Late last week, Jerry West spoke ill of the Los Angeles Lakers' future chances by calling the team old. He thinks the roster's cumulative age is an important factor in determining the team's defensive efficiency. He may well be right; Phil Jackson agreed that the team's age poses certain issues defensively, especially as it pertains to team speed when trying to obtain defensive rebounds, or prevent perimeter penetration. There's no real way to put West's old age theory to the test. It's something that he sees, and something that we all see at least in some form. The degree to which old age will affect the Lakers' chances in this and upcoming seasons is up for debate, but the team's veteran hue is inescapable.
Old age can affect a team in a variety of ways. The most direct way involves a gradual decline of motor function; as a player gets older, he won't be able to run quite as fast, jump quite as high, move quite as fluidly. It's referred to as losing a step. This can be seen in a few players on the Lakers roster, most notably Derek Fisher (who has lost 5 steps at this point) and, yes, Kobe Bryant. Kobe is still a tremendous player, and the argument regarding whether he is still as effective as he has always been is one I'm not interested in, but we all know that Kobe isn't quite the same athlete that he was 5 or 10 years ago. He can still throw down a highlight reel dunk every now and then, but gone are the days when those contributions happened once or twice a game.
However, there's another way in which old age affects the body; recovery time. As one grows older, the body can't recover as quickly from the pounding that any high impact athletic activity requires. It's why older players have a harder time recovering from injury, and it makes playing many games over a short period of time more difficult. At some point in your career as a basketball enthusiast, you've likely heard some combination of "X team struggles with back to backs because they are a little bit older" or "Y team is on the second night of a back-to-back, but they are a young team so it shouldn't matter very much". It's also why a veteran team can perform better in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, because the games are more spaced out. However, based upon this season's results, recovery time is not something the Lakers struggle with. In fact, they seem to perform significantly better on short rest.
The most obvious point is the Lakers' record on the second night of back-to-backs, in which the Lakers have a very healthy 7-1 record. However, I decided to dig a little deeper. I took a five game rolling average of days off in between games, and compared it to the team's win-loss record. The Lakers have averaged just under one day off for every game they've played this season, playing a game every 1.98 days. Using that average as a bench mark, I separated the Lakers' record in games in which they've had above average rest and below average rest over a five game period. That sounds really complicated, let me simplify. Every Laker game (except for the first five, which were excluded to set up the average) is put into one of two categories, "short rest" and "long rest". If the Lakers played at least 6 games in a 10 day stretch, the last game was included under the "short rest" category. If the last 6 games were played over a longer period of time than 10 days, it was included under the "long rest" category.
I've already tipped my hand a bit, but the results were very surprising. In "long rest" situations, the Lakers are 13-9 on the season. In "short rest" situations, they are 14-4. This goes against everything we would expect from the Lakers. Older teams aren't supposed to be able to recover as well, so tightly packed games would normally cause an old team to struggle. In addition, laziness is considered to be the Lakers' biggest weakness, and you'd think that they would play with less energy during stretches in which they are tired. And yet, when games are packed in, the Lakers are destroying it, whereas when they have plenty of time off in between each game, they don't do so well.
What kind of judgments does this make on the Lakers' play this season? The results indicate that a lot of the most commonly held beliefs about the Lakers aren't bearing out in their play. We all know that the team's old age is a problem, but in the most obvious place we would expect to see it, the evidence isn't there. The Lakers' lack of energy is blamed for most, if not all, of the team's losses, but their level of fatigue seems to have no bearing on their energy level. If anything, it would seem the Lakers perform better when they are at their least comfortable. And maybe that's the key.
Maybe the key to this team's success is being taken out of their comfort zone.