WRITTEN BY ZACH HEAD
Every year when the NBA welcomes a new rookie class, fans across the country shed a tear and joyously proclaim, “He’ll be so talented in three to six years!” There’s nothing more potent in sports than hope, and rookies offer the promise of Mr. Fantastic arms and prophetic high school (if not college or European) resumes. A potential All-Star on a $30 million/4 years deal? Sign every team up.
The problem is rookies are rarely good and often require another stop or two to reach their potential. We know this. It’s the simple NBA ecosystem that allowed the 76ers to Process their way to NBA contention by playing young (read: bad) basketball players to lose their way to more young prospects.
A quick survey of recent Finals champions reveals zero rookies who contributed meaningful minutes. Since 2000 “Big Baby” Davis (2008) and a 25-year old Manu Ginobili (2003) are the only rookies to play at least 12 MPG in the playoffs on a Finals winning team. Add Richard Jefferson (2002) if you include teams that lost. Of course elite teams usually draft in the late 20s, if they have their draft pick at all, yet the presence of such few examples belabors the point: it’s hard for rookies to contribute on contending teams.
The cultural focus on NBA rookies, arguably driven by the High School and AAU mixtape scene, has coincided with a noticeable contempt for veterans. I don’t know the average age of the NBA over time because NBA data is proprietary and I don’t know SQL, but it’s trending younger. A quick scan of a roster shows teams have shifted philosophies, reserving their final roster spots for developmental young players rather than the savvy veterans of yesteryear.
With the NBA Bubble in full swing, a couple rookies pop up in the depth chart of good teams — the Heat’s Tyler Herro & Kendrick Nunn and the eliminated Grizzlies’ Ja Morant & Brandon Clarke — but it’s the NBA’s eldest statesman who who have the real opportunity to make an impact. These players — demarcated here, arbitrarily, as 35 or over — lie symmetrical to rookies on parabolic production curves.
Most NBA players are long out of the league by 35. In 2019–2020, only 19 players over 35 touched a basketball court and three of those players played less than 10 games. The players that make it this far in their career know how to contribute to winning basketball, as evidenced by nine of the sixteen possessing All Star appearances on their resumes. But fading stars often don’t age the best. Blinded by their own sterling resume and visions of their former self, they often do more harm than good. These players rarely even make it to 35 — Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, etc. Regardless of the pedigree of their youth, all of these hoopers realize that the ever-shrinking window is now accelerating.
This leads us to the Octogenarian Rankings. Why are they called Octogenarians you ask? Doesn’t that mean someone is 80 years old? To which I respond, very boring question, but the answer is: being an NBA player 35 or over is roughly proportional to being over 80 in the US. These rankings don’t necessarily capture the best five old players in the NBA but rather the five who can most actively contribute to winning basketball this year and next.
It’s relevant to discuss Lebron and CP3 together. Despite Carmelo and Wade’s more glamorous careers, Paul has carved out the distinction of having the 2nd best statistical career to Lebron and it’s not particularly close. Despite his lack of playoff success, Paul’s numbers put him closer to Lebron on the scale of greatness than most (D-Wade’s statistical peak was arguably higher than Paul’s and his career was certainly more successful, but the numbers bare out CP3’s statistical supremacy).
It’s fitting then they both continue to spearhead contending teams. Lebron has transformed his game with age, relying on perhaps the greatest basketball IQ of all time (and elite size) to manipulate the game to his wishes. Teaming up with Anthony Davis allows Lebron to shift up on the positional spectrum and run point, a role that maximizes these unique talents. Lebron’s tightened command of the game along with an increasingly efficient jump shot means GOAT 1b arrives in the 2020 playoffs — his 17th season — as a Finals frontrunner.
Paul on the other hand was believed to be washed a year ago. He and the Rockets couldn’t wait to part ways. Paul’s albatross contract — $124M over three years at the time of the trade — stranded him in Oklahoma City to waste away his final seasons on a mediocre team. The abundant CP3 haters could laugh and point to his purgatory as punishment for the frustrating Clippers’ teams of the mid-2010s.
