Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
It’s usually a given that some level of experience is required for success in the NBA. Teams need to “learn how to win together,” or they need to fill out their roster with “guys who’ve been there before.” Teams go about acquiring this experience in a variety of ways. Sam Presti put together a team of talented young players in Oklahoma City and then patiently waited for them to gather experience as a unit. The Chicago Bulls chased down solid veteran contributors like Carlos Boozer and Kurt Thomas to utilize their experience on the floor. The Indiana Pacers have been willing to pay James Posey, even though he’s barely played in months. The idea is that his knowledge is shared in the locker room, on the bench during games, and in practice.
While age and experience are considered essential components (in some quantity) to a successful team, no one wants to overdo it. It’s a long season, and fresh legs and youthful energy are also required for playoff success. Each team, the Dallas Mavericks included, create their own unique recipe for mixing these two elements.
Earlier this year, Hoopism took a look at the relative age of each NBA team. The Mavericks had the third oldest roster in the NBA at that point. When the average age was weighted for minutes played, the Mavs jumped to the top of the list. Hoopism’s data was last updated January 8th. Since then, the Mavericks’ weighted age has declined slightly from 31.75 to 31.02, in part because of the return of Rodrigue Beaubois. Still, the Mavericks have one of the oldest rosters in the league and rely more heavily on their veterans most teams. Their recipe clearly favors the ingredients of age and experience.
The end goal for the Mavericks, and every team this season, is a championship. Instead of extending Hoopism’s analysis and comparing the Mavs to other teams in the league, I want to look at how their average age compares to some of those championship teams from past seasons.
I began by calculating the average roster age, and the weighted age for each NBA Finals participant from the last 20 seasons. I also calculated the percent increase or decrease in their average age when it was weighted for minutes played. The table below shows the results.
This dataset is not ideal for a few reasons. It discounts very, very good teams who missed out on the Finals because of bad luck or freak occurrences (see Suns, Phoenix circa 2007. Although there are 41 teams represented here, dynastic factors mean that several of them are essentially aging versions of the same roster. Still I believe this covers a wide enough spread to give us a general idea of where the 2011 Mavericks fit in. When just looking at the average age of their roster, the Mavericks don’t stand out in particular. It’s when we factor in playing rotations, and and weigh that average age by minutes played, that they start to appear as something out of the ordinary.
Looking at just the weighted average we find that this year’s Mavs team, if they make it that far, would be the second oldest team to play in an NBA Finals over the past twenty years. They would be one of just six teams with an average age over 30. They would also, by a wide margin, see the largest increase in their average age when weighting for minutes, of anyone in our sample.
The average NBA Finals participant over the past 20 years has had a roster with an average age of 28.13 years. When we weigh that average for minutes the age rises to 28.59 years. That makes the average percent change in age +1.63%. The age of the Mavericks’ roster is fairly in line with this average, but their tendency to rely on older players for production puts them way outside the norm. Looking at these numbers in graphic format even further emphasizes what an outlier they would be if they made the finals.
This first graph shows the weighted age of each team.
This second graph shows the percent change in average age when weighted for minutes played.
From a purely temporal perspective, the Mavs would be accomplishing something extremely rare should they manage to reach the NBA Finals this season. A scarcity of prior examples does not dictate impossibility, but one other factor could be working against them, and that’s the general trend of ages.
In the graph below I averaged the weighted ages of the two Finals participants for each season. I then fit a trendline to the data.
The average age of these championship caliber teams spiked for roughly a five-year period between 1996 and 2000. Other than last year’s matchup between the Lakers and Celtics, the average age of the NBA Finals participants has been trending downward. 2007 and 2008, saw two of the four youngest matchups over the past 20 years.
However, the trend towards younger Finals participants may be beginning to reverse itself. Last season took us one step in that direction. The Heat, Spurs, Lakers and Celtics, all teams with legitimate championship aspirations, were among the six oldest teams in Hoopism’s last update. All six had a weighted average age older than the average for our dataset.
I want to make one last thing clear; this should not be misconstrued as an analytical piece on why the Mavericks can’t or won’t go deep in the playoffs. None of these numbers have changed my thinking about their strengths or limitations. I mean simply to point out that this team’s unique and odd configuration of veterans is somewhat lacking in historical precursors.