Superstars are now dominating deep into their 30s and reshaping the NBA
Up until fairly recently, most NBA players began to decline in their early 30s and were often out of the league by their mid-30s. That’s obviously changed now, with more and more players playing longer and with virtually no dropoff, and at some point, it’s less of an outlier and more of a trend. There are numerous examples of this too, one being Chris Paul, who averaged nearly 11 assists per game and led the league in that category.
LeBron James, who was drafted all the way back in 2003, averaged an incredible 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 6.2 assists last season. In fact, most of his stats from last year were better than his career averages, meaning that at 37 he’s technically playing the best basketball of his career, proving that he’s far from done. Not to be outdone, Kevin Durant averaged nearly 30 per game at age 33, DeMar DeRozan had a career year at age 32, and Stephen Curry was an NBA Finals MVP at 34. What’s going on?
Load management has preserved a lot of NBA superstars despite the criticism.
While load management has been widely criticized, it’s also part of the reason why players are playing longer. Tim Duncan is the poster child for this, after initially playing big minutes to start his career. In each of his first six seasons, Duncan averaged at least 38 minutes per game while only missing a total of nine games. However, those big minutes may have led to him developing plantar fasciitis.
Because of that nagging injury, coach Gregg Popovich was forced to cut his minutes and rest him on the second half of some back-to-back games, and thus load management was born. Popovich continued that strategy for the rest of Duncan’s career, and it allowed him to play incredibly well into his late 30s.
Looking at today’s game, the minutes that players log are way down from even the early 2000s. Like Duncan, other stars often played more than 36 minutes a game, and it wasn’t uncommon for some to average 40 minutes. That’s obviously not the case now. Looking at the all-stars from last season, James Harden averaged the most minutes at 37.2.
Meanwhile, back in the 2000-01 season, Michael Finley led all all-stars with 42.2 minutes per game. In fact, six of those players averaged more than 40 minutes per contest that season. Long story short, minutes are way down with teams playing their best players much less than they would’ve twenty years ago, and fewer games too.
The NBA has also responded to the trend of load management by shortening the preseason and spacing out the regular season to slash the number of back-to-back games and four games in five nights. They’ve also expanded the all-star break to nine days, giving stars more time to rest during the break. All of this, as well as less practice and players taking better care of their bodies, leads to less wear and tear and contributes to a player’s longevity.
What impact does it have on the NBA?
The most obvious impact is that it means older stars are overlapping with younger stars, and that’s increased the talent level in the NBA. For instance, Paul is the engine of one of the best teams in the league and is 12 years older than his all-star teammate Devin Booker, while James is about eight years older than Anthony Davis, and Curry is eight years older than Andrew Wiggins.
That previously didn’t happen; we didn’t see Magic Johnson play with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, who joined the Lakers the year after he retired. These multigenerational teams, like the Phoenix Suns, combine experience and youth, and it can be highly effective, leading to a new type of superteam.
Moreover, we’re likely going to see more of that going forward, with top players seemingly peaking later and declining much slower than ever before, in addition to the NBA lowering the age limit. That will also result in a more even distribution of stars and, by extension, increased parity.
Ultimately, players playing well into their 30s have become increasingly common and are a result of several factors. No matter what, it’s great for the NBA and means more star power and parity.