The NBA Aging Curve and its Implication on the Chicago Bulls

I'm writing this FanPost to flush out some of my own thoughts, which have been stewing around in my brain these past few weeks since Derrick Rose went down. It goes without saying that the Derrick Rose injury was devastating. Our title hopes this season have been flushed down the drain, and as a result, the focus for Bulls fans has shifted to the future. A lot of ideas and proposals have cropped up on this blog: a lot of talk about tanking for Wiggins/Parker/Randle, a lot of talk about Mirotic and what it'll take to bring him over, and a lot of trade proposals, the majority of which involve Luol Deng in some capacity. What I haven't seen, however, is a really strong argument as to what the Bulls' over-arching mission and strategy should be because at this point, it's really unclear and difficult to figure that out.

Prior to Rose's injury, this team was unquestionably in win-now mode. Now that he's done for the year, the Bulls clearly aren't positioned to win now, but there still exists the possibility of reloading and trying to contend and win next year (building for the short-term). Another approach would be to tear everything down and rebuild (building for the long-term). These are diametrically opposed strategies, and I really don't think it makes a whole lot of sense to argue over individual moves if you're not sure what side of that fence you're on.

Before I go further, I want to talk briefly about the NBA aging curve. When players break into the league, they possess a ton of relatively unrefined talent and athleticism. As they get older and more experienced, they improve by developing their skills and becoming smarter about how to utilize them, but they decline due to degradation of their physical abilities. Kevin Pelton, among others, has looked at the subject and figured out here that the average NBA player peaks at around the age of 27. Every player's path is different; some guys come into the league relatively polished and figure it out sooner while other guys are late bloomers, and some guys have their careers cut short by injury while others seemingly have deals with the devil that allow them to maintain high productivity well into their 30s, but in general, you're going to get the most value from players between the ages of 24-30.

With that in mind, let's look at the ages of the Bulls' core players/assets:

Derrick Rose - 25

Jimmy Butler - 24

Luol Deng - 28

Taj Gibson - 28

Joakim Noah - 28

Tony Snell - 22

Nikola Mirotic - 22

Bulls' 2014 Pick - 18-21

Charlotte Pick - 16-21

I didn't list Boozer, Hinrich and Dunleavy, because the three of them are into their 30s and so far past their primes that they're not really a meaningful part of the Bulls' short-term or long-term future. I also didn't list Teague and Murphy because they stink and I don't think they'll ever be solid rotation-caliber players. Snell was very borderline himself. I also didn't list the Bulls' 2015-and-later draft picks, although they are worth keeping in mind here.

The key takeaway from this exercise is that the Bulls' collection of talent is pretty barbelled in terms of age. You have Taj, Noah, and Deng at the top end of the spectrum and Snell, Mirotic and the Bulls draft-picks-to-be at the bottom. Rose and Butler lie conveniently in the middle. This is not optimal. It's incredibly hard to put together a championship contender in the NBA, but it's a little bit easier when all of your good players hit their prime at the same time. Taj, Noah, and Deng are past their peaks and by the time Mirotic and the other reinforcements really hit their stride, they may no longer be fit to meaningfully contribute to a title run. They'll probably still be useful role players, but they won't be the borderline all-star caliber players they are now.

I believe, based on this age discrepancy, that the Bulls should go in one of two directions:

1) Option one is to stay the course and double down on the core of Rose + Taj + Deng + Noah. If this is the option the Bulls choose, they absolutely have to resign Deng. Letting him go is okay if you can leverage the resulting cap space or maneuver a S&T into getting an equal or better player, but I'm skeptical of the FO's ability to do that. The other thing the Bulls have to do is convert their long-term assets (Mirotic's rights, the Charlotte pick, their own picks) into players who can help now via trade. Maybe you still bring Mirotic over if you believe he's polished enough to help right away, but if we land, say, the 9th pick in the draft, it would be foolish to use it on a 19-year-old and hope that he can develop quickly enough to contribute while Taj, Noah and Deng are still in their prime. No, we should target players who are currently in their primes on rebuilding teams and go after them hard. Arron Afflalo would be a great target; he's 27 so he fits right in with the rest of the guys, he fills a position of need, and the Magic are rebuilding. Kevin Love's been a source of a lot of speculation. You gotta make a run at him if you can. Call the Phoenix Suns and see if they'll listen on Goran Dragic. Gotta do something with all those stockpiled draft picks.

There are two risks of going down this path. One, if Rose can't come back and be the MVP-caliber player that he once was, we're pretty SOL. Two, the putrid recent play of the Bulls gives a lot of credence to the theory that even with a healthy Rose this Bulls team isn't good enough to contend. Making a trade for another significant piece would help with that, and I think the Bulls are a lot better than they're currently playing, but it would suck to mortgage the future to win now only to still come up short against Miami the next 3 years.

2) The other option is to tear down. While a lot of people seem to be advocating a rebuild in some way, I'll argue that they're really not. Trading a player like Deng who's contract is expiring anyways, amnestying Boozer, and bringing over Mirotic is not rebuilding. It's treading water. I think that route represents a half-ass compromise between rebuilding and reloading which would be the worst path to take. If you're really going to rebuild, you have to trade Taj and Noah. It sucks to do it because both players, especially Noah, are incredibly popular around here, but if you're serious about trying to tank for a Wiggins/Parker/Randle and build around him and Rose, the reality is that the 19-year-old player you draft isn't going to be ready for prime-time until Noah and Taj are in their 30s, at which point both are likely to be nowhere near as good as they are now. If you're going to rebuild, you trade Noah and Taj for young players (in the 22-25 range) and picks and go from there.

The downside of this plan is obviously that rebuilding take awhile, which sucks for fans, but it also sucks for Derrick Rose, who's already 25. You're burning a couple years of his prime going down this road and hoping that the next wave of talent can develop quickly enough to make a good couple of runs before Rose succumbs to old age. You're also risking raising the ire of Team Rose, who have already made it clear that they want no part of a rebuild. On the other hand, if Rose can't come back and return to being the player he used to be, rebuilding sooner rather than later will expedite that process.

Ultimately, I'm not sure whether the Bulls should rebuild or reload, but I do think they have to pick a direction and go balls to the wall with that. You either tear everything down and rebuild with youth or you resign Deng and trade your picks to upgrade the team now. Half-assing it by doing a little bit of both is the worst possible plan.

Thanks for hearing out my thoughts and have a wonderful Christmas and New Year's. Curious to hear what you all think.

FanPosts are user-created posts from the BlogABull community, and are to be treated as the opinions and views of that particular user, not that of the blogger or blog community as a whole.

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