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HOOP LOGIC – The NBA’s Ageist Problem

tim duncan photo: Tim Duncan 100227.jpg
Everybody knows that professional athletics are a young man’s game. As sage Charles Barkley has lamented, “Father Time is undefeated.” While this is true, I’ve noticed a trend in the NBA media to send our aging veterans off to pasture before their skills have expired.

When Dwight Howard forced himself out of Orlando in 2012, everyone in the world would have killed to have D12 on their team. He was the NBA’s smiling, lovable good-guy. He was 26 years old, a 6-time All Star, 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, and even led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals.

Fast-forward 4 short years (or long years if you’re Dwight), and you would think this guy has the basketball equivalent of leprosy. He is viewed as a problem-child in the locker room, injury prone, and his stats have steadily fallen. The peculiar thing is if you compare his Per 36 numbers for the ’15-’16 season, they aren’t much different than his last season in Orlando, except points per game, but Dwight only had 8.5 FGAs per game in 2015-16 – the lowest since his rookie season.

2011-12 – Per 36 Minutes – 19.4 PPG 13.7 Rbs 2.0 Blks .573 FG%
2015-16 – Per 36 Minutes – 15.4 PPG 13.2 Rbs 1.8 Blks .620 FG%

He actually had his best field goal % of his career last season, but the Rockets under-performed, and everyone thinks he mentally checked out. All the NBA “smart guys” say that you are a dumb, desperate team if you sign him to a big deal. Before 2016 Free Agency opened, Bleacher Report proclaimed they expected him to make $10-15M per year. 3 and D role guys like Kent Bazemore and Marvin Williams made more than that. In a year where half the teams in the league had $20M plus to spend because of a ballooned cap, the NBA group-think media has decided this guy is done…at 31 years old…and the fans have bought it. Dwight deserves some shade, but this disrespect and lack of assessing value has gone overboard. (D12 ended up netting $23 million per on a 3-year deal with Atlanta, much to the chagrin of the “experts”.)

But this is how it is in today’s league. You are done at 30 if you have any stink of imperfection: injury history, bad attitude, non-fundamental approach, skill set that flies in the face of analytics, old school approach, or just plain old.

The league used to be run by the old guard. Check out the average age for the top 8 players in minutes-per-game on these notable championship teams: 2014 Spurs – 29.875, 2013 Heat – 30, 2011 Mavericks – 31.25, 2010 Lakers – 28, 2008 Celtics – 27.8, 2001 Lakers – 30.37, 1998 Bulls – 30.25, 1995 Rockets – 29.25, 1990 Pistons – 29.5, 1986 Celtics – 30.125.

The problem is the conventional wisdom has flipped, and now we undervalue players and teams that are older. I think it’s for 4 reasons:

1.) The 2014-15 Warriors won the title with the average age of their top 8 players being 26.6. That is uncharacteristically young for a championship team. These Warriors have completely changed how we usually think about what are the components that make a championship team. Everyone wants to get younger, more athletic, play small ball, and switch everything on defense.
2.) Because of the trend of players entering the league at a much younger age, our perception of players’ ages have become distorted. LeBron, Melo, and Dwight seem like old 31 year olds because they have just been in the league forever.
3.) With players entering the league at 19 and not finishing college, perhaps players put on too many miles on their legs at a young age, and run out of gas earlier than previous generations.
4.) This is just a theory, but it may be that scouting and better utilization of athletic teams like Golden State and the Thunder have figured out how to better game plan to defeat athletically inferior (old) teams. They’ve matched the brains to the brawn more effectively making veteran guile less potent.

Because Golden State won at such an anomalously young age, they have unrealistically skewed the narrative of when a young team is supposed to contend. Now, the pressure will be on young teams to win when their core isn’t ready. Maybe 2017 was supposed to be the year a younger team like the Thunder win the title because they’ve been through all the battles and have matured. We will never know due to KD jumping ship.

This brings me to the Knicks current predicament of trading for a 27 year old, injury-plagued Derrick Rose and signing 31 year old, injury-prone Joakim Noah, and the firestorm of ridicule coming down on the franchise with every NBA media person tweeting some version of this hack joke, “The Knicks have the best starting line-up in league…in 2010.” – This is where you are supposed to start laughing really hard.

Many will contend that this criticism is primarily about health, not age, and while I concede that point, there is a prevailing notion that age 31 is washed up. If…and it’s a big IF, the Knicks are healthy, they should be pretty damn good, and it doesn’t have to be 2010. Because of their experience as veterans who know how to win. People forget that the Rose/Noah Bulls had the best record in the East 2 years in a row, and Melo won a high school championship, NCAA championship, and never missed the playoffs until the last few years. Experience has to count for something.

People have short memories and forget Michael Jordan won 3 titles after the age of 32. Karl Malone and John Stockton made back-to-back Finals when they were both 33 and older. Kareem Abdul Jabbar won 5 titles (5 FUCKING TITLES!) after the age of 33. Steve Nash didn’t become great until after age 30. People said the 2011 Mavericks were too old. All the “smart” guys said the old Spurs should break up their core when they were upset in the 1st round of the playoffs the same year, and how amazing has old man Tim Duncan been in the posthumous 5 years?

Let’s not give up on our aging pros yet – you might get dunked on!

 

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