Commentary

Aging gracefully in the NBA

Celtics' Wallace embraces new role while Iverson fights it

Updated: November 10, 2009, 1:38 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Rasheed Wallace came into the NBA one year before Allen Iverson, and the two spent much of last season together in Detroit. But, at their advanced ages, the two couldn't be handling their shifts to reserve roles any more differently.

While Wallace, 35, has embraced coming off the bench in helping the Celtics to a 7-1 start, Iverson, 34, has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the Grizzlies and their grisly 1-6 record. Iverson's departure is due in part to a family issue, but reports indicate he also is frustrated by his reserve role in Memphis and is mulling retirement.

Wallace indicated he hasn't spoken to Iverson recently but talked to reporters Monday about the difficulty some NBA All-Stars encounter when transitioning to supporting roles as their skills decline in their 30s.

"It depends on the person," said Wallace, who is averaging 10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 21.8 minutes per game this season. "I already accepted that I can't jump no more. I'm not as fast as I used to be. I accepted that already. That's where you become more smart, make that first step or two before that quick player can get there. I gotta make this jump shot, so I'll give a pump fake because I know that he can jump higher than me. To me, once you lose that step or two, you pick up a step or two with your head."

Having played in three games since returning from a hamstring injury, Iverson is averaging 12.3 points, 3.7 assists and 22.3 minutes per game. After one game last week, he told reporters of coming off the bench: "It's something that I never did in my life, so obviously it's a big adjustment. I'm so tired of discussing [the reserve role], talking about that, every single day. It's just not something that I want to discuss."

Said Wallace: "I haven't talked to [Iverson] since the summer. I don't want to give my opinion. I don't know the whole story of what's going on down there. I'm pretty sure it's tough for him. That's part of it. I guess he doesn't like the situation that he's put in."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers likewise passed on offering an opinion, simply noting that he's thankful he doesn't have to deal with a similar situation in Boston.

"I feel bad for [the Grizzlies]," Rivers said. "They'll work it out; hopefully they will."

Pierce It's all about becoming smarter. You do all the little things even better out there; setting screens, cutting better. You might not be as athletic or fast as you used to be, so it's all about doing the little things better.

-- Celtics captain Paul Pierce, 32

But just how hard is it to come to grips with a decline in skills? Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who recently turned 32, is in his 12th season and continues to thrive as one of the premiere scorers in the NBA. But even he admits it's a chess match against your body.

"That's not in the back of my mind: I know I can't do some of the things I could do at 22," Pierce said. "I think it's about adjusting your game. I've had to do that throughout the course of my career, making adjustments to my abilities. Fortunately, I've been able to sustain it and play at a high level. That's what it's all about the older you get.

"It's all about becoming smarter. You do all the little things even better out there -- setting screens, cutting better. You might not be as athletic or fast as you used to be, so it's all about doing the little things better -- outworking your opponent."

Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo could only marvel watching 35-year-old Steve Nash -- 12 years Rondo's elder -- run the Garden floor like a 23-year-old in Friday's loss to the Suns. Rondo raved about Nash's physical condition but said it is Nash's smarts that set him apart from most point guards in the league.

Wallace remembers when the shoe was on the other foot, battling Hall of Fame power forward Karl Malone during his early years in Portland.

"I knew I was faster than him, could jump higher than him, but I also knew he was stronger than me, and he did, too," Wallace said. "That's what he tried to put into effect. Let's stop running up and down as much, and let's play half-court. Let me go inside and pound him. I knew that; I knew for sure he was stronger than me. I just tried to outwit him with speed and quickness."

Now Wallace is trying to outwit opponents with the smarts acquired over a 15-year NBA career.

"One thing my high school coach told me: 'The day you stop learning about the game of basketball is the day you gotta go ahead and hang it up,'" Wallace said. "With me coming off the bench this year, it's an adjustment for me, having started over the past 13-14 years. It's an adjustment I've made before with [the University of North] Carolina -- I didn't start there -- and the same thing with high school.

"Depending on the mentality of the person, it can be an advantage or a disadvantage. The advantage of not starting is you're sitting back, looking at the game and saying, 'OK, we need rebounding,' or 'We need hustle points.' Coming off the bench, that's what you try to do. The disadvantage of it is you gotta catch that flow. You're coming off the bench, you gotta come ready, warmed up already, catch the flow of the game. If you don't, that's when bad things happen."

And it's not something every player can do.

"Like I said, it depends on the mentality of the player," Wallace said. "Some can, some can't. Flat out."

Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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