What does it take to win an NBA championship? While talent, chemistry and culture all play a significant role in the pursuit of a ring, history suggests that experience is a crucial factor in the battle for the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Just like any other sport, the NBA has a mix of teams both young and old. According to Real GM, the average collective age of players currently under contract is 26.6 years old. In 18 of the last 20 seasons, the NBA championship winning team has had an average age above this figure, with the back-to-back Lakers (2008-09, 2009-10) being the only teams to fall below. Some of the best teams in recent memory have also been some of the oldest, including the Chicago Bulls (1996-97, 1997-98), Miami Heat (2012-13) and San Antonio Spurs (2013-14). From an individual standpoint, even all-time greats such as Michael Jordan and LeBron James didn’t win their first championship until their seventh and ninth seasons in the league, respectively.
Two weeks into the 2017 NBA playoffs, we have seen several match-ups in the first round which have highlighted the important role that experience plays once the regular season is over.
Let’s take a look at the matchup that pits the second seed Toronto Raptors against the seventh seed Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee possess the youngest, and arguably the most exciting starting five in the playoffs. The athletic group of Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, Tony Snell, Thon Maker and Giannis Antetokounmpo are undoubtedly uber-talented. They even managed to take two games so far, but have relinquished control of the series to their more experienced opponents. After two consecutive first-round exits, the Raptors finally reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season. They fell short, losing 4-2 to eventual champions Cleveland, but Masai Ujiri has built this season’s team to push the Cavaliers to their limits. The acquisitions of 31-year-old P.J. Tucker and 27-year-old Serge Ibaka have bolstered the team’s defence, bringing a toughness and fight to Toronto, ensuring they will not be dominated physically. Holding a commanding 3-2 series lead over the young Bucks, it looks like the Raptors are well on their way to another battle with King James’ Cavaliers.
In what has been undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the first round, the Chicago Bulls took a 2-0 series lead over the Boston Celtics. The first seeded Boston has since won three straight games, but it is clear that playoff experience has played a key factor here, where the eighth seeded Bulls appeared poised to pull off a huge upset. While it’s no secret that Jimmy Butler is Fred Hoiberg’s number one option on offence, he has been supported by veteran leaders Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo. Rondo was sensational in the Game 2 victory, turning back the clock with a stat line of 11 points, 9 rebounds, 14 assists and 5 steals. Away from the box score, they bring championship pedigree to this team, with Wade being a key member of the 2006, 2012 and 2013 Miami Heat title-winning sides, and Rondo being the point guard of the 2008 Boston Celtics championship team. The fact that the Bulls have struggled on both ends of the court since Rondo’s unfortunate thumb injury speaks volumes of the value of his experience brings to the team.
Over to the Western Conference, where the second best team in the West –and arguably the second best team in the league– San Antonio, face the seventh seed Memphis who have suffered through an inconsistent season littered with injuries. Memphis came into this series without their best perimeter defender, as Tony Allen continues to suffer from a right calf strain. On paper, the Spurs win this series comfortably. Grizzlies fans should be grateful that games aren’t won on paper, but on the hardwood, as they have managed to take two games at at home. The Grizzlies have kept their ‘grit and grind’ core together for the better part of a decade, and have showed the value of experience against a San Antonio side lacking the leadership of Tim Duncan for the first time in 19 years. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph have made San Antonio fight hard for their 3-2 series lead, and will look to push them to a Game 7 tonight at the Grindhouse.
Generally, in the 2017 playoffs, more experienced teams have enjoyed success, while younger teams like Portland and Oklahoma have struggled, with only one win between them. NBA fans, like many other sports fans, are excited by these young talented teams; gauging their potential, predicting their ceilings and comparing them to current stars. It could be down to the slower pace of playoff basketball, or simply a case of familiarity, but time and time again, when the regular season comes to an end, the elder statesmen of the league remind us of the value of experience.