2021-22 Kia Season Preview

Is age just a number? The Lakers hope so

A veteran-loaded roster in L.A. hopes to prove NBA careers have more longevity now than during previous generations.

Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are each entering their 19th seasons in the league.

It’s not hard to imagine Carmelo Anthony ferociously snatching a rebound at some point this season and growling loudly to no one in particular, “I got it, get off my lawn!”

If not for the sponsor already renting space on the shoulders of their jerseys, the Los Angeles Lakers would be great candidates for an NBAARP logo up there.

We’re waiting for confirmation that their team dinners on the road, on off-nights, start at 4:30 p.m. Ditto for a peek into their trainers’ rooms to verify that the whirlpools are of the walk-in tub variety.

Age jokes – heh heh, yeah, real funny – are the least of the Lakers’ worries as the 2021-22 season revs up. But they’ve been unavoidable since the organization rebuilt its roster around 36-year-old LeBron James, added late-prime Russell Westbrook at 33 and brought in or back veterans such as Carmelo Anthony (37), Trevor Ariza (36), Dwight Howard (35), Rajon Rondo (35), Wayne Ellington (34), DeAndre Jordan (33) and Kent Bazemore (32).

At the other end of the timeline are Kendrick Nunn (26), Malik Monk (23) and Talen Horton-Tucker (20), with All-Star big man Anthony Davis in that Goldilocks just-right spot at 28.

> Season Preview: Lakers

The Lakers’ average age, calculated on those 13 players expected to see the most minutes, will be 31.2 years when the regular season tips off Tuesday and bump to 31.8 by the playoffs, with eight celebrating birthdays before the playoffs.

Five of the league’s 12 oldest players, as of Opening Night, will report for work in the Lakers’ dressing room. Of the NBA’s top 20 elder statesmen, Miami has three, Brooklyn two and 10 other teams have just one each. The Nets probably are closest to the Lakers overall, with eight guys born in the 1980s and Joe Harris recently hitting 30.

James, as the Lakers’ leader and second-oldest, has embraced the chatter and teasing about his team’s collective age. At the team’s media day sessions to open training camp, he sounded both amused and happy to have something, when the time comes, to shove back at critics. “Some of the memes and some of the jokes have been extremely funny,” he said.

NBA TV discusses how age may affect the Lakers this season.

There have been old teams before, and not just in the NBA. The 1974 Washington NFL team was renowned for the veterans assembled under coach George Allen – 16 of that club’s 22 starters were age 30 and older. They finished 10-4 (No. 1 fan Richard Nixon already had resigned by that fall, alas) before losing their first playoff game.

In 1983, the Philadelphia Phillies pulled together some old cogs from the Cincinnati “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s – Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez – and slogged through 162 games with 15 players age 32 or older. That club finished 90-72, winning the NL East, before falling to Baltimore in the World Series.

There have been seven teams from 2008 through last season with average ages above 30 years old, topped by the San Antonio Spurs (31.6) in 2015-16. Every one of the seven reached the playoffs, though only one – Miami in 2012-13 – won the championship. Three of James’ four Heat teams are on that list of seven.

One reason for the Lakers’ relatively advanced age is their decidedly top-heavy payroll. Westbrook, James and Davis are sucking up more than $120 million, which explains the nine players who have been signed to veterans minimum deals. And as team owner Jeanie Buss told The Athletic in August, the lack of salary-cap space dictates the type of free agents they can recruit.

“Trying to convince players to come on one-year deals for the minimum is a challenge,” she said. “So you get a lot of guys that are willing to take less money for the opportunity to possibly go for a championship, or play in a city that has other opportunities as they transition to the next part of their career.”

The key, naturally, is that they aren’t transitioning quite yet – or play like it.

“We don’t care” about the age comments, forward Carmelo Anthony said after signing in early August. “We make our own narrative. … I like when people talk about the age. I think it gives a better story. I think people forget, at the end of the day, it’s about basketball. … You got to have that experience. I think that’s what we bring at this point and time. Our talent, our skill, but also our experience.”

Keep this in mind, though: Isiah Thomas, Pete Maravich, Tracy McGrady, Bob Pettit, Willis Reed, David Thompson and Billy Cunningham – Hall of Famers all – couldn’t have been part of this sort of team because they all were retired at age 32 or younger.

Earl Monroe, Chris Webber, Wes Unseld, Walt Frazier and James Worthy all were washed by age 35.

It wasn’t that long ago, back in January 2013, that Kobe Bryant – 34 at the time – bemoaned his Lakers team’s creaky bones after a New Year’s loss to Philadelphia that dropped them to 15-16 a month before All-Star break. “You just saw an old damn team. I don’t know how else to put it to you,” Bryant said. His teammates at the time included Pau Gasol (32), Metta World Peace (33), Steve Nash (38) and Howard (27) in his first stint with the team.

Coincidentally one of those guys – Metta Sandiford-Artest as he’s now known – mused about this 2021-22 Lakers squad on Twitter recently.

“[They] are the oldest team in the league, but they’re not super old,” he said in a video. “They’re not all, you know, 39, 40. They’re right on the edge of being old. … We won a title [2010] we were like 29, 30. [Michael] Jordan won his last title, he was probably like 34.

“With that being said, you got a bunch of Hall of Famers who [are] just exiting their primes. They have the intelligence. They still have the physical capabilities.”

No one in their right mind would doubt James’ ability to play at or near an All-NBA level, even in his 19th season. He has stretched or smashed most expectations about NBA aging, tweaking his game here or there, obviously conserving energy at times but largely looking like he did five, seven, 10 years ago. There arguably has never been a better conditioned athlete in American team sports, and it shows.

Still, James has missed 58 of 225 games in his three Lakers seasons so far. Anthony’s spark when he came back with Portland in 2019 was based on scaling his role to his strengths, period. Westbrook’s athletic ability might not make up for his poor shooting anymore.

Remember, too, this is about the odometer as much as the calendar. Based on number of seasons logged, you can add anywhere from one to three years on each of the Lakers veterans’ chronological ages for historical comparisons, as if they had entered the league after two, three or four years of college.

NBA sports medicine and maintenance techniques and contraptions are far advanced from what players in the 1970s, ‘80s or ‘90s had. There are private chefs, stretching coaches, massage therapists, cryogenic chambers, sleep studies and travel-ready hotel air filters to keep them healthier and more resilient. The league has worked hard on the schedule to limit back-to-back games and shed those four-in-five-night stretches. And if that’s all not enough, load management still gets a nod and a wink in most instances.

Front-office executives, with their bosses’ approval, seem more comfortable signing older players to longer contracts than in the past. And not just the lumbering big guys who could stick around to 40 and beyond. Vince Carter kept finding work to age 43. Chris Paul will turn 40 at the end of his current four-year, $120 million deal. Both Steph Curry and Kyle Lowry signed fat contracts that will take them to age 38.

The Lakers’ medical and training staff might wind up being the busiest folks in the NBA this season, with coach Frank Vogel and his crew right behind in managing minutes and booking DNP nights.

Pacing and saving themselves until the postseason will be the challenge, after which the gaps between playoff games and series should be the Lakers’ greatest allies. The NBA’s fascination with “next” – represented by the under 30 set in this instance – probably should be taking it personally that LeBron & Co. think they can hold the court like some old guys down at the “Y.” But who’s going to take it away from them?

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem at all,” said Ellington, who will turn 34 in November but ranks only as the Lakers’ sixth oldest player. “I think age is just a number. I feel like we got guys that have been pretty healthy, still moving really well and even some guys that are playing some of their best basketball right now at this age.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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