While the Miami Heat, at one time supposedly unbeatable with three stars in their primes, have stumbled to a 9-8 record to open the season, several veteran clubs, led by considerably older stars, are showing that age is just a number in the NBA these days.
The Spurs, an NBA-best 14-2, are still built around 34-year-old Tim Duncan and 33-year-old Manu Ginobili. The Lakers, at 13-4, don’t start a player younger than 30. The Celtics (12-4) start a lineup with an average age of 32.8. Clearly, youth is overrated.
Let’s start with the Spurs, perhaps the most surprising member of the group. Many analysts had picked San Antonio to continue its downward trend this season - after all, the Spurs’ win total has declined in each of the last four season, and they were swept out of the playoffs by the Suns last season, a team they usually own come playoff-time.
Instead, after a 1-1 start, the Spurs responded by ripping off a 12-game winning streak that ended Friday with a loss to the Mavs. The key to the Spurs’ success this season has been the deep ball - they lead the league with a 43% mark from three-point range. Leading the charge for San Antonio are two resurgent veterans: Richard Jefferson and the aforementioned Ginobili. Both are taking (and making) three-pointers at career-high rates.
Jefferson, 30, who struggled in making the transition from starter to role player in San Antonio last year, seems to have found his niche this season, averaging 15 ppg on 51% shooting (including 44% from deep). Ginobili is on pace to average a career-high in points (22 ppg), shooting (47%), and three-point shooting (40%) while knocking down almost three treys per game. And no discussion of the Spurs’ ability from downtown would be complete without mentioning 30-year-old forward Matt Bonner, who leads the league with an astonishing 55% 3FG (of those players attempting at least 30). Rookie James Anderson has also been impressive off the bench (10-for-20 on treys).
For years, the Spurs relied on Duncan to get his points down low while Ginobili and Tony Parker took turns slashing to the paint. With Duncan noticeably declining offensively, the Spurs have looked to spread the floor more and save Duncan for where he is still truly needed, as the key cog of the Spurs’ defense.
While some two-time defending champs with an aging superstar might try to take the regular season easy and save up for May and June, the Lakers have continued to show the form that has made them so hard to beat over the past two years. They lead the NBA in scoring and Offensive Rating and are second in rebounds, assists, three-point shooting, and free-throw shooting.
Quite simply, they do everything well. Even without Andrew Bynum, the frontline of Lamar Odom (15 ppg, 10 rpg, 58% FG) and Pau Gasol (22 ppg, 12 rpg, 55% shooting) is dominating teams that can’t compete with LA’s size. Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher can both shoot it from deep (both over 47% 3FG) while new additions Steve Blake and Matt Barnes aren’t too shabby either (both over 44% 3FG).
There’s no reason to expect that the Lakers would take a step back this season, and they may feel (rightly) slighted that the media anointed Miami as the team to beat. With the Lakers, it is pick your poison - they can feed it inside to Odom or Gasol. And if nothing’s going on down low, Gasol, one of the best passing big men in the game, can find an open man for the outside shot. They’ve also incorporated their free agents much smoother than they incorporated Artest last season.
The Celtics certainly aren’t winning with their rebounding, ranking dead last in the NBA in that category. While that ranking will likely improve upon the return of Kendrick Perkins, signing twin towers Shaquille and Jermaine O’Neal (combined age: 70) has not helped the Celtics on the boards, the one area where they were significantly outplayed in last year’s Finals. Rather, Boston is flourishing due to terrific shooting, leading the league from the field (50%) and ranking third from deep (40%), along with their hallmark defense.
The 38 year-old Shaq has been a particularly pleasant surprise this year on offense. In 22 minutes a game, he is averaging 12 ppg on an absurd 69% shooting. This is essentially what the Celtics envisioned when they signed him. Everyone knows that most areas of his game have declined, but there was still the thought that O’Neal could still dominate down low, especially against teams with little interior size (eg. the Heat).
So far, this has been the case, and it appears that Shaq is playing with added motivation this season. It doesn’t hurt that the Celtics’ three main rivals are led by players that Shaq would love to stick it to: the Lakers (Kobe, for obvious reasons), the Magic (Dwight Howard, for ripping off his Superman theme), and the Heat (Dwyane Wade, who didn’t end things on the best of terms with O’Neal in Miami).
O’Neal isn’t the main reason for the Celtics’ success, but he is one among many that has Boston playing well again. Rajon Rondo has been dishing out a ridiculous 14 assists per game, while Ray Allen, at 35, continues to play at an extremely high level (17 ppg, 45% 3FG). For a guard to play as well has Allen has in is 15th season is uncanny, but he is showing that, like Reggie Miller, the ability to hit three point shots does not decline with age. It doesn’t hurt that Allen is meticulous in his preparation for games and works out all the time to stay in shape.
Of course, Boston has continued to win with its defense, a strength ever since the Big 3 was formed in the summer of 2007. Boston is third in the NBA in Defensive Rating (101), and fifth in points allowed per game (93 ppg). Even with the departure of Tom Thibodeau, the Celtics have continued to play great team defense, anchored by Kevin Garnett down low. Their system is so solid that even the incorporation of O’Neal, a defensive liability, has not served to disrupt their performance.
So why do these teams continue to have success even as their stars grow old? The main reason is that each has had a successful system in place for several years, allowing each team to easily incorporate new bodies while continuing to move forward. For San Antonio, its screens to set up jump shots and allowing Duncan to pass out of the post while he anchors their defense. For Boston, it is a superb team defense.
For LA, it’s their supersized front line and the inside-outside threat of Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant. Because these teams are experienced in executing their system, they don’t have to rely on younger guys to beat people with their athleticism (see Miami). Rather, they know exactly how to beat you and never try to adapt to fit someone else’s game. How long they can continue to do this remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on them stopping any time soon.