The study of NBA players’ peak ages and year-by-year effectiveness in terms of decline and improvement has been relatively well hashed in the basketball analytics community, and there are multiple studies available to read on the web discussing how NBA players typically age.
Generally, NBA players peak a bit earlier than you might think, somewhere around the age of 25. Which makes sense, considering that’s probably around the area people are likely to be in their absolute athletic prime – at least in terms of explosiveness, endurance and speed. There’s some evidence to suggest that the very best players peak later, at 27 or even 28 years of age.
In most cases however, knowing when an average player peaks doesn’t really matter. Every player is different, and for most factors such as playing time, role and teammate quality make a bigger impact than any calendar year would – regardless of age.
Even when you know that the correct answer is somewhere between 25 and 30 years of age, you shouldn’t count anyone out. Steve Nash had his statistically best season at age 32, JJ Redick is better than ever and he’s 31 years old, and Kyle Korver made his first (and likely only) All-Star team a month before turning 34.
Overall, when talking about players leaving their primes, it doesn’t mean that players have lost their effectiveness. It’s about some aspect of a particular player’s game deteriorating, and the interesting battle that player has to fight to find other ways to be more effective. After struggling with the Nets in 2013-14, and then the Wizards for much of the year, to be the scorer he used to be, Paul Pierce found a niche in the playoffs as a stretch four. Pierce’s effectiveness increased, despite a near two-year hiatus from being able to help a quality team.
Chris Bosh is another example of a player whose effectiveness has increased this year from his previous few seasons. Bosh isn’t at his best chasing around stretch bigs and small-ball power forwards on the wing, but the Heat are able to get an advantage against virtually every team with Bosh at center. Bosh is making three-pointers at a career-high rate, and his pick-and-roll defense in the lane is one of the best in the league, even if he’s not quite as quick as in his athletic prime with the Raptors.
Unlike Bosh, most top players transitioning into the next phase of their respective careers are still mysteries, in terms of what their game will look like in the future – looking ahead, say, two to three seasons. To various degrees, some signs of aging are clearly there, but how these players will change their games to be effective is perhaps less so.
Let’s focus on five guys.
If you happened to watch Eurobasket this summer, you would have thought that Parker was done. In the tournament, Parker shot just 34.3 percent (37-of-108) from the field, including 28.6 percent (8-of-28) from the shorter international three-point line. Parker couldn’t get into the lane, and when he did, Parker couldn’t finish over less athletic rim protectors.
Coming into the season, the biggest concern for the Spurs’ success had to be Parker’s decline, his constant nagging injuries, defensive liabilities and the fact that Parker was terrible in the first round series the Spurs lost in seven games to the Clippers.
Parker’s quickness, and ability to get into the lane to finish at an elite rate made him special, and if he’d lost just half a step, it’s quite likely Parker had lost much of his effectiveness.
In many ways, the results have been better than expected. Overall, Parker has been really efficient and is shooting career-highs from both the field (52.6 percent) and from beyond the arc (43.3 percent). However, the crucial question for Parker is; can he still turn the corner on pick-and-rolls?
For years, Parker was a statistical anomaly. When you looked at the Top 10 scorers in the paint, Parker would be the only guard in the list and literally everyone else was a big man, except for perhaps LeBron James.
Over the last two seasons, Parker has shot 60.5 percent from within three feet of the basket, and 45 percent of his attempts have come from within eight feet of the rim – numbers which are down from 65.2 percent and 51 percent through his previous four seasons. The Spurs do a great job getting Parker attacking the defense on the move off their motion offense, which has been a big part of keeping him effective.
The bigger problem for TP isn’t efficiency, it’s volume. Parker’s free-throw attempts have basically halved from around 5.5 attempts in his best seasons to just 3.0 attempts now. Parker is also averaging under 10 field goal attempts per game for the first time since his rookie year. His three-point percentage is up, but Parker is attempting just 0.9 a game, and hasn’t proved that defenses will have to respect him out there.
Particularly in the playoffs, when defenses are better prepared to play against and have time to scout the Spurs and decide who to leave open, Parker is going to be the odd man out and will have to make shots for the defense to react to him. Going under screens can be effective, since Parker isn’t able to make the defense pay in the same way anymore by getting a running start to the rim. Don’t be surprised if Patty Mills gets extended minutes over Parker in the playoffs.
Going forward, defense will be a huge question mark for Parker, who has never been elite at that end even at his best. Also, as he transitions into an off-the-ball role, becoming a better shooter at a higher volume of shots will be key.
Gasol has had an interesting roller coaster ride over the past few seasons. Benched by Mike D’Antoni after a week and being in constant trade rumors took a toll on his effectiveness, but after signing with the Bulls most felt like Gasol was back at the top.
Gasol made the All-NBA 2nd Team last season and averaged a career-best 11.8 rebounds per game. However, some of the advanced numbers weren’t that high on his performance, particularly defensively.
Last season, the Bulls struggled to make the Gasol-Noah frontcourt pairing work, and with the two of them on the floor together Chicago outscored opponents by just 2.8 points per 100 possessions – a relative disappointment for a starting duo considering the Bulls’ title hopes.
The spacing offensively was mediocre, and defensively Gasol was overmatched against perimeter-oriented bigs and faster wings in small-ball lineups. The Bulls tried putting Noah on some of those matchups, but that took him away from protecting the rim, where Noah has always been at his best.
Interestingly though, having Gasol play against power forward matchups was a huge win for him on the offensive end in terms of individual numbers. Gasol is one of the best post-up players in the NBA and absolutely destroys smaller post defenders with his combination of skill and size.
This season, now battling against bigger and stronger post defenders at the center position, Gasol has struggled to score in the post and be efficient. Gasol is shooting just 45.6 percent from the field, by far the lowest mark of his career, and has posted just 0.83 points per possession on post-ups, ranking him in the 51st percentile among qualified players this season. He just can’t score against good post defense anymore.
