The conventional wisdom in sports has been that championship teams need to be stacked with experienced veterans — those less likely to buckle under pressure or make uncharacteristic mistakes with the game on the line.
Which is what makes this year’s Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat — led by the Heat at 2-0 — a case study against tradition.
The average Celtics player this season was 24.3 years old, and the average Heat player was 26.6, according to RealGM tracking data. Boston and the Oklahoma City Thunder tied for the youngest teams in the playoffs. While the Heat are not a particularly young group, many of the key players for both teams in this series have been in the league for three seasons or less — an unusual composition for a team one series win away from the finals.
Talent and chemistry are still paramount, no matter the N.B.A. experience. But this many young players making big contributions stands out as a departure from recent finals contenders. And it may provide contending teams an alternative for team building: The younger a team is, the more likely it is that its players are on cheaper contracts, giving front offices more flexibility to acquire talent.
It’s not just Miami and Boston either. On the opposite side of the bracket, the Denver Nuggets have a roster of players averaging 25 years old, while the Los Angeles Lakers have skewed toward a more traditional, veteran roster, averaging 28.3 years, the third highest in the N.B.A. The only teams older? The Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets, both of whom flamed out in the second round of the playoffs.
Of course, the Heat and Celtics have veterans too. Jimmy Butler, 31, is the best player on the Miami Heat and is in his ninth N.B.A. season. Celtics guard Kemba Walker, 30, a four-time All-Star, is also in his ninth season. The Heat traded for two veterans — Jae Crowder (30) and Andre Iguodala (36) — both of whom have played significant roles during their run.
Here’s a look at some of the young and less-experienced players making an impact in the Eastern Conference finals.
THE THIRD-YEAR ALL-STARS
Jayson Tatum, Celtics (22)
Tatum has already been the best player on a finals contender. By the end of his rookie year, he had led a team to the Eastern Conference finals. This season, he made his first All-Star team, as well as an All-N.B.A. third team. He is one of the strongest two-way players in the league and keeps improving as a scorer. But in many ways, he’s already playoff seasoned. Saturday’s Game 3 against the Heat will be Tatum’s 42nd in the postseason.
In this playoff campaign, Tatum has raised his game, averaging 25.3 points, 10 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.2 blocks per game.
Bam Adebayo, Heat (23)
Adebayo became a full-time starter this year, averaging 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He made the All-Star team and the All-Defensive second team, but where he has been a revelation is as a passer, dishing 5.1 assists per game during the regular season. And if the Heat finish out the Celtics, he’ll live forever in Miami lore after his game-saving block at the end of Game 1. Butler called Adebayo the “heart and soul” of the team.
Like Tatum, Adebayo has increased his production in the playoffs: 16.8 points, 11 rebounds per game, plus his usual 5.1 assists.
THE INEXPERIENCED VETERANS
Brad Wanamaker, Celtics (31)
Wanamaker spent most of his 20s competing in Europe after playing college basketball at the University of Pittsburgh. After signing with Boston two years ago, he became the N.B.A.’s oldest rookie. This year, he’s been Boston’s backup point guard, and has provided steady, reliable play. He’s also been durable: In 71 regular-season games, Wanamaker averaged 6.9 points and 2.5 assists. He also led the N.B.A. in free-throw shooting at 92.6 percent. In the playoffs, Wanamaker has been very efficient — shooting 47.3 percent the field and 48 percent from deep.
Duncan Robinson, Heat (26)
Robinson is in his second year in the N.B.A. and is one of the most dangerous shooters in the league. This was evident Thursday night, when Robinson hit six 3-pointers to help put away the Celtics. During the regular season, Robinson shot 8.3 threes a game and hit 44.6 percent of them.
He’s had a remarkable rise: He started his college career at a Division III school, Williams College, before heading to the University of Michigan. He went undrafted in 2018, but the Heat signed him to a two-way contract last year after he played for the Heat’s G-League affiliate.
THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
Tyler Herro, Heat (20)
The Heat drafted Herro 13th over all last year after he spent a season at Kentucky. He made an immediate impact as a rookie for Miami, mostly off the bench: In 55 games, Herro averaged 13.5 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 38.9 percent from 3-point range. He has frustrated the Celtics this series, and was one assist away from a triple-double in Game 1.
Robert Williams III, Celtics (22)
Nicknamed “Time Lord,” Williams — an N.B.A. sophomore — has seen his career hampered by injuries. But Coach Brad Stevens made him the top backup center against the Raptors in the second round and Williams rose to the occasion. He scored 10 points in Game 1 and 11 points in Games 2, both Boston wins.
He can jump out of the gym, is good at slamming home put-back dunks and blocking shots. But his penchant for leaping at upfakes has kept him off the floor.
Grant Williams, Celtics (21)
It’s not easy to get the trust of Stevens as a rookie, but Grant Williams has been able to do it. After being drafted in 2019 near the end of the first round out of Tennessee, Williams found himself as a rotation forward for the Celtics — averaging 15 minutes a game off the bench during the regular season. He’s shown himself to be a smart, heady defender with a nose for the ball. After missing the first 25 3-pointers of his career, Williams has morphed into the opposite in the playoffs, hitting 9 of 14 from deep. He was also on the floor late in Game 7 against the Raptors and made some key plays to help the Celtics hold off Toronto.