When the Dallas Mavericks drafted Devin Harris they had a plan for him. He was supposed to develop, and learn from Steve Nash for several years before taking the reigns himself and leading Dallas. However things changed when Steve Nash departed Dallas before they had planned. With Nash out, Harris was forced to grow up faster than the Mavericks perhaps wanted. It wasn't as bad as they thought though, Harris answered the call as a youngster and helped lead Dallas into the future, a future that would include a trip to the NBA Finals in 2006.
In 2008 Harris was traded to New Jersey. Now with a new team Harris grew into a star and quickly made a reputation for himself as being one of the quickest point-guards in the NBA. His combination of quickness and court vision enabled him to average 21 points and 7 assists per game in 2009, earning his first, and only All-Star nod in the process. Harris is now back in Dallas, filling the role he had when he entered the league, back-up point guard.
11 Luol Deng
Next season will be Luol's 14th in the NBA. He was once a major piece for a number one seeded Bulls team, teaming with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah creating a very formitable big three for the bulls during the mid 2000's. Over the last four seasons however, Deng has seen his talents begin to fade. He spent two season in Miami before cashing in on one final huge pay day. During the 2016 free agency period the Lakers were desperate for a veteran to help lead their cast of minors after the departure of Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers shocked the NBA world when they signed Deng to a 4 year/$72 million contract in 2016. The Lakers clearly overpaid for a 32 year old with bad knees, but he does provide them with some quality veteran leadership. This season ended with the Lakers putting Luol on the injured list with a couple weeks left in the season, but we can be sure to find him on the bench for at least a few more years to come.
10 David West
After a stellar college career at Xavier, David West was a mid first round draft pick in the storied 2003 draft. It didn't take West long to prove he had the adequate skills to be a solid pro. Using one of the best mid-range games in all of the league, West began to establish himself as one of the league’s best young big men. He had a rare blend of physicality and finesse, which helped land him on the 2008 and 2009 Western Conference All-Star teams.
In 2011 he joined the Indiana Pacers where he would continue to play at a high level.He continued to be a dominant player after joining the Indiana Pacers in 2011. During his four years in Indiana, West started every game he suited up for. In 2015, however, West made the decision to join the San Antonio Spurs as a reserve player in pursuit of an NBA Championship. West was unable to capture the title with the Spurs, so in 2016 he opted to take the league minimum and sign with the prohibitive favorite Golden State Warriors. Even though he is averaging less that 12 minutes per game, if West is able to capture his first NBA title this year, it will no doubt be worth the sacrifice.
9 Kyle Korver
Realistically Kyle Korver is one of the greatest 3-point shooters the NBA has ever seen, and players like him are able to continue their career's a lot longer than say a post player. Kyle has been the center piece on a team and he has been part of a 'big three,' but what he has never done is win at the highest level. After 14 seasons in the NBA, Korver has decided he wants to win a ring before his career is over.
In January of 2017 Korver was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Mike Dunleavy and the expiring contract of Mo Williams. After spending more than a dozen years as an elite level shooting guard, Korver has taken to his role on the bench quite well. It could be difficult for a guy who has led the league in 3-point shooting on multiple occasions, and been an All-Star, to come to terms with now being a role player, but Korver has been nothing but professional and successful in his transition. Like many players in his position, if Kyle is able to capture an NBA title coming off the bench, there is no question the sacrifice will be worth it.
8 Joe Johnson
ISO Joe as he is often referred to, Joe Johnson has been a superstar in the NBA before. His seven All-Star appearances rank him among the most for any player on this list. Joe spent his early years playing with the Suns, and the Hawks, having success along the way at both stops. Johnson was a major contributor to both of those franchises sustained success during his tenures. In 2012 he was traded to the Nets where he helped lead the floundering franchise to three playoff appearances in his four year there.
After one year with the Heat, Johnson decided he wanted to go somewhere he could still get playing time, while also having a shot at a championship. He opted to sign with the Utah Jazz, citing the guarantee for substantial minutes, something he was not promised by other teams looking to sign him. This past season Joe came off the bench in 64 of his 78 games played, but he is still a rather large piece to the Jazz puzzle. Still under contract for one more season look for Joe to continue his role as veteran leader and spark off the bench for Utah.
7 Zach Randolph
Zach Randolph is now in his 15th NBA season and since 2003 he has been the starting center or power forward in all four of his NBA homes. Beginning with Portland, then New York, followed by the Clippers and Memphis, Z-bo has been a dominant force in the paint with his ability to score and rebound following him wherever plays.
This past season Memphis brought in a new coach, David Fizdale. His first major move to the Grizzlies was to bring Zach off the bench. Randolph handled the move like a true professional, making the rookie coach's job a lot easier than many other 14 year veterans would have. By coming off the bench and limiting his minutes, Randolph is able to conserve his energy and be more productive in a shorter amount of time. It appears Zach likes the role; it enables him to have the offense run through him with the second unit, as opposed to sharing the load with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol.
6 Deron Williams
The 3rd overall pick in the 2005 draft, Williams knows what it is like to have the hopes and dreams of a franchise on his back. After his first two year with the Jazz, Williams was able to lead the team to four straight playoff births from 2008-2011. In that span Deron was named to the All-NBA Second team twice as well as two All-Star nods. In 2011 Williams even finished among the top vote getters for league MVP when he averaged 21.3 points and 9.7 assists.
