I wrote last week about the generational shift that’s about to unfold in the NBA as some of the league’s biggest names retire and their teams struggle to compensate. We’re talking Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and their contemporaries, players who have played for much of their careers on winning teams; thus, their retirements could eventually shift the power structure of the NBA.
It’s easy to see that the shift is coming; last season, of the 10 oldest (“oldest” being measured by average years of experience of players on the roster) teams, nine made the playoffs. That’s not so odd, necessarily – experience often breeds success – but with the best players on many of those teams creeping up into and past their mid-30s, a change is coming.
The effects of this shift are already apparent, in some cases, as the Celtics parted ways with Garnett and Paul Pierce this summer in an attempt to get younger and rebuild. It was the first hint of how quickly the landscape of the NBA can change; the Celtics are turning to younger players to form a new core, and who says the same won’t happen to teams like the Spurs, Heat, Mavericks and Knicks eventually?
But in the near term, the NBA’s big-name veterans are, for the most part, still playing, many at high levels. The shift hasn’t come quite yet, at least not in full force, but each summer, age and experience is redistributed around the NBA in some form. If a team’s roster stays exactly the same from year to year, its average years of experience would increases by one each summer, but in reality, even teams whose rosters are largely consistent lose a veteran and gain a rookie each year. It’s possible for teams to hover around the same level of experience year after year while relying on the same core, and teams like the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Grizzlies find themselves in such a position this summer.
Other teams get minimally older or younger, but to little effect. Look at the Lakers: they averaged 6.8 years of experience last season, and next year, that number will rise to 7.5. They were old, and they got just a little bit older, with even the amnesty of Metta World Peace not enough to counteract it. Still, next year hardly matters to the Lakers in the grand scheme of things, and a few younger players wouldn’t likely change their fate.
Or take the Clippers, who did the exact opposite, lowering their average experience from 7.7 years to 7.1. They have largely the same core, but they got Chauncey Billups off of their books and replaced him with some younger talent. They got younger, but only just, and their youth will hardly be the key to their success.
There are, however, some more major shifts in experience, especially among five teams across the league. Those shifts should see each team in a much different situation next spring than last, and largely because of the precise and calculated moves made to add or lose experienced players. Now, a look at those six teams:
Nets, average years of experience: 8.1 (+2.3 from 2012-13)
We all know the Nets got old and expensive this summer, and opinions on the efficacy of this plan run the gamut, especially because they’ll be coached by Jason Kidd, who’s barely older than many of his players. That said, the Nets were already old last season, when they won 49 games, and though they got older, this season’s old players are largely more talented than last season’s. That said, what Mikhail Prokhorov is doing looks eerily similar to what the Lakers attempted a year ago, cobbling together great players who may be over the hill, and a lot will depend on the health and endurance of this team. It’s rare to think that an already-old team getting this much older would lead to a championship, but that’s the Nets’ goal. What will unfold remains to be seen.
Celtics, average years of experience: 4.5 (-1.5 from 2012-13)
The Celtics’ youth is almost a direct result of the Nets being willing to get the Garnett and Pierce contracts off of their hands once they lost Doc Rivers and realized that the next few seasons would be an unequivocal rebuild. Boston was already slipping – it barely made it into the playoffs last spring and only did because of a relatively week Eastern Conference – but had it kept the gang together, it could have eked out an eight seed again this spring. Now, that’s not happening, and the Celtics under Brad Stevens will be a work in progress. For all we know, they could get even younger between now and the trade deadline, as well; in the trade with Brooklyn, the Celtics took on Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, two older and overpriced players that they might want to find a way to dump.
Raptors, average years of experience: 5.7 (+1.3 from 2012-13)
The Raptors had an impressive front office rebuild this summer, stealing Masai Ujiri from Denver. Almost immediately upon taking the Toronto job, Ujiri unloaded the unloadable contract of Andrea Bargnani upon the Knicks and even got something for him in return, and the team that acquired Rudy Gay last winter in the hopes of a playoff push is looking more solid than ever, especially in a relatively weaker Eastern Conference. The Raps were young last year, and they still have a core of inexperienced players, but Jonas Valanciunas is looking like he may develop into a franchise player, and the added experience of guys like Gay, Steve Novak and even Tyler Hansbrough will be a boon to the developing team.
Warriors, average years of experience: 4.7 (+1.2 from 2012-13)
Looking at the Warriors roster from last season, it’s almost shocking to see how young and successful it was. True, the team came out of nowhere last fall and eventually faded a bit, but by ending the season on such a positive note, it set a good tone for next season. Then, the Warriors swiped Andre Iguodala in free agency, giving them added defensive acumen and experience, and their young stars, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, are now a year older and more experienced. When a team is this young and already so successful, it’s kind of scary to imagine what it can do after an offseason like this one.
Rockets, average years of experience: 3.1 (+1.0 from 2012-13)
At summer league in 2012, I had a conversation with someone about the Rockets’ roster, which at the time featured about 20 players with little to no NBA experience. Everyone knew Daryl Morey was poised for some genius rebuild, but it still seemed dicey; this was months before the James Harden trade reshaped everything. Even then, though, the Rockets were still relative babies, with their average years of experience last season a whopping 2.1. By adding Dwight Howard, the team got its second star to pair with Harden, and even though it had to shed some of its youth to do so, it’s still remarkably young. Whether Houston is a contender next season remains to be seen, but considering what it did despite its youth last season, it’s hard to imagine this team doing anything but getting incrementally better each season in the coming years.
A few other notes on experience:
– For all the calculations of last season’s average years of experience, I included every player that was on a team’s roster, including guys signed in the middle of the season or acquired in trades. The numbers for this season are calculated using the best approximation of what each team’s opening night roster will look like, but they’re obviously subject to change. That said, the change shouldn’t be too dramatic; for every young player signed to a 10-day deal throughout the season, there’s a 30-year-old veteran signed to the minimum that likely balances him out.
– For all that’s made of how old the Spurs are – and they are – the team as a whole ranked 10th in average years of experience last season. With Manu Ginobili as its sixth man and Duncan and Tony Parker the only “old” players in its starting five, San Antonio is quietly replacing a new, young core with the one it’s employed for years. Sure, it’ll be a big deal when Duncan, Ginobili and Parker retire, but Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green may go a long way in filling that void and attracting new talent to assist them.
– Last season, the Heat were the second-oldest team in the league in terms of experience, with their players averaging 7.8 years. Dwyane Wade’s knee problems in the playoffs may hint at a future issue for the team, but much of its age came from its reserves, and its core of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – all of whom have 10 years of experience going into next season – should be a viable one for the next few seasons if it chooses to remain intact.
– To no one’s surprise, the Knicks averaged 8.5 years of experience last season, and they were in reality even older than that number might suggest. Using experience rather than age to measure a team’s age can be helpful in that it accounts for the fact that some players come in after one year of college and others after four, and the NBA is a much more grueling job than playing in college. However, in the case of the Knicks, it fails, because the team’s two rookies, Pablo Prigioni and Chris Copeland, were 35 and 28, respectively, when the season began.
– It can be even more interesting to look at the average years of experience of a team’s most-used five-man unit, and in that respect, the Lakers were the NBA’s oldest team last season. Their most-used lineup of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Dwight Howard and Earl Clark – which doesn’t even include 33-year-old Pau Gasol – averaged 11.2 years of experience. Along those same lines, the Celtics were also much older than they might have appeared; although the team as a whole averaged 6.0 years of experience, its most-used lineup averaged 8.8. Same with the Mavericks, whose most-used lineup averaged 9.4 years of experience to the team’s overall 6.2.