By Ben Fisher
Better luck next year, Oklahoma City Thunder. No big deal, Blake Griffin and John Wall.
Amidst a supposed youth movement within the NBA, three veteran clubs widely thought to be on the downward slope find themselves among the league’s elite at the quarter pole of the season. A quick peek at the NBA standings reveals that the Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks are the only teams with winning percentages above .800 on the year.
Yes, those are the very same squads that are respectively led by a core “Big Three” with an average age of 34, 34-year old Tim Duncan who is closing in on 1,000 career games and a 32-year old MVP candidate in Dirk Nowitzki buoyed by 37-year old Jason Kidd.
So what has kept them atop a league thought to belong to a Miami Heat franchise boasting three 20-something stars, the rapidly emerging Thunder and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers? For these teams, age has been more asset than liability.
Heck, the Celtics have benefitted from the age and experience of their old “geezers” since a 2007 off-season overhaul brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to pair with Paul Pierce.
Sure, having Rajon Rondo – a pup relative to some of his greying mates (those with hair, anyway) – around to spark Garnett, Allen and Pierce doesn’t hurt. But those two NBA Finals appearances in three years, including the 2008 title, would not have come to be without the leadership, experience and urgency that comes from a combined 44 years in the league from the still-Big Three.
Even as recently as this off-season, critics pointed to age, injuries and improved competition signalling the decline of the Celtics. GM Danny Ainge, however, ran counter to popular opinion and added a pair of veteran O’Neal’s (big men Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal) to further add to a deep, experienced frontline. Just as ball don’t lie, neither do 17-4.
Out west, the Spurs continue to ride the Duncan and Co. train to success, while still managing to unearth the under-the-radar gems as complementary pieces (hands up if you had heard of Gary Neal before this season).
The Big Fundamental’s game is, predictably, showing some signs of fading, opening the door for long-time running mates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli, along with a revitalized Richard Jefferson, to carry more of a load for the club. In the league-best 18-3 Spurs’ case, it isn’t a matter of lacking in young talent – Neal, DeJuan Blair and George Hill can all play – but the veterans simply aren’t ready to hand over the reins yet.
The Spurs’ main rivals atop the Western Conference – at least at the moment – are the cross-state Mavs, who are once again cruising through the regular season at 17-4.
Outside of back-up guards Rodrigue Beaubois and J.J. Barea, no member of the Mavs regular rotation was born after 1982. That battle-tested veteran rotation includes Nowitzki, Kidd, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and Shawn Marion, all of whom have participated in their share of big games without (Kidd excepted) winning a title.
In comparing the respective Big Three`s, many an NBA observer has taken notice of the Heat`s lukewarm-but-improving 15-8 record out of the gate in contrast to Boston`s 27-2 mark at the outset of the Garnett-Pierce-Allen era. The difference, it seems, is that the Celtics trio had the experience to know they needed to make sacrifices and do what was necessary to win.
Maybe these teams still know a thing or two that their younger counterparts don`t.