Age Of Ascent: Is The NBA Younger Than Ever?

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 23: Jason Kidd #2 of the Dallas Mavericks passes the ball as he is guarded by Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the fourth quarter in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Oklahoma City Arena on May 23, 2011 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Is the top of the NBA younger than ever before? The Hook investigates. Plus, why David Stern would never bother himself with caddying for the NCAA (unlike Roger Goodell).

As we consider who will rule the NBA in 2015, something that Mike Prada said in defense of his choice of a number of current high school players was that the NBA is "a young league." He pointed out that the 2011 scoring champ and MVP -- Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose -- are both 22 years old. If the form holds, that'd mean that the potential 2015-06 scoring champ and MVP would be entering college as freshman ... right now. Four years is an eternity when you think about it that way.

But is the NBA a young league compared to seasons past? There are a few ways to look at it. While we could compare the league's weighted average age over time, that doesn't give us a real indication of the quality of the NBA's youth at any given point; teams will always play young, unproductive players over older ones thanks to lust for the sirens Potential and Upside. Especially now in the age of the era-long rebuild projects, it's hard to tell if all of the league's youth deserves its minutes.

I decided to look at three discreet processions of age since 1961: that of the first team All-NBA, that of the top five picks in the NBA Draft and that of the NBA champions. (This one is an average weighted by minutes played.) Has the All-NBA team gotten younger over the years? What about the top of the draft? Those who hold the O'Brien?

Again, because of data issues, I just pulled the numbers for every fifth year, beginning with 1961. That makes this project less a study than a glimpse at the topic. Here are the results.


The procession for first team All-NBA is interesting: it's certainly looked younger in the observed years over the decade than it had over the previous three. But it's not unprecedented: the average age of the All-NBA teams of the 60s -- starring Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain, among others -- were rather low, too. The 1966 All-NBA team had an average age of 25.8, with a 21-year-old Rick Barry the youngest and no one older than Wilt's 29. The 2011 All-NBA team featured two 22-year-olds in Durant and Rose, which made Dwight Howard only the third youngest honoree. The average age of the team in 2011 was 25.4.

So while having such a young All-NBA team isn't the norm, it's not exactly without precedent.

The average age of NBA champs is an interesting consideration; a glimpse at the almost random sampling we took shows that, if anything, it's becoming an old man's league as the last four titles we looked at -- 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 -- were won by the oldest four teams we plucked. (It'd be even more apparent if we'd seen the Spurs pop up. In fairness, the Celtics of the late '60s only pop up once; they were old, too.) Even the Miami Heat were older than you think in 2011: the Heat had an average age of 28.9 years old, weighted for minutes. Long live Juwan Howard. (No seriously, he's living a long time.)

The top five draft picks don't represent quality in any given year, but do serve a purpose as a proxy of hope. What age do the most cherished proxies hold in our look over the past 50 years? Unsurprisingly, that figure has sunk over time. In the '60s, the top picks were almost always four-year collegiates, aged 22 or 23. In the '70s, a few underclassmen -- 21 years old, maybe 20 -- were sprinkled in. In the '80s, those underclassmen were sprinkled in more liberally. In '90s, all hell broke loose as Kevin Garnett sparked the return of the preps-to-pros regime. 2001 happened to be the pinnacle of that movement. Things reverted a bit in 2006 thanks to the age minimum, but we're clearly across the Rubicon. 

I wanted to take one more look at the "age" of the NBA right now, specifically what age most of the current players are. But instead of just counting up all of the 23-, 24-, and 25-year-olds, I thought it'd be more informative to look at how minutes were allotted by age. How many minutes were soaked up by all of the 23-year-olds in the NBA? The 30-year-olds? Here's that result for the 2010-11 season.


It's a normal distribution with a short tail on the young end and a longer tail at the old end. There are some peculiarities -- what's wrong with all of the 27-year-olds? -- but it makes logical sense and shows the relative youth of the league, as Prada was discussing. The minutes-weighted average age of the league last year was 26.6 years old. A decade ago, in 2001, the average age was 27.7. Is that a sea change or just normal variation? Without looking at a more robust data set, it's unclear. But it's something interesting.



David Stern is reputed as a control freak who oversteps his bounds to maintain his vision for the league. But considering Roger Goodell, I think we have the wrong man accused. I have no intimate knowledge of how Stern runs his ship in the micro sense; my familiarity with Goodell as an actual boss is even more vague. But in the wide view, Stern at least has some humility and smarts about his position as commissioner of the top basketball league in the world. Goodell, on the other hand, has no filter for executing his power.

The latest from Goodell is that the Colts suspended new assistant coach Jim Tressel for six weeks; no one believes for a second that the commissioner's office wasn't deeply involved in handing down this punishment. You see, Tressel left Ohio State amid a scandal that probably wrecked a few future bowl bids. Tressel's quarterback Terrelle Pryor left, too. Only Goodell, before there was any news that the Colts would hire Tressel, suspended Pryor the five games he would have been suspended had he returned to the Buckeyes. The explanation: Pryor entered the supplemental draft only after being hit with the suspension; the NFL does not want the supplemental draft to become an underground railroad for penalized ... OK, bad metaphor. Ahem. The NFL does not want the supplmental draft to become a backdoor entrance for penalized college players. So Goodell decided to enforce NCAA penalties on Pryor.

Unfortunately for the commish, that posed a problem when Tressel came knockin'. Do you ignore the hire and risk being called a hypocrite who will punish young black athletes who break the rules but not middle-aged sweater vests who do the same? Or do you match absurdity with absurdity and tell the Colts to throw their new assistant coach into a proverbial holding cell? What Would Stern Do?

David Stern wouldn't have gotten himself into this mess in the first place. While Goodell is busy cleaning up after the NCAA infractions committee, Stern is busy not giving a flying flownozzle what happens in the college ranks. The NBA, in fact, has become a bit of a temple for disgraced college coaches. Dwane Casey is again a head coach after long-forgotten infractions involving envelopes of cash at Kentucky. Quin Snyder has a seat next to Tom Hanks on the Lakers' bench after extended rumors of impropriety back at Missouri. Kelvin Sampson, who earned a five-year show-cause at Indiana, was hired by the Rockets as an assistant. After leaving USC in absolute scandal, Tim Floyd almost immediately popped up on the New Orleans Hornets' bench to help old friend Jeff Bower.

You know what David Stern did about all of those touchy situations? Not one damn thing, because NCAA regulations do not matter at all outside of the NCAA.

That's Goodell's problem. He's not a bad human being or made of hate. He's just afflicted with the terrible disease of thinking NCAA regulations are actually important. They are not ... especially if you're the NFL or NBA. For Goodell and Stern, there's no reason to pay any mind to them. Only one of the commissioners recognizes that.


The Hook runs Monday through Friday. See the archives.

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