Numerous variables come into play when teams are trying to put together a team: accumulating individual player talent, developing a structure that fits each players best attributes, fitting the roster to fill necessary roles and then hoping that the coach/players can blend into one superb team. One characteristic every team uses as a guideline when acquiring players is age. While different teams value a player’s age (or in some cases “NBA miles,” i.e. how many games they’ve played throughout their career, which depends on college, success in their early years, etc.) to different degrees, every team wants to create a roster with a mixture of young and old.
Age matters. It’s the reason why NFL running backs are rarely signed to long-term deals after turning 30. It’s the reason why NBA teams are hesitant to throw massive contracts at a player as they enter their late 30s (unless of course you’re the Buss family, in which case you throw as much money at your aging star as possible). It’s why Dwight Howard was in hot water this offseason…
Although age is far from the end all when developing a roster, it does play a role to some degree. Like I mentioned before, how many “miles” a player has on their basketball odometer is another thing to look at. But even that doesn’t always explain why one player is breaking down at an early age (a la 32 year-old Dwyane Wade) while another is playing into their late 30s (Ray Allen for instance) is not experiencing as much of a drop-off. Father Time works on a player-to-player basis. But is there a median number for age that the past contenders have followed, or does age not come into the mix as much as we think?
When LeBron first returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the “I’m Coming Home” letter, he wrote about how winning was a process, how the team wasn’t ready to contend…yet. But with Waiters, Irving, Thompson, Bennett and Wiggins all under 25-years old, the future was incredibly bright. James could mentor the young core well into his 30s, eventually allowing one of them to succeed him as his career came to a close. The “Big 3” in Miami wasn’t unbeatable; this team would be deep, and full of young players (where the Heat played predominantly veterans players next to their stars). I was excited about the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, this first year they might not be able to compete, but the pieces were in place. Instead, the Cleveland Cavaliers made “win-now” moves, and you can’t blame them—they’re creating a contending team as fast as possible. I am a notably avid believer in the “Wiggins is the new Pippen”-campaign. Kevin Love is, and probably always will be, the better player, but he’s also a max-contract guy with a history of playing for himself (he goes for rebounding position instead of contesting shots for one). I would have rather the Cleveland Cavaliers dangled the Waiters-Thompson offer for longer, or at least waited to see Wiggins fit next to LeBron. But, at least I understood the move: you need stars to win, and the Cavs got one (or are in the process of getting one, until the 23rd). Adding some of LeBron’s buddies is understandable and expected, but they’re all on the downside of the career. Suddenly the team has an influx of elder statesmen on the roster. Were the Cleveland Cavaliers going to be too OLD to win?
If you take a look back at the last five NBA champions–the Spurs, Heat (twice), Mavericks, Lakers (twice) and Celtics–you see an obvious trend: experience. All five teams were built around a core of veteran players, either in their prime or just out of it, experienced role players and a select few young players who had varying levels of success. Here is the average age of the roster’s according to information from the Real GM website:
2013-14 Spurs: 28.5 (tied for fifth oldest age)
2012-13 Heat: 31.2 (The oldest team)
2011-12 Heat: 28.9 (tied for third oldest)
2010-11 Mavs: 29.4 (third oldest)
2009-10 Lakers: 27.7 (seventh oldest)
2008-09 Lakers: 26.1 (tied for 21st oldest)
2007-08 Celtics: 28.7 (fourth oldest)
The average age of the last seven champions (I added two seasons so there would be five different organizations involved) is 28.6 years of age. The two outliers of the group, the 2008-09 Lakers and the 2012-13 Heat, had similar aged starting lineups: the five Lakers who played the most total minutes was 28.8 (the average for the team is weighed down by a young bench featuring 21-year-old semi-starter Andrew Bynum, 22-year-old Jordan Farmar and three end-of-the-bench guys: 23-year-old Sun Yue, 23-year-old Shannon Brown and 24-year-old Adam Morrison) and the Heat five is 30.0 (thanks to a heavy dosage of 37-year-old Ray Allen and their bench being manned by 30+ year olds Shane Battier, Joel Anthony, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller, James Jones, Juwan Howard, Chris Anderson and James Jones.
Nearly every team’s average age is somewhere in the 28-29 range. A 15-man lineup (sorry for the infractions, NBA) of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao, Matthew Delladova, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, James Jones, Dwight Powell, Joe Harris and Alex Kirk, and let’s throw in Ray Allen and Shawn Marion for good luck and keep John Lucas III (presumably until another veteran big man is signed to the roster) has an average age of 28.8 at the start of the season (September/October birthdays have been updated). Unless Powell or Harris is replaced with an older veteran player, the Cleveland Cavaliers lineup will be right around the average age of past champions, and even one veteran addition will keep them in range. What does this mean? Well, nothing as of yet. But for once, the Cleveland Cavaliers are building a roster that, at least on paper, resembles that of a champion. Whether Irving or Waiters can work off the ball, if anyone will protect the rim or even if the NBA will block the Love trade (all possibilities) have yet to be seen.
Assuming you believe a team led by LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving is strong enough to compete for a championship, like David Griffin and all of Cleveland is hoping, than the fact that the average age is also in the vicinity of past contenders should only strengthen your belief. The Cleveland Cavaliers are giving up youth for Kevin Love (both Wiggins and Bennett are 21 and younger), but that doesn’t make them an “old” team. Even with the addition of LeBron-buddies Mike Miller, James Jones and Ray Allen, and betting on The Matrix signing in Cleveland, the Cavaliers are still relatively youthful. Love, Irving, Waiters and Thompson aren’t even in their prime yet, and any James-led team will be placed at the top of the totem pole of expectations, regardless of his supporting cast. After suffering through a ragtag bunch of teammates in his first go-around in Cleveland Cavaliers, James now arguably has the most talented group of teammates of his career. Will they fit? Who knows, but one thing is for sure: This time around the Cavs front office is ready to win.