Heading into the season, one of the most frequent talking points when it came to the Lakers’ chances at contention was to what degree their age would be a factor in — or detriment to — their success. With an average age of 31.2, the team’s roster is not only the oldest squad in the league, but is also more heavily reliant on their veteran players to push them over the top on a nightly basis than any other NBA team.
The most common concerns tied into this fact are valid. Injuries will, and have, happened, as the team is currently tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the third-most games missed due to injury in the league. The managing of egos, playing time and more will also be a slippery slope that Frank Vogel and his staff will have to maneuver cautiously all year.
But in what many might consider the most visual illustration of the “creakiness” level of any given club — how slow they look on the court, or how often the game appears to seemingly have passed them by in favor of their younger, more agile counterparts — the Lakers are already in the early stages of proving that age very well may be just a number.
At least, if you know how to cheat the system.
The team’s transition game thus far has been the oxymoron of all oxymorons. According to the league’s tracking data, the Lakers are currently dead last when it comes to their average “speed” on offense, with their average speed in miles per hour of all movements by a player or team when on the floor sitting at just 4.24 MPH.
However, while averaging a mere 13.6 seconds per offensive possession, the Lakers are also playing at the swiftest pace of the league. For context, the San Antonio Spurs — who are the 11th-youngest team in the NBA with a spritely average age of just 25.3 — are second, and trail the much older vets.
It’s a contrast that defies the expectation that these two components of speed and pace should be connected. But when watching the team get out in transition, and more importantly, seeing when they do so, it makes more sense as to why the two metrics don’t line up.
“We know how to move differently, we know how to think differently,” Carmelo Anthony said back in September when he was asked about the criticism of the veteran-heavy roster construction. “We know how to pick our spots, and we know what we need to do, when we need to do it, and how we need to do it.”
Through eight games, the team has shown just that, and have showcased the value of picking your spots, to attack when the attack is unexpected. Like at the free-throw line, for example.
What is usually just the water-cooler portion of a game — where players can catch their breath and make late night dinner plans — has turned into a hunting ground for the Lakers.
According to PBP stats, the team leads the league with a blistering pace of just 11.2 seconds per possession following a free-throw miss, and is scoring 1.41 points per possession (the sixth-best rate in the NBA). With the likes of grab-and-go freight trains like Russell Westbrook and LeBron James on the roster, as well as a big who can lead a break on his own in Anthony Davis, the Lakers have swarmed teams before the shooter at the charity stripe can even make it to half-court.
Tactically, this strike first, strike often, approach allows the collective athletic skills of the team’s stars to shine, as well as hide their own warts. For example, when able to attack a defense on it’s heels, Westbrook’s limitations in the half-court are better able to be masked as the opposition can not rely on simply going under screens or crowding the paint against him.
Instead, they must face the always intense guard bulldozing his way toward them with James and Davis in tow on the wings, or already down the court, a much more scary and lethal proposition, where any misstep or miscalculation spells doom for a defense.
But it’s also not only at the free-throw line where the Lakers have looked to ambush. They’re doing so off of nearly every miss. Against Houston on Tuesday, the team had an absurd transition frequency off of live-ball misses of 40.6% (for context, 38.3% is the current league-leading rate of the Milwaukee Bucks) as they relentlessly attacked the young squad with continuous early offense chances.
“We want to be the best fast-breaking team in the NBA,” Frank Vogel said of his roster prior to the season. “We have dynamic players, and then adding a guy like Russ and the speed that he brings to the table, we want to support him and get everybody running. That’s when we’re going to be at our best.”
So far, the team has taken on Westbrook’s breakneck identity and embraced their coach’s words, as they are not only second when it comes to pace of possessions off of missed field-goals (10.02 seconds), but second in terms of pace off made field-goals as well (16.4 seconds). These metrics only further exemplify how much of a concerted effort it’s been to pounce when the opportunity presents itself, in any situation.
While the team’s half-court offense is still a work in progress (16th in the league/92 points per 100 possessions) it has been their transition game (fourth-best efficiency/128.8 points per 100 transition possessions) that has helped steady the ship amidst the choppy waters of the acclimation process.
Maybe most impressive about the group’s early success in this area is the fact that is has not come at the expense of drastic energy exertion. As their aforementioned Sunday stroll through the park-esque average speed while running plays suggests, the Lakers have been able to kickstart their running-game not by playing faster, but finding other ways to gain an advantage. Namely, by allowing their passing and floor recognition to make up the ground for their legs.
Through these timely hit-aheads, leak-outs and more consistent spot up shooting, the team has been able to leverage any defensive hiccups immediately into scoring chances, often without needing to dribble much to do so. This level of energy preservation could yield long-term benefits when it comes to staying fresh over the course of an 82-game season.
There is no denying that there will be much hoopla regarding the Lakers’ age throughout the year, some of it warranted, and some of it not. With that said, there is something inherently poetic about the oldest squad around running laps around players who used to watch them on T.V.
Transition offense can ultimately only take you so far in this league however, and there are plenty of other of areas of the game where the team still needs to iron things out. But if nothing else, this early display of how much gas they still have left in the tank is encouraging.
Time is not realistically on the Lakers’ side going forward. Their bodies will only put on more miles, their ages will only ascend upward. But if they can take as many smart and improvisational detours as they can on their way to the eventual destination, like seasoned drivers who know shortcuts not yet listed on maps, they just might be able to beat that ticking clock by taking the roads less traveled.