Photo by Robert Durell/AP Photo.
Much has been made this season about the Dallas Mavericks propensity to have games go down to the wire. Opinions amongst both Mavericks fans and the national media have ranged widely. Some have said that the Mavs’ ability to win close games is one of their strengths, that their execution and performance in big moments should be looked upon as a virtue, regardless of why the game was close in the first place. Others have criticized the Mavericks for either letting a big lead slip away late or digging themselves an early hole that required a late game comeback to win. Detractors have claimed that the Mavericks may not be as good as their record indicates because luck plays a larger factor in close games, games the Mavericks have been winning. The reasoning is that in a close game, even a bad team has close to a 50-50 chance to win because each team is equally likely to catch a lucky break, swinging the game in their favor. Have the Mavericks just been having a run of good luck this season or is there another factor that may be driving the Mavs’ success in close games?
How do we find out? Young, high flying teams in the NBA are fun to watch, but how do they fare in close games compared to teams made up of experienced, savvy veterans? Could a team’s level of age and experience be a more important factor than luck when it comes to deciding a neck-and-neck game? To find out, I’ve compared a team’s age vs. their winning percentage in close games (where a close game is defined as a game that is decided by 3 points or less). Simply using a team’s average age would be misleading because many teams have young “project” players who rarely see the floor or old, in decline, veterans whose job is mainly to cheerlead from the bench. To account for this, I’ve introduced a playing time Weighted Average Age so the more time a player sees the floor, the more their age factors into the teams average age. This operates on the assumption that the more minutes a player gets, the larger their likely influence on their team’s performance in a close game. For instance 31-year old Dirk Nowitzki certainly has a larger impact on the Mavericks’ late game performance than 22-year old rookie Roddy Beaubois so instead of the two contributing an average age of 26.5, Dirk’s age is weighted more heavily due to his larger share of the available playing time.
What are the possible downsides to this particular statistical analysis? Like any statistics based analysis, it’s not perfect. For instance, the weighted average age of a team doesn’t include the experience and quality of the team’s coaching staff, whose impact on a close game is obvious in terms of the use of timeouts, play calling, and substitutions. The average also doesn’t take into account the players’ positions. It seems like having an experienced veteran point guard would be more impactful than having a veteran in a non-playmaking position.
Now let’s get to the data: All 30 NBA teams in order from oldest to youngest
Each team’s Weighted Age Average was calculated by:
WAA = [ (Player A*Minutes%A) + (Player B*Minutes%B) + etc.] / [ 5*(Minutes%A + Minutes%B + etc.) ]
Where the players include each player that played for the team at any point in the season and Min. % = the percent of total possible minutes received by that player through the entire season
* Min % data courtesy of 82games.com
The graph shows a clear trend that increasing NBA experience correlates with increased success in close games. Of the 15 oldest teams in the league by Weighted Average Age, only three teams are sub .500 in close games this season. Accordingly, of the 15 teams that make up the younger half of the NBA, only 4 teams have winning records in close games.
What does this mean for the Mavericks? Well the Mavs, already the oldest team in the NBA by simple average age, is even older when playing time is taken into account. Don’t get too upset though, because while the Mavs are significantly older than every other team, they are also the best at winning close games with a 9-2 record in games decided by 3 points or less. Why would older teams be better at winning close games? It seems self-explanatory. As players get older, they tend to improve in what is sometimes referred to as Basketball IQ (i.e. awareness of the clock/fouls/timeouts, knowing the difference between good shots and bad shots, knowing when to switch and when to stay home, etc.). In the Mavs’ case, this veteran savvy has come in the form of Jason Kidd and extends to, well, pretty much the whole team. Of the 13 players currently on the Maverick’s roster, only Barea and Beaubois have less than 6 years of NBA experience. The Mavs’ lack of young, promising, and athletic players has long been lamented by fans, however in this case it seems to have been the difference in making the Mavericks the NBA’s best team in close games.
On a related note, this is just a guess and I haven’t done the research necessary to prove it, but I’ll bet that a player’s free throw percentage tends to increase as they get older. I’ll admit that luck does play a larger factor in the final minutes of a close game when each possession is so important and the direction of a rebound could potentially swing a game, but the ability to consistently hit free throws is not based on luck. If fielding an older team rather than a younger team means having better free throw shooters on the court, fans can breathe a little easier when their veterans step to the line to ice a close game. Having said that, like any Mavericks fan knows, the Oldest-in-the-NBA Mavs are the league’s top FT shooting team as well as the league’s best in tight contests.
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of age, will being old hurt the Mavericks? It’s generally not thought of as a good thing when the two youngest players in your starting lineup (Butler and Haywood) are on the wrong side of 30 and it’s definitely not good when your 37-year old starting point guard has to play close to 40 minutes most nights. The two detriments most often linked with advancing age are increased risks of injuries and a decline in athleticism. The Mavs have been fortunate this season in that they haven’t lost any key player to a long-term injury and none of the players have shown a serious decline in athletic ability. However, to reach their ultimate goal, they’ll have to endure 4 tough 7-game series on top of the grueling 82-game regular season. How Jason Kidd’s body will hold up through the playoffs has been one of Rick Carlisle’s and Mavericks fans’ greatest concerns. And if the Mavericks’ bodies can hold up this year, how about in the years to come? How long is this team’s window? You can’t fight Father Time forever. On the bright side, the Maverick’s two most important pieces, Nowitzki and Kidd, have both been relatively durable throughout their long careers and both have styles of play that age well, meaning they’re not getting paid to throw down dunks in traffic.
What else can we glean from this data? Some interesting final assorted analysis:
- The worst 3 teams in close games among the current playoff teams are three young teams, the Bucks, Hawks, and Thunder. We’ll see if this has any effect in the playoffs when games tend to be close.
- The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic, the two favorites to represent the East in the finals, are both decidedly mortal in close games, each being one game under .500.
- The 4 best teams in close games who can be considered contenders are all seasoned teams loaded with vets who have made deep playoff runs: the Lakers, Nuggets, Celtics, and Mavs.
- Of the oldest 8 teams measured with the weighted average age, only the Washington Wizards will fail to make the playoffs. Young prospects with bright futures might get everybody excited, but it looks like it’s the old guys that will get you to the playoffs.
- Three struggling young teams are right where you would expect them to be: The Nets, Warriors, and Timberwolves have combined for only 6 wins in 30 close games, far short of the 50-50 proposition proposed by the luck factor.
- With the largest differential between average age and weighted average age, the OKC Thunder, already one of the league’s youngest teams, plays over 2 years younger, with their oldest player who receives meaningful minutes being 29-year old Nick Collison.
- With a weighted average age of nearly 31-years old, the five Dallas Mavericks on the court at any given time are on average over 4 years older than the five opponents sharing the court (NBA average: 26.8).