The Greatness of the NBA’s Old Guard Remains Astonishing
The Greatness of the NBA’s Old Guard Remains Astonishing
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The Greatness of the NBA’s Old Guard Remains Astonishing

The Greatness of the NBA’s Old Guard Remains Astonishing

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Each Wednesday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week: the geriatric greatness of LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant; remarkable rookie defenders, including Victor Wembanyama; and notes on the Minnesota Timberwolves, Indiana Pacers, and more. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: The Unprecedented Greatness of the NBA’s Old Guard

Ringer colleague Bryan Curtis loves what he calls The Old Guy Has Still Got It columns. We’ve all read this sort of story before: In a world that constantly seeks out the new and exciting—just wait, the next section in this week’s Kram Session is about Victor Wembanyama!—the veterans defying Father Time deserve our attention, too.

Yet for as clichéd as that angle might appear, it’s particularly relevant in the early stages of the 2023-24 NBA season. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James are Old Guys Who Still Have It, as they star for teams that hope to challenge the Nuggets for Western Conference supremacy.

It sounds almost silly to say, because they’re probably the three most famous, accomplished players in the NBA. But amid Wemby mania and all the other novel story lines that crowd attention spans in the first weeks of a new season, Curry, Durant, and James are flying a bit under the radar despite playing at an All-NBA level once again.

That’s especially true of Curry, who’s been the best of the trio in the early going—and arguably the best offensive player in the entire league. Curry is averaging 31 points per game on 53-47-91 shooting splits, making six 3-pointers per game, and shooting a career-best 64 percent on 2-pointers. His isolated placement on this graph is hilarious.

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Even at 35 years old, Curry remains as fearsome and effective as ever. In NBA.com’s annual GM survey, he received the most answers to the question, “Which player forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments?” And he’s currently blowing away the field for the best scoring season ever for a player his age.

Highest Scorers at Age 35-Plus

Player Season Age Points/36 Minutes
Player Season Age Points/36 Minutes
Stephen Curry 2023-24 35 35.0
Kevin Durant 2023-24 35 30.1
LeBron James 2022-23 38 29.3
LeBron James 2021-22 37 29.3
LeBron James 2020-21 36 27.0
Walter Davis 1989-90 35 26.6
LeBron James 2019-20 35 26.4
Alex English 1988-89 35 26.2
Dan Issel 1983-84 35 26.1
Karl Malone 1999-00 36 25.6
LeBron James 2023-24 39 25.4
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1985-86 38 25.3

Second on that list behind Curry is Durant, also this season, after the latter’s 41-point outburst in Detroit stopped a Suns losing streak. Compared to his usual standard, Durant’s shot is a bit off to start the season, but that scarcely matters because he still ranks sixth in the league in scoring, despite both of his star teammates abandoning him with injuries. (More on that problem in a moment.)

And what is there to even say about LeBron at this point? That chart lists 12 times that a player 35 or older averaged at least 25 points per 36 minutes, and five of the 12 belong to LeBron, in his age-35, -36, -37, -38, and -39 seasons.

Even in his 21st NBA season, nobody can stop the Lakers forward from getting to the rim if he wants. On a per-game basis, only Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo have more buckets in the restricted area.

None of this is new from the three future Hall of Famers. Even Curry’s ridiculous start from long range—he’s 47-for-99, with at least four makes in every game—is merely standard fare for him. In 2018-19, Curry went 48-for-93 on 3s in his first eight games, and in his unanimous MVP season of 2015-16, he was 41-for-87 through eight contests.

The point isn’t that Steph and Durant and LeBron have never done this before. It’s that they’re still doing it, even in their mid-to-late 30s, as the NBA versions of Tom Brady and Phil Mickelson and Sue Bird and the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic trio who have used advances in technology and medicine to boost their longevity. The advanced stat daily plus-minus, which projects “current player skill” levels, still ranks Curry, Durant, and LeBron among the top 10 players in the NBA.

That stasis yields some fascinating questions for the future. For instance, how high will LeBron’s record points total climb? Or how will Curry, already the NBA’s premier 3-point shooter, age? It’s impossible to predict because he has no precedents; it’s tempting to look at Reggie Miller and Ray Allen as comps, but by the time Miller and Allen were in their mid-30s, they were already years into a nice, smooth decline phase. Curry’s production, on the contrary, hasn’t yet started to fall.

