The DEFEND Cleveland Show

NBA Titles and the Veteran Minimum


LeBron has returned, the spotlight of the sports universe has been redirected, and it’s officially locked its gaze on you Cleveland. It’ll be strange uncharted trip that lie ahead for Northeast Ohio, for certain, as attention, expectations and scrutiny will be at an all time high across the board for a team and city where Championships of any kind have been absent for 50 years. All of a sudden you have the best player in the world, a young all-star caliber guard still coming into his own, and a wealth of other young talent with leverage to continue to add to the roster in very impactful ways.

Kevin Love for Wiggins rumors, anyone?

Regardless of the tantalizing addition of Love or not, however, we are and will be still talking about a team whose potential starting 5 outside of Varejao and LeBron is certain to be both very young as well as bereft of any playoff experience. Does youth and inexperience really matter that much, or is it truly a best talent trumps all scenario? Well, yes, sort of, and absolutely not at all, all at the same time.

Sure the team play of the current champ San Antonio, which hearkened an era of the game thought lost to non-HD footage, isolation plays and the earlier chapters of Simmons’ Basketball Bible, was magnificent and inspiring. And yes the teaming of the Big 3 with LeBron in Miami who made the Finals four out of four years, won 2 and were in every way dominant, and improved upon Boston’s teaming of a Big 3 who achieved half as many Finals appearances and titles than Miami over a span of 5 years. When you consider these recent examples of ultimate NBA success, the pairing of David Blatt, a coach who preaches team chemistry and the strength of all hands on deck/moving the ball like Pop’s Spurs, with a new Big 3 being either a version of LeBron, Kyrie and Wiggins, or even the stronger possibility of LeBron, Kyrie and Love, it’s very tantalizing proposition to say the least. But let’s look a little deeper at what are the markers of a true championship team.

For the ease of this exercise, let’s say the Wiggins for Love deal goes down. Let’s do this just due to the obvious that no matter what Wiggins ceiling might be, just looking at next year’s 2014/2015 Cavaliers squad, and one that includes Love over Wiggins would clearly project to be a better team. The big question at the end of the day no matter what, is whether or not it will be enough to win the title next season. And here’s where great expectations smash headlong into reality. You can call it the up and down of the Love Rollercoaster if you’re an Ohio Player.

If NBA history has taught us anything, championship teams are made up of three things above all others: 1) a solid starting 5 with 2-3 All-Stars in the mix, 2) a solid bench that at least rotates 2-4 significant contributors, and 3)…the least discussed aspect…a roster heavily balanced in favor of veteran players.

Over the last 25 years of NBA titles the aggregate age1 of the starting 5 for each championship team has been 29.1 years old, with the team’s main bench contributors averaging 29.3 years of age. I.e.,old and older.

Simply put, anyone can win, but only veteran squads typically win rings. In fact that’s so much the case, going all the way back to 1980 only 3 teams have ever won it all with a starting roster under the average age of 27 years old (the 2004 Pistons with an average age of 26.6, and the 1985 and 1980 Lakers2 26.8 and 26.4 respectively), and only another 5 teams in that time won with a starting roster averaging under 28 years old. All told, over the last 34 years of NBA only 8 teams featured a starting lineup who averaged being under 28 years old and none were younger than 26. Even with Love added to a projected starting roster of Kyrie (23 in March), Waiters (23 in December), LeBron (30 in December), Love (26 in September) and Varejao (32 in September), you’re talking about a starting 5 that would only be 26.8 years old come next year’s Finals with only two of its players having ever played more than 82 games in any given year. No matter how much the Vegas line will be pushing the bet with them as favorites if Love is a Cavalier, this suggest the odds will  definitely not be in Cleveland’s favor.3

It’s an old man’s game, bottom line. Just looking at the Jordan era and on, Michael’s starting Bulls Championship teams were 28-29 years old on average during their first 3 titles, and 31 and almost 32 years old for their last 3. Hakeem’s back-to-back Rockets starting 5’s were 28-29 years old. Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers were 28-30 years old for their 3-peat. Kobe’s next 2 were just over 27 in 2009 and over 29 in 2010. The Mavs lone title was the oldest starting 5 at 31 years young since those last Bulls 3-peat years. Wade’s first title in Miami saw him surrounded by vets both starting and on the bench (28.2 for the starters, and featured the oldest championship winning bench rotation since the ABA-NBA merger with an average age of 33.7), and the recent go round with LeBron at the helm were 28.4 on average in 2012 and 29 in 2013. Last year’s Spurs? 29.4 years old, and their 4 previous titles ranged from over 27 years old for two of them and over 30 years old for the other two.

The reality, much like LeBron learned his first two trips to the NBA Finals, is that you typically have to experience loss when playing for the game’s biggest prize before you can claim it. Beyond that, your roster definitely needs to at least be playoff savvy as well as feature a veteran majority. Without those last two things your odds range from complete rarity to never been done before. It may be a young man’s game on the whole, but it sure ages you quickly to play it at its highest level, and only the elder statesmen of the game are ever favored to walk away with the hardware. With LeBron starting next season the same age as the average Championship winning roster over the last quarter century, you can see why Cleveland might not choose to be patient and grow with Wiggins, and instead do their best to win it all sooner rather than later.
– Mike James

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  1. For this research I looked at the starting 5 rosters used in the Finals for each NBA Championship winning team (using Basketball-Reference) and averaged their age. In some cases when starts were split between players in the series I used the player who started the most games, or in rare instances where two guys shared the same amount of starts, I went with the player who averaged more minutes per game. For determining the bench’s average age I only calculated the main contributors, defining that as the players who played an average of at least 10 minutes or more per game. []
  2. The 1980 Lakers might be the best comparison to what the Cavs would look like next year in their hopes of winning a Championship. With the a LeBron/Kyrie/Love/Waiters doing their best impersonation of the combination of a 32 year old Kareem averaging 33.4 pts, a 20 year old Finals MVP in Magic, a 26 year old Jamaal Wilkes and 24 year old Norm Nixon, it’s not a tremendous stretch to see some similarity there. That said, Kareem, who’s somehow one of the most underrated players of all time, was an incredible rim protector who nearly blocked 5 shots a game in those Finals. No one on any projected Cavs roster is accomplishing that feat next season. []
  3. Let’s say Love doesn’t join the Cavs and the team instead features a starting 5 of Kyrie, Wiggs, LeBron, TT and Andy, they would average only 25.8 years old. You’d have to think all hope is out the window for next year if that were to be the case as no team since 1980 has won this young. Does this drive the argument to trade for Love even if it costs you Wiggins? Yes, yes it does. []

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Posted by on Jul 18 2014. Filed under Featured, Show Reports. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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