Defensively however, Gasol has been pretty good, and the move to being a full-time center has helped. Gasol is a really smart defender, and actually a pretty good rim protector – if he gets to the correct spot on time that is. The Bulls currently rank fifth in defensive rating, allowing a stingy 99.0 points per 100 possessions, and surprisingly Gasol is averaging a career-high 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes and opponents are shooting just 45.3 percent at the rim with Gasol defending.
Going forward, Fred Hoiberg will have an interesting balancing act with Gasol. The Bulls have to play him at center for defensive purposes, but also find him opportunities to play against backup units, as most teams don’t have two elite defensive centers, to allow Gasol to make an impact with his post game.
The Grizzlies used to beat teams by grinding the game to a halt and destroying teams on the glass, but now they simply aren’t a great rebounding team anymore – ranking in the bottom half in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
Randolph epitomized the grit-and-grind era Grizzlies, but for the strategy to work, the Grizzlies had to be perfect defensively, and Randolph had to destroy opponents on the offensive glass. Especially in the modern pace-and-space era, it’s just hard to play two slow and lumbering big men if you don’t get a massive advantage on the glass. Opponents have been able to use their speed successfully against them this season, and the Grizzlies rank 24th in fast break points allowed at 14.7 per game. Overall, Memphis has been outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions this season.
None of this is Randolph’s fault in particular. The team around him has declined, and Marc Gasol hasn’t been as good defensively as in years past. Tony Allen has really struggled offensively, Courtney Lee can’t get out of his shooting slump and Mike Conley has struggled relative to the All-Star worthy season he had last year.
In his last 10 games coming off the bench, Randolph has averaged 22.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes and provided a great punch off the bench. As mentioned earlier with Pau Gasol, Randolph gets a huge boost playing against bench units, where teams typically like to go smaller. Randolph probably can’t dominate the boards and be a menace under the basket in the same way against starters consistently – and it’s basically become unviable for the Grizzlies to play full time with Gasol and Randolph because of speed issues.
Randolph is a really tough and smart defender, and the Grizzlies made a smart move moving Randolph more to a backup center, where his foot speed in pick-and-roll defense works better than when having to chase guys on the perimeter. A process that is likely to continue in the next few seasons.
Make no mistake, Korver was an absolute sure-fire star last season. Korver ranked 11th in ESPN’s RPM metric, and just the threat of Korver shooting was enough for defenses to completely lose their minds. The Hawks outscored opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions with Korver on the court last year, compared to being outscored by 3.1 points when he sat – equaling the difference between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets this season.
In the video above, Korver catches the ball coming off a pin-down screen and just the threat of him being open is enough for the entire defense to freeze while DeMarre Carroll back cut to the basket for an easy layup. Korver finished the season shooting 49.2 percent from the three-point line, producing around 1.48 points per shot, which is just about the amount of points produced by an average NBA player taking a pair of free throws.
Coming off an ankle surgery, Korver is shooting a career low 35.8 percent from beyond the arc this season, including missing 18 in a row at one point – something that would have been unheard of in previous years.
It’s not just Korver’s shooting that makes him effective, but the constant movement and the pressure he puts on the defense that has to keep track of him at all times. This takes a tremendous amount of energy and Korver has to be in incredible shape to have his legs under him for his jumper.
Turning 35 years old in March, Korver can’t keep running off endless down screens and side-to-side action, and slowly he’ll become a more stagnant spot-up three-point shooter. He can remain effective in that role.
Korver has always been an underrated team defender, and he ranked 10th in both 2013-14 and 2014-15 among shooting guards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. If Korver can stay as something close to an average defender in the next few seasons, even as his athleticism continues to decline, he should be a valuable shooter and two-way player.
NBA players typically start declining rapidly at around the age of 32, and Korver is clearly the exception to that rule. Shooting tends to age well until a player completely loses his legs.
James is still one of the best players in the NBA, and he’s averaging 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game – not far removed from his career averages or even some of his best seasons. By the end of the year he’ll be deservedly in the Top 5 in MVP voting and will take his place on either the first or second team All-NBA.
It may not be obvious by his stats, but the first indications of his aging are starting to show in some of the more advanced numbers… even if his overall production and effectiveness has yet to decrease noticeably.
The league average around the basket is around 55 percent every season, and LeBron James has continually been by far the best finisher in the NBA consistently over the past years, only matched in individual years by players who exclusive dunk the ball such as DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler. In 2013-14, his last season in Miami, LeBron finished a preposterous 504 of his 673 field goal attempts, a 74.9 percent rate, at the basket. This season, James is down to 64.9 percent, which is still elite, but down from his crazy historic levels.
More interestingly, the first signs of LeBron’s decline are better shown by the fact that he has been blocked nearly twice as often within ten feet of the basket, compared to previous seasons. Up from around 5 percent of James’ attempts being blocked, closer to 9 percent in 2015-16.
Another interesting note about LeBron is that his jump shot has basically disappeared ever since the Finals against the Warriors. This season, LeBron has only made 70 of his 250 jump shots, which is just a 28 percent clip. Compare that to his last season with the Heat, when LeBron shot 40.6 percent on three-pointers.
By all accounts, LeBron should be a better shooter than he’s shown this season. But exactly how much he can bounce back remains an unknown.
Defensively, at his best LeBron can still be a force and disrupt the offense by getting into passing lanes and turning those steals into easy breakaway dunks. But as James has aged, his consistency on the defensive end has waned. LeBron is a completely different defensive player when it matters, but during the regular season he’ll have nights where he doesn’t close out on three-point shooters like he should, and is clearly conserving energy.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.