Basketball Notes

Warning on this route: Toll ahead

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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Kevin Garnett logged his 41,000th NBA minute Thursday night against the Cavaliers, which is third-most for active players behind fellow graybeards Jason Kidd and Shaquille O’Neal.

The difference is that Kidd and O’Neal spent a combined five years playing college basketball, while Garnett entered the NBA directly out of high school. Kidd turns 37 and O’Neal 38 next month. Garnett will be 34 May 19.

Many players who bypassed college for the NBA have acknowledged having delusions that their legs would carry them into 15-plus-year careers. They were simply getting a jump on the rest of their class.

Garnett was among the first generation of high school players to jump straight to the NBA, and he and many of his peers are finding that an early start may result in an early finish. Many NBA pundits would say that Garnett is on the downside of his career, and still recovering from knee surgery.

Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant, seventh among active players with 36,000-plus minutes, has been the shining example of a high school product whose prime has lasted into his early 30s. Bryant, who has remained healthy, is the exception and not the rule. Many of his non-college cohorts are in the final stages of their careers, fighting to stay relevant in a league filled with players born in the late 1980s.

Tracy McGrady initiated a trade from Houston to the Knicks so he could display his skills for interested teams as the final year of his mega-deal expires. Jermaine O’Neal, also earning $23 million in the final year of his deal, is playing on battered legs. Al Harrington, just behind O’Neal in career minutes, turned 30 two weeks ago and has been relegated to a reserve.

The NBA offers high school standouts a chance to earn millions, but what isn’t mentioned is that 100 games per season on a growing body can slice years off a career. Just ask Jonathan Bender, whose knees failed him at age 23, forcing him into a four-year retirement before a recent comeback with the Knicks.

The thought of a player out of high school lasting 20 years in the NBA now is almost laughable, considering the pounding on the body.

McGrady was one of the league’s premier players just five years ago but has been besieged by shoulder and knee injuries. He has played in 44 games the past two years. McGrady turns 31 in May, an age when most NBA players are in their prime.

Because of recent microfracture knee surgery, McGrady’s better days are behind him. After scoring 6 points Tuesday against the Celtics, McGrady is reaching for flashes of his past, hoping to become more consistent.

“I am still trying to play myself into shape,’’ he said. “While these guys have had a full season and are into a rhythm, I’m trying to get there. I’m not as confident on the basketball court as I would like. Right now, my legs are just fatigued.

“This is all about just trying to get myself back, get up and down the court. It’s all about me physically and mentally being able to get through the season playing a significant amount of minutes.’’

McGrady was 18 when he debuted with the Raptors in 1997 and he logged as many as 3,125 minutes for the Rockets in 2004-05 but he hasn’t played more than 2,539 since then. McGrady said he was diagnosed with scoliosis (a curving of the spine) as a youth and was projected to play just three years.

He acknowledges that he should have taken better care of himself early in his career.

“As you grow in this league, you find different ways of keeping your body in good shape,’’ he said. “I was so young that I didn’t have to stretch. I would wake up and just go play basketball, and I did that for years, and as I got older, I started to realize I can’t do that no more.

“You think you’re young and your body’s fresh and you just come out here and play, but when you get five, six years under your belt and you are playing a lot of minutes, that’s a lot of mileage, man. You don’t think about that when you’re that young.’’

Fans have to realize that the younger these players are when they enter the NBA, the more likely it is that they’ll become injured. Bryant has been fortunate to avoid major injury throughout his 14-year career.

“What this injury did is test me to see if I wanted to move forward with this game,’’ McGrady said. “I was determined to get back. I just rededicated myself. But I can’t lie to you, I was tested.’’

Said Harrington, “If you’re lucky, God bless you to be healthy, you’ll get to 35 and be talented enough to hang around that long. For our first eight years, we didn’t even stretch before practices or games, none of that. Now I stretch three times before the game. If we knew better, we would have did it better. When you get to 30, you really have to start taking care of your body.’’

NBA careers flash brightly and fizzle quickly, and players such as Harrington and McGrady look at their surgically repaired bodies and wonder whether the end is near.

