When do aging NBA players face an inevitable drag on their production, raising DNP totals while pulling down minutes played and fantasy values?
Tim Duncan will play in the All-Star game this weekend just a few months before his 39th birthday, but he's a glaring exception. Guys like Kevin Garnett (38) and Kobe Bryant (36) are more representative of the steep downward curve faced by aging athletes in the NBA. The answer to the question 'when will age take a toll?' will vary from player to player, of course, and a quick analysis of league-wide statistics paints a picture that might surprise you.
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I first accumulated every player's season stats from NBA.com, then eliminated any players who haven't appeared in at least 10 games and/or haven't averaged at least 10 minutes per game. That cull left a population of 363 players, which I trimmed to an even 300 by eliminating the bottom 63 players as gauged by 8-cat values.
It's worth mentioning at the top-300 players this season have an average age just a shade under 27 at this date in the season (26.98, to be exact). There isn't much noteworthy variance between the positions, though PGs as a group are the youngest and PFs are the oldest.
Point Guards: 26.53
Shooting Guards: 27.19
Small Forwards: 26.86
Power Forwards: 27.33
To give fantasy owners a benchmark for expected production at each position, and to satisfy my curiosity, I also tallied up the average top-300 stat line for each position. These are all actual stats except for 'Weighted FG/FT values' which are z-score based.
With those numbers in mind, let's proceed to some age-based analysis. Ages among the top-300 players this season range from a low of 19 years (Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Zach LaVine and Jabari Parker) to a high of 38 years (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter).
Number of players in top-300, by age
This is a predictable result. A handful of neophytes made the cut, as did a handful of players 35+, but the vast majority of the top-300 consisted of guys hovering near the mean age of 27. In fact, 45.3 percent of the top-300 players were between 25-29 years old. That prime window for production is worth stashing away in your memory-bank.
Average 8-cat fantasy ranks, by age
This is where things get interesting. Note that a lower rank is better, so the 25-year-old cohort fares best with a top-300 average of 110.6. Twenty-seven year olds are the most voluminous group, as we've seen, but they're not necessarily the most productive -- with a mean rank of 172.9, they're slightly worse than the youngest group (23 and under) and considerably worse than the oldest group (33 and over). Bear in mind that this is a self-selecting population of the top-300 players -- there aren't many very young or very old players in the NBA, so the ones that make the cut are by definition the most productive in their age group.
Average number of games played, by age
I was surprised by these results. The fact that players 21 years old and under haven't played in a ton of games makes sense, as some of them picked up DNP-CDs early in the season and have been slow to find their footing in the NBA. After that, however, I expected to see a slow but steady decline in games-played, with the oldest players faring the worst. Instead we find an extended dip from ages 26-33, with players 34+ actually raising the population mean.
Of the top-300 players who are 34 years or older, only five have appeared in fewer than 40 games this season -- David West (38 games), Mike Dunleavy (34 games), Tayshaun Prince (34 games), Chris Andersen (35 games) and Kobe Bryant (35 games). This could be misleading, however, as once again it's a self-selecting group of the most durable veterans in the league...and you won't find Steve Nash dragging down the average because he didn't meet the 10-game threshold. Older players are also (anecdotally and logically) more prone to DNPs down the stretch, either because their team is out of contention or they're resting up for the playoffs. I'm pointing out some caveats which make these results less surprising, but I'm still impressed by the relative durability of these older players.
Average minutes played, by age
The distribution of minutes-played across different age groups is what you'd expect to see -- the youngest and oldest players get the least court time, particularly those 35 and older. The group of eight 33-year-olds who made the cut is a clear outlier at 29.7 minutes per game, more than eight percent higher than the next-closest group (25-year-olds). Joe Johnson's 35.6 minutes per game give a big boost to the 33-year-old group, followed by Kyle Korver (33.2 minutes), Zach Randolph (32.6), Dwyane Wade (32.3) and Jose Calderon (30.0). It's worth noting that the latter two guards have already been limited by injuries for extended stretches this season.
I never know where the stats will take me during a given column and I wanted to touch on a few other topics, but spent so much time compiling the numbers that I've run out of time. I'll revisit this age-based analysis with a few tweaks in a future column, and encourage you to message me on Twitter @Knaus_RW if you have any suggestions or interesting findings based on the numbers. Click here to explore my latest set of rankings, which extends to the top-300 and has separate ranks for 8-cat, 9-cat and both of those formats punting FT%. Enjoy the All-Star break!