Friday, March 08, 2013

Effective Age Snapshot: Heat Would Be Among Oldest NBA Champs, Thunder Still Among Youngest

Today, we're examining the "effective age" numbers for this season's top NBA teams. Effective age is a metric used by ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton to measure a team's average age, but weighted by minutes played, rather than a straight average (which artificially inflates the average number for a team like New York, for example, if senior citizens like Marcus Camby (38) and Kurt Thomas (40) are given the same weight as heavy-minutes players such as Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Ray Felton (all under 30)).

Below, we offer the effective ages of the top eight NBA teams currently. (Note that we based our calculations on Basketball-Reference's rounded age number, set to the player's age on February 1 of a given season.)
    Effective Age, 2012-13 NYK 30.26 MIA 30.11 SAS 28.80 LAC 28.77 MEM 26.86 DEN 26.11 OKC 25.92 IND 25.77
(As an addendum, the Lakers stand even older than the Knicks, at 30.69.)

Based on their current effective age number, the Heat would rank as the sixth-oldest champion in 67 NBA seasons if they were to repeat in June. Here are the top 10 oldest NBA champions:
    YEAR TEAM eAGE 1998 CHI 31.7 2011 DAL 30.9 1997 CHI 30.7 1969 BOS 30.5 2007 SAS 30.4 1999 SAS 30.1 1996 CHI 29.9 1990 DET 29.5 1972 LAL 29.5 1968 BOS 29.5
The Heat have gotten markedly older in 2012-13. Here is their progression in the LeBron Era:
    2010-11: 28.99 2011-12: 28.27 2012-13: 30.11
In 2011, we plotted out the effective ages for every NBA champion. Miami's 28.3 mark last season put them around 27th of 66, pretty squarely in the middle of the pack, considering that NBA ages have gone up as enhancements in salary, training and medicine have allowed players to play longer.

Now, the Heat have quickly become one of the oldest NBA contenders. Of course, a major reason behind this increase is the big transfer of minutes from Joel Anthony (29 last season) to Ray Allen (37). [Note: all ages in this post will be the Basketball-Reference Feb. 1 number.] But the Heat have also done very little to replenish their supporting cast with youth, mainly choosing to roll over the roster with everyone getting a year older. There are several thirtysomethings, and the only two rotation players younger than 28 are Mario Chalmers (26) and one of the worst rotation players in the league, Norris Cole (24).

Should this be a cause for concern for Miami's title chances in 2013? As the Heat roll through the league on their current 16-game winning streak, with their offense reaching near-historic levels, we'd definitely say no. They're still well within the range of other champions, and it's not unreasonable to think that teams might continue to get a little older as players continue to play longer.

But going forward, the birth certificates have to be a little troubling for Heat fans. Take another look at that list of oldest champions above. A couple of those teams ('98 Bulls and '69 Celtics) were (legendarily) at the very end of the line, and a couple ('11 Mavs and '69 Celtics again) were, shall we say, rather fortunate title-winners.

The Heat are likely committed (there are various player options and potential for retirements) to geezers like Allen (37), Shane Battier (34) and Rashard Lewis (33) through 2014, and Mike Miller (32), Udonis Haslem (32) and Joel Anthony (30) through 2015. Not to mention, a player who provides Miami with vital athleticism, Dwyane Wade, is also 31.


Given the way the Pacers have played over the last three months (28-12 after a 10-11 start), especially on the defensive end, they are an increasingly intriguing darkhorse challenger to the Eastern throne in 2013, though the Heat are still heavy favorites.

But what's striking for the future is that Indiana has quietly become an even younger team than the famously youthful Thunder (though Lance Stephenson (22) filling in for an injured Danny Granger (29) for several months does probably drive the number especially low). If the Pacers can keep their core together, they appear to be a team poised for improvement, while Miami is danger of decline. Lots can happen to shake things up on the offseason movement carousel, but it's something to watch going forward.


Now compare Miami's approach to that of San Antonio, which has gone through this three-year age progression:
    2010-11: 28.80 2011-12: 27.52 2012-13: 28.80
It's possibly surprising that the Spurs are younger than the Heat overall, given that the headliners in S.A. are the aged Big 3 of Duncan (36), Ginobili (35) and Parker (30). But San Antonio has done a fine job of filling in the gaps with under-30s like Kawhi Leonard (21), Tiago Splitter (28), Danny Green (25) and Gary Neal (28).

In fact, when looking back on the 2012 Western Conference Finals with Bill Simmons, Tony Parker suggested that a problem for the Spurs might have been that they were too young rather than too old, given that Leonard and Green were both in their first seasons of NBA playing time. Indeed, it's conceivable that a Heat-Spurs Finals could well be decided by whether the likes of Allen, Battier and Haslem are still spry enough to keep up with Leonard, Splitter and Green.


On the other end of the spectrum, Oklahoma City (at 25.92) is still in line to be one of the very youngest NBA champs ever. Here are the top 10 youngest:
    YEAR TEAM eAGE 1977 POR 24.5 1950 MIN 25.1* 1949 MIN 25.7* 1956 PHW 25.7 1947 PHW 25.8* 1952 MIN 25.8 1975 GSW 25.8 1955 SYR 26.1 1971 MIL 26.1 1980 LAL 26.2
* Effective age weighted by points rather than minutes

Given how early careers ended in the NBA's pioneer days, this year's Thunder would essentially be the third-youngest NBA champion behind the '77 Blazers and '75 Warriors.

Meanwhile, here is the Thunder's three-year age progression:
    2010-11: 23.74 2011-12: 25.10 2012-13: 25.92
We're surprised that OKC's number didn't go even higher, given the James Harden (22 last season) for Kevin Martin (29) trade. But Serge Ibaka (23) has stepped into a larger role, and minutes from the likes of Derek Fisher (37 last season) and Nazr Muhammad (34) have been transferred to Reggie Jackson (21) and Hasheem Thabeet (25).

It would still be a truly remarkable accomplishment if the Thunder were to win with such a young team, especially as NBA ages seem to go up, and especially with a nucleus that's just 24 (Kevin Durant), 24 (Russell Westbrook), and 23 (Serge Ibaka).


One last note before we go. One of our favorite tidbits from the full list of champion ages is this progression of five consecutive championships during the heart of the Celtics dynasty:
    YEAR TEAM eAGE 1961 BOS 28.3 1962 BOS 28.0 1963 BOS 28.3 1964 BOS 28.4 1965 BOS 28.3
Red Auerbach was able to keep the team at essentially the same age, right in the sweet spot for championship effective age, for five straight seasons! Really a pretty amazing job of shifting roles gradually, as both coach and GM, especially given that it was a pre-free agency era.

We'll see if the Heat come to regret not finding ways to similarly infuse new sources of youth into their rotation.