Predicting the NBA MVP of Every Age Group During 2018-19 Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2018

Predicting the NBA MVP of Every Age Group During 2018-19 Season

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    Give us your young, your old (by NBA standards, at least) and your middle-aged. The Association doesn't leave anyone out, and neither will we.

    Throughout the 2018-19 season, everyone will be competing for the elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy, trying to end the Golden State Warriors' reign of terror. But those doing so will have spent vastly differing amounts of time on the planet. Some youngsters are attempting to break into the league and establish themselves as stars, including a handful of teenagers. Veterans, even a select few in their fifth decades of life, will be trying to prove their enduring worth.

    But here, we want them to compete on a level playing field, with classifications determined by their age on Feb. 1, 2019.

    Long-term potential is wholly irrelevant. The past only matters because it colors our expectations for the coming campaign. But 2018-19 is the judge and jury; we're only concerned with what will come to pass during this next season.

    Who's the most valuable teenager? Who stands above the other 24-year-olds? Who's the premier player in his age-37 season?

    Fret not, for we have all the answers you're seeking.

Age 19: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    This year's rookie class has plenty of young men ready to play prominent roles for their new organizations, but Luka Doncic is on a different level. That's doubly true when we're focusing only on the 2018-19 campaign since that does away with any long-term potential and instead pushes NBA-readiness to the forefront of the analysis.

    Sure, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III dominated during their brief time at Duke. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kevin Knox flashed immense upside throughout their summer-league stints for the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks, respectively. But Doncic is already the youngest MVP in Euroleague history, winning a championship with Real Madrid and separating himself from the rest of the pack while operating at the sport's second-highest level.

    As Tim MacMahon wrote for ESPN:

    "The word out of Dallas is that Doncic has often been the best player on the court in pickup games at the Mavs' facility despite not being in great shape by NBA standards. And before you make a crack about the Mavs' talent or lack thereof, these games have included local products like LaMarcus Aldridge. Doncic, a special passer, is the most accomplished Euro teen ever and has a huge advantage over other rookies because he arrives in the NBA as a seasoned pro."

    A handful of teenagers will earn some level of national recognition during their inaugural go-rounds, but Doncic's situation is entirely different. He may well prove the best player of the bunch in a long-term analysis. More importantly, he has a major leg up on the field with that resume already featuring work against fellow professionals.

    Top Challengers: Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr.

Age 20: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    Much has been made over Jayson Tatum's age, which is only natural. Teenagers aren't supposed to serve as such prominent members of a title contender's rotation, and they most certainly aren't supposed to hold their own as go-to scorers throughout the postseason. And yet...that's exactly what Tatum did, setting the stage for a sophomore explosion that should push him well clear of fellow second-year candidates like Markelle Fultz and leading rookies such as Deandre Ayton and Trae Young.

    But let's rewind. Forget about what Tatum did throughout the regular season.

    Over the course of 19 playoff appearances for the Boston Celtics, he averaged 18.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 47.1 percent from the field, 32.4 percent from downtown and 84.5 percent at the stripe. If that's not enough (and it should be), he played high-quality defense in the switch-heavy schemes employed by head coach Brad Stevens.

    Tatum is already a noteworthy All-Star candidate entering the 2018-19 season. Even if he stagnates, his ability to knock down spot-up jumpers, create opportunities for himself off the bounce and contribute capably on defense against numerous positions make him an ahead-of-his-age 20-year-old who will shoulder a massive two-way burden for a deep Beantown squad.

    No offense to the primary challengers, but this is another runaway.

    Top Challengers: Deandre Ayton, Markelle Fultz, Trae Young

Age 21: Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

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    And now it gets tricky.

    How can we pick against Lonzo Ball, who proved his immense value to the Los Angeles Lakers with defensive excellence and passing prowess even while fighting through historically putrid shooting woes? How can we bet against the limitless upside of teammate Brandon Ingram, who can contribute on both ends of the floor and fill a volume-scoring role? What about Lauri Markkanen, OG Anunoby, John Collins, Bam Adebayo, Dennis Smith Jr., De'Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson and the many other talented youngsters preparing to enter their age-21 seasons?

