Prior to further exploring my initial, value of defense premise, I continue sidetracking into player aging. As noted in my last article, an exploration of positional groupings will now commence. Those are: Guards, consisting of point guards and shooting guards (all positions as per basketball-reference); Wings, comprising shooting guards and small forwards; and Bigs, the contingent of power forwards and centers. Today, guards are the focus.
With the backcourt crew, several previous trends continue, primarily offensive performance peaking in the late-twenties, and appearance of a minor swoon in the age 25 to 26 timeframe. Position specific outcomes also prove prevalent though. Mainly, guards are the League’s best players at bucket-getting, but they stink at defense, generally not improving much at that end through their careers. Add it up, and as a whole, they are the NBA’s least valuable group of players, rarely providing above average 2-year APM (as a group, only at age 30 and 31).
The first table / chart reflects the minute-weighted average 2-year APMs of every guard to play between 2002 -2003 and 2012 – 2013.
From the moment they enter the NBA, the backcourt dwellers provide strong offense, never posting a negative 2-year APM. As reflected in the graph, from age 20 through 30, relatively continual offensive improvement is shown.
Defense is another story though, with little in the way of discernible growth between age 20 and 33. The group actually appears to get worse at defense through their mid-twenties, before improving through the tail end of their careers. As a broad brush, stroke, this may be a symptom of: A) playing hard to prove themselves early; B) then taking it a bit easier on D through a guaranteed contract or two; before finally, C) primarily the guys with a commitment to defense, who were also generally solid offensive performers, are the last men standing. Regarding that last point, an odd item of the table is the huge uptick in performance at age 35 & 36. I attribute this to lesser players having “retired”, while essentially “stars” remain. The 35-year olds feature several aging icons, like Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Vince Carter, Chauncey BIllups, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, etc.*
Certainly, the guards performed admirably on offense, never posting an average offensive performance worse that 1.1 points better than average per 100 possessions. This rates supreme over the “wings” and “big men”. On the other end of the court though, they struggled mightily, rarely clearing 1.5 pp100p worse than the mean. Aside from the late career timeframe, at only two ages (30 & 31) did the NBA’s guards provide composite, above average performance. This contrasts with the wings and bigs, and is somewhat suprising in an increasingly fast league, taken from a sample of seasons largely after the new hand checking rules. For all the benefits of the hand checking rules for perimeter offense, those largely negated the ability of guards to make strong defensive contributions. Despite a romanticizing of small ball, as an aggregate concept, size still appears to reign supreme in the NBA.
Next, I’ll provide a closer look at a few specific career stages. As detailed in previous posts, the sect of players represented below were isolated to include only players with 750 minutes for each age of 2-year APM within the graph. For guards, from this 11 year timeframe, that provides a sample size of 37 guys for age 22 to 27, and 44 guys for age 26 to 31. That is relatively small, but does compliment the outcomes described above.
Both graphs again show steady improvement for offensive aptitude until the late twenties, with a decline beginning near age thirty. Again, defense randomly oscillates, not trending any direction through a player’s twenties, until an uptick towards the latter career stages. Finally, as a whole, these results mirror the outcome of guards succeeding at offense, failing at defense, and when taken in conjuction with upcoming posts on wings and bigs, generally inferior to their larger brethren. As a very general rule (not personnel specific), moving towards size, and away from guard-dominant lineups, proves beneficial to NBA success.
Over the next couple weeks, a similar treatment will be provided for the careers of “wings” and “big men”.
*The dynamic of only the best players remaining at very late career stages skews many of aging curves at the tail end.