A Whole New World: Will NBA Bubble Favor Young Teams Or Veteran-laden Squads?

Posted By Nate Weitzer on June 18, 2020
NBA bubble schedule return date

There will be tons of questions for bettors when the NBA resumes with an unprecedented format on July 30. Teams will spend a month going through individual workouts and team training camps before playing eight regular season games to finalize their playoff position and shake off the rust.

All games will be played at a neutral court in Orlando’s Disney World without fans. Players are going to be isolated, protected, and tested daily for coronavirus, so there is a lot more to the equation than basketball when it comes to betting on NBA futures.

In this article, we take a look at how the average age of playoff-bound teams could factor into their performance in the playoff bubble.

Traditionally, older teams have fared better in the later rounds of the NBA playoffs, but this format is anything but traditional.

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The elder statesmen

As of mid June, most sportsbooks have the Bucks (+240 at FanDuel Sportsbook), Lakers (+260), Clippers (+340), and Rockets (+1300) listed as the top four favorites to win the 2020 NBA championship.

It isn’t necessarily a coincidence that those are the four oldest teams in the NBA per median age. The Bucks and Rockets are tied for the oldest squads with an average age of 28.7, followed by the Lakers at 28.3, and then by the Clippers at 26.8. For comparison, the current No. 8 seed Grizzlies are the youngest team in the NBA with an average age of 22.8 and the league’s median age is 25.2, per RealGM.

Age tends to pay off in the playoffs because it often equates to experience. The last 10 NBA champions have had a combined median age of 28.7, with three of those teams (2007 Spurs, 2011 Mavs, and 2013 Heat) having had a median age over 30. The 2015 Warriors (median age of 26.9) were the youngest champion in today’s era.

While the stars on each of these championship teams might not be older than 30, their presence has drawn in valuable veterans who can play key roles in the playoffs. Giannis Antekounmpo, the likely repeat MVP, is only 25, but the Bucks have surrounded him with experienced players such as George Hill, Brook and Robin Lopez, Kyle Korver, Ersan Ilyasova, and Eric Bledsoe. And all of those players have at least nine years NBA experience.

The Lakers have those veterans and a leader (LeBron James) with 16 seasons under his belt and a league-record 10,049 minutes of postseason experience. With James out of the playoffs last year, Kawhi Leonard led the NBA with 939 postseason minutes en route to another Finals MVP. At 28, Kawhi is old enough to be considered a vet without the potential mileage concerns of the 35-year-old LeBron.

The young guns

Some of the teams on the fringe of making the playoffs out West are extremely young, such as the Grizzlies (22.8), Pelicans (24.6), Kings (25), and Blazers (25.1). But there are a few contenders in the East that are led by youth including the Celtics (24.3), Sixers (25.4), and Raptors (25.5).

For both the Celtics and Sixers, youth has led to chemistry problems in recent years, although Boston seems to be on the same page without Kyrie Irving. The Sixers, meanwhile, have been a mess this season. A mix of veterans and youth is always key, and Boston has seen an intangible lift by bringing in 30-year-old star Kemba Walker. The Sixers might have hoped for 34-year-old Al Horford to help with their locker room, but so far his presence hasn’t stabilized that team.

The Raptors had an average age of 27.3 during their title run last year. While they’re younger overall this year, key leaders Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Kyle Lowry have a combined 34 years of experience and young guns such as Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet thrived during their first postseason trials last season.

Analysis

By the numbers it appears older teams have an advantage in the playoffs, but what about these playoffs?

There is a strong case to be made for youth thriving in empty arenas. Younger players are more prone to distraction and can struggle on the road in tough playoff environments. The games at Disney World should be played quietly with even more speed and spread teams such as the Celtics potentially finding an advantage with their athleticism relative to older teams that prefer a more physical style.

For veterans, increased rest should be the biggest advantage. Over the past few seasons, stars have taken key days off all year to prepare for a playoff marathon, and now they’ve had three-plus months to rest. Kawhi and LeBron should be ready to log nearly 1,000 minutes in these playoffs if they’re called upon to do so, while overworked guards like James Harden and Russell Westbrook will be able to start with fresh legs.

Quiet arenas should also help veteran teams call out defensive signals and make adjustments on the fly. It’s yet to be determined how the officials will be affected at a neutral site, but it’s quite possible that the clout of veteran stars like LeBron will ring louder than the heckles or cheers of a non-existent crowd.

Finally, don’t discount the importance of maturity when it comes to navigating the dangers of playing sports during a pandemic. The leadership of LeBron should help the Lakers stay on the same page and avoid risking their health by leaving the bubble. A mistake from one player could lead to a key suspension or spread the virus throughout the team and effectively end their season, so everyone has to be on the same page. There are plenty of younger teams and players mature enough to avoid those risks in the name of contending for a championship, but age often goes hand-in-hand with responsibility.

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