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How You Know You’re Washed

As soon as All-NBA guards dip below a certain threshold, there’s no coming back. (CC: Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas.)

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Derrick Rose signed with Minnesota last week, which made sense for one reason and no sense for many others. It made sense because Rose used to play for current Timberwolves boss Tom Thibodeau, whose former charges now comprise a full third of his roster. It made no sense because the Timberwolves already had two capable point guards in Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones, and because Rose is so far past his prime that the last time he made an All-Star roster, Andrew Bynum did, too.

Rose is almost definitely going to become the first MVP in league history not to make the Hall of Fame, and his play has been consistently poor for years now. Since returning from the ACL tear that caused him to miss the entire 2012-13 season, Rose has ranked 95th in true shooting percentage among the 98 players with at least 3,000 shot attempts. He is, as the kids say, washed.

Fittingly, in the 18 minutes Rose has played across his first two games with the Timberwolves, he has made just one of seven shots and totaled two points, two assists, and two turnovers, and the Wolves have been outscored by 16 points with him on the floor. Yet what did Thibodeau expect? Not a return to Rose’s MVP form from 2011, certainly, when the 22-year-old dynamo led Chicago to the East’s best record, scored 25 points per game, and compiled a medley of athletic dunks. The 2018 version of Rose hasn’t scored more than 20 points in a game or attempted a single dunk all season.

But Thibodeau thinks his past and now-present point guard still has potential, telling the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Rose “has the potential to be very good” because of his youth. “Like all stories, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end,” Thibodeau said. “And he’s young, so I don’t think it’s a finished story.”

Indeed, Rose is just 29. So is Isaiah Thomas, who, like his former Cavaliers teammate, is a former All-NBA player suddenly struggling to replicate his on-court success. Both Rose and Thomas will be free agents this summer, which raises the question: Can a washed guard become unwashed, or is he doomed to irrelevance forever?

Not counting Thomas, who is currently suffering his first bad season, 97 guards throughout NBA history have been named to an All-NBA team. After receiving that honor, 29 of those players never had a below-average season as measured by player efficiency rating (i.e., below 15); those are the Jordans and Magics and Stocktons, whose play never flagged, plus a number of active players who haven’t yet reached their decline phase.

Removing those overachievers leaves 68 remaining guards who at one time ranked among the NBA’s best and subsequently had at least one below-average season. For some of those players, the decline came late in their careers; Bob Cousy’s down season came at age 41, Steve Nash’s at 39, and Oscar Robertson’s at 35. Ten of the 68 players—including that trio—never appeared in another game after their first subpar season.

Of the remaining 58 players, just 22 ever put up at least an average season after their down campaign. That’s not a terrible percentage, given that some of the sample was old and thus already unlikely to reach 15 PER again, but it’s not promising, either. A PER of 15 means average for the entire league, not just starters, so circling that mark is representative more of a bench player than a prime option; for reference, some guards in the neighborhood of that figure this season are D.J. Augustin and Buddy Hield.

The historical odds plummet if Rose or Thomas is hoping to reach much higher than a 15-PER season. Only five washed guards have ever managed a season with 18 PER, which is the minimum for a generic second option: Bobby Wanzer, Earl Monroe, Otis Birdsong, Walter Davis, and Latrell Sprewell. Sprewell is the only member of that group who has played in the last 25 years, and he makes the list only because he put forth a sub-15 PER at the age of 24, which is earlier than anybody else in the 68-person sample. He immediately recovered and wouldn’t have another sub-15-PER season for another seven seasons, so he’s already out of the range of possibilities for Rose, who has experienced continued struggles for years.

Finally, only one player ever managed a season with 20 PER—the rough minimum for an All-Star hopeful—after turning in a campaign worthy of the “washed” moniker: Wanzer, pride of the mid-’50s Rochester Royals, who struggled in his age-34 season yet produced a PER of 20.5 a year later. But he hit that lofty number while playing just 21 games and averaging 7.6 minutes that season. Effectively, then, no All-NBA guard has ever become washed and then recovered to play at a considerably high level.

In their respective All-NBA seasons, Rose’s PER was 23.5 and Thomas’s 26.5. But history suggests they won’t ever reach a mark of 18 again, let alone 20, let alone the mid-20s that signified their best efforts.

Restricting the pool to recent players yields an even more alarming trend. Besides Thomas, six active guards belong to this group. None of the six has come close to recapturing his peak.

Active Washed Guards

Player Washed Year Pre-washed PER Post-washed PER
Player Washed Year Pre-washed PER Post-washed PER
Vince Carter 2011 21.1 14.0
Joe Johnson 2013 16.4 13.3
Derrick Rose 2014 19.9 14.9
Rajon Rondo 2015 17.1 14.8
Manu Ginobili 2017 20.9 13.2
Tony Parker 2017 18.7 13.7

Sure, most of those players were old when they experienced a downturn, and it wouldn’t make sense for Tony Parker to rebound to his 2007 form a decade later. But young guards also fail to bounce back, as this list of every All-NBA guard who has qualified as washed at the age of 30 or earlier this century shows:

  • Isaiah Thomas (age 28)
  • Rajon Rondo (28)
  • Derrick Rose (25)
  • Brandon Roy (26); played just five more games in his career after his below-average season
  • Gilbert Arenas (29); played 17 more games
  • Michael Redd (30); played 61 more games
  • Baron Davis (29); played 162 more games
  • Stephon Marbury (30); played 23 more games
  • Penny Hardaway (30); played 191 more games

On one hand, Rose is technically exceeding the expectations set by his recent forebears just by continuing to play. On the other hand, when Penny Hardaway’s longevity is the upper benchmark for comparison, that’s about the shortest possible hurdle to clear. Games-played totals aside, that list is full of horror stories with nary a success. Injuries are a common thread among those players, but that is less a complicating variable in this set of conclusions than a further reason for concern for Rose’s and Thomas’s future: They both suffered injuries that sapped them of their extraordinary—and, it turns out, necessary—explosiveness with the ball.

That’s bad news for any team hoping for a boost from Rose or for a team that plans on gambling on Thomas’s 30s in free agency this summer. There’s a chance that those guards return to form, but they’d have to defy decades of precedent to do so. Rajon Rondo’s last half-decade of nomadism might be their realistic best-case scenario at this point.

Rose told ESPN that “it’s a joke” when critics say he can no longer provide value to a team. “I’m 29; they’re acting like I’m 39,” he declared. For his future potential as a former All-NBA talent turned below-average guard, though, those might as well be the same thing.