Via trade and free agent decisions, the Lakers swapped out many of their younger rotation players in favor of aging veterans.
Maybe Rob Pelinka is just a big M. Night Shyamalan fan.
Even after agreeing to shrewd free agent deals with Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk (while also bringing back Talen Horton-Tucker), Pelinka seemed to look at this offseason as a way to not just add talent, but to add — and I say this with kindness and respect — a bunch of old dudes.
Outside of Monk and Nunn, not a single player the Lakers have added this offseason is younger than 32. Not Russell Westbrook (32), not Wayne Ellington (33) or Kent Bazemore (32) and certainly not Trevor Ariza (36), Dwight Howard (35), or Carmelo Anthony (37). When you add this group of newcomers to LeBron James (36) and Marc Gasol (36), the Lakers project to be one of the oldest teams in the entire NBA next season, if not the single oldest.
My question is: Does this actually matter? Well, yes and no.
From a functional standpoint, age matters much less than an ability to perform the job you’re asked to do. There’s no better example of this than LeBron, who at 36 years old and entering his 19th season in the NBA, remains one of the game’s truly elite talents and most productive performers. Before suffering that high ankle sprain that derailed his season, LeBron was a leading MVP candidate and looked as fresh as could be, even coming off a condensed offseason that saw him lead his team to the championship and win Finals MVP just 10 weeks earlier.
Of course, LeBron can be an outlier example to prove any point about longevity, so instead let’s look at a player like Dwight. Drafted just a season after LeBron, Dwight finds himself as one of the better backup centers in the game when focusing on a role consisting of rim protection, rebounding on both ends of the floor, and finishing in the paint via lobs, dump-off passes and offensive rebounds. This narrower focus directly correlates to performance, allowing Dwight to leverage the physical tools he still has in ways that allow him to remain effective as a player.
Similar points can be made for the rest of the Lakers’ role players too. Whether it’s Carmelo Anthony becoming more of a spot up option who no longer makes his name as the isolation bucket getter of his youth, Kent Bazemore returning to his role-player roots after a big money contract in the middle stages of his career, or Trevor Ariza turning himself more into a combo forward who can defend bigger wings and stretch PF’s instead of the rangy SG’s and SF’s of his younger days, the evolution of these players and the embracing of often smaller and less glamorous on-court asks will be key to their success on the Lakers.
That said, it would also be silly to believe that simply by asking some of these older players to do less that you’re going to get the best out of them, or that they’ll be able to actually perform to the level that they’re needed. The Lakers fashion themselves as championship contenders. As you get deeper into the playoffs and the competition reaches its highest level, the teams that perform best and win the title are, most often, the ones that have at least one or two role players step up beyond their perceived limitations to reach a level that helps put their team over the top.
There are countless examples of this throughout the history of the league, but recent Lakers related ones would include Dwight’s Western Conference Finals performance vs. the Nuggets, and Rajon Rondo’s exquisite playoff run — particularly in the Finals vs. the Heat — where he could suddenly get to the basket and finish in traffic while also hitting 40% of his three pointers. No one could have expected or should have relied on these players to contribute in these ways, but that’s what made them so important.
It’s more than fair to wonder if this batch of aging veterans the Lakers have on their roster are going to be capable of repeating what Dwight and Rondo did in the team’s 2020 title run. We just saw Ariza not have enough left in the tank to be a difference maker for the Heat in their first-round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Bucks. We saw firsthand Marc Gasol’s limitations vs. the Suns when the Lakers lost in the first round, too. We’re all aware of Melo’s defensive limitations and every additional season he plays, the more slippage we should expect.
Of course, these questions shouldn’t just be about the team’s role players, but their stars too. LeBron’s age and mileage are real. And while I’ll never predict a decline is coming with him, one will come eventually. Probably….maybe. Westbrook might still be considered at the tail end of his prime and he remains a physical marvel, but he too will suffer the same fate of every aging star at some point in their career. Again, I’m not predicting we see these two begin to drop off this season — their physical gifts and general athleticism give them a cushion in battling decline in ways that lesser athletic players can’t match — but the risk only amplifies with each passing season they’re asked to carry the burden they do.
This is why Anthony Davis’ presence is so vital, and why coming to terms with Monk and Nunn, while bringing back THT is important. Players in their respective primes are the best candidates to outperform expectations or raise their games through improvements, whether incremental or more pronounced. We know what AD can be when he’s at his best, but THT, Nunn and Monk can be true wildcards in their ability to raise their trajectories, and with them, the Lakers’ chances too.
A team full of aging vets can be great in terms of experience and understanding of what needs to happen on any given possession. The Lakers are surely betting on that, and I’d argue some of these signings signal an investment in — and seeking out of — a specific type of experience that can matter in the kinds of stressful and high-leverage moments the team hopes to find themselves in.
Dwight and Ariza are former champions and, at this stage of their careers, are locked in as role players who understand what is being asked of them on every possession. Melo is a former elite player who has not only played in high stakes games, but has had the burden of being the focal point of the opposing team’s game plan in them. Bazemore and Ellington don’t have the same breadth of experiences as those guys, but both have played in big games, are competitive, and have very specific strengths that can fit into many lineup types. These are player archetypes Rob Pelinka sought out in building the 2019-20 team that happened to win the championship, and revisiting that template was surely on his mind when building out this roster.
In the relentless Hunger Games of the playoffs, you need to be able to physically survive the grind, not just have a defined skill set or be able to think the game at a high level. The Lakers, even as an aging and older team, seem to have a good enough balance of (potentially) impactful youth and the types of vets who, through their physical profiles, project to be able to hang when the competition is fiercest. It won’t save them from a bunch of jokes about being old, but it may just help them avoid the affects of their age.