There was a lot that was made before the 2011-2012 season started about the challenge the condensed schedule would pose to the NBA’s older teams. Because of the lockout, teams were asked to play 66 games in just four months, including 42 back-to-back-to-back sets, a challenge more commonly asked of baseball teams. Pundits predicted the abbreviated schedule would cause more injuries, create a lesser product because of the lack of training camp and reduced practice time (this one might be true), and that older teams would struggle to keep their players on the floor, and therefore, have a harder time competing. Now that the regular season has ended, we know who has made the playoffs and if you take a step back to consider how different the schedule was this year, it’s pretty remarkable how things have unfolded.
Team: Average Age: Age Ranking (1=Oldest Team)
- Chicago Bulls 27.99 9
- Miami Heat 28.63 6
- Indiana Pacers 27.09 15
- Boston Celtics 28.99 4
- Atlanta Hawks 29.54 2
- Orlando Magic 28.01 8
- New York Knicks 26.27 21
- Philadelphia 76ers 26.34 20
- San Antonio Spurs 27.29 13
- Oklahoma City Thunder 25.8 24
- Los Angeles Lakers 29.48 3
- Los Angeles Clippers 27.74 10
- Memphis Grizzlies 26.78 17
- Denver Nuggets 27.16 14
- Dallas Mavericks 30.33 1
- Utah Jazz 26.61 18
Phoenix Suns 28.82 5
Eight of the ten oldest teams in the leagues made the playoffs, and the Phoenix Suns (the league’s fifth oldest team) juuuuust missed it. If you look back at the last fifteen years in the NBA (actually if you look at the entire history of the NBA), there’s nothing unusual about veteran teams succeeding and younger teams struggling. This year was no different. Here are the bottom four teams in each division:
Team: Average Age: Age Ranking (1=Oldest Team)
- Toronto Raptors 27.49 11
- Cleveland Cavaliers 25.86 23
- Washington Wizards 25.02 28
- Charlotte Bobcats 25.64 25
- Minnesota Timberwolves 24.74 29
- Golden State Warriors 25.43 27
- Sacramento Kings 24.69 30
- New Orleans Hornets 26.43 19
So, NBA experience and, more importantly, experience playing together leads to success – not exactly a bold statement, but it’s not a formula either. The hardest thing for a team to do is to keep winning while transitioning from one group of core players to another, and the responsibility to recognize when an aging corps of players needs to be phased out falls on the team’s front office and coaching staff. What’s strange about this season is it seems like the teams that were in the process of phasing out their older stars (the Celtics, Spurs, Lakers), through either trades or reducing their importance in the offense, put that strategy on the shelf during this condensed season.
It’s yet to see whether this shortened season will benefit the younger, more athletic teams in the postseason. It would certainly be a nice change of pace to see a Pacers–Thunder championship, rather than a Heat–Lakers one. However, this is not a playoff preview. We’re going to take a handful of NBA teams and see how much their age and experience contributed to their success this season, and how it will affect them moving forward.
The Toronto Raptors should be terrified. The eleventh oldest team in the league finished in 12th place in their conference. A franchise can convince their fan base that a poor record is a byproduct of rebuilding, and rebuilding is all about finding young centerpieces to fill the team around (see: the Chicago Bulls). The Cavs have Kyrie Irving, the Wizards have John Wall, the Warriors have Steph Curry, the Kings have Demarcus Cousins, the Timberwolves have Rubio and Kevin Love, the Raptors have….Demar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani? DeRozan is a wing player who averaged more highlight dunks than he averaged quality basketball plays (you want your franchise wing player to average more than 3.3 rebounds, and you’d prefer him to shoot more than 26% from three). The Raptors franchise center, Andrea Bargnani, averaged 5.5 rebounds a game and 0.5 blocks a game, an unfortunate sacrifice fans have justified in the past because he’s such a good perimeter shooter…until this year when he shot 29% from three. It’s hard to figure out what Bryan Colangelo and the Raptors front office is doing. I would be saying the same thing about the historically awful Charlotte Bobcats, whose boast the league’s most hilarious top two scorers – Gerald Henderson and Corey Maggette, but the Bobcats have at least positioned themselves (with seven wins) to have the league’s best shot at Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, a pick even Michael Jordan can’t screw up.
The Minnesota Timberwolves record is misleading. The last month has been horrific for the Timberwolves. They’ve lost 12 out of their last 13, they lost Kevin Love for the rest of the season with a concussion, normal-sized human J.J. Barrea called out the rest of the team for not caring, and most importantly, their tanking won’t even lead to a high draft pick since they traded it to the Clippers for Marko Jaric (the world’s most inexplicably lucky man) a billion years ago (a pick the Hornets now own). Still, the Timberwolves have a lot to feel good about:
-Kevin Love averaged 26 and 13 and has become one of the most marketable players in the league. The Wolves messed up by not locking him up for as long as possible, but they’ll have at least three more years before he goes to Los Angeles.
-Ricky Rubio, The Computer Newspaper’s second favorite person in the world (her) had led the Wolves to a .500 record in the 40 games he played in before going down with injury. Even with two completely competent point guards taking his place (Ridnour and Barrea), it quickly became clear how special Rubio is as his absence showed how few players on the Wolves are capable of creating their own shot (other than Michael Beasley, who spent most of the season in time-out). Although he’s a much worse shooter than both Steve Nash and Chris Paul, I can’t imagine a healthy Rubio team will ever finish under .500 again, much like Nash and Paul.