But Paul had other ideas. Taking an active leadership role with the Thunder, he got in better shape and embraced Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Shröder. Finally severing the KD/Russ era, Oklahoma City evolved into a legit Dark Horse in the west. Paul put together a vintage CP3 season outweighing his pedestrian counting stats (by CP3 standards) with league leading clutch efficiency. Despite losing a step, he’s remained a rugged defender who fights for every inch on the court. Offensively, he’s leaned into what made him great in the first place: elite IQ (there’s a theme here), slippery ball handling, and the most money elbow jumper since Kobe. The blend of passing, leadership, and go-to shotmaking may allow CP3 to put together a 3rd act more than a little reminiscent of Steve Nash.
While their final chapters remain open, Lebron and Paul are both aware the book will soon close. They’re in the unique position of being able to shape and dictate the modern game despite their classification as old as shit.
3. Marc Gasol
I’ll fess up to something. When I first created this list, I left Marc Gasol off. Despite the NBA Champion’s track record of success, his counting stats leave a lot to be desired. His splits of 7.5 PPG/6 RPG/3.3 APG are the lowest of any season since Marc first became an All-Star, largely due to playing only 26 MPG (also a career low) and being in and out of the lineup due to injury.
But to ignore the contributions of Marc Gasol is to ignore the linchpin of the NBA’s 2nd best defense. The former DPOY is nearly always in proper position which allows him to quarterback the most complex defensive scheme in the NBA. The Raptors play defense more like a football team. They switch seamlessly between man defense and zones, and alternate pick and roll coverages on the fly.
Gasol is often the middle linebacker communicating these adjustments and his defensive numbers are astounding for his age. Among NBA rotation players who played more than 20 minutes per game, he had the third highest individual defensive rating (the rest of the top 10 were Bucks, Joel Embiid, and Dennis Shröder). Opponents only shoot 41.7% when Gasol guards them, good for 3rd in the league amongst high leverage bigs.
While Gasol’s defense gets him on the list, his talent as an amplifying creative force and stretch big gets him to 3rd. Amongst bigs who played more than 1,000 minutes this year, Gasol ranked 7th in assists per 36 minutes. We’ve seen the value of passing bigs rise sharply in recent seasons (Jokic, Bam, and Sabonis) and for good reason: a passing big is the grease which allows the gears of motion offenses to spin. They invert the floor and increase the variability of an offensive attack. Despite a continued decline in raw production, Marc’s secret sauce (defense, passing, and floor spacing) makes him the perfect complement to any superstar. Don’t be surprised if Gasol’s late career run decides a championship run this season or next year.
4. JJ Redick
It’s only fitting that the NBA’s resident iron man would still be kicking in 2020. If this list was made 10 years ago, Redick wouldn’t have cracked the top-30 players in his age group (though, ironically, if we made this list 15 years ago, a top five finish wouldn’t have been out of the question…).
It’s easy to chalk up Redick’s late career success squarely to his all-time shooting. That’s certainly fair, but it fails to capture the nuances JJ has added to his game over the last decade. Redick has transformed into one of the best conditioned players in the NBA, near the top of the league in distance ran per game and highest average speeds. The durability and work rate has transformed the way he gets to his shots.
Redick has refined his ability to shoot on the move, varying his release pocket while rocketing off screens into off-balance threes. Redick’s yeoman game and adaptive shotmaking has coincided with the much desired “gravity” that’s became the hallmark of the Warriors’ dynastic offense (and the three point boom overall). The aging curve of shooting, JJ’s durability, and the sheer existence of Kyle Korver suggest that Redick isn’t close to being done either.
5. PJ Tucker
P.J. Tucker could land anywhere from 4 to 7 in this ranking and I wouldn’t quibble with you (Paul Millsap and LaMarcus Aldridge being the alternatives I might accept). The disparity in complexity of PJ’s offensive and defensive roles is probably the greatest in the NBA. On offense, Tucker does one thing at an elite rate: hit corner threes. And the Rockets don’t ask for much more. The opposite holds true for defense. Tucker is the skeleton key to Houston’s ultra small ball, but the branding around the team’s philosophy belies the impact Tucker has as a defender.
Oft-compared to a Mack Truck, his bulk makes post ups a non-starter while maintaining enough quickness to be take on any matchup in the Rockets’ switch-heavy screen. While his defensive metrics have taken a hit in the Rockets’ up-and-down year, Tucker remains a vital cog on a championship-caliber team (if you watch them on the right day) playing 34 MPG . Similar to Redick, he’s proven that “becoming a star in your role” can often lead to a longer career than being an actual star.
Honorable Mentions: Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony