A few weeks ago, one of the NBA’s younger superstars won a title, beating a Finals opponent themed mostly around youth. On Thursday, one 22-year-old will try to take his nation to a surprise spot in the Olympic gold medal game while another just got paid to the tune of $207 million over five years.
Good to be young? In the NBA, absolutely. If you’re Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Phoenix Suns, Luka Doncic or Trae Young, certainly. Except that, in the mysterious world of this year’s free agency sweepstakes, it is also good to be old. Really good, in fact, and in a few cases, really profitable.
Gentlemen of, ahem, advancing years, have historically been treated with an abundance of caution when it comes to doling out big contracts. The human body, prior reason dictated, can only withstand so many years of the kind of physical pounding caused by 82 games of pro basketball and must naturally slow over time. The league even implemented rules expressly designed to prevent old dudes from earning too much.
All of which is why the theme of deferential respect being given to a series of players deep into their 30s as free agency kicked into gear this week has been more than a little surprising.
On Monday, Chris Paul – 36 years spry – inked a four-year, $120 million contract with the Suns, the team with whom he defied expectations this past season in guiding it to the verge of a championship.
It was the furthest Paul had advanced into the postseason in his entire surefire Hall of Fame career, and the monetary reward is partly a thank you, yet also recognition the franchise believes he can contribute just as strongly for years to come.
Never before has such a deal been made, nor anything remotely close to it. According to The Ringer, the biggest point guard contract awarded to a player Paul’s age or older was when the Lakers gave Steve Nash $28 million over three years in 2012.
It was rapidly followed by news of Kyle Lowry, 35, being handed $90 million over three years to leave Toronto and join the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade. The Utah Jazz and Mike Conley (33) joined the party too, wrapping up a deal worth $72 million over three years.
The NBA is a young league, sure, but also one that’s coming to realize experience is worth its weight in wins. Lowry knows what it feels like to capture a title, with the Heat perhaps seeing that knowledge as even more vital than his point guarding aptitude.
Paul’s smarts and support for emerging superstars Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton is regarded as critical to the long-term strength of the Suns organization. Having veterans that can still play at their peak, or close to it, while adding so many intangibles, creates a product of immense value.
“I’ve never known a guy who cares so much about basketball and competing at everything,” Ayton said of Paul recently. “It’s contagious and that’s what he built in me as well and just having him as a teammate and the experience that he’s went through and teaching me the little things has helped me and it’s working.”
In Utah, Conley is seen as an anchor for a franchise that hopes to turn regular season excellence into more productivity once elimination basketball rolls around.
All of a sudden, age isn’t just a number, it is a valued proposition.
“The best teams in basketball right now are old teams,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on “First Things First.” “The Nets are old, the Lakers are old, the Warriors are old, the Heat are old-ish, then there are the Suns with a 36-year-old point guard and the Bucks who have the best of everything.”
While Phoenix, Miami and Utah paid generously for their veteran leadership, the Lakers tried to snatch some experience at a bargain price. With a roster looking painfully thin on numbers after trading for Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles added Dwight Howard (35), Trevor Ariza (36), Wayne Ellington (33) and Kent Bazemore (32), all on veteran minimum agreements.
Signing those players to short-term, low-cost deals will allow for the significant flexibility needed to accommodate LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on the same court. The Lakers might not be done yet, with rumors linking Andre Iguodala and Carmelo Anthony to L.A. too, a pair of 37-year-olds that would truly send the average age spiking.
Part of it all is a realization that improved nutrition and conditioning knowledge, plus medical advances in treating injuries, have allowed players to perform better, for longer, and it puts the NBA in a fascinating spot.
Every team that doesn’t have its young superstar of the future is still looking for one, though there is a simultaneous appreciation that casting aside veterans simply on account of their age has the potential to come back and make you look silly.
It’s a young man’s league and an old man’s league all at the same time, and it is in the balance between the two where the key to success truly lies.
Here’s what others have said …
Rob Mahoney, The Ringer: “The Heat are buying a contending window with their disregard for what happens after it closes. Frankly, more teams should operate this way. There’s a time for prudence, but too many franchises hide behind it—passing up opportunities to improve their rosters only to claim, in defeat, that they did everything they could to win.”
Jason McIntyre, FOX Sports: “The Miami Heat with these moves have passed the Milwaukee Bucks. The Heat are now the second-best team in the East and it’s undeniable.”
Chris Broussard, FOX Sports (on the Heat signing Kyle Lowry): “I like the move, it reminds me of trying to build a team like the Detroit Pistons in the early 2000’s. But they just don’t have enough talent to beat that Brooklyn team.”