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Old man game is winning in the NBA

Feb 2, 2011, 6:54 PM EDT

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Getty Images

In the NBA — like in society at large — we have this fascination with youth. Blake Griffin is a YouTube sensation. We all fall in love with the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder. Fans obsess over draft picks.

But what about the other end of the spectrum — who are the oldest teams in the NBA this season?

The Miami Heat top the list at an average age of 31.32 (all those older veteran minimum deals to put around their big three cause that). Followed by the Lakers (29.98), Mavericks (29.47), Nuggets (29.09), Celtics (28.69), Magic (28.44) and Spurs (28.42).

You know what else that is? A list of every NBA title contender. And Denver.

If you use a team’s “effective age” — weight age by playing time as they did at Hoopism — your oldest teams are Mavericks (31.75), Lakers (30.87), Celtics (30.48), Suns (30.27), Spurs (29.62) and Heat (29.55). Shows you that the Suns have some serious long-term issues, but doesn’t change much else. The best teams are still some of the oldest teams.

Coincidence?

No.

We get pumped about the athletes that can leap out of the building, but at the end of the playoffs, it’s often teams with old man game that are left standing. If you just asked what “old man game” is you’ve never played pickup against that 45-year-old guy who looks slow but always makes the right pass, seems to know where the ball is going to be and never misses the midrange shot. He’s the least athletic guy on the court, and his team keeps winning.

Not that (to use last year’s example) the Lakers and Celtics don’t have some quality athletes, but is Paul Pierce really a guy you just look and think he can create space and never misses a 17-foot fadeaway? Do you look at Pau Gasol standing there and think he’s one of the hardest bigs to defend the game? Yet those are the kind of guys — them and the Tim Duncans and Manu Ginobilis — that are left standing when all is said and done.

This is not something new. Kevin Pelton studied the numbers at Basketball Prospectus two years ago and found those older teams tend to be better at both ends of the floor (and he went back to 1980). That veteran savvy on the defensive end and knowing how to get the shots they want on offense tends to offset any loss of athleticism. Older teams tend to be more efficient teams. There is no perfect correlation (there never is in the real world) but the fact is older teams tend to win more and have for three decades.

This doesn’t mean you go out and drop a 40-year-old on the Cavs roster they start winning, but rather if you combine a handful of good veterans — sometimes as role players, sometimes as key cogs — the sum may be greater than the individual parts. Those older teams just know how to play the game at the NBA level.

I have one other theory as to why. The average NBA career is about four years (the number has decreased in recent years). If you have a veteran team — this season’s Spurs, Celtics and Lakers — you have a lot of players who have played well beyond that average. Why? Because they are better players. The reason a guy lasts 10 years in the NBA is because he can ball. Get enough of those guys together and, even though they’re older, they can win together.

The risk is always injuries — those older bodies breaking down. It’s happened to the Spurs and Celtics in recent years.

So far this season though those older teams are by-and-large staying healthy and as a result they make up the list of contenders (maybe Chicago skews the graph, but they have to prove they can hang in the playoffs still).

Those veteran teams have adjusted. Tim Duncan has taken a back seat to more Tony Parker and Ginobili being the hub of the San Antonio offense. Rajon Rondo sets the table for those older guys to do their thing in Boston. The veterans were willing to give up something to get what they really want — wins. And a shot at a ring.

So enjoy Griffin and Durant. Watch Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins start to figure it out in Sacramento. Love Derrick Rose.

But know, when you’re watching the NBA in June, it will be some old-man game.

  1. mustbenugs - Feb 2, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    kurt, all your nuggets hate is getting pretty old, old man.

  2. mustbenugs - Feb 2, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    you and florio should dig holes and live in them, because it seems like with your reporting thats what you already do.

  3. bceltics1010 - Feb 3, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    GO CELTICS!!!!

  4. cade022 - Feb 3, 2011 at 12:40 PM

    Kurt – great article – something to show my boys who are still drawn to the “flash” in the game. Don’t mind those negative commenters whose glass is half-empty.

    Thanks!

  5. nyhilly - Feb 5, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    Knicks need one of those cagey geezers in the paint. Then we can calm all this melo hysteria.

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