Why Youth, Not Age Is Now a Better Blueprint for an NBA Championship
If all you knew about a team was the fact that its four best players were all 23 or younger, you'd probably assume the team in question was just getting started with a lengthy rebuilding project.
Or, that team might be the Oklahoma City Thunder, last season's Western Conference Champions.
Though experience is still a virtue in the NBA, some teams are proving that it doesn't take much of it to make some noise in the playoffs. The 2010-11 Chicago Bulls made it to the Eastern Conference Finals on the shoulders of a 22-year-old MVP.
With guys so often coming into the league when they're just 19 or 20, it's entirely possible to become something of a veteran long before that 25th birthday rolls around.
It helps to be a quick learner, but it also helps to play in a system that best utilizes athleticism and allows for a greater margin for error. In other words, an up-tempo system.
The Thunder are a good example of such a unit, but they're not the only one. The Denver Nuggets similarly depend upon a quicker approach that yields a lot of points along with the inevitable missteps. OKC turned the ball over more than any team last season, and Denver ranked 25th.
No one seemed to notice, though, given the rate at which these clubs play.
The Miami Heat are hardly youngsters, but they represent what an athletic core can do as it reaches its prime. As unbeatable as this team is on the open floor, you wouldn't think a single star is over 25 (when, in fact, all three of them are).
Meanwhile, a few teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks have found ways to make the most of their aging veterans. It's no coincidence that both squads rely on intricate playbooks and the machinations of coaching gurus like San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich and Dallas Mavericks' Rick Carlisle.
The experienced teams will inevitably be the more cerebral ones.
It just so turns out that it may be easier to fake smarts than it is sheer talent and physical dominance. That seemed to be the lesson learned from the 2012 NBA Playoffs, anyway, when the savvy Spurs and Boston Celtics fell short in the Conference Finals.
They lost to teams with an important physical edge.
Even the Nuggets gave the playoff-tested Los Angeles Lakers a run for their money in a seven-game first-round series. The Lakers were simply outrun in a couple of those games.
Of course, completely unbridled youth isn't always a formula for success. The Sacramento Kings ranked dead-last in the NBA defensively last season despite having a bevy of up-and-coming stars. Needless to say, they didn't score enough to make up for it.
At the end of the day, however, today's NBA is a fast game where young slashers can do a lot of damage. The grizzled old vets should have a tougher time keeping up, at least in theory.
Whether it's a young man's game on the court, it almost has to be from the perspective of general managers.
Younger players cost less, so long as they're still playing out their rookie contracts, and that makes it a lot easier to purchase additional talent on the free-agent market. They're also less injury-prone as a general rule and more durable as a long season wears on.
The Thunder and Nuggets have positioned themselves to be good for a very long time because of their ability to sign their own in-house talent to lucrative extensions, even if it means going over the salary cap. Both organizations have opportunities to lock their guys up without getting into expensive bidding wars or having to part with multiple assets in the free-agent and trade markets.
Ideally, the best teams will continue to strike a balance between youth and experience, even if that just means keeping the token old back-up point guard around for good measure (see Denver's Andre Miller and Oklahoma's Derek Fisher).
But, it certainly pays to build through the draft. While the Dallas Mavericks spent nearly a decade attempting to build a contender with one trade after another, their rival Spurs took a different path, patiently developing late draft picks like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili into stars.
Today, Dallas has one title to show for it, while San Antonio has four.
Don't be surprised if the Thunder look a lot more like those Spurs in a decade's time.
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