Thursday, February 2, 2012

HEAT Check: Is Time on the Side of Miami or the Thunder?

Conventional wisdom says youth doesn't win in the NBA. Would that give the Miami HEAT an edge over the Oklahoma City Thunder if they met in the Finals?

This question was sparked by a tweet from Big Shot Ron, the only Bulls fan to ever appear on the HEATcast, and it seemed pretty relevant since the Thunder have the best record in the NBA.

Let's review the list of NBA champions in the 3-point era (1980-now) for key players under the age of 26 in the playoff rotation, i.e. the top six in minutes played for the playoffs. It seemed like it would be simple to debunk the conventional wisdom that youth doesn't win in the NBA since sports economist David Berri illustrated in the book Stumbling on Wins that the average NBA player peaks around age 24. An excerpt of his findings from the book are embedded below.

This spreadsheet lists the results of the age review for NBA champions. Surprisingly, no NBA champions had more than three players in their playoff rotation under the age of 26 and only five title teams had three players under 26:

The Oklahoma City Thunder currently have four players in their rotation that rank in the top six for minutes played this season: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The HEAT only have one: Mario Chalmers (whose basketball-reference page just so happens to be sponsored by this blog - it's chess, not checkers people). Will the HEAT's "veteran savvy" be enough to defeat the Thunder if they meet in the Finals this season? If you believe in the conventional wisdom about age, then the answer's "Yes."

Will the HEAT's "veteran savvy" be enough to build a dynasty? The two teams that won the most championships in the three-point era, the 80s Lakers and the 90s Bulls, began with a trio of players under age 26 in their playoff rotations. They also featured the best players of their eras - Magic and Michael Jordan. Magic was under 26 when he started winning titles and Jordan was 27 like LeBron James is now. The Thunder may be setup better for a dynasty than the HEAT unless they find a way to upgrade their roster with younger players like the Lakers did in the 1980s by adding Worthy, Scott and Green.

If the HEAT don't retool in the near future, then they may end up like the 80s Celtics. They won the title in 1981 with three players under age 26, but by the time they won their 2nd title in 1984 they had no players under 26 in the playoff rotation for that championship or the 1986 title run. Pat Riley wants the HEAT to be a dynasty like the 60s Celtics, that won 11 titles in 13 years and not the 80s Celtics that only won 3 titles in Bird's 13-year career. If history's any guide, then it will take some work on this current roster to get that done.


  1. no one has done it with more than 3 "Under 26's" as main guys in a rotation. Thunder has 4. that's asking a lot of a team that young. great study as always

    1. Thanks, but it's not over yet... There may be other reasons why no team has won with more than 3 players under 26, e.g. the draft makes it hard to gather that much good, young talent. Think about it, how good can the young stars be if the team's so bad it has three top 5 picks in three straight drafts? It's an interesting question to investigate...

  2. if eric maynor hadn't got hurt, he would have been a 5th guy "under 26" . 5 of your top 7 under 26 is tough

    1. Maynor only ranked 8th on OKC in playoffs minutes played last season. He only played 25 more minutes than Daequan Cook. He's not a major part of what OKC does in the big picture.