    Well, Jamal Murray was just that good and—perhaps more crucially—that important to the Denver Nuggets during the second half of the previous season.

    From the All-Star break through the end of a heartbreaking 82nd contest (a de facto play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves), Murray averaged 17.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks while slashing 42.7/36.2/88.9. He was more comfortable operating as a primary playmaker, whether creating opportunities for himself or his Denver teammates. He continued to showcase a synergistic relationship with Nikola Jokic. His off-the-bounce looks started tearing twine.

    His confidence simply couldn't be shaken, legitimizing the displays of growth that had come with increased frequency throughout his sophomore season. He's slightly ahead of his counterparts in this grouping, and he's given no reason to believe his strides won't continue as he becomes even better in the lead-guard role and starts picking more of the right opportunities off the dribble.

    Plus, his willingness and ability to score without a Jokic assist make him vital to the Nuggets cause, which has to count for something in a discussion about the MVP of each age group.

    Top Challengers: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Lauri Markkanen

Age 22: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

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    The NBA is in a rather good spot right now, boasting a plethora of top-tier talents still moving toward their prime years. In alphabetical order, this group alone contains—deep breath—Devin Booker, Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell, Dejounte Murray, D'Angelo Russell, Ben Simmons and Myles Turner. And that's saying nothing of the many role players who still possess varying degrees of untapped upside.

    But Simmons rises above them all, just as he did while capitalizing upon the delayed opening to his professional career and staving off Mitchell and Jayson Tatum in the Rookie of the Year race.

    Keeping this oversized point guard away from the rim is already an impossibility. His ambidexterity and remarkable combination of size and speed allow him to burst by virtually every opponent, and he's proved capable of finishing against innumerable foes. Oh, and defenders can't just collapse around him because they have to worry about his precision passes to the perimeter, which often hit teammates right in the shooting pockets and make their spot-up attempts that much easier.

    And yet, Simmons was even better on defense.

    Despite suiting up as a point guard, he could switch onto any position, giving head coach Brett Brown quite the luxury when concocting switch-heavy schemes of his own. His quick hands and quicker instincts played well in the passing lanes, and he produced enough to finish with the NBA's No. 8 score in defensive real plus/minus among the 99 men qualified as point guards.

    Now, just imagine what might happen if he develops even the tiniest smidgen of jump-shooting ability.

    Top Challengers: Devin Booker, Jaylen Brown, Donovan Mitchell

Age 23: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    If Kristaps Porzingis were healthy, perhaps he'd enter the race. But for the time being, this is a two-man battle between a pair of the NBA's most intriguing centers: Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Yes, Towns got the better of our selected 23-year-old during their last head-to-head matchup, but let's dive deeper into the overtime game won by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not only did the Denver Nuggets outscore their burgeoning rivals by seven points with Jokic on the floor (the 'Wolves were plus-one with Towns playing, as the two didn't always share the floor), but it's tough to claim one definitively outperformed the other in the box:

    • Towns: 26 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, one steal on 12-of-19 shooting from the field and 2-of-2 shooting at the line.
    • Jokic: 35 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, one steal on 14-of-25 shooting from  the field, 4-of-7 shooting from downtown and 3-of-4 shooting at the line.

    We don't want to draw too much from a one-game sample, especially when each star was playing quite well. And that's what makes this such a tricky clash: Each individual truly is a standout already reasonably considered a top-20 player in today's NBA.

    Towns is the generational scoring talent attempting to mitigate his defensive woes with all-around offensive production, while Jokic is the game's best passing center, as well as a gifted scorer with tremendous touch around the basket. But it's on defense where the latter pulls slightly ahead, counting on his rebounding and understanding of positioning to make up for his lack of verticality and foot speed.

    Despite Jokic's matador reputation, he sat at No. 20 among centers in DRPM during the 2017-18 campaign, whereas an improved version of Towns still checked in at No. 62. That's not a fluke, and it allows for all the (minimal) overall differentiation we currently need.

