Youth vs. Experience: How Age Impacts NBA Finals Performance
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured, from left: Richard Hamilton (32), Shaquille O’Neal (34), Rasheed Wallace (30) and Ben Wallace (3).
LeBron vs Butler. Brow vs Bam. Lakers Exceptionalism vs Heat Culture.
There are plenty of storylines heading into Wednesday’s 2020 NBA Finals tipoff, but there’s one other major story at play: The extensive veteran experience of the Los Angeles Lakers vs. The youthful energy of the Miami Heat.
LeBron James is 35 years old and playing in his 10th NBA Finals. Danny Green is making his fourth Finals appearance. Rajon Rondo is back in the Finals for the first time in a decade and third time overall. Dwight Howard was on the 2009 Magic team that fell to the Lakers. We’ve seen these veterans on this stage before.
The Heat, by contrast, are young and vastly inexperienced at this level. Their best player, Bam Adebayo, is 23 years old in his first season as a starter. Sharpshooter Duncan Robinson is playing in his second NBA season but is essentially a rookie. Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro are actual rookies. Herro will be the first player born in 2000 to take the court in an NBA Finals game.
That young Heat core is buoyed by veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, but neither of them had even played in the Conference Finals before this season. Only Andre Iguodala has played on this stage before, and he’s not even playing 20 minutes per game for Miami.
However you slice it, this is a battle of youth vs experience; young vs old.
So what can we learn from past Finals matchups between a veteran team and a youthful upstart squad? Using this helpful roster tool from Real GM, let’s take a look at the five biggest age disparities in the Finals over the last 15 years.
These are the five teams that were much younger than their Finals counterparts and what came of their youthful foray into the Finals:
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2012 Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s still hard to believe that this was the lone Finals appearance for Oklahoma City. At the time, this looked like the beginning of a decade of a dominance.
And it was — just not all together.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden each went on to win an NBA MVP, but they were just babies in their joint Finals appearance in 2012. All three players were 22 or 23 years old, combining with Serge Ibaka to form one of the youngest NBA Finals cores ever.
Despite their youth, the Thunder opened as -175 favorites against LeBron James and the Heat, who had choked the previous summer against the Mavericks.
Oklahoma City opened Game 1 at home, falling behind early but roaring back with a huge second half to take the 1-0 series lead. But that was the last time the franchise would win a Finals game, still to date. The Heat won close battles in Games 2, 3, and 4 — each of them within a six-point margin of victory. Then, Miami helped LeBron win his first championship ring with a runaway closeout in Game 5.
2011 Miami Heat
One year earlier, the Heat were the younger team. James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh were each in the physical prime of their careers. After agreeing to play together the previous summer, this was supposed to be their crowning moment.
Blocking Miami’s path were the Dallas Mavericks: An older, veteran-laden team with a reputation for choking year after year on the biggest stage. Dirk Nowitzki turned 33 years old before the end of the Finals. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Peja Stojakovic were all in their 30s.
The Heat were younger, more talented, and confident. They opened the series as clear favorites at -175 and won their first game by eight points in front of a roaring Miami crowd. Game 2 came down to the wire before a memorable driving layup by Nowitzki evened the series. Then the Heat won Game 3 to retake the lead.
That was the last Finals win for the Heat during James’ first year in Miami. The older Mavericks won not one, not two, but three consecutive games to finally get Nowitzki his ring.
2008 Los Angeles Lakers
The 2008 Lakers weren’t particularly young — 20-year-old Andrew Bynum notwithstanding — but they were much younger than the Boston Celtics. Boston used a pair of trades to build a “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen — all of them on the wrong side of 30.
Other than Derek Fisher, every key Lakers player was under 30 years old, with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol still in the prime of their careers. This was Bryant’s first trip to the Finals without Shaquille O’Neal.
Los Angeles was favored in the series at -180 despite being the road team. The Celtics had been pushed to six or seven games in all three previous playoff series, and many wondered if they had a closing kick.
But Boston never trailed in the Finals. The Celtics won Games 1 and 2 at home. The Lakers won two of three once they returned home but could not overcome Boston’s home advantage as the Celtics won in six.
