When Do NBA Stars Start Winning?

NBA fans expect the world out of players when they show glimpses of greatness at young ages. Maybe we should recalibrate our expectations... here's why.

Sports are a world filled with expectations, and the NBA is no different.

Consider LeBron James.

He was the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, and before he ever played a game in the league he was billed as the next Michael Jordan, a comparison that comes with a lot of pressure. Still, he made his first All-Star Game at 20 years old during his second season, and was All-NBA second team. A year later he was All-NBA first team at the age of 21. At 22 he led the Cavaliers to the Finals. At 24 he won his first MVP. At 25 he won his second.

These are all remarkable feats for any player, especially given the age when they were accomplished… but for most it was not enough. In order to satisfy the masses, LeBron needed to win a title.

James would go on to win his first ring in 2012 when he was 27 years old (his 9th season in the NBA), at which point he eloquently said, “it’s about damn time.”

My question is this: was he really behind schedule? 

The history of the NBA would say no.

Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant are two of three players since the NBA-ABA merger to win multiple titles under the age of 27 while being All-NBA first or second team that season; the third is Tim Duncan (Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

If we look at the history of the NBA since the NBA-ABA merger, meaning beginning with the 1976-1977 season, you will find that the vast majority of championship teams have included at least one player who was All-NBA first or second team that season. The only exceptions are the 1978 Bullets, 1979 Sonics, 1989 Pistons, 1990 Pistons, and 1995 Rockets (the 1990 Pistons and 1995 Rockets had All-NBA players, but they were third team). That means 40 of the past 45 title teams fit this rule.

However, it is very rare to win a title with an All-NBA first or second team player under the age of 27.

These are the players who were All-NBA first or second team AND appeared in the Finals since 1977 at the age of 26 and under (players in italics won at least once):

  • George McGinnis - 1977

  • Bill Walton - 1977

  • Larry Bird - 1981

  • Moses Malone - 1981

  • Magic Johnson - 1982-1985

  • Hakeem Olajuwon - 1986

  • Scottie Pippen - 1992

  • Penny Hardaway -1995*

  • Shaquille O’Neal - 1995*

  • Shawn Kemp - 1996

  • Tim Duncan - 1999, 2003

  • Kobe Bryant – 2000-2002, 2004

  • Allen Iverson – 2001

  • Dwyane Wade – 2006

  • LeBron James – 2007, 2011

  • Kevin Durant – 2012**

  • Russell Westbrook – 2012**

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo – 2021

*Hardaway and O’Neal were teammates in 1995

**Durant and Westbrook were teammates in 2012

In all, there are 18 players listed. Of these 18, only eight won at least one title in the years listed. Combine the records of the 18 players that made it to the championship round and their teams went 12-12 in the Finals (Penny/Shaq and KD/Westbrook count for one loss per duo). 5 of those 12 titles came from Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant; if you remove those two from this list, the teams of the 16 remaining players went 7-11 in the Finals.

It is not easy to be a superstar at a young age AND win in the NBA. There are several reasons for that:

Team-building is complicated, most of the time when a superstar ends up on a team at a young age it is because they were drafted to a team that sucked, meaning their first few seasons the team is typically not in position to win

Even if you’re a young superstar, you still have a prime to reach, and your game might not be perfected by the time you reach the Finals at a young age

Winning is hard! Even for the superstars of the game who are older, they still tend to lose, and when you’re younger, odds are you’ll run into a team with a more seasoned superstar

Between 1980 and 2021 there were 50 instances of a player on a title team who was All-NBA first or second team, and 30 of those instances (60%) were when the player was between the ages of 27 and 31. That is the range of age often considered the prime of NBA players, and the data tells us that’s when the best of the best tend to lead their team to championships.

Michael Jordan was 28 years old when he “finally” got over the hump, but you wouldn’t realize he got off to such a late start by the end of his career when he finished with 6 titles (Credit: Ken Levine/Allsport)

Just two of the past 19 NBA champions have had a player who was All-NBA first or second team that season and was under the age of 27 years old: Dwyane Wade, who was 24 in 2006, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was 26 this past season.

LeBron and Steph Curry won their first titles at 27 years old.

Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Durant won theirs at 28.

Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon won their first at 31, Dirk Nowitzki won his first at 32.

These 8 were members of 21 of the past 31 championship teams.

Did some of these same players have help from younger superstars? Yes.

All of Shaq’s titles were won with a player who was All-NBA first or second team at the age of 26 or younger (Kobe and Wade). MJ’s second title was won when Scottie Pippen was 26 and made All-NBA second team in 1992. Kobe, Wade and Scottie were great players but they also certainly benefitted from playing with Shaq and MJ

Think about how lucky Magic Johnson was to be drafted in 1979 to a team featuring 5-time NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won his record 6th MVP during Johnson’s rookie season. Or how lucky Tim Duncan was to be drafted in 1997 to a team featuring 1995 NBA MVP David Robinson, who joined Duncan as one of the 15 All-NBA selections in 1997-1998. Sometimes young stars end up in better positions than others.

Yet us fans put tremendous pressure on players like LeBron, Durant and Giannis to win at early ages like Magic, Kobe and Duncan were able to do, whether it was fair or not based on their circumstances. Even when the data tells us the prime of NBA players is their mid to late 20s, we expect so much so early when players show us greatness.

Today, players like Luka Doncic (22) and Jayson Tatum (23) feel this pressure. Zion Williamson (21) and LaMelo Ball (20) will experience it soon, as will countless others.

For most it really is too much to ask too soon… yet it has become a tradition in the NBA. Some answer the call, but history tells us you are by no means a failure if you don’t. Lets all remember that.