    Top Challengers: Aaron Gordon, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns

Age 24: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    If Joel Embiid can remain perfectly healthy (a big ask after he improved to just 63 regular-season appearances and was unavailable for the start of the Philadelphia 76ers' postseason venture), he might prove capable of challenging Giannis Antetokounmpo. But right now, the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak is the runaway favorite among the 24-year-olds.

    What can't he do for the Milwaukee Bucks?

    If they need a defensive stop, he's willing and able to lock down players at multiple positions. He can thrive as a go-to scorer capable of breaking down opponents even without the aid of a reliable jumper; foes still have to backpedal against him, exposing a hip to attack before he jets by with his impossibly long strides and even more elastic arms.

    Thanks to years learning how to operate as an oversized point guard, he's also a high-quality distributor who never hesitates to make the right plays. Other than that dearth of three-point shooting, he's a complete entity.

    Antetokounmpo might not have drawn any first-place votes for his 2017-18 efforts, but he's still coming off a year in which he trailed only James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the MVP balloting. He's not trying to establish his stardom, so much as cement it while continuing his upward trend toward best-player-in-the-NBA status.

    Maybe he won't get there quite yet. He still has a number of years left before we can even entertain the possibility of him moving past his true athletic prime. But he's closer than ever, and that's bad news for the rest of the men fighting for supremacy in this age bracket.

    Top Challengers: Clint Capela, Joel Embiid, Gary Harris

Age 25: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Throughout his 2017-18 season, Anthony Davis kept scoreboard operators busy by averaging a can't-be-real 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.6 blocks. He was even better after DeMarcus Cousins went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles, but we'll focus on the totality of his efforts for the New Orleans Pelicans.

    After all, only the following players have matched that line throughout all of NBA history: 

    • [Empty]

    If you remove his league-leading block tally from the benchmark collection, Karl Malone joins the club. Take away the thievery, and Shaquille O'Neal, Bob McAdoo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar enter the mix. Sans the assist criterion, he's matched by no one. Without the rebounding, David Robinson proves his equal. Factor out scoring, and only Hakeem Olajuwon, Robinson, Abdul-Jabbar, Ben Wallace and Gar Heard populate the fraternity.

    Take a moment and read back over those names. Hall of Famers abound, even if none of them could rival Davis' collection of statistics until we started removing pieces. And that's before we factor in Davis' 53.4/34.0/82.8 slash line, his ability to keep his turnovers in check or the point-preventing potency that placed him No. 3 in the Defensive Player of the Year standings.

    Steven Adams, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Otto Porter Jr. and Josh Richardson are all high-quality players in this age group, but none of them are guaranteed All-Stars. Davis, should he remain healthy by the bayou, is virtually guaranteed to factor in to the MVP race.

    Top Challengers: Steven Adams, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond

Age 26: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Allow me to preface this by saying that picking between Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo and Rudy Gobert was among the toughest choices of any in this article. All three are vital pieces capable of performing like top-10 contributors on any given night, and we shouldn't discount any of them.

    But Oladipo is the first to go, if only because he might be due for some slight regression after his breakout campaign with the Indiana Pacers and didn't quite reach the same astronomical level on either end of the floor. It's a tough cut, but it's a necessary one, allowing this to become an all-out war between Irving and Gobert.

    Could any two stars be more different?

    Irving is the ball-handling maestro who dazzles defenders for the Boston Celtics, and his gaudy point totals often lead to victories on those parquet floors. On the flip side, his defense is severely lacking, even after improving slightly under the supervision of head coach Brad Stevens and while surrounded by quality, switchable stoppers.

    Gobert is the suffocating defensive presence anchoring the Utah Jazz, and his offensive contributions, while still valuable because of his patience and efficiency, are wholly dependent on setup feeds from his running mates. They're both incredible at what they do, and they're also limited in other areas.

    In a vacuum, this is nearly a tie. But we're seeking out the MVPs of each group, and that's why Gobert pushes ever so slightly ahead.

