Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): The Los Angeles Lakers made quite a bit of news with their offseason moves.
The first domino fell when they acquired Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards, then they re-signed Talen Horton-Tucker and signed — *takes a deep breath* — Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Dwight Howard, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn in free agency.
Once that dust settled, the team also added Rajon Rondo, who re-joins the franchise after donning the purple and gold from 2018-2020, and later signed DeAndre Jordan, who is entering his 14th NBA season.
That’s a lot of big names, but a lot of the talk surrounding the Lakers following all of those additions is that they’re now quite old. LeBron already fired back at people calling them old in a since deleted tweet, but, well, Los Angeles is now home to five of the league’s 10 oldest players.
So Gil, is their age a legitimate concern to you or is all this talk overblown?
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Wow, it’s hard to say the talk is overblown when the team has six players aged 35 or older, most of whom will celebrate a birthday during the season.
That’s … something you don’t see much, if at all.
I will say it helps that one of them is LeBron, since he’s essentially 36 going on 27. How he continues to remain at the top of his game is beyond me, but that’s just one guy. Outside of the five oldest, which are Anthony, Ariza, Howard, James and Rondo, it’s not like Bazemore, Ellington and Westbrook are the youngest guys in the league, either. I’d assume they must be close to breaking a league record of average age if it hasn’t been broken already.
I say all of that to say, I’m concerned about the real issues of durability that come with having a veteran team but hold some cautious optimism that the veteran presence and airtight championship window may actually end up being a good thing. There’s no time to fool around and “feel things out,” if that makes sense.
This team isn’t exactly built to win 60 games from October to April, but can they make it to April and win 16 when it counts?
Rafferty: I’m iffy about Westbrook’s fit next to LeBron and Davis, but one of the positives of his addition is that it could take some of the load off of LeBron during the regular season.
It’s easy to forget that LeBron was in the mix for MVP before he went down with the ankle injury that derailed his season. Time will tell if he can get back to that level — he’s got to decline at some point … right? — but all the Lakers really need to be worried about is win enough games to make the playoffs and make sure LeBron and Davis are both at full strength when it really matters.
Easier said than done, but Westbrook can help get them to that point.
To be honest, I’m not all that worried about the backcourt age-wise. Westbrook has been pretty durable throughout his career, and I like the additions of both Monk and Nunn, as well as the re-signing of Horton-Tucker, because it gives the Lakers some much-needed youth that could help them get through the slog of the regular season. The center rotation is another story. As currently constructed, the Lakers are relying a lot on Howard and Jordan. Davis playing more center than he did last season would certainly help, but we know he likes to share the court with another big. If one of them goes down with an injury, it could get shaky quickly.
That’s why I get the Lakers’ decision to add Jordan, but … he’s not exactly young either.
McGregor: As soon as I read Jordan’s name, I thought “well, he isn’t young, either,” before I even got to that part of your sentence. We’re on the same page there.
That being said, he’s an option that should be well-rested after last season, but it almost feels like they should have mimicked the approach to the guards in bringing in at least one young-ish big to get spot minutes here and there to bang alongside Davis.
It’s funny you mention LeBron’s status before that injury. I recently came across highlights from his 46-point game against Cleveland and had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that was last season.
At this point, I’m legitimately not expecting him to slow down until he turns 40.
As for the fit, I wonder how much the “Big Three” can sacrifice in order to make it a smoother transition. I think that’s why I referenced that airtight window to actually win. Westbrook specifically would have to make some changes in order for the transition to be smoother, but I worry that some things may be too difficult to change entering Year 13. Not even a knock on him, either, it’s just hard to adapt that far in.
Rafferty: One thing I do think works in the Lakers’ benefit is all of the history many of their players have together. You’ve already outlined some of it, but many of the players they have on their roster have been teammates before. Howard and Rondo are only a season removed from winning a championship in Los Angeles, and LeBron and AD were teammates with both Westbrook and Carmelo at the 2012 London Olympics.
I’m still expecting there to be some growing pains — as you mentioned, Westbrook will likely have to make the most sacrifices — but all that chemistry could ease the transition some and make up for some of the age-related issues.
