Aging Curves for Wings

Shawn Marion, Gerald Wallace

A few months ago, I began a look into the value of defense, which spawned a series including Aging Curves, two of which were All Players and Guards only.  Today, the series turns towards “Wings”.  “Wings” are the players defined as shooting guards or small forwards by the wonderful basketball-reference.  For players whose careers veered between those positions and “point guard” or “power forward”, subjectivity was needed on who to include as a “wing”.  As a general rule, small guards like Jason Terry or Flip Murray did not make the cut, while bigger players like Andrei Kirilenko and Shawn Marion were included.

A few quick refreshers on the Aging Curves:

  • The curves are built from the 2-year APM at gotbuckets.
  • The curves are minute weighted, so that the turbulence of low minute players doesn’t overly influence the results.
  • The ages are from the second season, using the bball-ref method (age on February 1st)

This series has been informational for gauging the career arcs of defensive minded players versus offense-first guys, and also updating the blogosphere on what the scoreboard says about when players reach peak value. 

How Did the Wings Perform?

Continuing the trend of the “All Players” article, the best fit curve for “Wing” offense peaked around age 27 or 28, as shown in the graph below.  As depicted on the defense graph, the “Wings” never stopped getting better.  While that result is surely due to the more capable or committed defensive players lasting longer in the NBA, it perpetuates the “All Player” trend of defense continuing to improve into the early 30’s.

Wing Offense Aging Curve   

Wing Defense Aging Curve

Even with their steady improvement, as a whole the “Wings” never perform better than average for Defensive 2-year APM, while never falling below that level on offense.  Combining both ends of the court, the “Wings” exceed 2-year APM of zero from age 26 through 33 

Like previous posts, the “WIngs” were split into subsets of the players with a 2-year APM for each set in a given age range.  This reduces the sample of players, but also provides a glimpse into a specific sect of guys, and how that exact group progressed through their careers.  There were only 39 “Wings” with a 2-year APM for each of their age 23 to 28 seasons of the 2-year APM’s available at gotbuckets, and their aging through these prime years is depicted in the graphs below.  The results largely mirror that of the entire “Wing” group, with offense and defense trending upwards through the mid 20’s, but with defense exhibiting more dramatic improvements.

.Wing Age 23 to 28 Table

Wing Age 23 to 28 Offense Graph

Wing Age 23 to 28 Defense Graph

Next, a subset of the 57 “Wings” with 2-year APM in each of their age 26 to 31 seasons was developed. Again, this smaller group mirrors the results of the whole.  The best-fit curve on offense is peaking in age 27 to 28 range.  Defense proves relatively consistent, though the last two seasons, age 30 and 31, are the best and third best seasons. As postulated in previous posts, players appear more likely to rely on their athleticism for offensive success, while knowledge gained about the nuances of the NBA game seems to portend increasing defensive prowess late into careers.  Wings Age 26 to 31

A Defensive Swoon at Age 24?

One odd exception to the defensive trends appears early in the NBA career spectrum and is very pronounced on the graphs for all “Wings” and age 23 to 28 “Wings”. In every case (All Players, Guard, and Wings), the players at age 22 and 23 performed better on defense than age 24, afterwhich the upward trend continues.  In another article too, of a subset of 70 players in their prime years, looking at the three graphs focused on age 22 to 28, the 2-year defensive APM is the worst (twice) or second worst (once) at age 24.   I won’t go overboard in assigning meaning, but it is interesting that this similar result occurs everywhere from “All Players” down through a variety of player subsets, spread across all positions.  Could this be a function of player reaction to the contract life cycle stipulated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement?  Many of the league’s eventual high-minute players enter the league at 19 or 20, with the final years of their rookie contract occurring around age 22 or 23.  Around that time they are auditioning for extensions or restricted free agency.  Effort could regress after the new, bigger paychecks are assured.  Of the “Wings”, notable defensive players like Andre Iguodala, Andrei Kirilenko, Gerald Wallace, and Lebron James each offered lower 2-year APM at age 24 than 23, while for the latter three their 2-year APM for age 24 covers their initial years after signing a first non-rookie contract.  It is always an interesting result when the numbers match up with an possible psychological phenomena that is influencing player performance.

Also, a large share of NBA rookies were college seniors the year before.  The age 24, 2-year APM likely represents the first two seasons of those guys’ NBA careers, when they are still learning the pro game.  The combination of these two factors may cause the dip in the curves around age 24.

Comparison to Guards

In one regard, the “Guards” and “Wings” were similar; offense peaked around 27. In other places, distinct differences appear though.  The “Guards” showed very little for a defensive trend, basically beginning their careers as sub-par defenders and generally perpetuating that.  The “Wings” offered definite movement up.  It was noted above that the average 2-year APM of the entire group of “Wings” exceed zero from age 26 to 33.  “Guards” only met this threshold at age 30 and 31. 

Both of these items signal the superiority of larger wings over smaller guards.  This is also a finding of previous pre-draft measurement stuff I wrote at hardwood paroxsym.  According to APM, the “Guards” were better on offense, but were defensive liabilities throughout their careers, combining to make the bigger wings better contributors to winning. The LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George’s continue to rule the world.  There are lots of super high quality guards in the league, but if you need a tie-breaker at draft time, pick the big Wing.

That is all I have for today.  Today’s outcomes include:

  • The idea of offensive performance peaking around age 27 gains reinforcement.
  • Wings continue to improve their defense into their mid-thirties though.
  • A small defensive swoon is occurring for NBA players during the timeframe of the 2-year APM at age 24.  This may be a minor ramification of the CBA.
  • Due to their ability to impact the game at both ends of the court, big “Wings” are better NBA performers than smaller “Guards”.

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