    Whereas Irving is ultimately expendable (not because of his own talent, but because of the Celtics' remarkable depth), the Jazz aren't the same outfit without their centerpiece. Boston was three points per 100 possessions better with its floor general leading the charge in 2017-18, but it also overcame his absence and still fell one game shy of a Finals appearance. Utah was 6.9 points better with Gobert over the same average stretch, and it looked nothing like a world-beating squad that stifled opponents when he was absent.

    Top Challengers: Tobias Harris, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo

Age 27: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    Health is the only question mark here.

    Kawhi Leonard nearly missed the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign, which would prove to be his final go-round with the San Antonio Spurs before an offseason trade dealt him to the Toronto Raptors. But even in his meager nine appearances, he ranked in the 79th percentile relative to his position, per Cleaning the Glass, for points per shot attempt.

    And that's not where the quality play ended, as he sat near the top of the field in nearly every defensive metric and fell in the 89th percentile for assist percentage. He was still an all-around standout in limited action, maybe not even operating at anything close to full strength.

    But that could change north of the border. The full-strength part, not the all-around-standout part.

    "He is determined and seems in the right frame of mind," Toronto team president Masai Ujiri recently explained to the Associated Press, per ESPN.com. "... I think there is a fire inside of him, and we are all excited about that."

    If Leonard gets back to form, picking up where he left off as a Defensive Player of the Year threat who could explode for more than 30 points in the blink of an eye, he'll be closer to challenging LeBron James for the overall title than to losing the age crown to any of the top challengers. Even if he struggles to find that top gear, he could still hold down this spot with room to spare. He's that good, so long as he's actually on the court.

    Top Challengers: CJ McCollum, Khris Middleton, Kelly Olynyk

Age 28: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    How's this for an impossibly deep age?

    Damian Lillard is the leading MVP candidate of the group, fresh off a season with the Portland Trail Blazers that saw him continue to function as a top scoring option while shoring up his pick-and-roll defense. But we can't just forget about Paul George, Draymond Green, Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson Kemba Walker and John Wall. And if Gordon Hayward and/or DeMarcus Cousins regain their pre-injury form in an expeditious fashion, the class grows deeper still.

    But this is still Lillard's spot to lose, and not just because he's been the preeminent basketball-media reporter this offseason or successfully spoofed players' tendencies to post glitzy workout videos during the hottest months of the year. As Ben Golliver wrote while justifying the point guard's placement at No. 15 in Sports Illustrated's countdown of the top 100 players, all the factors finally worked in his favor:

    "After years of griping about his All-Star snubs, Lillard (26.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 6.6 APG) backed into a far better honor: The 2018 All-NBA First Team. For once, the murky voting criteria—stats, winning, name recognition, narrative—coalesced in his favor. The 28-year-old point guard was healthier than Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler, and his Blazers were steadier and more functional than Russell Westbrook’s Thunder. His statistical portfolio was impeccable: He ranked top five in scoring, top 10 in clutch points, top 10 in PER, Win Shares and WARP, and top 15 in Real Plus-Minus. And Lillard had a compelling story too: He was a highly-respected offensive weapon, an improved defender, and the unquestioned leader of an overachieving No. 3 seed."

    Whether Lillard is a better pure basketball player than Green or George is up for debate. Golliver and Rob Mahoney had him trailing both, though (spoiler alert) Dan Favale and I are going a different route in our own as-of-yet-unrevealed rankings.

    But Green gets to lean upon Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. George benefits from the enduring presence of Russell Westbrook. Lillard, however, is the clear-cut linchpin in Rip City.

    Top Challengers: Paul George, Draymond Green, Kemba Walker

Age 29: James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    "The last four years have been like knocking on the door, knocking on the door. Now the moment is finally here," James Harden said while accepting the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, as relayed by SportingNews.com's Peter Thompson. "Just every single year you try to come back and be better than you were the year before, and just to be holding that trophy finally, it means a lot. But it doesn't stop here. We've got a long way to go."

