The New York Knicks can already start planning a joint birthday party. Next March 22, center Marcus Camby celebrates his 39th birthday. A day later, Jason Kidd will turn the big 4-0. Somebody in the Knicks' front office better make sure they've got a lot of birthday candles on hand for the two veterans acquired this summer.
Adding Camby and Kidd will give New York a unique distinction. The Knicks will have more players 39 or older than played in the entire league any season from 2008-09 through 2010-11. New York isn't the first team with two players so old, an accomplishment first pulled off by the expansion 1995-96 Toronto Raptors (Earl Cureton and John Long). Since then, John Stockton and Karl Malone were both over 39 in 2002-03, the 1998-99 Magic had the immortal Dan Schayes-Dominique Wilkins combination and Charles Oakley played with 39-plus teammates for the 2002-03 Wizards (Michael Jordan) and the 2003-04 Rockets (Mark Jackson). Still, the Knicks are surely the first team to have both players beginning three-year contracts.
Camby and Kidd aren't alone, however. Steve Nash, 39 in February, got a three-year contract from the Los Angeles Lakers that will take him into his 40s. Kevin Garnett, a relatively youthful 36, also agreed to a new three-year contract to stay with the Boston Celtics. And Ray Allen, who will turn 37 later this month, signed a two-year deal with the Miami Heat. Add it up and there's never been a better time to be a free agent in the twilight of your career.
That got me thinking about the history of veteran players in the league. Since the 1979-80 season, here's a history of the number of players age 38 and older in the league (at season's end), plus their combined Wins Above Replacement Player.
Through the 1980s, it was rare for players to play through age 38. The complete list during the decade was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (responsible for nearly all the WARP provided by this group), Artis Gilmore, Elvin Hayes and Caldwell Jones. That's it.
By the '90s, 7-footers were regularly playing into their late 30s and 40s. Robert Parish was the only member of the group who continued to play at a high level, however. To find multiple examples of that, we have to go all the way into the 2000s. The Dream Team generation aged better than any the NBA had ever seen before. In 2002-03 alone, we had Michael Jordan and John Stockton in their final seasons, Karl Malone in his last All-Star-caliber campaign, and a member of the other Dream Team, Arvydas Sabonis. In 2004, Reggie Miller turned 38 while continuing to contribute to the Pacers for another two seasons.
For whatever reason, the tend did not last. After 2004-05, Miller's final campaign, we see relatively few valuable players 38 and older. Dikembe Mutombo was rotation-caliber well into his 40s and Darrell Armstrong had a random terrific season at 38, but not until recently did we see the kind of depth and quality among aging players that currently exists. While I've used 38 as a cutoff, similar trends are evident with players 37 and older, or 39 and older.
What's interesting is the trend is similar to what I found looking at a slightly younger demographic (32 and older) last season. This raises the intriguing question of whether aging has been cyclical in the league, or simply the distribution of elite talent. To try to answer that, let's look at the distribution of prime talent, between ages 27-29:
If you shift this graph backward nine years, and move it downward, it starts to look a lot like the previous chart. Naturally, the number of players in their prime is relatively constant, with expansion accounting for the rise in the '80s and early '90s. But their overall level of performance has been highly variable. 1989-90 and 1990-91 were the best seasons ever for prime talent, which only reinforces why the Dream Team was so special--but might have been even better in the summer of 1990.
This graph also suggests that the notion that the league suffered through a star drought in the mid- to late-90s has some validity. Obviously, there was the same amount of total WARP in the league, accounting for expansion. However, less of it was created by players in their prime as compared to the early '90s. Prime talent hit its nadir in 2002-03, about when league-wide scoring also bottomed out, before rebounding in 2004-05. That generation has yet to quite hit its late 30s, which suggests that we may be in for even more players contributing in the twilight of their careers if the trend holds.
At the same time, I feel like I now know a little less about how the aging process has evolved in the NBA over time. Separating the ebb and flow of talent from advances that are helping players stay healthy longer into their career will require more finesse than merely looking at the overall numbers.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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