The Banana Boat Squad and NBA Players Still Defying Age
Age is no friend to NBA players. It grates. It beats into submission. It converts peaks into permanent valleys. And its cruelest effects are inevitable, eventually coming for everyone.
Every year, though, the league has a crop of players who defy the indiscriminate march of time. They are not immune to what's ineludible, even for those who might walk away "on top." But they do help us forget, if only superficially, that they're fighting a losing battle.
This one's for them.
Anyone who just played through his age-33-or-older regular season is eligible for inclusion. The primary focus will be on what was accomplished during the 2019-20 campaign, since it's the most recent, but track records will be used to contextualize the gravity and sustainability of their golden-years performance.
Remember: This isn't necessarily about identifying players who remain at the peak of their powers. It's a tribute to those who have perhaps bent in the face of age but not yet surrendered their impactful workloads—or, in some cases, their stardom.
Honorable Mention: Carmelo Anthony
Seasons Played: 17
2019-20 Averages: 15.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 52.5 true shooting percentage
Time has not been the kindest to Carmelo Anthony. His play is many tiers below that of his Banana Boat brethren, and he never seamlessly transitioned into a more complementary, lower-volume role.
That struggle is not for a lack of trying. Criticize his peak play style relative to other prime superstars as you will, but he largely took the sort of shots Olympics Melo did during his stints with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, even if begrudgingly. His efficiency just never followed suit, and after being shown the door in H-Town, where he made only 10 appearances, it looked like his NBA career might be over.
It wasn't. And it still isn't.
Landing with the Portland Trail Blazers saved him. They brought him on out of desperation but have since proved to be the ideal fit, striking a balance between player and team Melo's other most recent stops did not. He made functional concessions; he set more screens, and more than half his baskets came off assists. They, in turn, allowed him to heavily dabble in what comes most natural: off-the-dribble jumpers and post-ups and the occasional clear-out.
A 36-year-old on the downswing who requires such a delicate offensive equilibrium isn't age-defying in the cleanest sense. Melo is not a net positive in every situation, and there were nights with the Blazers in which he was an outright negative. His best role might include coming off the bench and jacking shots as a member of the second unit, and who knows whether his offensive rhythm translates to noticeably fewer minutes.
But, um, this man is 36. He was out of the NBA for more than a year. And then he came back, averaged more than 32 minutes and 15 points per game and buried 38-plus percent of his triples. That he's still a bucket at all is impressive.
Only eight other players, in fact, have cleared 15 points per game while shooting better than 38 percent from deep after their 35th birthday: Ray Allen, Alex English, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, JJ Redick, Detlef Schrempf and Dominique Wilkins. That's pretty darn good company. And next season, because there will be a next season for him, Melo will have the chance to become the first 35-and-upper to accomplish this feat twice.
Seasons Played: 12
2019-20 Averages: 16.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 0.7 steals, 57.3 true shooting percentage
Various injuries over the past couple of seasons, including this one, initially looked like they would cost Goran Dragic age-defying status. He has appeared in just 95 games over the last two years, most of which have seen him come off the bench, and is no longer part of the 30-minutes club.
Still, Dragic remains incredibly effective when he's on the court. And this season, he played more than enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt (59 games). Devonte' Graham, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Fred VanVleet were the only other players to put up 15-plus points and five assists per game while canning more than 36 percent of their triples.
Dragic has fared even better during the playoffs, throughout which he's joined the starting five. He's averaging 21.3 points and 4.5 assists in nearly 35 minutes per game and swishing 37.8 percent of his treys. Age-34 Dwyane Wade is the only other 33-and-up player to clear these benchmarks in at least 10 postseason tilts, and he attempted far fewer threes.
Guarding Dragic remains a pain. He is slippery off the dribble, and defenses collapse on his drives—particularly when he's finishing around the rim like he is now. The Miami Heat, for their part, don't make this deep of a playoff push without him. He leads the team in field-goal attempts by a comically cosmic 55-shot margin, and the offense is appreciably more efficient with him on the floor, despite his getting plenty of solo reps.
Roughly one-third of Dragic's possessions are coming with Jimmy Butler on the bench, and more than 15 percent haven't included Butler or Bam Adebayo. So give him his due. He's not playing like a typical 34-year-old, and Miami might soon be hanging another championship banner (partially) because of it.
Seasons Played: 17
2019-20 Averages: 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 57.7 true shooting percentage
What is there left to say about LeBron James?
This is Year 17. He is 35. He has piloted the Los Angeles Lakers within a grasp of a title. He is a triple-double threat from the moment his alarm goes off each morning. His off nights are other stars' on nights. He led the league in assists per game, for the first time of his career, at the age of 35, because he is 35. He hasn't defended so well since he called Miami home.
He just finished second in MVP voting—and deserved it.
Father Time may be undefeated, but LeBron is putting up one helluva fight. He shows some signs of his longevity, mainly how often he's able to cook guys off the dribble, but not many. His downhill assaults remain terrifying.
Some might bristle at how much influence he has over every possession. He is the Lakers' playmaking lifeline more incidentally than accidentally. He still needs to be the center of the offense. Anthony Davis might have a license to drive the car, but LeBron still has the keys.
Tethering so much of their livelihood to a 35-year-old should be an unsettling proposition for the Lakers. It isn't. Not yet. Maybe not even soon. They're mere wins away from a championship on the backs of Davis, a frenetic defense and a version of LeBron that, aside from the additional assists and lower free-throw-attempt rate, is almost statistically unrecognizable from his 26-year-old self.
