NBA Coaches Are Getting Older. What Does It Mean for Teams? (Part 1)

By Henry Johnson

What’s remarkable about Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson isn’t simply how young he is. Yes, Watson was hired last February at the tender age of 36, and yes, he played in the league as recently as 2014. But what’s most notable is this: Watson isn’t even the NBA’s youngest coach.

That title goes to Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton, who will be 36 until late March. In fact, young coaches seem to be sprouting up throughout the league, from Celtics wunderkind Brad Stevens (40 years old) to Cavs’ championship winner Tyronn Lue (39 years old). So young is Lue that he was once the victim of a ferocious block by his current player LeBron James. Thankfully, James has since blocked a shot or two in Lue’s favor.

With this in mind, let’s look into whether these cases are the exception or the rule. Are NBA coaches getting younger? To answer this question, we can use data from Basketball-Reference, which has information on coaching hires over time.

As the chart above shows, the average age of head coaches has generally increased since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. But some of this trend is driven by the fact that most coaches are retained from year to year, and as those coaches each get one year older, the league average increases.

The better ages to look at are those of new coaches. Within this subset, “new” can take on two meanings. There are coaches who are new to the league entirely, like Earl Watson. But there are also new hires for a given year, a category that includes Watson as well as coaches like Tom Thibodeau, who was hired by the Timberwolves this year after a previous run with the Bulls.

When we check the first group—coaches who are new to the league altogether—we see an overall upward trend, though this time it’s not quite as strong or consistent as the relationship we saw for coaches in general. Let’s check whether this correlation holds for new hires, the group that includes experienced coaches in new positions.

While the relationship between season and average coach age isn’t as strong for this subset as it is for the overall coaching pool, it’s still positive and significant. With varying degrees of emphasis, these three charts point to the same conclusion: NBA coaches are getting older.

In the second half of this post, we will try to answer the more intriguing question of what effect, if any, a coach’s age has on his team’s success. Fans of Earl Watson’s Suns will have to wait in the meantime.

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