This week's mailbag features your questions on the career arcs of point guards, the value of young players, and more.
"Since the NBA champion always celebrates with champagne, I was wondering how often an underage player has been put in that position? How many players younger than 21 have played in a Finals game? How many have started? How many have averaged significant minutes (20+)? Most impactful sub-21-year-old?"
-- Wes Franson
It's pretty uncommon, in fact. Just twice since the ABA-NBA merger has the championship team had such a player who played in the playoffs: Magic Johnson for the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers (when he was unable to toast his NBA Finals MVP for another two months) and Darko Milicic with the Detroit Pistons in 2004. (Milicic played just 14 minutes in the postseason, including five in the Finals.)
Milicic was 18 during the 2004 Finals and had his 20th birthday during the 2005 Finals, when the Pistons returned to defend their championship unsuccessfully versus the San Antonio Spurs. He saw 20 percent more playing time in the 2005 Finals: six minutes! The other player to see action in the Finals before age 21 was Jonathan Bender for the 2000 Indiana Pacers. He also played six minutes.
A handful of other players were younger than 21 when their team appeared in the Finals but did not see action in the playoffs, including Andrew Bynum for the 2008 Lakers when he was sidelined due to injury. Just one other player under 21 won a championship since 1976, however: Dorell Wright for the 2006 Miami Heat.
"Is there empirical evidence that smaller point guards decline faster than their larger peers? Lowry and CP3 seem to be going against this line of thinking, but almost every point guard historically seems to have been borderline unstartable after age 34, excepting Stockton, Nash, Kidd, Cassell and Mark Jackson (surprisingly solid age-36 season)."
-- Nick Kogan
The way I've studied this in the past is to look at ratio compared to peak winning percentage, the per-minute version of my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric. A few years ago, I put together a list of players who had played at least nine seasons and at least 10,000 minutes and ended their careers between 2005 and 2010.
That list had 21 players I labeled point guards. They divide rather evenly into 10 players 6-foot-2 or taller (the tall group) and 11 who were 6-foot-1 or shorter (the short group, and at 5-foot-9 I mean nothing disparaging by that). While those sample sizes are smaller (shorter) than ideal for this kind of study, the results are fascinating.
While the smaller point guards were for the most part effective immediately -- Brevin Knight's best season was his rookie year at age 22, while Damon Stoudamire's came in year three at age 24 -- the larger guards generally took longer to develop. Rod Strickland peaked at age 29, Gary Payton peaked at age 30, and Cassell did not reach his peak until age 34.
So as a group, the taller point guards didn't hit their peak until age 30, much later than the smaller point guards (age 26, a little younger than the typical age-27 peak across all positions). Every year after age 27, the taller point guards were relatively better, often substantially so.
"Which of the young PGs who've failed to live up to draft-day expectations would you take a flier on: Elfrid Payton, D'Angelo Russell or Emmanuel Mudiay? In a 'loaded' PG draft class, given what we've seen thus far and considering contract statuses, where would you slot these three in a ranking of summer acquisition targets?"
-- Jonathan Dennis
Given that all three would fall into the tall group of point guards that tends to peak later, I'd be interested in any of them if their current teams were ready to move on.
If we're ranking, I'd start with Russell, who has two years remaining on his rookie contract and has played reasonably well given he's just 21. When I think about players who could benefit from developing consistent range on pull-up 3-pointers along the lines of the All-Star point guards I discussed last week, Russell is at the top of the list. He shot 38.7 percent on pull-up 3s after the break last season, per NBA.com/Stats, and while that's probably not sustainable, even making that shot at a 35 percent clip would make Russell much tougher to guard in the pick-and-roll.
I've made a substantial investment in beachfront property on Elfrid Payton Peninsula, so it's no secret I'm a believer. Payton was also better after the All-Star break with superior floor spacing, posting five triple-doubles and averaging 13.5 points, 8.4 assists and 7.0 rebounds per game with a league-average true shooting percentage (.556). The main reason Payton is behind Russell on my list is because he's going into the last year of his rookie contract and will soon get expensive.
I'm a bit more skeptical Mudiay will get there given how inefficient he has been. He's rated worse than replacement level during his first two seasons. Still, I am intrigued by how effective Mudiay becomes alongside Nikola Jokic and a power forward (i.e. not Jusuf Nurkic) -- something Adam Mares of DenverStiffs.com has highlighted. In 580 minutes with such lineups, per NBAwowy.com, Mudiay posted .545 true shooting and Denver averaged a 124.0 offensive rating -- better than the Nuggets' 120.8 offensive rating with Jameer Nelson in such lineups. Now, those 580 minutes shouldn't count more than the other 2,900 or so Mudiay has played, but they give me some hope there's a quality NBA point guard here.
"I'm a GSW fan who didn't see many regular-season games this year, as I learned the hard way they don't mean much. Anyways, since the playoffs have started, I've been very impressed with rookie second-round pick Patrick McCaw. I know it's hard to project which young players will eventually pan out, but if the 2016 Draft was done over, would he now be a lottery pick?"
McCaw is one of several rookies who looked better by the eye test than by advanced stats this season. Given his small role (12.0 percent usage), his below-average true shooting percentage (.540) was poor, and McCaw was a dreadful defensive rebounder for a wing at 7.6 percent of available opponent misses. So he rated below replacement level by WARP, as well as ESPN's real plus-minus.
On the plus side, McCaw was a quick study defensively, and it's realistic to think he can improve on the 33.3 percent he shot from 3-point range as a rookie, which would boost his efficiency. If he shoots better and adds more strength to be able to defend small forwards as well as guards, McCaw can become the kind of 3-and-D role player any team in the league could use while bringing more playmaking than most such specialists.
It's tough to say where McCaw might go in a redraft. I still think most lottery teams would go for the higher upside of players with more ability to create their own shot. So McCaw would probably be more likely to go in the late teens or 20s to a team with a more complete roster.
"Do you think Mark Aguirre will ever make the Hall of Fame? I know he played in an era where the competition was tough, kind of like Damian Lillard now, but with his college resume and pro career I think he belongs. Any thoughts?"
-- Alvin Coleman
I don't, and I don't see a good case for him based on his NBA career. Like many small forwards from the 1980s, Aguirre was much better on offense than defense. So while he put up strong player efficiency ratings -- Aguirre topped a 20 PER five times, a total surpassed by just 78 players according to Basketball-Reference.com -- his contributions in terms of other advanced metrics are more modest.
My championships added metric, which is built on Basketball-Reference's win shares, doesn't put Aguirre among the top 200 players in NBA history in any of its three categories (regular-season value, playoff value and awards value).
It is true Aguirre spent his prime years in the Western Conference at the same time as three Hall of Fame small forwards (Adrian Dantley, Alex English and James Worthy), so maybe his three All-Star appearances sell him short. At the same time, West coaches found room on the roster for Calvin Natt in 1985 and Marques Johnson in 1986 while passing over Aguirre, so I don't think his absence from those rosters was strictly a function of competition.