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Is There Ageism in the NBA?

Youth is one of the highest valued assets in sports. In the NBA, the idea of potential overshadows almost all other variables. It is the reason why first round draft picks are nearly untouchable unless a team is trading for a superstar caliber player like Paul George or James Harden. Aside from the true stars of the league, most of the older generation of players are unable to sustain longevity. Players barely over 30 are already outcast from the NBA because organizations would prefer to have an unpolished second-round twenty-year-old on their roster instead of a former 20+ PPG scorer who has shown a shade of decline.

The evolution of the game as well as the changing play styles have definitely played a factor in this increasingly youthful league. Though it is evident with the makeup of most rosters that an athlete’s birth year plays an integral role in a team’s decision to sign them or not.

Lots of these former players who have been essentially blackballed from the league were not just ordinary journeymen, but former All-Stars and valued rotation guys. Players like Joe Johnson, who was one of the best isolation scorers of the 2000’s, or Isaiah Thomas, an MVP candidate as recently as 2017 have been basically out of the league for years. 

Despite being on numerous teams, Thomas has never really received substantial playing time since his short stint on the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. Johnson made his career in Atlanta and Brooklyn, but was never able to find his footing after being traded from the Utah Jazz during the 2018 trade deadline. Even in his late thirties, Johnson proved to be a valiant bucket off the Utah bench, proving he could still get the job done during the 2017 postseason.

Thomas has been riddled with injuries over the past few seasons, but at only the age of 31, there is no doubt he could still be a valued bench scorer in this league. However, his lack of size and distinctive play style is what has kept him off rosters. Two glaring similarities between these two players are that they are both ball dominant isolation players. With the way the league is formatted now, these types of players have become scarcer because they simply do not fit well into modern NBA offensive schemes.

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Rewind just a decade and premier scorers like these would be sought after. The league has become exponentially younger over the past ten years for a multitude of reasons. Comparing the ages of players from the 2010/11 season to 2020/21 and there is a noticeable difference in the average NBA players’ age. After the age of 30 is when players “supposedly” begin to decline. Taking that into consideration, it is rather jarring that the number of players aged 31 or older in 2010/11 was 85, while this season only has 65 players.

Expanding on this distinction even more is the fact that only 12 players are aged 35 or over this year compared to 22 in 2010/11. While the group of players from a decade ago consisted of All-Stars, role players, and veteran presences, the 2020/21 group is just LeBron James and eleven specialized players. Aside from James, there are seven former All-Stars finishing out their careers; three-point specialist J.J. Redick, defensive menace Andre Iguodala, and the two outliers in Udonis Haslem and Jared Dudley, who are really just there for locker room value. 

The only way to maintain in today’s NBA for the long run is to thrive at a specific attribute that still holds merit or to ride past accolades. However, even those players have struggled to stay in the league, with guys like Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard only recently rejuvenating their careers after accepting newfound roles. As much as a player like Anthony would love to isolate in the mid-range and play the style of basketball that helped make his name, he knows the layout of the NBA has changed and that if he wants to remain in the league, he has to adjust. 

Since it is a star driven league, most teams will build their rosters around the style of their primary players. This generally means lots of spot up shooters, 3-and-D specialists, and maybe a few players to anchor the paint and catch alley-oops. In turn, the athletes whose games do not line up with one of these traits are either subject to the bench, free agency, or out of the league.

Elite teams like the Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks understand the weaknesses of their top tier players, which is perimeter shooting; therefore, they construct their rosters with more players to space the floor to compliment them. Not all of the 30 NBA rosters are built the same way, but their philosophies all collide in similar ways. Former high-profile scorers like Brandon Jennings, Michael Beasley, and even someone like Monta Ellis, who has not been in the NBA since 2017 are unemployed because they do not fluidly fit into modern rosters.

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These types of players are not old either, but for NBA standards they are way past their prime. Ellis is 35, but Jennings is 31, while Beasley is 32. The prime of the average NBA player used to range from around 28 to 32. Once a player started to reach their mid-thirties, most notable names have shown signs of declining. LeBron James is one of the only exceptions, as he is still thriving at 36 years young, but even players who are more “human” like Chris Paul, Goran Dragic, and Kyle Lowry are all viable players for their respective rosters despite being over the age of 34. All players age differently, and some of these guys that seem like they should still be in the NBA are out for specific reasons, but it does appear that there are too many notorious names not playing in the league right now.

Ageism is absolutely present in today’s NBA, but there are various reasons that have contributed to this recent phenomenon. The era of the current league plays a tremendous factor, as lots of the athletes plagued with this issue are the ones held back in a different time. The speed and magnitude of which the NBA evolved into a purely three-point dominant league happened at a fairly quick pace. Players who had never relied on that aspect of their game were forced to start incorporating a former weakness into their arsenal otherwise they would lose their spot.

It is truly a shame these sorts of players are now a rarity in the NBA. They helped diversify the game’s versatility, as now every team essentially plays the same style of ball. Teams that have not adopted the new NBA are unlikely to find success. It is basketball’s natural selection. Unfortunately for many of the older players, the younger generation has been developed for the modern league, while the older athletes have been shoved out of the limelight. One must keep with the times or look elsewhere to play ball.

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