No matter how you look at it, the Mavericks have a much younger roster this season than they’ve had in previous years.
Relative to other NBA teams, though, is it young enough?
Two weeks ago in San Antonio, a Mavs lineup of Yogi Ferrell, Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, Harrison Barnes, and Dwight Powell went on a fourth-quarter run to extend the lead in a game Dallas ultimately won, beating the Spurs on the road for the first time since 2010.
Curry, 26, was the Mavs’ oldest player on the floor. For a team that has consistently relied upon 30-somethings for more than a decade, that’s practically an unheard-of development around these parts.
But none of those players are younger than 23, either.
In NBA terms, “young” is a term that has shifted toward teams like the Phoenix Suns, who have four players on the roster who can’t legally enjoy an alcoholic beverage. The average age of every player who has suited up for the Minnesota Timberwolves this season is 23.7 years old — which means, on average, every player on the roster is younger than Harrison Barnes.
Dallas has the eighth-oldest roster in the NBA this season, according to Basketball-Reference, although Dirk Nowitzki swings that pendulum back closer to 30 due to his being 38 years old. While the Mavs have consistently been in the top-3 in that regard for half a decade, 27.8 years old still can’t quite compare to the young Wolves.
That’s led to many conversations and questions on Twitter among Mavs fans who wonder if this year’s roster is as young as we think: Are 23-year-old players still “young?” At what point is a player who he is? What about a player’s developmental ceiling as it relates to his age?
Barnes’ development this season has supported Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s theory that a 24-year-old is still young and has plenty of room for improvement. Despite playing four years in the league before coming to Dallas, Barnes has taken several leaps as a player this season, now regularly scoring a relatively efficient 20 points a game and doing things he had literally never done during his time with the Warriors. Seth Curry, meanwhile, is receiving his first regular NBA minutes at 26 years old. He might have already reached his prime in terms of age, but his understanding of the game is beginning to catch up to the physical aspect. That’s proven to be a dangerous combination this season, as he’s enjoyed quite the breakout stretch since December.
I asked Cuban about this before Tuesday’s Mavs/Blazers game: What’s the difference between developing a 23-year-old as opposed to a 19-year-old, or is there one?
“You have to teach a lot more basketball to (the 19-year-olds),” Cuban said. “They’re probably more athletically gifted, otherwise they wouldn’t have left (college), they would’ve stayed. But they don’t know how to play basketball, whereas the guys who stayed know how to play basketball.”
That’s an important difference for the Mavericks, who aren’t going the route of a “total rebuild” — in other words, they’re not gutting their roster of all veterans in favor of loading the locker room with high-upside teenagers. With Nowitzki not getting any younger, and Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, and others still in a position to play at a high level, Dallas doesn’t have the time to wait for super-young studs to learn the ins and outs of the game while simultaneously chasing a playoff spot.
Generally, 19-year-olds coming out of college are perceived (usually accurately) to have higher upsides than 22-year-old graduating college seniors. There’s a reason guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall only played one year at Kentucky; they didn’t need to stay all four years, and they can help teams right away. But there are plenty of freshmen and sophomores who leave school quickly to cash in on their incredible talent who don’t always necessarily have the basketball chops to help a team compete immediately.
Another reason freshmen have higher value in the draft than seniors is they’re younger, which means they can potentially play longer. Why draft a player who will be 30 in seven years when you can instead draft one who won’t be 30 for 11?
Medical advances, however, have increased the average NBA career’s length. Thirty years ago barely any players made it to 35. Nowadays it’s much more common, so long as a player is lucky enough to avoid catastrophic injury. The Mavericks see opportunity there, happy to gobble up “old” young players already equipped with a basketball IQ and experience.
“Maybe the upside of some of the younger guys, their ceilings are probably higher in some respects,” Cuban said. “But we think in this day and age, we can take a 24-year-old and have him for a good 15 years, as opposed to a 20-year-old and have him for 19. On the margin, that’s not a difference. Unless you think the guy is gonna be a superstar, then it’s far better to have him earlier.”
Players like Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, Yogi Ferrell, and Dwight Powell all played four years in college, and only one of them was drafted. It’s easy to look at their games today and postulate that none of them will become anything more than nice role players in the NBA. It’s still premature to say that about any of them, in my opinion, simply because they’re all still relatively young — Powell, for example, went from jump-shooting 4 to elite-finishing 5 in two seasons — but even if they do only become supporting guys, Cuban still sees the value in loading a roster with plenty and keeping them together for years.
“Those are always the guys that you typically alternate through,” he said. “Every year you get a new core of those guys. Whereas if you develop them, keep them together, they can be a lot more effective because they know the game better.”
Take Cleveland and Golden State, for example. Those rosters are top-heavy with multiple max-salary superstars, so their situation is understandably different than the Mavs’. But those teams are going to cycle through rotation players for the next several years, and it’s difficult to develop year-to-year consistency in that respect. The Spurs, meanwhile, kept the same supporting pieces — players like Danny Green, Patty Mills, and so on — for years in support of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker before Kawhi Leonard took the superstar leap in 2014 and the club won the NBA championship.
That appears to be the route the Mavericks hope to go: Round out the roster with young-but-not-teenaged, quality rotation players, extend the primes of the low-30s players, and continue to develop Barnes, who has serious star potential and could reach the next level soon. Meanwhile, Curry, Finney-Smith, Ferrell, and 2015 first-round pick Justin Anderson — the youngest player on the roster — are all on bargain contracts through at least 2017-18, which maximizes financial flexibility for the next couple summers to add even more talent.
So while there are no teenagers in the Mavs’ locker room, Dallas is still a young team, at least at the supporting level — for now. There’s a chance each of the young players can take a leap the same way Barnes did. But if not, there’s still value in having the same supporting cast, year over year, especially as they all prepare to enter their prime within the next couple seasons.
The Mavs aren’t going full rebuild, but the youth movement is still going strong.