2007 Cleveland Cavaliers
James made his first Finals appearance at the tender age of 22. His teammates were mostly young too. Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, Sasha Pavlovic, and Daniel Gibson, all 25 and under, each featured prominently. This was all brand new for Cleveland, making their first Finals appearance ever.
The Spurs were very much the opposite. This was their fourth Finals appearance in under a decade and their third in five seasons with this core. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were 30 and 29, respectively, each just tipping past the wrong side of their primes. Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Brent Barry, and Robert Horry had seen some things. Tony Parker was the only Spurs regular under age 29.
Unlike the previous three youthful teams, the Cavs were far from a favorite. They came in as +360 underdogs but were more than up to the task. San Antonio swept Cleveland, but all four wins came by single digits — the final two Spurs wins were by margins of three points and one point, respectively. The younger team lost again, but it was closer than it looked.
2006 Dallas Mavericks
Half a decade before the Mavs were the older opponent, they were the young team in 2006. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Josh Howard were right in their prime, and Devin Harris was just 22 years old. No one on the Mavs was older than 31 except for end-of-the-bench veteran Darrell Armstrong.
The Heat were built around young superstar Dwyane Wade, but the rest of Wade’s team was quite old. Shaquille O’Neal was far past his prime at 33, and veterans Jason Williams, Gary Payton, and Alonzo Mourning were on their last legs.
The Mavs opened as -150 favorites and looked the part early. They defended home court convincingly with a pair of double-digit wins to take a 2-0 series lead and looked set to win their first title. But Wade took over from there, and Miami won four in a row to win the title.
Another young team had come up short when it mattered most.
Lessons From Past Finals Teams
What Can We Learn from Past Youthful Finals Hopefuls?
Those five teams had plenty in common. Each of them had key young contributors, especially compared to their older, veteran-laden opponent. Four of the five were favored in the series, and three of the favorites led early.
But all five younger teams lost in the end. In four of the cases, the older team won three games in a row to finish off its title run. On three occasions, the more experienced team won four straight.
History is not kind to younger teams in the NBA Finals: The veteran team almost always wins.
Of course, there’s one more example from this century featuring a younger opponent facing an older, veteran team — and it’s the most hopeful one for Heat fans:
2004 Detroit Pistons
This season was always supposed to be about the Lakers. Bryant and O’Neal were back in the Finals after a one-year hiatus, and this time they came with reinforcements. Karl Malone was chasing a ring at age 40, and Gary Payton was ring-chasing too at age 35. Horace Grant and Rick Fox were near the end of their careers. Heck, Derek Fisher was practically the young guard on this roster at 29 years old.
The Pistons were not exactly an afterthought entering the 2004 season, but they began the year as +1500 longshots to win the title. Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, and Rasheed Wallace were veterans in their primes but had never played on a stage like this before. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince were 25 and 23 respectively and relative unknowns at that point of their careers.
Detroit was a massive +500 underdog heading into the Finals, which was supposed to be a coronation for the Lakers and a ring at last for the Mailman and the Glove. LA had a pair of First-Team All-NBA players — the last Finals team to achieve that feat before this year’s Lakers. Bryant and O’Neal were the best two players on the court in every game, and that was supposed to be enough.
But it wasn’t.
Those Pistons were different. They were the rare champion that didn’t have a true superstar, elevating team play with stifling defense and an egalitarian offensive attack that featured a new leader each night.
Billups led the way in a Game 1 upset. Hamilton put up 31 points in Game 3 to help Detroit retake the series lead at 2-1. Wallace had 26 points in Game 4 to put the Lakers on the brink. Then, a true team effort finished the job in Game 5, with five Pistons scoring in the double-digits and none exceeding 21 points.
Detroit had a distinctive team culture that feels all too familiar to Heat fans. The Pistons players believed, and they maximized their talent at every turn. They played together and let whoever was hot lead the team.
Bryant and O’Neal were good for the Lakers, but not good enough. LA’s third-leading scorer in the Finals was Derek Fisher. He averaged 6.4 points per game.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the Lakers veterans, Detroit’s younger players ran those old fogies right off the court. The Pistons’ four Finals wins came by an average margin of victory of 13.3 points.
It was a verified rout — and a victory for team play and underdogs everywhere.
But it was also a rare victory for youth in the face of veteran experience. And it’s the precise blueprint the Miami Heat should follow if they want to pull off a similarly shocking upset.