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ANALYSIS: What is the Nets’ ‘Timeline?’

In his day job, ProfessorB is an award-winning social scientist. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major media outlets. But he also dabbles in NetsWorld.

2023 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nets’ watchword for this off-season, we’re told, is “incremental.” A “long timeline,” no dramatic changes. The team spent most of the off-season dumping veterans (Joe Harris, Patty Mills, Seth Curry) and adding young players on one-year minimum-salary deals (Dennis Smith, Jr., Lonnie Walker IV, Darius Bazley, Trendon Watford). The strategy is to stay under the luxury tax threshold this season and next, then have flexibility to improve starting in 2025.

How many of the players currently on the roster will make it to that promised land? And what will they be contributing when we get there? Addressing those questions requires a clear sense of the typical arc of an NBA career. How much and how fast do young players generally improve? When do they reach their primes? And how much and how fast do their skills decline later in their careers? There are some attempts to answer those questions floating around, but they are not very detailed or rigorous, so I’ve generated my own.

Here is the typical career performance profile for NBA players over the past decade. The zero line represents “baseline” performance at age 19, and the subsequent values represent expected performance relative to that baseline in later years. (The baseline is different for every player, and percentage changes in performance are relative to that baseline, so a 20% improvement over baseline is a much bigger absolute improvement for LeBron James than for a journeyman bench-rider.)

Players typically improve rapidly (by 10-15% per year) between the ages of 19 and 22, then at a much slower rate (by 3-5% per year) between the ages of 22 and 25. Most players are in their “primes” a good deal earlier than conventional wisdom suggests—from about 23 to 28. Thereafter, performance typically declines fairly steadily (by about 5% per year) into the mid-30s. Most players are about as good at 32 as they were at 21, and about as good at 34 as they were at 20.

NBA observers seem to think that bigs develop more slowly than wings and point guards. There is some truth to that speculation if we focus on players in their early 20s. But the bigger difference is that bigs simply improve less, overall, than other players do. Point guards and wings in their prime are about 50% better than they were at 19, on average. The corresponding improvement for bigs is only about 30%. And in proportional terms, their performance tends to trail off at about the same rate later in their careers.

What does all this mean for the Nets? Based on each player’s age and position, we can project how productive he is likely to be when the team is (supposed to be) ready to compete, relative to his performance last season. Obviously, this calculation doesn’t take into account year-to-year fluctuations in performance, health, or changing roles. The calculations for Ben Simmons reflect the average effect of aging on 26-year-old point guards, whatever their “baseline” ability at age 26 may be. The relevant baseline for Simmons is very much up in the air right now.

By far the best growth stock on this list, assuming he recovers from injury, is Dariq Whitehead. Noah Clowney’s projected growth is slower, reflecting the difference in the typical career arcs of wings and bigs. (In both cases, I’m assuming that their growth as 19-year-olds will parallel the growth of 20-year-olds at their positions.) Next are the other youngsters on the roster—Day’Ron Sharpe, Cam Thomas, Darius Bazley, Trendon Watford, and Jalen Wilson, each of whom should be expected to improve by 10-20% from where they are now. That expected improvement is good news, but probably less good than ever-optimistic fans may be counting on. And remember, these are projected relative improvements from baselines that may be low to start with.

What is more striking—and sobering—is that the Nets’ core players are more likely to be worse than better by the time the team is ready to compete. If the relevant “window” is defined as the three seasons following 2025 free agency, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Ben Simmons are all likely to be 5-10% less effective then than they are now. Those are hardly precipitous declines, but they underline the cost of treading water for the next two years. Even Nic Claxton will probably have peaked by then—at a level not much higher than he is at right now.

Of course, these projected changes in performance will only be relevant for the players who stay on the roster. Bridges’ current contract runs through 2026, Johnson’s through 2027. The newcomers, aside from Clowney and Whitehead, are all signed to one-year deals—and even those two will be restricted free agents in 2027. The Nets will have plenty of roster flexibility over the next few years. But if the plan is to build on the existing core, the clock is ticking.