Thursday, March 27, 2014

Just How Old Should a Good NBA Team Be?

Age, to some, may well be a state of mind. But when it comes to competitive sports, age is a fact of life. Bodies age and break down; surreptitious savvy and favorable whistles can only compensate so much. The no-longer-so-young Kobe Bryant is only the most recent to reprise this role. It will be a challenge, given the nature of the injuries from which he’s returning.

A variety of heady veterans have played vital roles on NBA championship squads—Shane Battier, Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Clyde Drexler, all the way back to the days of Bob McAdoo, Paul Silas and Wayne Embry. Alas, far more have sought in vain the right fit for one of those elusive rings.

Constructing a contending team requires the proper mixture. Like Goldilocks taught us as kids, not all bowls of porridge are “just right.” A successful unit needs the guy with that singular athletic talent for those occasions when nothing else will suffice. More importantly, it needs guys who can and will make the “right” play. The proper balance of youthful exuberance and high-pressure urgency. Too young and you don’t know what to do, too old and you can’t get the job done any more.

Just what, then, is the optimal age for an NBA team with championship aspirations?        
Two seasons ago, the multi-ringed San Antonio Spurs were on the roll of all rolls. They’d closed the season with ten consecutive victories (21 of their last 23), their third double-digit winning streak in that condensed season—then began the playoffs with ten more wins.

Of course, we all remember what happened next. The Thunder give them a 20-point spanking in Oklahoma City, triggering the Spurs’ first four-game losing stretch in over a year and an abrupt end to their title dreams. Conventional wisdom held that a grizzled old team had been usurped by the athletic young up-and-comers. Sure enough, the average age of the Spurs did indeed exceed that of the Thundering herd by a couple of years. Coach Pop’s micro-management of minutes that season was ultimately foiled by the wear and tear of a brutal schedule on an older team.

OKC retained their momentum through one game of the Finals before reminding us why only 12 teams so young have ever won an NBA championship, only five in the last half century. The last such title team featured a 20-year-old rookie named Magic.

Those San Antonio senior citizens, incidentally, were the same age as 20 of the 67 teams that have won the championship of this league, including seven of Coach Red Auerbach’s nine titlists as well as the 2012 Miami Heat that knocked off those Thunder.

Before going any further, let’s define “age” as we’re applying it here to a team. Coaches are notorious for shortening their playing rotation as games become more meaningful, and should not a team’s “age” represent the guys who actually play? Therefore, team “age” is the average age of the eight players who logged the most minutes during the playoffs. (Data was taken from basketball-reference.com.)

By this standard, only one 40-year-old has ever “played” for a NBA champion. (His identity should be obvious; it happened 25 years ago for those who may need a cranial nudge.)

But make no mistake about it—professional basketball is a young man’s game. Always has been. During the inaugural season of the league (then known as the Basketball Association of America), only 14 of the 161 players were 30+, five of them playing for the Pittsburgh Ironmen in their only season of existence. Seven of the league’s first ten champions were as young or younger than the Oklahoma City babies we’ve been discussing. The average age of that Thunder squad was 26.

Since the merger with the ABA back in the 1970’s, only two teams that young have reached the mountaintop, Magic’s aforementioned 1980 Lakers and Bill Walton’s amazing Portland Trail Blazers three years prior. With the exception of the teams from that first decade and the surprising 1975 Golden State Warriors, each of these extra-young winners have featured an iconic player—the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (Wilt Chamberlain).

On the other end of the spectrum, 14 teams aged 30 or more have prevailed in the NBA’s final playoff round, including two of the last three. While the Boston Celtics represent four of those outfits, let the record show that the very first Boston Celtic unit to reach the big 3-0 fell to Chamberlain’s Sixers, snapping a run of eight consecutive championships.

Speaking of the Celtics, in an extraordinary piece of personnel management, Red Auerbach had kept the age of his dynastic squad at 28 for seven straight years (1960-66). By the way, that’s how old those decrepit Spurs were two years ago whilst being drubbed by those Okie up-starts.

In another age oddity involving another NBA dynasty, the three-peat Los Angeles Lakers of 2000-02 actually grew younger each year, going from 30 to 28. The 2000 Laker champs were the fifth consecutive group of 30-somethings to do so. That group includes the oldest-ever NBA kings, Michael Jordan’s 32-year-old 1998 Chicago Bulls.

Currently, the oldest teams in the league are the Heat, Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies; the youngest, the 76ers, Charlotte Bobcats, New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz.

The formidable Indiana Pacers, through the additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, have “aged” from 26 to 28 since last season. And the shocking Trail Blazers increased their age from 23 to 27 over one off-season; astronomical improvement can’t be that easy, can it? This collection of basketball middle-agers also includes the Lakers, Clippers, Bulls, Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks.

GM Sam Presti and Coach Scott Brooks have OKC back to the age of 26, along with the likes of the eye-brow raising Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and Boston.

 And the Detroit Pistons have certainly shown significant growth this season (impressively giving Indiana its first home loss of the season). Yet and still, they (along with the Cavaliers, Bucks, Magic and Raptors) illustrate quite well why the NBA has not had a 25-year old champion since 1977.

Then again, maybe the youngsters should stay optimistic. After all, the league’s first dynasty, winners of five of the first nine championships, the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers, won their final championship at the ripe old age of 27.