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The 90’s: The Geriatric Era of the NBA

The average age of NBA teams peaked in ’98. But why? Did players stick around to get a shot at Michael Jordan? We unpack the NBA youth movement.

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The 90’s: The Geriatric Era of the NBA

Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

“These guys look like grown ass men.”

I was beyond surprised for my wife to blurt this seemingly random statement while we were watching The Last Dance. Honestly, I thought she was thirty comments deep in a Facebook thread instead of watching, but I was very wrong. And she was very right.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the biggest basketball guy. I’ll gladly watch a game at a bar (remember those?), I love March Madness and will always click on “crowd explodes after dunk” videos. But I’m no basketball aficionado. Yet even I could tell those 90’s NBA players were a different breed than today’s.

Seeing Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Horace “Goggles” Grant throw themselves around in the paint just hit differently than watching today’s NBA. And that’s not just because they actually believed in driving to the hoop for layups instead of just shooting 3’s.

It was like watching a bunch of dads play an intense game at the local YMCA, complete with elbows and trash talking. But they Space-Jam’d their way into incredible shape & talent.

The Oldest NBA Era

So I did some digging. And it turns out my wife has one hell of an eye for this. Looking at the average age of NBA teams year-over-year since 1951, the ’98-’99 season was the peak of the geriatric era of the NBA. Check it out:

First and foremost: I know a drop from 27.9 years old to 26.3 years old in twenty years may not seem like a big deal. I get it. But we are dealing with more than 400 data points year over year. It takes a seismic shift in age to move the needle, rather than one or two outliers. And it has continued to drop, with another dip this year to an average of 26.0 years old.

Why Did Old Men Flourish in ’98?

So what’s the deal? Did every veteran player want to stick around to play MJ in the 90’s? Did they know this was their chance to get after the GOAT? There isn’t a perfect answer, but here are some factors that skewed the NBA’s average age higher.

– Parity may have played a part. In the 90’s, more franchises felt like they had a shot to win each year (even if that wasn’t really true since the Bulls just took everyone’s lunch money). With more teams in-it-to-win-it instead of rebuilding, there were more roles for veteran role players as teams looked for those last few pieces to get them over the hump.

– NBA Teams in the 90’s also operated under the assumption that drafting established college players, who had already fine tuned their game and bulked up, was the way to succeed instead of putting their hopes and dreams in the hands of flashy undergrads. But that changed pretty damn quick in the 2000’s.

– In the modern era, teams want a quick fix and are willing to bet on youth to save their franchise. They build through the draft instead of signing veterans. And In an era where the average NBA coach’s tenure is less than 3.5 years, I can’t blame them. If they want to play the lottery and strike it rich on a young player that will give them job security instead of signing a solid veteran defender, more power to them.

What Changed?

– So, when did youth become a hot commodity? Well, no high school players were drafted directly into the NBA between 1974 and 1995. But then this one high school basketball player of the year, some guy named Kevin Garnett, declared for the draft. And KG sparked a new trend of skipping college. This included other players like Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady. No big deal.

How Young Will the NBA Go?

An interesting side note: you can see how impactful the one-and-done rule of 2006 was in stopping the free fall youth movement that happened between the ’98-’99 season and the ’05-’06 season. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when/if that is repealed. If it is repealed, that would further plummet the average age in the league.

So there you have it. The Last Dance truly captured the old-man era of the NBA. I’m curious what other factors you think may have decreased the average age since the 90’s. Let me know in the comments!

Mark was raised outside of Boston, so his favorite socks are red and the only Giants he'll ever like are the little ones. He is a michelada advocate and a big fan of 8 game parlays that never work. He has been writing about sports since starting his own blog in 2014, Don't Think Just Throw, and is excited to be a part of The Turf.

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