The NBA’s long path to parity and championship success in 2021

For the longest time, the NBA has suffered a parity issue. How rare is it for a young player under 25 years old to win the Championship himself in the NBA? Super rare in fact that no one under 25 years old in the modern NBA won a championship unless they were playing next to an All-Star older than 25 years old. The NFL is a completely different game thus more parity. In the NFL players like Patrick Mahomes can win a championship as the Pro Bowl leader Quarterback. With the NBA I will take a deep dive into the path to parity and championship success in 2021. (and we sort of alluded to younger players not having much success in the NBA as a standard in this Shoot or Pass episode)

Let’s first set the standard here and define “growing pains” in simple terms but what that could mean in the NBA. By definition from, it explains in a form of definition: difficulties attending any new project or any rapid development of an existing project.

Growing pains in the NBA?

What is an example of difficulties in the rapid development of an existing project in the NBA? A young Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals? Both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were 23 years old at the time. Oh and this guy named James Harden was 22 years old playing off the bench for the Thunder. The Heat featured LeBron James at 27 years old at the time on his third NBA Finals trip and still ringless. Remember folks, this 2012 NBA Finals started strongly in the Thunder’s favor as they went up 1-0 with homecourt advantage in the series.

After their first NBA Finals win the Thunder found themselves quickly going home without a championship. I’ll let you decide on going down the rabbit hole of the 2012 NBA Finals but in short, the Heat completed the gentleman’s sweep. LeBron James hoisted his first-ever Larry O’Brien Trophy as a member of the Miami Heat. Certainly, this NBA Finals alone is a prime example that age and experience win.

Perhaps are we really blindly missing that the NBA’s most successful players generally don’t succeed far until post-25 years old? I will save you numerous examples of young vs old and who won those matchups but lets dive into the historical success of current players and the past NBA greats.

Below are the ONLY 2021 NBA-All Stars with at least one Championship and their age. The average age of the chart below? You guessed it – 25!

2021 NBA All-Stars First NBA Championship

PlayerAgeFirst NBA Championship
LeBron James272011-2012 – Miami Heat
Stephen Curry262014-2015 – Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant282016-2017 – Golden State Warriors
Kawhi Leonard222013-2014 – San Antonio Spurs
Kyrie Irving232015-2016 – Cleveland Cavaliers
Anthony Davis262019-2020 – Los Angeles Lakers

Now, this isn’t an attempt to draw negativity on a really young team in the NBA. Don’t fret, I think there could be an earlier curve of when players start peaking, or in other words, maybe we can see younger first-time champions in the NBA. Now that you see the current NBA trending on more tenured players having a ring but what about past greats?

Retired NBA Greats since 1980 First NBA Championship

PlayerAgeFirst NBA Championship
Dirk Nowitzki322010-2011 Dallas Mavericks
Dwyane Wade242005-2006 – Miami Heat
Shaquille O’Neal271999-2000 – Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant211999-2000 – Los Angeles Lakers
David Robinson331998-1999 – San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan221998-1999 – San Antonio Spurs
Hakeem Olajuwon311993-1994 – Houston Rockets
Michael Jordan271990-1991 – Chicago Bulls
Isiah Thomas271988-1989 Detroit Pistons
Larry Bird241980-1981 – Boston Celtics
Magic Johnson201979-1980 – Los Angeles Lakers

These are listed in order from most recent history to the oldest time period and we’ll put a stopping point at 1980 as the furthest we’ll look back. Now the argument can be made that each Legend or All-Star 24 years and younger won their first NBA Championship next to an OLDER player in their prime already listed as well. Shaq helped give Kobe and D-Wade their first ring. Duncan wasn’t winning unless David Robinson was there right? As for the current era, Kyrie Irving won his first next to LeBron’s third ring and Kawhi’s came with San Antonio’s legendary trio.

This also brings a little bit of clarity to this question. Are we really expecting a team like the New Orleans Pelicans in 2021 to be competing for any of the top 8 seeds in the Western Conference? Ironically, if we look at the standings of the top 6 in the present Western Conference, each team has an All-Star player aged at least 25 or older. It isn’t just a coincidence that Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic are both over 25 years old and each having an MVP-like season?

More parity for younger players needed

If you’re still following along with the point let’s break this down by the conferences in the 2020-2021 NBA season. The 2021 Western Conference All-Stars that have a ring currently amount to Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry. The Eastern Conference gets by with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. As we gear up for the 2021 Playoffs it’s a safe bet to bet on the experience at this rate.