    Of course, the reigning MVP is going to be our choice for age-29 MVP. Talented as Jimmy Butler may be—and he's rather easily the member of this particular field closest to matching Harden's excellence—Harden's offensive game pushes him head and shoulders higher.

    Yes, Harden still relies on whistles to maintain his spectacular efficiency, taking advantage of holes in the rulebook that allow him to generate more trips to the free-throw line. But that's a skill in and of itself, especially when paired with his ability to find nylon from outside the arc and inside the lane while still probing for open passing lanes that set up his talented teammates.

    Yes, he remains a lackluster defender. But that weakness is mitigated by his offensive prowess, and he's improved substantially in off-ball situations during the possessions in which he actually focuses.

    Harden is the man who best disproves the idea that two-way players are the be-all, end-all archetype in the NBA. That type of versatility may be valuable, but it can be overshadowed by a singular talent who does the vast majority of his damage on one end of the floor.

    Top Challengers: Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Blake Griffin

Age 30: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Kevin Durant may be an improved defender and facilitator who can look like the best player in the world whenever he's motivated to thrive as an individual, but he's still not as important to the Golden State Warriors as his most famous running mate.

    Is Stephen Curry "better" than Durant? That's debatable. It's also not entirely relevant in this conversation, which revolves around value. Even if the point guard is the slightly inferior player, that's wholly negated if he's that much more valuable to the Dubs.

    And he is, especially once you understand that their contrasting defensive reputations are a bit misleading. Durant's strides have been slightly overblown because of his versatility, allowing for the credit that stems from filling so many different roles even if he wasn't dominant in any of them.

    Meanwhile, Curry's matador reputation has stuck even while he consistently does his part within the Golden State schemes and often functions as a smart positional defender. That's not to say Curry is the better stopper, but that the gap between the two isn't as wide as commonly thought.

    On the other end, the floor general's historic shooting abilities lend Golden State a distinct identity, completely warping defensive schemes and opening up easier opportunities for everyone else. Durant has a similar, but lesser, effect, and that's all the differentiation we need to make this tough decision.

    If you still want to choose Durant, relegating Curry to the "Top Challengers" section alongside Russell Westbrook, that's still justifiable. The guard trapped in a big man's frame really is that talented, and he's proved his importance to the Dubs with back-to-back Finals MVPs.

    But a healthy Curry should matter even more.

    Top Challengers: Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook

Age 31: Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz

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    If Mike Conley bounces back to his 2016-17 levels and proves his injury-riddled 2017-18 campaign was nothing more than a one-off aberration, he could very well take hold of this spot. But the Memphis Grizzlies point guard is entering that troublesome age at which so many players at his position tend to decline dramatically, and that opens the door for the ever-underrated Joe Ingles.

    Even after he thoroughly outplayed Paul George during the Utah Jazz's takedown of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference playoffs, Ingles still doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Maybe he's viewed as an elite marksman. Perhaps he also gains credit for his impressive work on the defensive end, replete with ceaseless trash-talking and physicality to get under adversaries' skin.

    But even those who accept those two-way skills often forget that he's a gifted passer trusted by head coach Quin Snyder to serve as a primary facilitator on many possessions. Ingles was among the top 10 in assists per game among contributors listed at 6'8" or taller, and he was one of the most efficient passers in the league, irrespective of height. Looking solely at the 310 men who made at least 50 appearances in 2017-18, only a baker's dozen proved his superior in adjusted assist-to-pass percentage.

    Players that skilled with the ball don't typically shoot 44 percent from beyond the arc while hoisting 5.7 deep-balls per contest—numbers that leave him in rather exclusive company. Only he, Raja Bell, Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver, Peja Stojakovic and Klay Thompson have matched or exceeded those marks to this point in NBA history.

    The time has come to give Ingles the credit he deserves. And if you don't, he may well flame you on Twitter.