Maybe, with his nonpareil ability to shoot and warp defenses, Curry will end up like LeBron, who has effectively defied the concept of an aging curve for years now.

In the meantime, Curry, Durant, and James have a chance to become the second 35-and-older trio ever to receive All-NBA honors in the same season. The previous group did so in a disjointed, low-offense, lockout-shortened campaign.

Seasons With Multiple All-NBA Honorees at Age 35-Plus

Season Players
Season Players
1998-99 Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton
2000-01 Karl Malone, David Robinson
2020-21 LeBron James, Chris Paul
2021-22 LeBron James, Chris Paul

The biggest obstacle to three old-guy All-NBA nods this season isn’t their performance when they take the court. It’s whether they’ll take the court enough to meet the league’s new 65-game threshold for end-of-season accolades.

Durant hasn’t played 65 games in a season since 2018-19—his last in Golden State. Curry hasn’t reached 65 since then, either (though he played 63 out of 72 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, and he reached 64 the next). LeBron hasn’t played 65 in a season since 2019-20.

All three players have avoided injury two weeks into 2023-24, but two of them are facing workload concerns already. Not Curry—he’s playing just 31.8 minutes per game, which would be a career low in a healthy season and is a drop of 2.9 minutes per game compared to 2022-23. That drop is due to the arrival of Chris Paul (another Old Guy Who Still Sort of Has It) and smart management from Steve Kerr, after Curry—carrying a tremendous offensive workload—seemed to wear down a bit by the end of the 2023 postseason.

Yet LeBron and Durant have had no such reprieve. LeBron’s supposed minutes limit this season lasted all of one game; he’s now up to 35.9 minutes per contest, a top-10 mark in the league. And Durant isn’t far behind, at 35.7 minutes. Other than LeBron himself in the past two seasons, nobody 35 or older has reached 35 minutes per game since Ray Allen in 2010-11.

The problem is that their teams desperately need them to play as much as possible, as both the Lakers and Suns are 3-4 and can’t afford to lose much more ground in a brutal Western Conference race. The Lakers have a plus-11.6 net rating with LeBron on the floor, versus a minus-37.0 without him, per Cleaning the Glass. Much of that disparity is the result of unsustainable 3-point luck, but still—minus-37!

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, Devin Booker has played only two games and is now out indefinitely as he deals with a spate of leg issues, and Bradley Beal hasn’t played at all due to a back injury. With those two guards sidelined, the Suns’ leaders in shot attempts after Durant aren’t exactly All-Star-level creators: 34-year-old Eric Gordon, Grayson Allen, Jordan Goodwin, Jusuf Nurkic, and Josh Okogie.

So it makes unfortunate sense that in a small sample, the Suns without Durant or Booker on the floor have scored an atrocious 83.9 points per 100 possessions, per CtG. Those lineups are basically the worst in the league at everything related to offense. (The numbers with a blue background are percentile ranks.)

It’s crucial for these players’ teams that they remain healthy and relatively fresh into next spring—when another ring, of course, would bolster their already impressive legacies. Curry, Durant, and LeBron have combined for seven regular-season MVPs and seven Finals MVPs, and they were all named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. Now, their longevity is yet another feather in their well-decorated caps.

Zacht of the Week: 24 Steals Plus Blocks

Only four players have at least 24 steals plus blocks—or “stocks,” as the boss calls them—this season. Here’s that leaderboard:

Steals + Blocks Leaders, 2023-24

Player Games Steals Blocks Stocks Per Game (Rank)
Player Games Steals Blocks Stocks Per Game (Rank)
Anthony Davis 7 7 23 30 4.29 (1st)
Victor Wembanyama 7 9 18 27 3.86 (2nd)
Ausar Thompson 8 12 15 27 3.38 (4th)
Chet Holmgren 7 7 17 24 3.43 (3rd)

No, I didn’t accidentally include a “rookies only” filter after Davis. This is the full leaderboard—and it features rookies in three of the top four spots!

