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.
@MIA_Heat_Index @UptownReport there is not a lot seperation in the westand i still dont trust OKC, too many guys under 26 for me
— Big Shot Ron (@bigshotron) February 1, 2012
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:
- 1980 Lakers: Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper
- 1981 Celtics: Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale
- 1985 Lakers: Magic, James Worthy and Byron Scott
- 1987 Lakers: Worthy, Scott and A.C. Green
- 1991 Bulls: Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong
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.