    Top Challengers: Darren Collison, Mike Conley, Danny Green

Age 32: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan spent so much time inextricably intertwined for the Toronto Raptors that we're only working with a small sample here, but the point guard did thrive without his running mate in 2017-18. Still fully buying into the egalitarian system employed by ex-head coach Dwane Casey, he did a bit more of the heavy lifting and didn't have to sacrifice any of his efficiency to do so.

    During the 308 relevant minutes, Lowry averaged 18.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.9 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from downtown—good for a scorching 61.9 true shooting percentage. Better still, he helped the Raptors outscore their foes by 10 points per 100 possessions.

    Now, Lowry may be further unleashed alongside Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, who are joining the Canadian representatives after the offseason trade that swapped them for DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. Maybe he won't challenge for the scoring title, deferring the No. 1 role to a healthy Leonard, but he can still contribute in an across-the-board fashion.

    Father Time is an enemy, sure. But Lowry's speed and physicality haven't diminished in the last few years, and he's only gotten more comfortable hitting pull-up triples and picking his spots wisely. The game he's grown into points toward a smoother aging curve, and he remains vital to the Eastern Conference contenders as the lone incumbent All-Star.

    Don't overlook Al Horford, who plays a big role in the Boston Celtics' success. But he's the only player in the same realm as Lowry, and the Beantown depth (greater than ever with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back in the picture) doesn't allow him to stand out quite as much.

    Top Challengers: Goran Dragic, Al Horford, Lou Williams

Age 33: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

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    I can't get this quote from ESPN.com's Zach Lowe out of my head:

    "My favorite subplot of the season: watching Paul adjust to the pace and freedom of Mike D'Antoni's offense. You can see his brain working: 'OK, I'm dribbling fast. Look at me go! Oh, here's Clint setting me a screen 35 feet from the hoop. My guy went under! Wait, I'm supposed to shoot, aren't I? But there are 19 seconds on the shot clock and I haven't signaled a play or yelled at anyone yet. Should I really shoot? I guess so. WHEE!'

    "He's like a sheltered college freshman being dragged to his first frat parties. 'The beer is ... free? My parents wouldn't like this. Maybe I'll try one sip.' Five minutes later, he's doing keg stands.

    "His midrange attempts are even way down!"

    That came on Dec. 1, shortly after Paul had returned from injury and made the seventh appearance of his Houston Rockets tenure. At that point, the NBA's resident Point God was averaging 11.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists while shooting 41.5 percent from the field, 39.4 percent from downtown and 84.6 percent at the stripe.

    Except for the time of Lowe's publication through the end of the regular season, Paul put up 19.7 points, 5.5 boards and 7.5 dimes per game while slashing 46.4/37.9/92.3. He was even better, proving an ideal fit for the Mike D'Antoni system and thriving in Houston, whether playing alongside James Harden or operating as the lone ball-handler on the floor.

    If you have any doubts about his ability to continue playing at an All-NBA level with a year of chemistry added into the mix, please remove them from your cranium.

    Top Challengers: LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap

Age 34: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Let's say everything goes wrong for LeBron James.

    He's not able to stay as healthy as he did in 2017-18—a season in which he led the league in minutes played while missing exactly zero outings. He doesn't immediately coalesce with the young talents surrounding him on the Los Angeles Lakers roster, and that extra defensive attention finally proves a bit too much. The plan to build a team without reliable outside shooting diminishes the spacing drastically and shuts down the lanes with which he so often attacks to the basket. Old age finally affects his athleticism.

    Even in that worst-case scenario—to be clear, we don't expect this to pan out—James would be the clear-cut MVP of the age-34 group. His only challenges come from Marc Gasol (clearly declining on both ends of the floor), JJ Redick (ultimately a role player, even coming off a career year as a passer) and Carmelo Anthony (LOL).

    This one just isn't close, and we're not going to waste your time diving any deeper. More interesting competitions still await.

    Top Challengers: Carmelo Anthony, Marc Gasol, JJ Redick

Age 35: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors

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    "After a terrible regular season in which he put up the worst per-game numbers of his career, the 34-year-old swingman has been a different player over the past month," Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer during the Golden State Warriors' latest title quest. "... [Andre] Iguodala is the ultimate role player, a guy who defends all five positions and creates easy shots for his more celebrated teammates."

