If there is one thing the Lakers are willing to admit ahead of the 2021–22 season, it’s that they are old.
Several players addressed the team’s ... maturity on media day Tuesday. Anthony Davis said the entire organization is already motivated by people counting the team out due to age. LeBron James said he’s literally laughed at some of the jokes being made online. (I would really love to know which memes exactly.) Carmelo Anthony, Los Angeles’s oldest player, tried to deflect the importance of the emergence of this particular storyline, offering, “It’s someone else’s narrative. It’s not our narrative.”
Anthony has a point! While the Lakers are certainly aware of their group's veteran status, it’s also not dissimilar to the kind of teams LeBron has generally played for in the past. The team had an air of defiance about the old questions on media day, clearly ready to prove people wrong once the season starts. But the real reason to be skeptical about the Lakers has nothing to do with how many rotation players are over 30 years old. Age aside, figuring out how Los Angeles is actually going to work on the court remains a mystery.
The backbone of the Lakers’ success the last two seasons has been their defense, yet it’s hard to imagine that side of the ball being anything but worse for L.A. with the current group. Losing players like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and even an older Marc Gasol and replacing them with Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, Trevor Ariza and Melo is a clear downgrade. While every Lakers role player is going to get a significant boost playing off of James and Davis, it’s worth considering how the new pieces looked in their most recent stops.
Ellington is a great shooter but doesn’t offer much resistance on the perimeter. Same for Monk, except his shooting has never been as consistent as Ellington’s. Ariza is no longer a lockdown one-on-one defender, although he’ll be asked to guard the best perimeter player every night. Meanwhile Anthony, Kendrick Nunn, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan are all coming off postseasons in which they were either relentlessly targeted by opponents or eventually benched altogether.
The lack of perimeter defense puts a ton of pressure on James and Davis. LeBron has been more committed on that end of the floor since Frank Vogel took over, with AD also holding him accountable for his effort. It’s still not the ideal use of LeBron’s energy to overload him defensively during the regular season. And while Davis, especially if he plays the five, is the ultimate trump card—someone who can whip a defense into shape by himself—he left the door the tiniest bit open when asked Tuesday about switching to center full-time, saying nothing is “set in stone.” (Vogel said the plan is to have Davis split his time 50-50 between the four and five.)
But Davis not only has to play center to juice the defense, it’s almost a necessity offensively. The Lakers’ reported opening day starting group, according to The Athletic, will be Russell Westbrook, Ellington, Ariza, Bron, and AD. That lineup is a perfect example of the balancing act Vogel will have to perform all season long. That group can work offensively. Ariza and Ellington should offer juuuuuust enough gravity to keep the lane from being fully clogged. If Westbrook is running pick-and-rolls with Davis, James won’t be ignored off the ball.
But that group is vulnerable trying to stop perimeter players. Who of those two are guarding Chris Paul and Devin Booker? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? Kevin Durant and James Harden? And do you trust whoever you put in those matchups to defend at a high level?
People are rightfully excited to see James and Anthony on the same team. Except, can you even play them together? How will those lineups fare defensively? Who is guarding, say, Paul George out of a Melo-Bron-AD frontcourt?
Of course, we haven’t even gotten to the Westbrook of it all. Russ has not proven at this point in his career he can be effective over the course of a full season and playoffs playing off the ball. If that means Vogel puts the ball in Westbrook’s hands more often the offense could still thrive. But then you’re building your offense around Westbrook and taking the ball out of the hands of James, which means you’re going to dull the impact of LeBron James.
“I'm personally not worried about trying to fit with Russ...I always figure it out, so I'm not worried about that,” James said Tuesday. “I don't think it's going to be like peanut butter and jelly to start the season, but that's all part of the process and all part of my work. I like to actually put in the work to get to how great it can be.”
All of this could certainly still work. And if it does, it will be a testament to the talent and versatility of Bron and AD. Maybe James can reinvent his game for the umpteenth time and cede control of the ball to Westbrook. Maybe Davis plays center and his backline defense is enough to make up for the perimeter shortcomings. Maybe the Lakers can squeeze enough shooting out of the role players to maintain enough space for their stars. It’s certainly not impossible for the Lakers to be successful. And in a wide-open West, with other contenders dealing with injuries, a Finals run is very much in play.
If there is one important age on the Lakers, it’s LeBron’s. Headed into his 19th season and turning 37 in December, James has had two seasons in L.A. flame out, and he can’t afford anymore if he wants to stack his ring total before he walks away. For someone with as little time to waste as James, filling the roster with so many question marks, maybes and one-way players is ultimately much more concerning than some gray hairs.