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We know experience matters in the NBA, but the question ‘Why?’ lingers

Sep 15, 2012, 2:00 PM EDT

Mavericks forward Marion, guard Kidd, guard Terry and forward Nowitzki stand with the Larry O'Brien Championship trophy before their NBA basketball game in Dallas, Texas Reuters

There’s a certain contrast when it comes to how people view age in the NBA. Coaches and players like, trust in, and believe in experienced veterans, while fans like young players. Younger players represent upside and potential, the unknown, athleticism and possibility to fans. But to coaches and veterans, they represent mistakes, sloppiness, a lack of awareness and a lack of focus. Casual disarray. For coaches and veterans, players who know what they’re doing bring that savvy and knowledge, a sureness of where they’re going and what they’re doing. But to fans, they can be stagnation, and a slow drive towards basketball purgatory. So it’s all in how you look at it.

But the success of experienced teams is a legitimate thing. The 2007 Spurs, the 2008 Celtics, the 2009-2010 Lakers, the 2011 Mavericks, the 2012 Heat, all featured teams with older players who relied on that experience. They were proud of those identities. Young teams tend to be exposed in the playoffs, to the point where you’re not even sure why they lose to certain teams. They just do. It’s in small moments and little plays and poise, always poise. That’s what it seems like, at least.

The bloggers at Detroite Bad Boys did some work on age and experience and their last work of  analysis was worth sharing:

Graph 3. Wins vs Age Matrix

What does this graph show? The horizontal line is set to 33, or .500 ball over 66 games. The vertical line is set to 27, the average age of an NBA roster.

Anything interesting? If you look to the right of the vertical line you see 11 dots representing 11 teams in the NBA with rosters above the average age. Of those 11 teams only 3 teams won 33 or fewer games last season. 8 of those 11 teams made the playoffs.

The three dots furthest to the right? Those are the Mavs (oldest), Lakers (2nd), and Celtics (3rd). The Mavs average age last season was 31.3 years old making them by far the oldest team in the NBA.

via Age vs. Experience (redux) – Detroit Bad Boys.

The analysis reveals that the correlation is very weak, but the evidence is there that experience does matter. It seems obvious but the discovery of supporting evidence in a modern or recent context isn’t really the point. It’s really the question that matters.


Is it really knowing where to play? Is it toughness? Is it a mental focus or resilience? Is it how they make their cuts or defend or their size? Is it the small victories at the edges, or some sort of big moment advantage with Paul Pierce hitting monster shots?

We don’t really know. You’ve probably got your own ideas on why, and so does everyone, but there’s no real evidence to the specific answer. It continues to be a mystery but a fact. And for those teams hoping to leap to the front with a younger roster, it doesn’t bode well.


  1. redwards29a - Sep 15, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    There’s an inherent survivorship bias that it sounds like you’re missing here. Older players will tend to be better players simply because when young players don’t pan out, they wash out of the league very quickly. A guy who’s still playing in the NBA at age 30 was good enough to stick around for many years.

  2. thestudiokida - Sep 15, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    My theory is that you have to learn resilience. Losing year after year in different ways teaches you about your flaws and ideally teaches you how to bounce back after a heartbreak. Maybe after the first heartbreak it takes a whole season to bounce back, then it only takes the offseason and eventually you learn how to bounce back after only a heartbreaking loss or even a bad quarter.

    Jordan lost to the Pistons 3 straight post seasons before finally kicking their ass in 1991. LeBron lost to the Celtics twice before he learned enough resiliency to beat them in last year’s brilliant game 6 (after losing 3 straight games). I just think losing toughens a guy up… unless he’s the type of guy who folds in which case he probably isn’t in the NBA or on a winning team late in his late 20’s/early 30’s.

  3. katra2logic - Sep 15, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    ‘We know experience matters’

    Hopefully, with a little experience, the author will be able to see the obvious a little quicker…

  4. thestudiokida - Sep 15, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    My second theory involves Isiah Thomas’s The Secret. In Bill Simmons The Book of Basketball he said,

    “The art of winning is complicated by statistics, which for us becomes money. Well, you gotta fight that, find a way around it…. We got 12 guys who are totally committed to winning. Every night we found a different person to win it for us.”

    So that’s it. I’m reading The Jordan Rules now and it’s incredibly obvious that Jordan didn’t get The Secret until the 1991 playoffs when he realized that railing against his teammates wasn’t the way to a championship. Kobe has never totally grasped it although Phil Jackson helped keep him committed for long enough to win 5 championships. LeBron has always understood the secret but he still tends to take too much on himself and get down about a loss… but look out now that he has a near perfect off season under his belt. Anyways, it takes guys a while to grasp the secret. That’s why young players don’t win championships.

    • nycalldayz - Sep 15, 2012 at 7:29 PM

      You’re wrong about Kobe and Lebron. Kobe was a talent in the making that was surrounded with great players and great coaching. Lebron, like Garnett were franchise superstars, played in small markets, but never had the surrounding talent to help get them over the edge. When both Lebron and Garnett paired up with other superstars (Pierce, Wade, Allen, Bosh), then both LBJ and KG got their rings, just saying.

      But the superstars pairing in 2’s or 3’s doesn’t work for all. Take the Knicks for example. Don’t get mad Knicks fans it’s the truth. lol

  5. itsonlyaspeedbump - Sep 15, 2012 at 4:07 PM

    interesting study, although I wonder how we define “experience” ie Kevin Durant is “young” (I dont think hes more than 23) but he already has several years of playoff experience.

    I guess the question is: Would plain old talent overcome lack of experience?

  6. nycalldayz - Sep 15, 2012 at 7:17 PM

    We know experience matters in the NBA, but the question ‘Why?’ lingers.

    Veteran teams and players that’s been through playoffs runs, experiences wins and loses that better prepares them for the next upcoming seasons or post-seasons. There’s a difference between veteran players, great veterans and great teams. Over the past 7 yrs we’ve the seen great veteran teams make deep playoff runs and win championships.

    Pistions(Billups, Hamilton, Wallance, Prince)
    Spurs(Duncan, Parker, Ginobili)
    Mavs(Dirk, Terry, Kidd)
    LAL(Kobe, Gasol, Odom, Bynum, Fisher)
    BOS(Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo)
    MIA(James, Wade, Bosh)

    Since 2004, the teams listed above are the only teams that made deep playoff runs and won a championship, just saying the facts.

  7. Matthew Hunt - Sep 16, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    If you look at the chart, the younger teams have plenty of wins too…but plenty of losses, whereas the older teams don’t. So the real thing I draw from this isn’t that more experienced teams win more often…they just don’t lose as much.

  8. dysraw1 - Sep 16, 2012 at 7:29 PM

    that’s what i loved about Bird & Magic they both figured out how to be dominate early an pulled their mates right in

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