    Watch Iguodala during the first 82 games, and you could mistakenly get the impression that this ship has finally sailed. He doesn't switch with the same ferocity. His shot is often missing. His passes don't always find shooting pockets, and he makes careless mistakes with shocking frequency.

    But he doesn't have to flip that switch while filling a minor role for a loaded Dubs squad. It's far more beneficial for him to bide his time, waiting to remind the world of his all-around play until the games actually matter for a team all but guaranteed to enter the playoffs with home-court advantage in the opening round.

    Three times in the last four years, he posted a higher box plus/minus during the second season. Three times in the last four years, he earned more win shares per 48 minutes. Three times in the last four years, he logged a higher player efficiency rating—flawed as the metric may be.

    This isn't a fluke.

    Channing Frye, Devin Harris and Jarrett Jack, who function as the primary challengers because they're the only other players preparing to enter their age-35 seasons, might seem somewhat close to matching Iguodala's level while teams are jockeying for playoff positioning. Once that tournament starts, though...

    Top Challengers: Channing Frye, Devin Harris, Jarret Jack

Age 36: Tony Parker, Charlotte Hornets

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    This is more about role than confidence in an enduring skill set.

    Tony Parker was flat-out bad for the San Antonio Spurs last year, watching as the team's net rating dropped by 5.3 points per 100 possessions and permanently ceding his longtime stranglehold on the starting job to Dejounte Murray. He didn't possess quite as much foot speed, which made him even more of a defensive liability and prevented him from gaining the airspace necessary to launch clean jumpers from his favorite mid-range zones.

    But strange as it'll be to see him in a new uniform, he's now joining the Charlotte Hornets, knowing full well he has zero shot at surpassing Kemba Walker and becoming a part of the opening quintet. If he commits to that backup role and focuses on taking the right shots while devoting even more of his energy to playing passable defense, he could eliminate a weakness that has plagued the Queen City for quite some time. Even serviceable work behind Walker would go a long way.

    This age group boasts a few other intriguing role players in Tyson Chandler, Nene and Emeka Okafor, but none possess the same type of importance to their current clubs. Though Jameer Nelson could join the fray if he finds work at some point in 2018-19, he'll also fall short of Parker's new-found influence.

    After all, another poor season would make this a wasted signing, dooming the Hornets to more mediocrity as the second unit squanders leads earned by Walker and Co. But if he's even serviceable, the Eastern Conference playoff picture could become a bit stronger—good timing when this is the first season in forever during which a non-LeBron James team has a legitimate chance at a Finals appearances.

    Top Challengers: Tyson Chandler, Nene, Emeka Okafor

Age 37: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

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    Kyle Korver can look like the choice here when he's knocking down curl-and-fire triples for the Cleveland Cavaliers. But his role is so limited these days (and he's virtually unplayable against spread offenses employed by teams such as the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors) that he falls slightly behind Dwyane Wade now that the future Hall of Famer has decided to enjoy a swan song with the Miami Heat.

    To be clear, Wade isn't much more than a shell of his prime self.

    He'll enjoy the occasional throwback performance, reminding the basketball-watching world of vintage Flash when he gets defenders up in the air with a pump on one possession before bursting to the hole for a rim-rattling finish on another. But for the most part, he's a ball-watching defensive liability who commandeers a few too many possessions, reaching a level of usage that isn't justified by his middling efficiency levels.

    Wade scored 17.9 points per 100 possessions with a 50.0 true shooting percentage in 2017-18, a season split between the Cavaliers and Heat. But those are numbers matched by 63 different qualified players who aren't genuinely noteworthy.

    We're not trying to pick on Wade. He's a legitimate living legend and deserves plenty of respect. What he's doing this close to his 40th birthday remains impressive. Let's just not conflate "impressive" with "valuable," no matter how high his usage rate rises during his final go-round in South Beach.

