Less than one percent

What are the odds an old player dominates the NBA?


On a podcast a couple of years ago, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon said that the Rockets traded Chris Paul away in part because Paul had the worst contract Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had “ever seen in business or sports.” No one would argue Paul is one of the best players of all time. The problem was that at the time Fertitta reportedly made that statement, Paul was making a big salary and was at an age—34—at which most of his contemporaries had retired. (Andrew Bogut, Channing Frye, Nate Robinson … Paul’s 2005 draft class mostly stopped playing years ago.)

In the two years since, Paul has made a mockery of Fertitta’s objection to two years at about $40 million each. First he made the tanking Thunder good, then he took the Suns damn near a title. 

Now, though, Paul’s 36, and just signed up for four more years at about $30 million each. Fertitta won’t be wrong forever. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated. What are the odds that Paul, and many of his colleagues who also just signed the biggest contract extensions in league history, will deliver?

Question: How many players are in the NBA?
Answer: According to Stathead.com, 540 suited up last season.

Question: How many of them are 33 or older?
Answer: 35—or 6 percent of the league.

Question: Of players 33 or older, how many were elite?
Answer: LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Mike Conley were in the top 20, according to Box Plus-Minus. In the whole top 100, which encapsulates just about every player who moves the needle in terms of winning, there are just five more players 33 or older, for a total of eight. 

Question: What percentage of NBA players are old and elite?
Answer: Less than one percent. Of course these things can be measured and argued any number of ways. Others might define it as two percent, or five. But there’s probably not evidence to suggest that several of the NBA’s best players have ever been in their late 30s. 

Question:How common is it for a guard or wing 35 or older to be an elite contributor to an NBA team? 
Answer: By the rough-and-ready criteria we used, players at athletic positions have had 283 elite NBA seasons since 1979. Six players, over the last 42 years, have played at that level while over the age of 35. They are LeBron James (twice), Karl Malone (three times), John Stockton (six times), Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Dirk Nowitzki. 

Question: How many teams are betting, right now, that they can buck those odds?Answer: Most of the NBA’s good teams, including the Suns, Warriors, Heat, Jazz, Lakers, Nets, and others to be named later. After a frenzy of just-reported extensions:

  • Chris Paul will make $33.2 million when he’s 39. 

  • Stephen Curry will make $59.6 million when he’s 37.

  • Kyle Lowry will make $31.4 when he’s 37.

  • Jimmy Butler will make $51.7 million when he’s 36. 

  • Mike Conley will make $26 million when he’s 35.

Other stars of that generation—Kevin Durant, James Harden, Bradley Beal—are in line for similar extensions. We already know LeBron James will make $44.5 million from the Lakers at 37. 

The average NBA career is about four years. LeBron James and Chris Paul, shown here in 2008, have been among the very best for approaching two decades. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Sport

I called David Thorpe early and he was already leaving the gym. He has a bunch of professional players visiting from overseas. They are working out with his son Max, twice a day this week. 

The Lakers, I said in disbelief, lost Alex Caruso. 

“Max and I were just talking about it.”

Caruso is a big deal. In advanced stats, he is the third best defender in the NBA, as well as a 40 percent 3-point shooter, and only 26 years old. Every single one of those things is perfect for the Lakers, who are old, bad at shooting, determined to win with a defensive identity, and contenders if they get all these decisions right.

“I heard,” said Thorpe, “that they didn’t even try to re-sign him.” Cap-wise it probably just wasn’t possible.

The best ability, they say, is availability. That’s where young people crush it: They get hurt less so they play more. 

DunksandThrees has a clever way of estimating how many wins any player contributed to his team. It mashes together a player’s total effect on the court and how much they play. At 13th and 14th in the league, LeBron and CP3 were the highest-ranked old players. There are only a handful of players 33 or older in the top 100. 

LeBron led the Lakers at 10.1. Anthony Davis, who battled injuries, logged only 4.7. Players in their 20s that the Lakers have kissed goodbye—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5.2), Montrezl Harrell (4.8), Dennis Schroder (4.2), Alex Caruso (3.9), and Kyle Kuzma (2.0)—add up to more than 20 wins. 

The older players who will reportedly be replacing them—Russell Westbrook, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony—accounted for about 18 wins last season. But those new Lakers will be 33, 36, 34, 36, 32, and 37 next season. With all due respect to everyone involved, the math is that at those ages, retirement is more likely than explosive improvement. 

The Lakers are also said to be interested in Danny Green (34) and Avery Bradley (31). Perhaps they’ll keep Marc Gasol, who’ll be 37.

The big exception is Malik Monk, who the Hornets let go after an early career marred by a drug suspension and defense bad enough it led to a negative rating. However, the Lakers signee will be 23 next season, and made 40 percent of his 3s.

If the Lakers are about to get a lot better, it’ll be from health luck, incredible coaching and teamwork, or moves that have yet to be made. 

In some ways, the Heat are making even bigger bets on old players, with commitments to the twilight years of Lowry and Butler. But they also have a number of good young players in the mix: Bam Adebayo will be 24, Tyler Herro 22, Duncan Robinson 27. 

The Suns’ Chris Paul bet is massive, but all in all they are young. Deandre Ayton will be 23, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, and Cam Johnson will all be 25. 

Maybe players train better now and their peaks will last longer. Maybe there’s something different in the NBA water these days. 

Just for fun, I dug into that average age of the NBA’s top 20 players, by Box Plus-Minus. Through the decades it has always been around 27. Thirty years ago, in Michael Jordan’s heyday, it was 27.45. Last season, a little older, at 28.35. LeBron James and Chris Paul were the outliers, who did a lot to haul the group’s average age up. Most of the players on the list are much younger. Which begs the question: Are LeBron and CP3 anomalies, or trendsetters?

It’s uncertain. 

What is certain is that a lot of old players have epic guaranteed deals, and they won’t all pan out. Stephen Curry might be worth $60 million when he’s 37. Or the Warriors might decide that overpaying him in the second half of his career is worth it as a thank you for underpaying him in the first half. But what’s for sure is that when a 37-year-old devours $60 million of your cap space, you’re unlikely to contend. Teams paying salaries this big can probably only be good as long as their stars are.

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