Last week, Conor Dirks of Truth About It wrote about the transformation of the Washington Wizards NBA team from one of the league's youngest teams in 2010-11, to the oldest team based on average age at one point during the 2014-15 preseason.
This caught me off-guard at first, as I recently criticized the Seattle Storm and their team building strategy. Like the Wizards at that point (they are now second oldest per RealGM), the Storm was the league's oldest team based on average age during the 2014 WNBA season. While it's easy to just look at average age and simply say that the Storm and the Wizards are old teams in their leagues, they don't share that much in common based on how they are currently constructed.
1. The franchise players of the Storm and the Wizards are at different stages of their careers.
Before looking at an average age of a team, it's important to look at who the franchise players are, and what point they are in their careers.
One similarity the Storm and Wizards share is the that their franchise players both play the same position, since Sue Bird and John Wall are point guards. But Bird is 34 years old and in the twilight of her career. Wall is 24 and has yet to enter his prime.
If you consider the second best player as a co-franchise star on the teams: Lauren Jackson for the Storm, Bradley Beal for the Wizards, you once again see a disconnect based on age. Jackson is 33 and is closer to the end of her career than Bird given her injury history. Beal is 21 years old, still on his rookie contract, and isn't in his prime yet. Current wrist injury aside, Beal should have many productive years left in his career.
When a team's franchise core is past its prime and that team's fortunes have started to decline, it's a sign that that group has to be broken up. In the NBA some championship cores have been broken up recently after they ran their course, like the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen Celtics and the Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol Lakers teams. The Storm is at this point, given that they missed the playoffs in 2014 after a gradual decline since their 2004 and 2010 championships.
Conversely, if a team's core is not at its prime yet, then that core should stay in place to allow the team to develop along with them. The Wizards fit this scenario, given that Wall and Beal are still young, and Otto Porter has begun to show signs of the potential that got him drafted 3rd in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Ultimately, the average age of players who play the most minutes matter more than the average age of the team.
2. The Storm and Wizards acquired veteran players to complement their cores for different purposes.
Storm head coach and general manager Brian Agler came to Seattle in 2008 with Bird and Jackson in the prime of their careers. He built the roster with veterans who would complement their strengths because they tend to break down less than their NBA counterparts, in a 2012 ESPN Magazine article by Peter Keating. Agler also has been reluctant to play many unproven younger players because Seattle was in "win-now" mode.
Seattle won 20 or more games (a rough equivalent to an NBA team winning 50 regular season games) each season from the 2008 through 2011 and won the 2010 WNBA Finals. However, they continued to acquire more veterans around Bird and Jackson who were now heading toward the end of their primes.
Instead of acquiring younger veterans, the Storm acquired multiple veterans who were past their prime including Katie Smith in 2011 and Tina Thompson in 2012. Most recently, the Storm acquired veteran post Crystal Langhorne from the Washington Mystics in exchange for a package which included 2014 first round draft pick Bria Hartley. These moves resulted in Seattle slipping into mediocrity before tying a league-worst 12-22 record in 2014.
The Wizards have made a number of veteran acquisitions themselves, such as Nene, Marcin Gortat, Andre Miller, and Pierce, all of whom are 30 or older. Nene and Pierce are good contributors but are declining. Gortat's current five-year contract will expire when he will be past his prime at 35 years old.
While the veterans are in Washington to win games of course, they are also there to complement (and help develop) Wall, Beal, and Porter to reach their potential as they head toward their primes. The Storm's veteran additions weren't there to help develop younger players. But to be fair, they never had many young players of consequence to begin with.
3. The Storm has fewer options to improve their team than the Wizards due to free agency rule differences in their leagues.
More on WNBA team building
More on WNBA team building
The Storm doesn't have the luxury of signing other WNBA franchise players to help an aging Bird and Jackson. Stars like Maya Moore or Candace Parker will not be unrestricted free agents while they are in their prime. The league's core player designation effectively keeps such players with the same team until they are near or past the end of their primes. The players who have changed teams, like Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles did so when they were entering restricted free agency and threatened to sit out entire seasons. Therefore, the only realistic way WNBA teams can get franchise level talent is through the draft. Much like the NBA, to have a shot at the best talent, WNBA teams must lose a large number of games to improve their draft position.
Fortunately for them, the Storm has a major asset on their hands with the #1 pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft. While that pick may be in what's considered a weak draft, Seattle still has maximum flexibility with that selection, whether they keep or trade the pick for another asset. They are likely missing the playoffs again in 2015, and therefore will have a good chance to win a second draft lottery in a row to acquire UConn junior forward Breanna Stewart in 2016. If they do, Stewart will be the successor to the Bird and Jackson era, and it will accelerate their rebuild.
In the NBA, being bad in the standings can help increase the chances that that team can get a franchise player with a high draft pick. But with no core player rule in place, superstar free agent movement is still a possible way to rebuild.
The Wizards have six players on the roster who are 30 or older, including a 37-year old Pierce and a 38-year old Miller. But most of their veterans' contracts conveniently expire in the 2016-2017 season, when D.C. area native and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant would be an unrestricted free agent.
There has been speculation on the possibility of Durant playing for the Wizards in 2016, after LeBron James decided to sign a contract with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers last July. Durant will be 28 then and would play alongside a 26-year old Wall and a 24-year old Beal who would all be in their primes. It is too early to say whether Durant will play in Washington, but the possibility of this situation gives hope for their fans.
Are the Wizards doing the right thing with a veteran movement?
For the time being, I believe so. As noted above, the Wizards' veterans are there not only to win, but also to complement and develop their young core, which starts with Wall, Beal, and Porter, who still have built-in upside given that they are all under 25-years old. The Wizards are expected to be one of the NBA's top Eastern Conference teams, and it is important to make sure that rotation players are able to contribute right away, even if they have to be mostly veterans. That said, there must be a balance between veteran contributions and a need to use younger players as well.
The Seattle Storm and the Washington Wizards are both old teams, but they are built in different ways and are headed in different directions. The Storm is an old team whose window to compete for a championship has closed, largely because Bird and Jackson are close to the end of their careers. Seattle also compounded that by adding more veteran players, often at the expense of developing younger ones. Now, the only way they can feasibly improve long-term is by being worse in the standings, given the free agency rules in their league.
The Wizards are also an old team. But unlike the Storm, their older players are complementary additions to a young core that has a bright future. They also have the flexibility to be a player in free agency when the young core enters their prime. This is not to say that the Wizards are guaranteed to be a perennial championship contender -- there's still plenty of work to do in D.C. But they are an old team that just happens to have upside and flexibility over the next several years, when their window to contend for a title is definitely open.