-In early 2012 Nikola Pekovic decided to leave the cast of Game of Thrones and become one of the league’s few legitimate centers. In February he averaged 20 and 10, and though his season was cut short by injury, he ended the season averaged 13 and 7 and shot 56% from the floor.
-Derrick Williams showed glimpses of what kind of player he’s going to be. Next season he’ll have the entire offseason and training camp to figure out how NBA offenses work and should be able to earn playing time over the likes of Anthony Tolliver, Anthony Randolph, and Darko Milicic (which he struggled to do this year).
-The Timberwolves have a draft pick! Because Al Jefferson led the Utah Jazz to beat the Suns on Tuesday and earned a playoff berth, they send their protected 2012 pick to the Timberwolves, ironically as part of the Al Jefferson trade. It won’t be a lottery pick, but they should be able to address their need for a decent shooting guard (which Wesley Johnson is not).
The Phoenix Suns did not make the playoffs, but it’s incredible how close they came considering how…well, shitty, most of their team is. Their leading scorer, Marcin Gortat, averaged 15 points a game. Their starting lineup (other than Nash and Grant Hill) is made up of career bench players. Channing Frye and Sebastian Telfair logged serious minutes. Still, the Suns overcame a 14-20 record at the All Star Game, finished over .500 again and came within one win from making the playoffs (a game that their starting power forward and small forward missed with injury). So how did they do it? Well, Steve Nash. The oldest starting point guard in the NBA finished second in the league in assists, shot a career best 53% from the floor, and was one of the league leaders in both three point and free throw percentages. No one capitalizes on the skills of his teammates like Nash does, even when those skills are limited. 13 players on the Suns logged over 13 minutes a game and 6 averaged more than 10 points a game (the Thunder had 3). On how the Suns managed to turn things around this season, the ever-humble Nash said “We’re greater than the sum of our parts. And, as a team, that’s all you can ask.” Grant Hill resurrected his career with the Suns as a defensive stopper and mid-range scorer, and most impressively, has become a reliably healthy NBA basketball player. It’s remarkable that the Suns were able to do as well as they did this season and it’s a shame that they didn’t make the playoffs, because it will likely be a while before they get there again. The Suns two best players are 37 and 39, and this should deeply concern their fans, since they’ll both probably be on different teams next year.
The San Antonio Spurs share the league’s best record with the Chicago Bulls, a feat that has surprised everyone considering their age, recent decline, and condensed schedule. Tim Duncan is no longer one of the top power forwards in the league, Manu Ginobili once again had trouble staying on the floor and averaged only 12.9 points a game, and their fourth highest scorer was Gary Neal. So how were they able to win three times as many games as they lost? Well, it became clear that Tony Parker is one of the top ten players in the league (though he’s gotta be one of the shittiest people in the league after sleeping with his teammates wife), and Gregg Popovich has proven once again that he is one of the smartest basketball minds the sport has ever had. The Spurs teams of past relied on defense and half court offense to win, this year they just outscored everyone. The Spurs averaged 103.5 points per game, good for second in the league behind the (much younger and faster) Denver Nuggets. Like Nash, Popovich’s greatest gift is that he’s able to recognize what his players do well, and finds ways to get the most out of those abilities. Would Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, and Tiago Splitter be logging serious playing time for any other NBA contender? Would Patty Mills and Danny Green still be in the league if they hadn’t come to the Spurs? Did anyone think that Stephen Jackson would log another relevant NBA minute? It’s hard to imagine any other coach in the league has as much impact on his team as Gregg Popovich.
Both The Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls aren’t as old as their average age suggests. They’ve both filled in their rosters around their superstars. The average age of the Miami Heat starting five is 27.8, but with only-sometimes contributors Shane Battier, Eddy Curry, and Juwan Howard (leftover from the Greatest Generation) coming off the bench, their average age is a bit misleading. The Bulls have one of the most balanced rosters in the league, evidenced by their league leading record despite losing their best player for a third of the season. Their young core (Rose, Noah, Gibson, even Deng who is still surprisingly young) is supplemented by veterans who still do one thing well (mostly they shoot well, which their young players don’t). It’s better to rely on your old players who shoot than old players who have an NBA skill that doesn’t age as well, like rebounding, athleticism, or speed. Let’s not forget this is a team that lost its best player (and reigning MVP) for 39 games, and still finished tied for the best record in the league. Would the Heat have won 46 games without Lebron? Would the Thunder have won 49 games without Durant? Both the Thunder and the Heat have other superstars on their teams, the Bulls’ second highest contract belongs to Carlos Boozer, who might be the second best power forward on their roster. They’re balanced, they play defense, and have one of the top three or four players in the league. Most championship teams in NBA history have won using that formula.
Earlier this season, the Lakers got rid of Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher, the Mavs have positioned themselves to get either Dwight Howard or (and) Deron Williams, and the Hawks have changed…well nothing. The Celtics had an opportunity to trade Ray Allen for O.J. Mayo and a 2012 pick and didn’t take it, which slightly improves their chances of winning this year while missing an opportunity to get younger moving forward. Though this year proved to be much less different than previous years than we might have expected (14 out of the 16 teams in the playoffs last year are back this go-round), it does seem as if we’re close to a change of guard. In the past fourteen years, only the Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Pistons, Heat, and Mavs have won the title, and without drastically changing their rosters, it’s hard to imagine that in the next few years, we won’t add another team or two to that list.