This year’s NBA playoffs provide a stern challenge to the conventional NBA wisdom that youth, sooner or later, crack under the weight of the intense media scrutiny and high fan expectations, and that the veterans will come out ahead.
I’ve always doubted the conventional wisdom, and not just because it’s what I do for a living. I figured that standout athletes are elite players precisely because they can handle whatever intense scrutiny and pressure that has been handed to them since grade school.
Last month, a study by Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus took on the debate once and for all. In his study, Pelton found that there was more merit to the conventional wisdom than I would have guessed. Pelton developed a much needed metric called effective age, which measures a team’s age by the age of the players on the floor, rather than the players on the roster, a crucial distinction since many teams have either a geezer or a youngster sitting at the end of their bench functioning as the highest paid cheerleader in the organization.
Pelton’s findings were that the best teams typically had a large number of players at their peak ages (typically 27-31). Older teams did OK, and younger teams tended to struggle. He added the extenuating factor that most young teams are in the early stages of a rebuilding project while most elite teams add veterans to their rotation for the stretch run making their effective age older.
What motivated Pelton’s study was an interest in how the Portland Trail Blazers would do in this year’s playoffs. By far and away, the most successful young team in his study was this year’s Blazers, who had an effective age of 24.5 and were sporting an impressive .600 winning percentage at the time. The Blazers were one of the five youngest teams in the league and at that point, the others—the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls—all appeared to be going nowhere fast.
As you probably know, the Bulls (effective age of 25.3) got it turned around just in time. They won 12 of their last 16 and entered the playoffs as a tough team to beat in the first round. So far, they are living up to their billing and doing it with style. Sunday afternoon’s dramatic 121-118 double overtime by the Chicago Bulls over the Boston Celtics, Chicago’s second overtime win of the series, suggests that this series may well become a referendum on youth vs. experience. So far the balance is tilting toward youth.
The defending champion Celtics have gotten up and down performances from their veteran leaders. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have been led by 23-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo, who is averaging a triple double—23.3 points, 10 assists and 10.3 rebounds—in the playoffs.
Rondo’s counterpart, 20-year-old Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, has shown more of the foibles of youth, committing seven turnovers in Games 3 and 4, but in Sunday’s win, he offset his giveaways with a spectacular 23-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist effort, which included 12 points in a tight fourth quarter. The Bulls’ starting five features three players 24 or younger, but with the exception of a Game 3 blowout, the team hasn’t looked cowed by the pressure. Their veteran players missed key free throws on Sunday, yet the team won anyway.
Conventional wisdom says that Boston will rely on its experience and win the series, but the conventional wisdom is taking a beatdown right about now. Should the Celtics prevail, it may well be because of their youngsters—Rondo and 23-year-old forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis—rather than their veteran moxie.
Meanwhile the Trail Blazers aren’t faring as well. Like Chicago, the Blazers lost a blowout in their first home playoff game, looking tight and confused, but unlike Chicago, the Blazers failed to execute down the stretch on the road and now face a three-games-to-one deficit in their series against the Houston Rockets. Portland got into this hole by losing two close games this weekend in Houston, 86-83 on Friday night and 89-88 on Sunday night. Both losses were due to subtle but costly mistakes. In each game, the Blazers failed to crash the boards—a Portland strength during the regular season—leading to numerous second-chance opportunities for Houston; on Sunday, offensive rebounds enabled the Rockets to overcome a six-point deficit. In a slow-paced series, limiting offensive rebounds is a key. A more glaring problem was that in the waning seconds of both games, the Blazers took the first available three-point heave possible rather than working the ball for a good shot.
Both of these series have featured one blowout and three nail bitingly close games. However, as much as the conventional wisdom is teetering in the Eastern Conference, it looks alive and well in the West. If the Bulls complete their surprising upset of the Celtics, it will be easy to see it as an exception. Only an astonishing Blazers comeback will start shifting the paradigm on age and pressure in basketball.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.