    He's worthy of a rotation spot and remains more important to his team than any of his other veteran compatriots in this grouping, but he's not going to challenge for any accolades in the coming year. Those aren't mutually exclusive concepts.

    Top Challengers: Jose Calderon, Kyle Korver, Zach Randolph

Age 38: Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs

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    Behind door No. 1, we have Pau Gasol.

    Though the Spanish center is an unquestioned defensive sieve around whom head coach Gregg Popovich must scheme, he's still the expected starting 5 for the San Antonio Spurs. Don't expect him to put up much resistance when the other team has possession or exert his energy boxing out on either end of the floor (his height and length is often sufficient when working the glass), but he's an enduringly talented scorer who can space the floor with a consistent jumper and go to work on the blocks.

    Behind door No. 2, we have Udonis Haslem.

    The Miami Heat mainstay played a grand total of 72 minutes in 2017-18, and that's about what we should expect moving forward in 2018-19. His total run has declined during each of the last three seasons, as he's increasingly become more of a locker-room presence and mentor for their younger talents better suited toward moving the Heat into playoff position.

    Behind door No. 3, we have...no one.

    Those are the only two options for the age-38 bucket now that Nick Collison and David West have retired.  Jamal Crawford and Richard Jefferson haven't officially pulled the plugs on their professional careers, but neither currently has a job in the Association. Plus, neither is likely to provide as much value as Gasol unless Crawford magically develops positive shot-selection habits that have eluded him for quite some time.

    Top Challengers: Udonis Haslem

Age 40: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

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    Dirk Nowitzki was already the only 39-year-old in the Association last year. Now, with Manu Ginobili retiring and Jason Terry still looking for work, he's the second-oldest player preparing to grace the NBA hardwood. So since he literally has no challengers for this spot (Terry would get his own featured placement as the age-41 representative if he inked a contract), let's just take a moment to appreciate the German legend.

    According to NBA Math's TPA database, which dates all the way back to 1952, only the following players have ever performed at an above-average level during or beyond an age-39 season:

    • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (39)
    • Vince Carter (40)
    • Tim Duncan (39)
    • Manu Ginobili (39)
    • Johnny Green (39)
    • Michael Jordan (39)
    • Jason Kidd (39)
    • Karl Malone (39, 40)
    • Reggie Miller (39)
    • Dirk Nowitzki (39)
    • Hakeem Olajuwon (39)
    • Robert Parish (39)
    • John Stockton (39, 40)
    • Kurt Thomas (40)

    That's already an exclusive club, comprised almost entirely of the sport's true legends. Even Johnny Green made a combined four All-Star appearances in the '60s and '70s, though his name doesn't carry much cachet these days.

    Nowitzki is one of a dozen in the fraternity for an age-39 season. Now, the challenge is replicating the effort and becoming the fifth to do so in his 40s while joining two Utah Jazz legends to become the only three with a pair of entries.

    Top Challengers: None

Age 42: Vince Carter, Atlanta Hawks

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    Is Vince Carter going to log heavy minutes for the Atlanta Hawks during his age-42 campaign? Probably not. He'll likely play sparingly and instead serve as a mentor for the many youngsters populating the Peach State. He may even come to terms with Atlanta management on a midseason buyout that allows him to join a contender and chase the first ring of his lengthy career.

    But if Carter does play, he'll probably remain valuable.

    Few players have transitioned more successfully from superstar to high-quality role player, but Carter has consistently accepted a minimized set of responsibilities and churned out successful seasons. The Dallas Mavericks relied on his scoring in bursts. The Memphis Grizzlies leaned on him as a three-and-D wing. He played even more infrequently during his lone season with the Sacramento Kings, but he minimized any ill effects from his lackluster offensive game by focusing even more on the stopping side.

    If Carter is handed a job description, he'll accept it and work to maximize his talents in that avenue. No matter how little he might play for the Hawks, that's setting a great example for the up-and-comers upon whom this full-scale rebuild hinges.

    Top Challengers: None

                

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.comNBA Math or ESPN.com.