The NBA’s youth movement: A changing of the guards

A funny thing happened on the way to these NBA playoffs.

You used to be able to set your clock to veteran teams winning playoff series.  The greatest teams in NBA history, or at least recent history, had to pay their dues, take their lumps, and learn how to lose before they could learn how to win.  It was a rite of passage.

Since the 1980s, dynasties have ruled the NBA with megastars looming over the league and laughing as they counted their championship rings.  Once upon a time, you could safely wager on the more experienced team and expect a solid return.  This year, in nearly every opening round series, the tide has officially turned.  2024 will go down as the year the youth movement made aging super stars look older simply by playing better basketball.

The Boston Celtics, favorites in the East, are led by their best player, Jayson Tatum.  Even though it seems like he’s been around for a while, Tatum is only 26 years old.  Miami’s best player, Jimmy Butler, who missed the entire Heat-Celtics series with an injury, is eight years Tatum’s senior.  Even healthy, Butler’s presence would not have made a difference.

In the highly competitive Knicks-Sixers series, Jalen Brunson is only 27 years old.  While Joel Embiid is hardly old, and hardly older than Brunson, Embiid plays like he’s older than 30 with the long list of injuries that have plagued him.  This series became must see TV as a 23-year-old budding superstar who goes by the name Tyrese Maxey emerged as Philadelphia’s second best player.

The Indiana Pacers are led by Tyrese Haliburton, 24.  They easily disposed of a veteran Bucks team comprised of 29-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, 32-year-old Khris Middleton and 33-year-old Damian Lillard, all of whom missed time due to injury.

In the equally entertaining yet less highly touted Cavs-Magic series, both teams’ stars are relatively young.  Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell is 27 years old; the Magic’s Paolo Banchero is only 21.  This might be the outlier in the bunch, yet Orlando’s young team is one no team will want to play in upcoming years.

Out west, at only 25, Shea Gilgeous-Alexander has led the youngest team in the league, the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the second round with ease.  29-year-old Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets dispatched of 39-year-old LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers, beating them in five games this year and four straight games last year.  We wowed at how easily 22-year-old Anthony Edwards dispatched 35-year-old Kevin Durant’s Phoenix Suns.  Phoenix’s best player in that series was Devin Booker, who is only 27.  And 25-year-old basketball savant Luca Doncic, 25, is running circles around Paul George, 34, James Harden, 34, Russell Westbrook, 35, and 32-year-old Kawhi Leonard, who can’t stay healthy.

These 2024 NBA Playoffs will be remembered as the year we said out with the old and in with the new.  That’s not to say elder statesmen like Durant, James and 36-year-old Steph Curry, none of whom reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, won’t be back.  What has become clear is that GMs can no longer patch quilt together super teams with expectations of a title.  They did so in Milwaukee and the pieces didn’t fit.  They did so with the Clippers and the team has woefully underachieved.  They did so incompletely in Phoenix and got swept out of the playoffs.  Instead, young fresh faces are balling out.  Building through the draft and developing that young talent is the latest craze.  Experience begone!

Not only are these young guns advancing, but they’re also playing significantly better than their prehistoric predecessors.  Gilgeous-Alexander appears wise beyond his years.  The cutthroat, high-flying, two-way playing Anthony Edwards is already drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan and with every post-season triple-double he amasses, Nikola Jokic is inching his way towards becoming a top ten player of all-time.

As with any other sports league, when icons wane, front offices become worried about who might carry the torch.  This is the least of Adam Silver’s concerns.  When Michael Jordan retired, we worried about ratings.  Then came Kobe Bryant.  Not long afterwards, LeBron James started doing things we’d never seen to ensure fans continued to tune in.  As he soon rides off into the sunset, the league is decorated with personable, talented, and self-aware superstars who are far too eager to call next.

Sometimes change can be difficult.  Familiar faces grow wrinkles, and a younger generation seems unknown.  You might as well embrace it, NBA fans, for it doesn’t appear that this new breed is taking no for an answer.

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5 Replies to “The NBA’s youth movement: A changing of the guards”

  1. Are the Milwaukee Bucks called the Washington Capitals of the NBA or the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NBA? Well I guess they’re the Washington Capitals, because in 2021 the Maple Leafs proved that they cannot even cheat their way into advancing to Eastern Conference Finals.

  2. The youth of today are bringing back fond memories of past glories to this tired old man.

  3. Leafs continue to struggle, Greg.

    I’m not sure where they rank among the cursed franchises that can’t seem to win it all, but they have to be up there.

    0-7 in the last seven series-deciding games? That is one beat-down fan base.

  4. Deac…

    Jalen Brunson embraces that role. He’s the perfect Knick. At this point he can do no wrong. Also helps to average 40 points a game.

    That bench is running short tho. Rock, Stiller and Spike may have to suit up in Game Three.

  5. Pingback: Shut the Funk Up, Vol. 4: The Reporter at the Luca Doncic press conference-Mary Jane Girls Edition - Sports Chump

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