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Too old, too young, or just right in NBA?
But after examining the league's depth chart of championship variables, it's hard to believe that a chronological personnel blend is not the way to go. Reaching way back into NBA history, we find almost no title-winning teams have featured an abundance of on-court youth. The almost is in reference to the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers who started five players between the ages of 21 and 24.
Kevin Garnett was 32 when he led the Celtics to the championship. Nearly 34 now, he's not the same player.Elsa
Oh, there have been other teams that were hugely dependent upon the contributions of legitimate whipper-snappers. Recent seizure of the O'Brien Trophy was made by the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade, who -- at the tender age of 24 -- became the Finals Most Valuable Player. The same can be said of San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who took home the MVP hardware and a Hollywood TV star before any reasonable expectation of these achievements could be mustered.
So, where's the blend part come in? Well, Wade was ably assisted by Hall-of-Fame veteran Shaquille O'Neal, while Parker's heroics were terrifically abetted by another seasoned Springfield lock named Tim Duncan. Does this suggest that all title teams require an outstanding post player and a dynamic guard? Not exactly. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls brought home six championships with less than terrifying big men in the lineup. MJ, by the way, took down the Utah Jazz -- and Bryon Russell -- at the ripe age of 35 (his first title came at age 28).
Does this mean a team can win it all even when its superstar is well on his way to being venerable? Yeah, if it's Michael Jordan. Please note that Karl Malone was almost 35 and John Stockton checked in at 36 when the Utah Jazz lost to Chicago in the 1998 Finals.
It also should be noted that Duncan's championship efforts as a relative kid were abetted by an older gentleman named David Robinson. The Houston Rockets' glory years were presided over by veteran center Hakeem Olajuwon. The Showtime Los Angeles Lakers started with young Magic Johnson, not-as-young James Worthy and old guy Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. So it goes. The Boston Celtics were loaded with guys in their chronological wheelhouses (in those days generally regarded as running fom the mid-20s to, oh, 32) such as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.
Anyway, a look at NBA title teams suggests that it's good to trot out a great player or two at the height of their hardwood powers. With the exceptions of the Dennis Johnson Seattle SuperSoncis (1979) and Chauncey Billups Detroit Pistons (2004), every title team -- back-tracking to way before I started losing my hair -- has suited up at least one cinch future Hall of Famer in the prime of his career.
But exactly when does the prime begin and end? Well, with so many prevailing superstars jumping into 82-game schedules right out of high school, prime time is arriving -- and maybe ending -- a bit earlier than usual. Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, the defending Finals MVP, has had several tire rotations despite checking in at a measly 31. His professional clock began ticking shortly after prom night.
But rather than analyze the tread wear on current NBA players, let's take a look at this season's contenders and determine which squads may be too old, too young, or maybe just right.
Boston Celtics: Based on their recent struggles, the Cs are an obvious choice for this category. And while we still respect their potential to pull themselves together for a playoff beatdown or two, the uncooperative knee of Kevin Garnett (33) makes it risky to order champagne for Boston.
Just two seasons ago, the Celtics still seemed a bit creaky (in relative terms) to satisfy the in-their-prime criteria. Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had just reached the far side of individual superstar careers, but a perfect storm enabled Doc Rivers to coax them into a title surge. It certainly didn't hurt that KG had the chops and professionalism to demand a commitment to memorable defense from his teammates.
And it helped that -- in Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins -- Boston had two defensive-oriented kids defending the point of attack and rim, respectively.
Two years later, Garnett doesn't look the same, Pierce has battled injury and veteran acquisition Rasheed Wallace seems to have mistaken this NBA regular season for a spin through the local YMCA league.
San Antonio Spurs: Parker is in his chronological prime at 27, but has had injury issues this season. Duncan (33) has to be shepherded through the dog days with additional rest while Manu Ginobili's health and dedication to playing for Argentina often makes him perform older than 32.
Phoenix Suns: Amar'e Stoudemire certainly isn't ready for a rocking chair based on his driver's license, but may be close to starting a decline because of long-term effects of injury. The boost provided by second-year center Robin Lopez makes Phoenix a tougher out than expected, but Steve Nash and Grant Hill may need some rationing of playing time before the playoffs begin.
Oklahoma City Thunder: This is a team to avoid in the playoffs right now and one that will be hogging the spotlight sooner than later. But with core hotshots that probably spend their birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese, it's doubtful that OKC will have enough experience to march very long once the 2010 playoffs begin. If contractual juggling allows this bunch to grow old together, future days of Thunder should be loads of fun.
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks may be a bit old for inclusion in this group with Joe Johnson and preps-to-pros stat machine Josh Smith leading the way. Those guys, along with point guard Mike Bibby, have been around a while. With Atlanta rolling out a truly dangerous team, the biggest problem may be the lack of a true difference-making superstar (although Joe is close and may be paid like one this summer) and not its overall youth.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers certainly lean on some kids at times, but Brandon Roy, Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge aren't exactly babies. And while Roy is pretty stinkin' good, he needs to be great more often. Even when he's at full strength physically, the Blazers just don't seem to have enough talent to take down L.A., Dallas or Denver. Having a healthy defensive presence at center would make it a lot easier.
Milwaukee Bucks: Brandon Jennings still has that new-car smell, and Andrew Bogut is playing like the Portland edition of Bill Walton. But the young Bucks' inability to play into May will happen because they lack a player capable of taking over a series when the opposition knows each of their sets inside and out.
Los Angeles Lakers: A broken finger and recovery from a bum ankle have made Kobe look very much like his best days are in the rearview mirror. We'll see how much he rises to playoff occasions. Pau Gasol (29) seems to be in his prime, although he has Spanish national-team mileage, and Andrew Bynum is just a kid.
Will Derek Fisher's experience be able to hold off the effect his advancing years have had on his lateral defensive quickness? Ron Artest and Lamar Odom are 30 and still frisky enough to ride shotgun with Bryant.
Vince Carter is past his prime, while Dwight Howard probably hasn't entered his.Streeter Lecka
Orlando Magic: This team has a young superstar in Dwight Howard, an older go-to type in Vince Carter (33) and young vets to fill in around them. The big issue is Carter's reluctance to keep attacking the basket during crucial periods of big games. Perhaps falling in love with his jumper has more to do with a reduction of pop in his wheels.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James looks physically invincible at 25; it'll be interesting to see how frequent-flier miles impact one of the world's greatest athletes when he reaches 31. The Cavs surround LBJ with old-timers such as O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, while Mo Williams, Anthony Parker and J.J. Hickson look fresh enough to keep defending at a high level through the playoffs.
Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets have veteran leadership in Billups, a young superstar in Carmelo Anthony, a tempo-changing pup in Ty Lawson (when his shoulder is right) and veteran role players with enough tread left to challenge for the Western Conference crown. But will J.R. Smith and one or two other Denver players sabotage the title effort by acting more like six-year-olds?
Dallas Mavericks: The window may not be open long with Jason Kidd running the point and Shawn Marion's pogo-stick days can't go on that much longer, can they? Perhaps not, but this team is ready to roll right now and has enough in-their-prime talent to excel without absorbing big mistakes from kids.
Utah Jazz: Deron Williams (25) and Carlos Boozer lead a roster full of guys playing in their primes, but the aforementioned Western Conference teams have more players that seem to be a cut above.
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