A little over a week ago it looked like the Seattle Storm’s season was going to end badly. Although the Storm finished with the best regular season record in the WNBA, they were in trouble in their semifinal series with the Phoenix Mercury. After the Storm won the first two games of the series the Mercury had taken two games in Phoenix to tie the series.
The deciding game was in Seattle. But after Diana Taurasi — the Michael Jordan of the WNBA — hit a three-pointer with a little over six minutes left it was the Mercury that held a four-point lead. The score was not the only troubling news for the Storm. Seattle also knew that in thirteen previous winner-take-all games in her career, Taurasi had never lost. So at this point, it looked the Storm was just a few minutes from seeing their title hopes dashed.
At that point, Sue “DB” Bird — Taurasi’s very close friend and former teammate at the University of Connecticut — decided to live up to her nickname of “Die, b—es!” Yes, that is what “DB” means!
Here is all that Bird did in the final minutes of this game.
- At the 5:48 mark Bird hit a three-pointer to bring the Storm within one point.
- A little over a minute later Bird hit a long two to give the Storm a one-point lead.
- Less than 45 seconds later Bird hits a three to give the Storm a three-point lead.
- Then at the 2:51 mark Bird hits another three to put the Storm up by six.
- Finally with 46 seconds left in the game Bird hits another three to give the Storm a ten point lead.
In the end, Bird scored 14 points in about five minutes and the Storm turned a close game into a 10 point victory. The victory put the Storm in the WNBA Finals against a Washington Mystics team led by an injured Elena Delle Donne. Three games later, the Storm and Bird had won their third WNBA championship.
The story of Bird and the Storm is not entirely different from many championship stories one could write in basketball. It’s not uncommon for a team to win a title after overcoming adversity. There is, though, one part of this story that should be considered unique and amazing.
Bird didn’t just play well for five minutes against the Mercury last week. Bird played well all season for the Storm. In 2018 she averaged a career high in both assists per game and effective field goal percentage while also averaging nearly a career low in turnovers per game. When we convert all of her statistics into a measure of wins produced, we see that Bird’s Wins Produced per 40 minutes (WP40) of 0.291 was only bested in 2018 by Courtney Vandersloot (0.303 WP40) among WNBA point guards. What’s amazing about those numbers is Bird will turn 38 next month while Vandersloot is only 29 years old.
Yes, Bird did all of that despite being immensely old for a basketball player.
To see how immensely old, let’s note that Bird played 31 regular season games for the Storm this year and average 26.6 minutes per game. According to NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com, more than 4,000 players have ever played for an NBA team. Of these, Basketball-Reference.com indicates that only 23 players ever played at least 31 games and logged at least 26.6 minutes per game when they were 37 years or older. In other words, only about 0.6% of all NBA players in history have ever been as old as Sue Bird and spent as much time on the court.
Of course, Bird didn’t just play. She was amazing. NBA players tend to reach their peak productivity around their mid-20s. Performance tends to remain close to that peak until they reach 30 years of age and then we start to see significant declines. Once again, by the time an NBA player is 37, their career tends to be over. For the few who kept playing, though, we tend to see a level of productivity far off the player’s peak.
Consider the case of Kobe Bryant. The numbers say Bryant was consistently an above average performer from the time he was 20 years old until he reached his early 30s. But in his last season –at 37 years of age — his effective field goal percentage was only 41.7% and his overall productivity was well below average.
A similar story could be told about Dominique Wilkins. For years Wilkins was the above average player that many people fondly remember. But at 37 — with the San Antonio Spurs — Wilkins’ saw his effective field goal percentage and overall productivity drop below the marks of an average NBA player.
Sue Bird is most definitely not below average. An average WNBA player produced 0.100 wins per 40 minutes and again, Bird’s mark this last year was 0.291. Here is the list of NBA players who managed to produce that many wins per 40 minutes — while playing as many games and minutes per game as Bird — at 37 years of age:
Okay, there’s no list. We can measure an NBA player’s production of wins back to 1973-74 and no one in the NBA has ever been that productive per 40 minutes played.
What Bird did in 2018 is simply unique in the history of NBA basketball. It is also unique in WNBA history. In sum, no one has ever been as productive at 37 years of age as Sue Bird in 2018.
That’s not to say no one has ever been above average at this advanced age. In the WNBA, seven players who were at least 37 (Cynthia Cooper, Teresa Edwards, Vickie Johnson, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Katie Smith, Andrea Stinson, and Sheryl Swoopes) all played as many minutes as Bird this season and still posted above average numbers. Being an older league, the list of such players in the NBA is twice as long (there are 14 such players). But again, none of those players produced as much as Bird.
That being said, some came close. And an interesting pattern emerges when we look at the most productive older NBA players. Only two players in NBA history managed to produce at least 0.200 wins per 48 minutes in at least three different seasons when they were 37 or older. Those two players are John Stockton and Jason Kidd.
The sample is quite small. But like Sue Bird, the extremely older players who performed the best in NBA history were both point guards. Dr. Abigail Larson — a professor of Physical Education and Human Performance at Southern Utah University — was willing to offer some speculation to help explain why Bird, Stockton, and Kidd were able to resist aging so well. According to Dr. Larson:
“Smaller (and lighter) players, such as guards, are probably less likely incur injuries in general because of decreased ground reaction forces upon landing. This likely applies to acute and chronic injuries of the lower body. In the case of chronic, age-related injuries (degenerative conditions to the joints especially) lighter players will be subjected to decreased landing forces over the course of decades and there will be significantly less wear and tear on joints (chronic injury). Regarding acute injury, guards may have a better lower body strength to body weight ratio which would decrease the risk of ACL tears. Finally, it could just be a matter of what a guard is required to do vs. what centers and forwards do – guards typically have less physical contact with other players especially under the net where injury such as ACL tears and ankle sprains are most likely to occur.”
As Dr. Larson noted, this is speculation.
Regardless of why this happens, few players have resisted aging very well in the sport of basketball. Those that did this best were point guards.
And the point guard that was the very best was Sue “DB” Bird.
Bird’s next stop is the FIBA World Cup where she attempts to lead Team USA to another gold. If Bird is successful, it will be her 4th World Cup gold medal. Bird has also won four Olympic gold medals, as well as two NCAA titles, four EuroLeague championships, five Russian National League championships, and of course three WNBA titles.
Yes, Bird has won quite a bit in her career. But her greatest victory so far has been over age. And in this game, it doesn’t look like Bird is going to lose very soon.
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