It all seemed to fall apart for Williams in his second season with the Nets. His production dropped drastically across the board, and on the surface he just appeared slow and lethargic. Some believed he just needed a chance of scenery so the Dallas Mavericks acquired him in 2015, but unfortunately a new locker room was not the magic answer Dallas had hoped. The Mavs ultimately cut ties with Williams mid-way through the 2016-17 season. Once he became a free agent, Deron was free to sign anywhere, so he opted to take a reserve role with the title contending Cavaliers, and thus far it appears to be a smart decision. Despite his role being reduced to spelling Kyrie Irving for short spurts, Williams seems somewhat revitalized now that winning has again become a reality.
5 Richard Jefferson
As we go through this list it is becoming quite clear that Cleveland is the place for aging former All-Stars to end up. Jefferson is now in his 16th NBA season and yet he is still somehow still a valuable piece to a contending team. Since entering the NBA in 2001 Jefferson has had some very successful seasons, including his best season in 2004-05 when he averaged 22.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists while shooting over 81 percent from the free throw line.
These days Jefferson is the seventh or eighth man of the Cavaliers bench and is mostly used as an 'energy guy'. Yes that is right, a 36-year-old is the energy guy. It has become a role Jefferson has embraced and flourished in since joining the Cavs in 2015. Jefferson is getting about 17 minutes per game, and during that time he still brings the intensity unlike many others can. He is looking to help Cleveland repeat as NBA champions this season, and they are able to pull it off it is likely we would see him hang 'em up after this one.
4 Andre Iguodala
Andre Iguodala is a bit different than many of the former stars on this list because although he now comes off the bench, Iggy is still very much involved in Golden State's game plan. Originally drafted 9th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2004, Iguodala quickly rose to stardom in Philly. By 2009, Iguodala had taken over as the face of the 76ers franchise and was averaging nearly 20 points per game, while also grabbing 5.5 rebounds and handing out nearly 5 assists per game. He was very much in the mold of what Kawhi Leonard has turned himself into, a multifaceted player with the ability to do all things on the court, including great defense.
Although Andre is now relegated to a bench role with the Golden State Warriors, he is still a very pivotal piece for the team and could start on most other teams in the league. The simple fact that Golden State has current All-Star players at every position is the only reason Iguodala comes off the bench. The fact that he was named Finals MVP in 2015 over the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and even LeBron James is all the evidence you need that Andre is still a great player.
3 Manu Ginobli
Manu is kind of an odd inclusion, simply because the bulk of his career has been spent coming off the bench. That however does not change the fact that he is a two time All-Star, four time champion, and NBA Sixth Man of the Year who is now an actual bench player. Manu's role has never really changed for the Spurs, since he arrived in San Antonio, Coach Popovich has always asked him to be a spark off the bench. It was until a few years in that people realized Manu would become one of the great sixth men in league history.
These days Ginobli is a little older, a little slower, and a little more bald than he was in years past. This past season saw Manu average a career low in points, and in minutes, so it is clear that father time is finally catching up with the great Argentinian. The Spurs are still alive in the Western Conference playoffs, and Ginobli has of course began to up his production now that the games mean a little bit more. It was believed Manu might hang em up after this season, but his revival in this years playoffs has people wondering if they will have to wait a little longer before getting to see Ginobli inshrined in the Hall of Fame.
2 Pau Gasol
The accolades Pau has accumulated during his 16 NBA seasons are far to lengthy to cover here, but he has certainly done enough to be called a sure fire Hall of Famer when he decides to hang it up. Gasol was great from the onset, when he single handedly put the Grizzlies franchise on the map during the early 2000's. Once he was traded for his younger brother Marc, the Lakers were the beneficiary of a prime Pau Gasol, and they didn't let it go to waste, winning two titles with Pau and Kobe leading the way.
After leaving the Lakers, Pau spent a couple lackluster seasons in Chicago, but he is currently helping lead the Spurs to yet another playoff run. Only this time Pau is leading the charge from the bench. Pau started in nearly half of the teams games this year, but the great Coach Popovich seemed to found the perfect role for Pau coming in with the second unit. If Pau and the Spurs are able to continue their run through the playoffs there is no reason we shouldn't expect to see more Pau off the bench for San Antonio next season.
1 Vince Carter
During his prime, 'Half-Man Half-Amazing' was a top 5 talent in the NBA. Many basketball fans point to Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant as the reason the NBA didn't sink during their tough run through the late 90's and early 2000's. His battles with Allen Iverson in the playoff were legendary, and his dunk in the 2004 Olympics is one that will live forever. During his prime, Carter did it all. A prime example would be in 2006, Carter averaged 25.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game, while also guarding the opposing teams best offensive player.
As amazing as Vince was during his prime years, perhaps the most impressive thing about his career has been the evolution. As a youngster Carter was a high flyer, his pairing with Jason Kidd produced some of the greatest basketball highlight films ever made. But, as he got older, and his jumping ability began to fade, Vince made a transition. He went from being a slasher/dunker to being a sniper from long range with the ability to take it to the basket if given the opportunity. An evolution in game play like that is rarely seen in the NBA. Vince has not been a full time starter in five seasons, but his contribution to his team is still very valuable and he deserves all the credit in the world for being able to change himself as nature has taken its course on him.