Athletes age much quicker than the rest of us. Look at Derek Jeter: Just two years ago he had one of the best seasons of his career, finishing third in the MVP vote; now, at 36, he has limited range in the field and is overmatched at the plate, struggling just to get the ball in the air.
What has happened in this year’s NBA playoffs is striking even in the sports world. The three teams that claimed the last four titles—the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, and San Antonio Spurs—and the two that dominated the last decade (Lakers and Spurs) have been eliminated.
For the most part, the teams that remain are relatively young: the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Memphis Grizzlies. The Dallas Mavericks are the exception but we’ll get to them soon.
The changing of the guard doesn’t usually happen overnight, but it sure looks like this postseason will be viewed as a turning point for the league.
The Lakers were swept in the second round, but they are not done. Kobe Bryant is 32; Michael Jordan had another three-peat in the tank after his 33rd birthday. Lamar Odom (31) and Pau Gasol (30) are still in their primes and two of the better players at their respective positions. The role players need to get younger and quicker, but this core can still contend for a championship. That being said, they belong in this category because many of the other Western Conference teams are only going to get better, and this Lakers team has likely peaked.
The Celtics are in worse shape. Yes, Rajon Rondo’s injury was devastating, but if they couldn’t even force a sixth game with Miami this year, what hope do they have down the line? Paul Pierce is 33, Kevin Garnett is 34, and Ray Allen is 35. Boston is a playoff team next year but not likely a serious title contender.
|Pierce, Garnett (5), and Allen (far right) may not have another run left in them. (Credit: Eric Kilby)|
The Spurs are probably somewhere between these two. Manu Ginobli (33) missed Game One against Memphis but even with him on the court the Grizzlies looked like the better team. Tim Duncan, at 35, is still one of the best power forwards in the game, but he’s no longer dominant. San Antonio has always done well in the draft and will rely on its recent picks to thrive in the next year or two.
The New Kids
On paper, Miami is one of the older teams in the league, but Juwan Howard and Zydrunas Ilgauskas aren’t carrying this team. Dwyane Wade, at 29, is the oldest of the star trio, while Chris Bosh is 27 and LeBron James is 26. The Heat struggled at times during the regular season but has found its groove in the playoffs. If they can reach the finals and perhaps win it all in Year One, why can’t they continue the run for another 5-7 years?
The Bulls finished with the best record in basketball and their star, league MVP Derrick Rose, is just 22. Carlos Boozer is 29 while Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are 26. This team is set up to be great for a long time.
In Oklahoma City, stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both 22, and most of their supporting cast is young as well. They are one win away from the conference finals and are only going to get better.
|One of the best young scorers in NBA history, Kevin Durant. (Credit: Keith Allison)|
Memphis scored one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history with its victory over No. 1 seed San Antonio in Round One. The Grizz are the only playoff team that comes close to matching Oklahoma City’s youth. Shane Battier is the only player on the roster north of 30. Key contributors Mike Conley, OJ Mayo, Darrell Arthur, and Rudy Gay are under 25. We’ll see if these guys, and 26-year-old Marc Gasol, remain in Memphis for the long-term.
The Last Run
Tyson Chandler (28) and JJ Barea (26) are the only contributors to the Dallas Mavericks under 30. Starting point guard Jason Kidd, 38, is one of the oldest players in the league. The other key players are in the twilight of their primes. However, unlike the other “has beens,” Dallas hasn’t won a title. So in that regard, they should be the hungriest team in the playoffs, for whatever that’s worth. The Mavs beat a younger team in Portland but then faced the aging Lakers, so perhaps they’ll show their true colors in the Western Conference finals against either the Thunder or Grizzlies, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The NBA is different from other professional sports. This isn’t the NHL, where a hot goalie can carry a team for multiple rounds. This isn’t baseball, where the first round of the playoffs is a best-of-five series, meaning a couple of great starting pitching performances can lead to an upset. In the NBA, the better team usually wins. With the exception of the Lakers, I don’t think it is an overreaction to say 2011 is the official start of the NBA Youth Movement.