The lack of championships on the 2021 Eastern Conference All-Star team means there is less championship experience come playoffs time from the respective All-Stars in the East. The Brooklyn Nets will be the ONLY team in the Eastern Conference this season that makes the playoffs and has AT LEAST an All-Star with a championship.

Zach LaVine is the one outlier here at age 26 on a solo mission to elevate the Chicago Bulls. Even with the trade deadline deal to bring another All-Star Nikola Vucevic (age 30), the Bulls still find themselves scratching to stay afloat in the 2021 Play-in Tournament rankings. Perhaps the learning curve with new teammates and an All-Star could work its kinks out by May? To be determined but a prime example that not always paring your young buck with an elder All-Star could work.

2021 Eastern Conference is a hopeful direction of parity

What this could mean for teams like the Boston Celtics with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? Both are 24 and under and playing against more equal talent to them. I’d say better odds for success in the playoffs for the Boston Celtics. There is less experienced competition in their conference until they have to face the Nets. If the peak is high enough for a young Boston team in May their shot to win the Eastern Conference would be a great time this year.

However, the same could be said for the Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the conference and one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. Joel Embiid is having an MVP year and the Sixers are arguably the best defensive team in the NBA with Ben Simmons as a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. Ages? Simmons is 24 years old and as mentioned Embiid is 27 years old. Again, no surprise with a few roster changes and elevated play for these All-Stars the success is there as Simmons looks better nearer to 25 years old.

What’s stunting the success of younger players?

Again, technically Michael and LeBron repeated after they won their first championship. Shaq and Kobe had a three-peat and Kobe won again in 2009 and 2010. So, the point here is when you’ve reached your prime and won once, the odds are the superstar players can repeat. Unless you’re the San Antonio Spurs winning in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. This doesn’t bode well for younger players under 24 since the NBA has always trended towards its star players primarily becoming a Champion at a later age in their career more than once. The facts also show that players 24 years old and under and usually need to be paired next to these elder All-Star players in order to win a championship at a young age.

Throw out high expectations for younger players

LeBron James started out the “rapid development” in 2007 as he led an underdog Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA Finals and swept by the San Antonio Spurs. His better attempt at an NBA Finals in 2011 came with another loss.

Regardless of how you feel about LeBron James, the same argument can be made for Michael Jordan who did not win a championship until his 27th year of life either. It is still a fact that James reached his first NBA Finals much younger and faster than Michael Jordan did whether James lost or won the 2007 NBA Finals. Thus, a more rapid development.

Again, we enter the fifth decade from the 1980s and still have not seen any sort of All-Star player lead a team to a championship younger than 25 years of age. I’m not here to fight that it’s impossible but the “realist” take on this is that younger teams and players just aren’t the safe bet. However, the expectations for the league’s 25 and under shouldn’t have to amount to championship or bust in the early ages of their career.

So what’s the point here?

Most likely the NBA may see brief moments of parity through the “growing pains” of young teams. We’re watching during an interesting time where the current All-Star players in terms of having a championship are few and numbered. This means the majority of teams in the playoffs are being led by guys who hardly know what it’s like to get to an NBA Finals.

Take ESPN’s list of best 25 under 25 by future potential rankings. Some of the top players on this list have made the All-Star roster at a young age without any Finals experience or a championship.

Chris Paul, Paul George, and Damian Lillard are ALL 30 and older without an NBA Finals appearance. These are the eldest All-Stars of 2021 without championship success.

A sign that it’s time for the under 30 club to make a push at winning? The Jazz and 76ers sit atop of their respective conferences all year, the Suns feature Devin Booker (24 years old) as the prime star next to Chris Paul, and we’ve mentioned how Embiid and Jokic have helped elevated their younger teams into the conversation for championship contention.

Parity or no parity?

To answer the question directly, I believe the NBA will never see a large amount of parity unless we truly see an older generation phase out into a completely new generation. Embiid and Simmons in Philadelphia and Tatum and Brown in Boston help the cause.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Nikola Jokic are all post-25 years but under 30 in the top seeds of their respective conferences. Donovan Mitchell is 24 at this time BUT if we follow the guidelines here he’s playing next to All-Star Rudy Gobert who is 28 years old and a 2-time Defensive Player of the Year. This specific group’s success shouldn’t surprise us, it’s kind of what history tells us they’d become right?

That leaves the current under 25-generation of the NBA still figuring out life as an NBA All-Star. Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Luka Donic, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Trae Young all under 25 and nowhere near favored to win a championship in the 2020-2021 NBA season.

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