This is utterly astonishing. As I wrote last week, in both a section about Thompson’s lockdown defense and an article about Holmgren’s hot start, rookies are almost always bad on defense, as they have to adjust to the speed and size of NBA opponents. In the 21st century, only three rookies have averaged at least three stocks over 40-plus games played. And we have three more on pace just this season! (More rookies reached that threshold in the ’80s and ’90s, when steal and block totals were higher leaguewide.)

Rookies With Three-Plus Stocks Per Game in 21st Century

Season Player Stocks Per Game
Season Player Stocks Per Game
2001-02 Andrei Kirilenko 3.4
2014-15 Nerlens Noel 3.7
2018-19 Mitchell Robinson 3.2
2023-24 Victor Wembanyama 3.9
2023-24 Chet Holmgren 3.4
2023-24 Ausar Thompson 3.4

Minimum 40 games, with the exception of 2023-24

One last note, which is probably premature because we’re only one-tenth of the way through the season: Only five rookies have ever made an All-Defensive team. All of them are big men, and all but one are inner-circle Hall of Famers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Manute Bol, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan.

Yet we might have three rookies with a legitimate case to be so honored this season. Thompson could be the first rookie perimeter player to make an All-Defensive team. Wembanyama really might contend for Defensive Player of the Year.

Take That for Data: Sometimes, It’s Just a Hot Streak

Here’s a useful guideline to keep in mind when analyzing players’ early-season performances: 3-point percentage doesn’t matter yet. Any conclusions you might draw from this data point—Dillon Brooks was a free agency steal; Julius Randle is washed; Scottie Barnes found a jumper—are almost certainly the result of random noise in small samples rather than meaningful changes to a player’s profile.

Analyst Kostya Medvedovsky calculated that a player’s 3-point percentage doesn’t stabilize—or become “mostly ‘real’ rather than noise”—until they’ve taken about 240 shots from beyond the arc that season. And a retrospective analysis of the players who started the 2022-23 season hot and cold from long range shows exactly why it’s important to not overreact to early-season 3-point percentages.

Through the first 10 games last season, 46 players had a 3-point mark at least 5 percentage points higher than their career average. Let’s call this group the “early improvers.” At the same time, 40 players were 5 percentage points below their career average; let’s call this group the “early decliners.” Well, over the next 72 games, both groups were basically the same.

Hot vs. Cold 3-Point Shooters to Start 2022-23 Season

Group # of Players Start of Season Avg. Change Rest of Season Avg. Change
Group # of Players Start of Season Avg. Change Rest of Season Avg. Change
Early Improvers 46 +9.6% +0.6%
Early Decliners 40 -8.8% +0.5%

This analysis includes players with at least 20 3-point attempts through the first 10 team games, and at least 100 3-point attempts in their career. “Changes” are compared to players’ career 3-point percentage entering the season. Averages are weighted by number of attempts.

No matter how you slice the data, early 3-point percentages simply aren’t predictive of the rest of the season. Even for young, developing players, hot early-season shooting rarely portends a sustainable breakout. This chart shows the early improvers last season who were 23 or younger. Only Josh Giddey maintained significant gains over the rest of the season, and for some players—notably Barnes and Ja Morant—early success gave way to a rest-of-season slump.

Young Early 3-Point Improvers to Start 2022-23 Season

Player Start of Season Change Rest of Season Change
Player Start of Season Change Rest of Season Change
Bones Hyland +15% -2%
Nassir Little +14% +3%
Ja Morant +14% -4%
Devin Vassell +12% +1%
Scottie Barnes +9% -4%
Cam Reddish +8% -3%
Josh Giddey +7% +6%
Trey Murphy III +7% +2%
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl +5% -5%
Tyrese Haliburton +5% -2%

Nor can early 3-point percentages reliably indicate which veterans have washed up. This chart shows the early decliners who were 30 or older. Remember, it seemed like a big deal that the likes of LeBron, Klay Thompson, and Chris Paul started out cold—and they ended up just fine; only one player from this group showed any decline at all over the rest of the season.

