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Research: Young Players Seeing More Playoff Minutes

I have been writing plenty about youth in these playoffs.

Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Carl Landry, Rajon Rondo, Julian Wright, Al Horford ... there have been so many young players playing well.

Reigning king of the stat geeks, Justin Kubatko, who runs Basketball-Reference.com, was nice enough to test my theory against his vast database.

And what he found was very interesting. I posted the whole table after the jump.

He first looked at what percentage of a team's total minutes were played by a player who was 23 or younger (his database takes every players birthday on February 1 and assigns that age to them all season). The real news here is that this number is trending way up. In 1996, about 6% of minutes were played by youngsters. It barely passed 10% all through the 1990s.

In this year's playoffs so far, players 23 or younger are playing 21% of the minutes.

Now, you might say that number will come down as the younger teams get kicked out of the playoffs. And that could happen. But even last year -- a playoffs won by the aging San Antonio Spurs -- the number was 18%, the highest it had been since 1980.

You could also say that this year there have been some blowouts, which might mean more garbage time than normal -- and hence more playing time for youngsters. That could be a factor.

If this year's 21% number holds up, it will be the third-highest in the history of the league. Even if it slips somewhat, it will be indicative of some serious growth in recent years. (And if some young teams make it deep into the playoffs, the number could, in theory, go up.)

What's this trend about?

David Thorpe's theory is that the new hand-checking rules have made this, more than ever, a fast player's game. "Quickness," Thorpe says, "is a difference maker. It used to be that if you were a veteran guarding a younger, quicker player, you could just grab the guy. Now, you can't do that anymore, and the quick players are killing people."

Kubatko also did a quick and dirty assessment of how much these young players are contributing with their minutes. He assessed points plus one-half rebounds plus one-half assists, explaining "how 'value' is measured isn't that important (as long as it's reasonable), as we're looking at player's in the aggregate rather than making player-to-player comparisons."

On that front, young players in most years contribute even slightly more than their minutes would suggest, and that trend holds true this time around; in their 21% of the minutes, young players are producing 23% of the stats (by this crude measure).

UPDATE: TrueHoop reader John writes: "The most interesting aspect of the basketball reference post was the only other time the % of younger players and % value compared to today's numbers was in the late 1970's, early 1980's. Most argue that the 1980's was the golden age of NBA basketball, and this was preceded by this high percentage of younger players in the playoffs. Could this be a sign that the next 7-8 years of NBA basketball could be setup very well with a great crop of young talent? I think it has to be."

Apologies for the crude table. If somebody knows a whiz-bang way to get these numbers into some nice graphs, I'd sure be happy to link it up.

UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who made nice graphs. Wow! Here are two favorites, which both make all this data easier to digest.

+---------+-------+-------+--------+---------+
| year | league | players | minutes% | value% |
+---------+-------+-------+--------+---------+
| 1952 | NBA | 20 | 24.56 | 26.36 |
| 1953 | NBA | 11 | 8.08 | 7.33 |
| 1954 | NBA | 6 | 7.14 | 6.01 |
| 1955 | NBA | 12 | 12.64 | 12.26 |
| 1956 | NBA | 17 | 22.37 | 23.77 |
| 1957 | NBA | 9 | 16.93 | 16.72 |
| 1958 | NBA | 7 | 12.58 | 13.46 |
| 1959 | NBA | 10 | 10.03 | 8.79 |
| 1960 | NBA | 14 | 11.74 | 13.31 |
| 1961 | NBA | 9 | 16.40 | 16.31 |
| 1962 | NBA | 18 | 19.54 | 20.24 |
| 1963 | NBA | 12 | 14.09 | 13.22 |
| 1964 | NBA | 11 | 14.33 | 12.81 |
| 1965 | NBA | 13 | 7.74 | 7.08 |
| 1966 | NBA | 12 | 9.36 | 8.47 |
| 1967 | NBA | 29 | 17.16 | 18.03 |
| 1968 | NBA | 21 | 11.93 | 9.67 |
| 1969 | NBA | 19 | 9.10 | 9.23 |
| 1970 | NBA | 20 | 14.14 | 14.37 |
| 1971 | NBA | 20 | 14.23 | 14.92 |
| 1972 | NBA | 18 | 12.64 | 11.13 |
| 1973 | NBA | 15 | 3.95 | 3.73 |
| 1974 | NBA | 15 | 10.24 | 10.41 |
| 1975 | NBA | 26 | 16.30 | 16.34 |
| 1976 | NBA | 29 | 17.72 | 19.00 |
| 1977 | NBA | 35 | 24.83 | 24.86 |
| 1978 | NBA | 42 | 29.12 | 28.96 |
| 1979 | NBA | 33 | 20.85 | 20.41 |
| 1980 | NBA | 29 | 19.44 | 19.34 |
| 1981 | NBA | 28 | 14.78 | 15.21 |
| 1982 | NBA | 31 | 14.51 | 13.74 |
| 1983 | NBA | 27 | 13.14 | 12.76 |
| 1984 | NBA | 36 | 11.33 | 10.38 |
| 1985 | NBA | 32 | 16.01 | 16.81 |
| 1986 | NBA | 43 | 14.83 | 15.84 |
| 1987 | NBA | 37 | 13.71 | 13.43 |
| 1988 | NBA | 28 | 9.58 | 9.01 |
| 1989 | NBA | 26 | 12.86 | 12.60 |
| 1990 | NBA | 28 | 10.40 | 10.75 |
| 1991 | NBA | 24 | 6.59 | 6.33 |
| 1992 | NBA | 30 | 7.94 | 7.33 |
| 1993 | NBA | 26 | 10.19 | 10.63 |
| 1994 | NBA | 23 | 9.15 | 8.66 |
| 1995 | NBA | 15 | 8.66 | 9.81 |
| 1996 | NBA | 25 | 6.13 | 6.40 |
| 1997 | NBA | 33 | 8.90 | 8.12 |
| 1998 | NBA | 21 | 7.45 | 7.50 |
| 1999 | NBA | 33 | 10.51 | 12.70 |
| 2000 | NBA | 26 | 8.32 | 9.09 |
| 2001 | NBA | 26 | 12.63 | 14.37 |
| 2002 | NBA | 32 | 14.88 | 16.61 |
| 2003 | NBA | 33 | 11.91 | 11.76 |
| 2004 | NBA | 32 | 13.70 | 13.39 |
| 2005 | NBA | 31 | 15.27 | 16.15 |
| 2006 | NBA | 39 | 15.49 | 16.23 |
| 2007 | NBA | 42 | 18.11 | 19.12 |
| 2008 | NBA | 47 | 21.12 | 22.89 |
+---------+-------+-------+--------+---------+

Thanks to Justin Kubatko for the research.