Yet he's 35.
Did I mention that?
Seasons Played: 14
2019-20 Averages: 19.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 59.0 true shooting percentage
Kyle Lowry does not play like someone who just wrapped his age-33 season.
He barrels and bruises. He shapeshifts on offense. He scraps on defense. He screens. He doesn't so much sacrifice his body as he volunteers to throw it around. Nobody drew more charges in the regular season.
Pascal Siakam is now almost universally recognized as the Toronto Raptors' best player. Lowry is a close second. He might even be first given the drop-off Siakam suffered during the playoffs.
Regardless, Lowry is the Raptors' most important player. He is the engine that drives them, even when he doesn't have the ball. The roster at large seems to have adopted his energy, and Toronto entrusts him with oversight it won't bestow upon anyone else. He logged far more possessions without both Siakam and Fred VanVleet than either of them did under the same circumstances.
Whether Lowry can effectively ferry this burden for an entire regular season and through a deep playoff push is debatable. The answer also doesn't matter. LeBron James is the only player on this list who is best-player-on-a-title-team material. Lowry's style is postseason-proof, wire to wire, when he's a consensus No. 2 who doesn't have to punch above that level too often. (See: Season, Last.) That's pretty damn ridiculous for someone now closer to 35 than 33.
Oh, and lest we forget, he defies age in the most literal sense. He didn't sniff his real peak until his second year with the Raptors, at the age of 27. That climb essentially continued through his age-30 season. Even this year, following the departure of Kawhi Leonard, he kicked up his scoring, increasing his average from 14.2 points to 19.4. That's not normal.
Seasons Played: 15
2019-20 Averages: 17.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 61.0 true shooting percentage
Chris Paul should fall closer to LeBron James' end of the spectrum, where we've run out of adjectives to describe how his performance runs counter to his longevity. But hamstring injuries sapped him of availability during his two years with Houston, some of it mission-critical, and the Rockets then treated him as the lesser asset in the Russell Westbrook trade over the offseason.
Viewed together, even when acknowledging his move to Oklahoma City wasn't purely a basketball decision, this all became evidence of regression—of age extracting its ugly, unbeaten toll.
It turns out this notion of Paul's backslide was an illusion. He isn't dribbling bigs into complete disintegration on switches as often, but he's every bit the same relentless guy. It seems like he'll amble his way into semi-transition pull-up threes until the end of time, his mid-range game is lethal, and scant few point guards are as adept at chaperoning set defenses toward implosion.
The Thunder's success this season says it all. They scrapped their way to a five-seed and came within a few possessions of getting past the Rockets in the first round. Paul was the lifeblood of it all. Oklahoma City's offensive rating improved by 13.7 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup—the second-largest swing among every player who logged at least 250 minutes.
Expecting Paul to anchor a genuine title threat on his own is probably a stretch. But not a massive one. And he is certainly someone who can be a championship finishing touch, provided another team is willing to foot the bill on the $85.6 million he's owed over the next two years—which, given that this deal has yet to actually age poorly, shouldn't be a deal-breaker.
Seasons Played: 14
2019-20 Averages: 15.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.3 steals, 64.4 true shooting percentage
JJ Redick is more a subtle assassin of age.
Shooting doesn't gray as quickly or starkly as athleticism or size. His crowning skill is supposed to age well.
On a more granular level, though, Redick's performance is an anomaly. He isn't just a shooter. He's a functional shooter, someone who fires up off-balance jumpers coming around screens and can dribble into his own looks.
Redick's 42.1 percent clip on pull-up threes this season ranked first among 84 players who attempted at least 75 such shots. He finished inside the 81st percentile on efficiency coming off screens and hasn't ranked lower than the 74th percentile (2016-17) since at least 2015-16.
Leaving the confines of his role with the Los Angeles Clippers has even allowed Redick to expand his offensive portfolio. Pick-and-roll initiation has accounted for at least 10 percent of his offensive possession in each of the past three years, and he's cleared the 94th percentile of efficiency every. Single. Time.
Not surprisingly, Redick's marriage of scoring and efficiency verges on unprecedented for someone his age. Artis Gilmore, a 7'2" big man, is the only player who averaged more than 15 points after his 33rd birthday on a better true shooting percentage than Redick notched this season.
Seasons Played: 15
2019-20 Averages: 18.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 54.6 true shooting percentage
The year is 2044. The regular season is winding down. Bronny James is expected to contemplate retirement if he wins title No. One More Than His Dad Did. Analytics and The Eye Test are celebrating their first wedding anniversary. Kawhi Leonard is mere months away from coming out of cryosleep, just in time for free agency. The New York Knicks are signing a superstar this coming summer. They promise.
And a 57-year-old Lou Williams is still getting buckets.
I jest. I think. Maybe. Actually, I'm not really sure.
Williams is a timeless hooper. Sure, his shot selection and capacity to draw fouls doesn't really scale to the postseason. His free-throw attempt rate over the past three years has plunged from .402 in the regular season to .291 during the playoffs. But we need to appreciate his body of work for its eternality.
His four highest-scoring seasons have come after his 30th birthday, during which time he's coming into his own as a pick-and-roll partner. Even as his importance to the now-superstar-clad Clippers has changed, he still emanates Sixth Man of the Year vibes.
Maybe the decline is coming. Williams turns 34 in October. Then again, when you watch him, it feels like he can ruthlessly roast big men on switches, going left, to infinity and beyond.