OKC Thunder: Paul George turns 29; is that his prime?
Paul George turned 29 Thursday, and suddenly I felt a tad better about the Thunder future. When you think about Russell Westbrook turning 31 next November, you realize the Thunder clock is not ticking, but speeding, toward the closing of a window. But then you remember that PG played all of this season at age 28, had his best year ever despite a shoulder injury, and the outlook seems a little brighter.
And it made me think. What is the prime of an NBA superstar? In the NFL, it’s all about position. A tailback is over the hill at 27. A quarterback is just learning the game at 27. In baseball, 27-28 generally was regarded as the prime, then steroids took over, distorted all the numbers, and I have no idea what’s the wheelhouse age on the diamond these days.
But in the NBA, I might have guessed 29. Still with twentysomething legs but with almost thirtysomething smarts. I thought George could still have his best year(s) ahead of him.
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And he could. But the prime of NBA superstars appears to be younger than 29.
I ran a study. I took all the players since 2000 who have been first-, second- or third-team all-NBA. I eliminated all the players yet to turn 32, because their careers have yet to be written. And I recorded at which age they had their best season.
I used PER (player efficiency rating) as my guide, and if you want to use something else, fine. There are other methods. I just like PER because it measures things statistically, using a broad base of data. I figure the results wouldn’t be too different.
Using PER, you find that Kevin Durant’s best season to date was when he was 25, 2013-14, his MVP season. Anyone want to argue? Russell Westbrook’s best season was when he was 28, his MVP year of 2016-17. No problem there. And George’s best year was this season, when he was 28.
But using PER, players tend to have their best seasons a little earlier. I found 60 players who qualified under my parameters – at least 32, an all-NBA selection since 2000.
Of those 60, the average age for best season was 26.6. The median age was 26.
Some of this can be skewed by youth. Derrick Rose, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and Brandon Roy were wonderful players who quickly became stars but were cursed with major injuries. Rose was MVP at age 22. They had great seasons early, then their careers were derailed. So that accounts a little for the numbers. And aging plays a part in production; as players get older, their coaches figure out that a rebound here, a basket there, isn’t worth the wear and tear on a great veteran and start curtailing minutes. The star might be as productive as ever, it’s just that he doesn’t play quite as much, for good reason.
But still, stars tend to have their best seasons in the mid-20s. Of the 60 players, 31 had their best seasons at ages 25, 26 or 27. Eighteen of the 60 players had their best season later than 27. Here is that list:
28: Joakim Noah, Carmelo Anthony, Eddie Jones, Paul Pierce
29: Alonzo Mourning, Sam Cassell
30: Manu Ginobili, Allen Iverson, Jamal Mashburn
31: Chauncey Billups, Gary Payton, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson
32: LaMarcus Aldridge, Tyson Chandler, Steve Nash
33: Karl Malone.
What does that mean for Paul George? Well, it doesn’t have to mean anything. All kinds of players on that lists. Three Spurs (Aldridge, Robinson, Ginobili; and Tim Duncan’s best year was at 27). Some ball-dominant personalities (Iverson, Carmelo). Point guards, centers, wings. But also Payton, a defensive-minded superstar like George. And an all-time great like Malone. And George himself will go on this list when he becomes eligible.
But which season will qualify? The Thunder hopes the best is yet to come.
Here is the rest of the list:
22: Derrick Rose
23: Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, McGrady, Stephon Marbury.
24: LeBron James, Al Jefferson, Deron Williams, Brandon Roy, Vince Carter, Grant Hill.
25: Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Zach Randolph, Andrew Bogut, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Gilbert Arenas, Ray Allen, Jason Kidd, Ron Artest.
26: Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, David Lee, Yao Ming, Shaquille O’Neal, Elton Brand, Jermaine O’Neal, Peja Stojakovic.
27: Tim Duncan, Goran Dragic, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Al Horford, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Ben Wallace, Michael Redd, Baron Davis, Chris Webber.