“The biggest thing you look at is, where did the time go?’’ Harrington said. “We were just 18, and the next thing you know, you are 30. That’s the biggest surprise of it all.’’

Ilgauskas has options other than the Cavs
Free agency has started early, as players such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Larry Hughes are available after being bought out (by Washington and Sacramento, respectively).

It’s not a cinch that Ilgauskas will return to the Cavaliers, because they can’t sign him until March 22, though he is eligible to play for any other team right now. For another thing, is he ticked off that the Cavaliers discarded him to Washington in the first place?

This type of situation is not unprecedented. Teams have made under-the-table deals with veterans, trading them to noncontenders that eventually offer a buyout, allowing the players to return to their former teams in 30 days. Antonio McDyess was shipped by Detroit to Denver in 2008 and returned to the Pistons the next month.

But the 30-day period allows other clubs to make offers, with the lure of fresh surroundings and the chance to play immediately. Ilgauskas will have to fight for a job on the Cavaliers, who are stocked in the frontcourt. And teams such as the Hawks, Mavericks, and Celtics are interested in Ilgauskas, a solid center with shooting skills off the pick-and-roll.

LeBron James said he would have no trouble recruiting his former teammate.

“He knows I would love for him to be back here, especially while we’re contending for a title,’’ said James, “and he’s one of the main reasons why I want to win the title for this team.

“It’s good for Z that a lot of teams have an interest in him at his age, and he’s a really good player. That’s good for him. If he wants to be part of this team, we definitely want him back.’’

Hughes is interested in going to the Bobcats, who could use a defensive-minded swingman for their playoff run. He played for Charlotte coach Larry Brown in Philadelphia, so he has ties there.

Well-wishers rally around stricken Karl
Denver coach George Karl painfully announced Feb. 16 that he is again battling cancer, this time in the throat. He missed Thursday’s win over Golden State to undergo treatment and will miss more games and practices.

Karl has survived prostate cancer, and his son, Coby, is a thyroid cancer survivor, but the coach appeared deflated by his latest challenge. He said he will continue to coach and has the full support of the Nuggets organization.

Karl was given a standing ovation before last Sunday’s Nuggets-Celtics game and the team staff posted a large get-well card in the concourse of Pepsi Center for fans to sign.

“No question, I am amazed,’’ Karl said when asked about the reception from friends and fans. “I actually came in this morning [and saw the mail] and said if this keeps up, there’s no way I can respond to half of the people.

“Some of the letters are from people who have the same disease or who have gone through the same treatment. Strangers who have never known me.’’

Karl said he received an e-mail from Pulitzer Prize-winning author George Will, a conservative. “Two people at the extreme ends of the spectrum of politics,’’ said Karl. “That made me laugh.’’

Clear winner in this debate
Kevin Durant’s incredible streak of 29 consecutive games with at least 25 points ended Wednesday when he scored 21 - none in the fourth quarter - in the Thunder’s loss to the Spurs. The streak was second to Michael Jordan’s stretch of 40 straight in 1986-87. Durant has led the rapid rise of the Oklahoma City franchise from the laughingstock it was in Seattle. He is a dark horse for league MVP, and there is no longer a debate as to whether the Trail Blazers made the right choice in selecting Greg Oden over Durant. Imagine Durant playing next to Brandon Roy and fellow Texas Longhorn LaMarcus Aldridge? It probably makes Portland GM Kevin Pritchard cringe, especially with Oden having missed most of the past three seasons with injuries . . . There was a reason Sacramento was seeking a center in exchange for Kevin Martin. Coach Paul Westphal is down on former lottery pick Spencer Hawes, who may not be the cornerstone the club expected him to be. Hawes was inactive for Tuesday’s loss to the Pistons but was back in the lineup in Friday night’s win over the Jazz. Going into last night’s game, Hawes was shooting just 48.4 percent from the field - low for a center - and the perimeter game hasn’t been there, either (32.5 percent from the 3-point line) . . . Carlos Boozer is lobbying to return to the Jazz next season. He will be a free agent and could leave without compensation . . . Memphis moved second overall pick Hasheem Thabeet to the D-League, the highest pick ever to be optioned there.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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