We should talk more about Davis specifically. Something else that’s easy to forget is NBA.com had him as the third-best player in the league (tied with Kawhi Leonard) going into last season. He went on to have one of the worst seasons of his career, averaging his fewest points (21.8) since his sophomore season to go along with career lows in rebounds per game (7.9), blocks per game (1.6) and field goal percentage (.491).
Injuries played a big role in that, but Davis getting back to that sort of level would make it much easier to look past how old this team is on paper.
McGregor: It’s amazing to think how much can change in less than a year, riding that high of the Finals victory. I think we all were quick to rank him at or around No. 3. There was even conversation of whether he or LeBron should’ve won Finals MVP.
One injury-riddled season later, and he’s fallen to No. 10 on NBA.com’s player rankings. Don’t get me wrong, being considered the 10th-best basketball player in the world is far from a bad thing, but still, the drop off is impossible to ignore.
I’m sure LA would have liked to have defended its title much better, but the long offseason that the first-round exit has given the Lakers could be beneficial to a guy like Davis. It’s ironic that we talked about durability for the older guys, but it’s the biggest variable for Davis, who is among the team’s younger crowd at 28.
I fully expect Davis to have a chip on his shoulder after the way last season went, and I think he’ll move back into that top 5 or 6 range.
Do you think him playing at the five is an even bigger key than we’ve acknowledged? Has that ship sailed? Or is it more of just an availability/performance type deal with him?
Rafferty: I mean, him being available is the big one. The on-off numbers are far from perfect, but they speak to how valuable Davis is to this team. He fills in a lot of the gaps offensively and he’s one of the five best defenders in the league. He raises their ceiling considerably.
So yeah, a healthy Davis is kind of important.
I do think Davis playing center is more important this year than ever before, if only because spacing is going to be even more cramped with Westbrook now on the team. As I alluded to before, I think Davis will have to play more center during the regular season than he did last season. (Basketball Reference estimates that he logged 91 percent of his minutes at power forward in 2020-21, which is the most of his career). It’ll be even more important during the playoffs because we know how teams are going to defend Westbrook — they’re going to help way off of him, dare him to shoot and clog the paint for LeBron and AD.
McGregor: Ultimately, I think that’s the thing, his willingness to play center during the playoffs is the big key.
That same handy tool on Basketball Reference estimated that he played about 60 percent of his minutes at center during LA’s title run in 2020 and, during his only other successful postseason run with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018, he’s said to have played 100 percent of his minutes at center.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Rondo is a common denominator in both situations. I say that half-jokingly, but maybe he does have a voice of reason that gets through to Davis? That could be an underrated aspect of his signing.
If LA somehow follows that New Orleans blueprint at times, perhaps they put Davis beside a floor-spacing four. Or just lean into small ball more. Carmelo?
Rafferty: Fun fact that you reminded me of: Davis has never won a playoff series without Rondo. So there’s that, I guess.
I do worry about Carmelo defensively in the playoffs. I think it’s safe to assume Westbrook, LeBron and Davis will be closing games for the Lakers. Who fills the other spots could depend on whether or not Horton-Tucker makes a leap and how much someone like Ariza has left in the tank. Nunn is also an option, as are Ellington, Monk, Bazemore and Rondo.
That’s also why I’m not overly concerned about the age factor — the Lakers have a seven or eight-man rotation that, I think, still has enough left in the tank. Provided, of course, that LeBron and AD are healthy.
McGregor: As we rattle off names, that stands out to me, too.
Maybe I’m being generous, but I truly believe that on any given night, there are several guys outside of the Big Three who can step up. I think the only concern is whether or not guys can stay ready when their name is called, even if they’re not needed for certain stretches for games.
You’d think that being veterans would help them stay ready for when their number is called, but it’s also difficult to stay in rhythm when you’re older. We saw it with Gasol last year.
I guess that’s my biggest question and concern that we’ll have to wait until the season to see unfold.
Rafferty: It does sound like we’re both more concerned about fits than we are about age. It sure is going to be interesting to see how it plays out.
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