Veteran Early Decliners to Start 2022-23 Season

Player Start of Season Change Rest of Season Change
Player Start of Season Change Rest of Season Change
Harrison Barnes -17% +1%
Patrick Beverley -15% -3%
LeBron James -14% 0%
George Hill -13% +1%
Joe Harris -12% 0%
John Wall -11% +1%
Kyrie Irving -11% 0%
Chris Paul -10% +2%
Klay Thompson -9% 0%
Mike Muscala -9% +3%
Reggie Bullock -8% 0%
Reggie Jackson -7% 0%
CJ McCollum -7% 0%
Kevin Durant -5% +4%

Fast Breaks

1. We’re yelling Timber(wolves)

The two best teams this season are Denver and Boston. Those two favorites have just one loss apiece—and both defeats came against Minnesota. With Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards, and Jaden McDaniels, the Timberwolves boast the best defensive rating in the NBA; both the Nuggets and Celtics had by far their worst offensive showings in any game this season against the Wolves.

The Timberwolves haven’t been consistently dominant so far—see their 67-34 second-half thrashing at the hands (wings?) of the Hawks—and their 18th-ranked offense still looks rickety at times. But they’re developing a clear identity, and they’ve demonstrated that they can beat anyone. Maybe it’s not quite time to fire up the Trade Machine for Karl-Anthony Towns deals after all.

2. Nominative determinism in Indiana

Last week, I spent a Fast Break talking about the Raptors, who have a terrible offense, great defense, and slow pace and thus seem designed to produce the lowest-scoring games possible. Well, this week, let’s appreciate Toronto’s inverse: The Pacers rank second in pace, first in offense, and 26th in defense, and that combination has caused some ludicrous point totals.

The Pacers scored 143! Then they allowed 155! Then they lost a game 125-124! Then they scored 152! Tyrese Haliburton and friends are flying up and down the court, making every one of Indiana’s games must-watch TV. Circle November 22 on your calendars, when Indiana will meet Toronto in an epic clash of styles.

3. One cause for concern amid a hot start in Golden State

So, what’s going on with Andrew Wiggins? The Warriors wing has suffered a brutal start to the season on both ends. It’s not just that Wiggins’s shot is off; his 41-18-54 shooting splits are ugly, but I just wrote an entire section about how early 3-point percentages don’t matter.

Rather, the larger problem is that Wiggins is scuffling in all other areas, too. His rebounds are down, and his assists have dropped to 0.8 per game, compared to 2.3 in his first three full seasons as a Warrior. He has one steal, total, in eight games. His box plus-minus ranks 203rd out of 204 qualified players, ahead of only struggling rookie Scoot Henderson’s.

Kerr says he isn’t concerned, but he also didn’t play Wiggins at all in a tight fourth quarter against the Pistons on Monday. Keep an eye on the bounce-back potential here—the Warriors need the version of Wiggins that showed up in the 2021-22 playoffs if they want another title.

4. It gets late early for rookies who don’t play

It’s still very early, but I’m growing concerned about the highly touted 2023 draftees who have barely played yet. Jarace Walker, Taylor Hendricks, Jett Howard, Brandin Podziemski, and summer league MVP Cam Whitmore were top-20 picks this past summer, but none has reached even 40 NBA minutes thus far. (Kobe Bufkin and Jalen Hood-Schifino haven’t either, but they’re injured.)

To be fair, most of those players were drafted after their freshman college seasons, so they might just not be ready for the NBA until they get more seasoning, in either the G League or NBA practices. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of other freshmen or even less experienced players (like the Thompson twins, from Overtime Elite) from convincing their coaches they belong in the rotation. And while Podziemski might expect to scrounge for minutes on the Warriors, it’s harder to fathom why rookies on, say, the Jazz and Magic can’t find playing time.

Again, it’s early, but if these rookies don’t start appearing in more games soon, it will be a sign that they might not have much NBA potential. Here are the players from the past five draft classes who (a) were picked in the top 20 and (b) played fewer than 500 minutes as rookies (with adjustments for COVID-shortened schedules):

  • Johnny Davis, Wizards
  • Dalen Terry, Bulls
  • Jake LaRavia, Grizzlies
  • James Bouknight, Hornets
  • Kai Jones, Hornets
  • Jalen Johnson, Hawks
  • Jalen Smith, Suns
  • Romeo Langford, Celtics
  • Luka Samanic, Spurs
  • Jerome Robinson, Clippers
  • Zhaire Smith, 76ers
  • Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks
  • Lonnie Walker IV, Spurs

Other than Johnson (breaking out for the Hawks this season), DiVincenzo, and maybe Walker, that’s a rough list.



SOURCE : www.theringer.com

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