Analyzing the Historical Ebb and Flow of NBA Superstars

The NBA seems to be dominated by young stars. Is that different from how the NBA has been in the past or is this just part of the same old cycle?

Over the last 15 years, the NBA has been dominated by now older players like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, and more recently the 2003 draft class - the one with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. However, last year felt like a shift in power in the league. Kawhi Leonard won the Finals MVP at 22 years old. Anthony Davis, at 21, is now considered the next superstar and is the current foundation of Team USA. He might battle for years to come with fellow big man Andre Drummond, who could finally buy a beer on August 10th this year.

The champion Spurs were kind of a microcosm of that shift this year. Tim Duncan was as reliable as ever, but after being the best player on his team for a couple decades, young Kawhi took over. The torch was passed.

Perhaps the same situation will happen in Cleveland, as almost 30-year-old LeBron James will transition to the latter half of his career with young stars Kyrie Irving, 22, and Kevin Love, 25. Sure, a big part of why LeBron went back to Cleveland this summer was because he wanted to go back to his hometown and win a championship. But it's also because he knows that it's not a good time to be old in the NBA. And his previous teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade certainly looked the part this past June.

I was curious whether this was becoming a unique era for the league - one dominated by younger players - or if this was a cyclical phenomena. To research this, I compiled the average age of the top 10 players for each year (in terms of win shares), going all the way back to the 1964-1965 season, which gives us roughly 50 years of data. I then plotted out the results and added a moving trendline, with the period set at five years.

Here are the results.

The data is really a testament to superstars and how the game of basketball has, and continues to be, dominated by the world's best players. A couple young stars emerge and they take over the league for a period (the rise of the curve), and then when they approach 30, the curve digresses again. This ebb and flow nature has continued throughout the history of the NBA.

This past season, we didn't even have a single player 30 years or older in the top 10. Here's the list:

Kevin Durant - 25 years old
LeBron James - 29 years old
Kevin Love - 25 years old
Stephen Curry - 25 years old
James Harden - 24 years old
Blake Griffin - 24 years old
Chris Paul - 28 years old
Kyle Lowry - 27 years old
Joakim Noah - 28 years old
DeAndre Jordan - 25 years

And just outside the top 10 were very young guys like Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Paul George (23), Serge Ibaka (24), and Damian Lillard (23). The NBA has a ton of young players right now. Compare that with the top 10 from 1998 (average age was 30.5, the only year in the thirties), just 15 years ago:

Karl Malone - 34 years old
Michael Jordan - 34 years old
David Robinson - 32 years old
Tim Duncan - 21 years old
Gary Payton - 29 years old
Reggie Miller - 32 years old
Tim Hardaway - 31 years old
Dikembe Mutombo - 31 years old
Vin Baker - 26 years old
Detlef Schrempf - 35 years old

In 1998, there was a young Tim Duncan mixed with a lot of aging stars. Kobe Bryant would come into the league soon and help Duncan start the downswing in the graph again. And the league needed young stars then - Michael Jordan was finishing his career, the lockout was the next season, and television ratings were dropping due to public perception after the lockout.

The NBA now has a nice mix of super-duper-stars in their prime (LeBron and Durant), as well as guys like Davis who certainly look like they're headed that same direction. The question will now be, are they going to dominate the next decade like those previous guys, or will we continue to see an influx of young players that keep on raising the collective play of the league?

It's hard to say, but one thing is certain - this is an amazing period of NBA basketball.