On a drive to the basket by Indiana Pacers guard C.J. Watson, Golden State Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa stripped the ball away from Watson and into the hands of Brandon Rush, who collected the loose ball and started bringing the ball up the court. Rush passed the ball to teammate Andre Iguodala, who dished off to the right corner, where the ball returned to Barbosa, who nailed the corner three.
Those names–Barbosa, Rush, Iguodala–do not spring immediately to mind when you think about this season’s league-leading Golden State Warriors. For fans, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson stand front and center, and with good reason; the team would not have a 44-11 record without those two players. But that record would not be nearly as good without Barbosa or Iguodala, nor backup point guard Shaun Livingston, either. (Rush has spent most of this season on the bench.)
What’s the most notable trait shared by Barbosa, Iguodala, and Livingston, as well as other Warriors like David Lee, and Andrew Bogut? By NBA standards, they’re all old.
The Warriors’ recent improvement–from a 47-35 record to last season’s 51-31 campaign to today’s dominance–has been built largely on young talent. Adding Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes to established yet still youthful stars Curry and Thompson was vital to turning around a long-time loser. But young players can’t turn things around by themselves. You have to supplement those talented but callow players with seasoned professionals in order to get a team’s engine firing on all cylinders. To understand how the Warriors made their move–or how any losing team must hope to improve–it is crucial to recognize the difference that’s made by bringing in the right veterans.
Three seasons ago the Warriors were good and improving, but not close to challenging for a title. Their regular rotation featured superior talents, but a thin bench relied too heavily on young players like Kent Bazemore and Festus Ezeli for major minutes. Of all the players on the roster, only Curry was listed as a true point guard.
“Long-established NBA dogma says that, for all the flash and dash that rookies bring to the Association, veterans win in the playoffs.”
That situation was typical of developing teams. Too often management tries to rebuild through a sweeping “youth movement.” Both the starters and reserves on such teams feature young and talented, but unproven, players. (Today’s Philadelphia 76ers are an extreme example of this–assuming they haven’t turned over their entire roster again before the end of this sentence.) Unfortunately, “youth movement” programs rarely bring immediate positive results; if the rebuilding team struggles, management may scrap the plan…and then the rebuilding starts all over again. Another “youth movement” creates more inconsistency, more impatience–and a fan base that tires of the team. For all the emphasis placed upon the draft–to the point of open tanking for a high pick–building through the draft is, and always has been, a hit or miss proposition.
The Warriors, after years of youth movements, finally got smart. Good draft choices were supplemented by trades for solid, complementary veterans (Lee, Bogut, Iguodala) and shrewd free agent signings (Barbosa and Livingston). Note too that the blossoming of Curry and Thompson into an All-Star tandem came in their 6th and 4th seasons, respectively. And remember, both Curry and Thompson played three years in college; those youthful stars aren’t so youthful any more.
Meanwhile, look at the teams sending top picks out onto the hardwood each night? Among teams with last year’s top five picks, only Milwaukee seems like a good bet to reach the playoffs. Young studs are great, but it takes experience–it takes veterans–to lead a team to the top of the standings.
This is hardly news, of course. Long-established NBA dogma says that, for all the flash and dash that rookies bring to the Association, veterans win in the playoffs. The league’s two most recent “big bads”–the Spurs and the Heat–were veteran-laden teams with lengthy playoff resumes. Indeed, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were only able to collude their way onto the same team because they were veterans; you have to put in your years before you reach free agency and get to call the shots.
These truths are not merely self-evident in the NBA; we see the same formula working all around the sports world.
Was it an accident that the stunning, last-second interception that decided the Super Bowl was thrown by 3rd-year quarterback Russell Wilson instead of 13-year veteran Tom Brady? Probably not.
Madison Bumgarner’s titanic 2014 postseason was the work of a 25-year-old, but one finishing his fifth season in the majors. Along the way, Bumgarner’s Giants beat the Washington Nationals, who famously tried to build by riding the arms, legs, and backs of the very youthful Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Of course, Bumgarner and teammate Buster Posey both won rings in their rookie seasons; championship-winning rookies often turn out to be veteran champs, too.
In tennis, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal dominated the circuit for years before ceding the high ground to Novak Djokovic. Only twenty-seven year old Andy Murray seems like a viable consistent challenger to Djokovic, and there are no junior players who look ready to make a splash anytime soon.
On the other hand, both of this season’s surprise NHL teams, the Nashville Predators and New York Islanders, are getting big contributions from players in their early twenties. Of course, neither the Preds nor the Islanders have won anything just yet; if Lord Stanley rests in the hands of either Filip Forsberg or John Tavares come June, maybe we’ll have a real counterargument. But in the NHL, winning the President’s Trophy usually guarantees nothing.
All in all, the sports landscape looks a lot like a place where experience matters–something you should think about during the upcoming NCAA Tournament. (Which you probably shouldn’t watch, but you will; more on that next week.) Don’t forget, as you watch that parade of one-and-doners, that Curry and Thompson both stayed in school for three years.
The bottom line: If you’re a gambler and you need to bet the house on a game, you’d be wise to lay your money down on the guys with a touch of gray in their beards. If you bet on youth, however promising they may seem, you might wind up without a roof over your head.