The 2021-22 Lakers are old. Just this week, the Lakers added the sixth player at least 35 years old to their roster by re-signing Rajon Rondo to a one-year deal. While age in and of itself bears no inextricable advantage in a league ruled by some of the world’s most explosive athletes, their extended existence in the league is indicative of each player’s exceptional path. The seven former All-Stars on the Lakers have combined for 103 individual seasons played (almost 15 per man on average), 28 more than the league itself. Together, they’ve made 59 All-Star Game appearances, five more than every Chicago Bulls player has combined for in the history of that franchise.
That being said, the stars and former stars that make up the new Lakers are — to a man, save for Anthony Davis — past their prime. While they all still land somewhere on the spectrum of performance from good to great, these seven were awesome at their absolute best.
In a departure from reality, I’ve created the best possible seven-man rotation by cherrypicking individual versions of these players from throughout their careers, prioritizing cohesion ahead of total talent. Without further ado, your 2021-22 All-Time Machine Lakers.
1: LeBron James, 2017 Eastern Conference Playoffs
Of all the great LeBrons we’ve had the pleasure of #witnessing throughout his almost two-decade NBA career, it’s hard to argue he’s ever been more wholly and consistently dominant than in his 12-1 razing of the Eastern Conference in 2017. While his Game 1 performance in the following year’s Finals might have been his best game ever — and perhaps the greatest single-game showing in NBA history — LeBron’s star burned bigger and brighter without a lapse in the 2017 postseason than over any other extended stretch in his career.
In the three series before the Finals, the Cavs had a +17.3 point differential, torching teams to the tune of a league-best 124.5 points per game during that stretch. Even though he eventually lost to the Warriors in five games, and the Finals MVP award went to Kevin Durant, LeBron averaged a 33-12-10 triple-double and was almost assuredly the most impactful player in the series. Without Durant, Steph Curry’s Warriors were a block away from back-to-back championships. In their last season before LeBron’s return, Anthony Bennett’s Cavs were the ninth-worst team in the NBA.
LeBron’s physical prowess and shooting efficiency declined from the height of his Miami peak, but was almost the same unstoppable force on both ends and had blossomed into the virtuosic basketball mastermind who reigns atop the basketball world from his Los Angeles throne today.
2: Rajon Rondo, 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals
In selecting the optimal Rondo for this super-squad, it’s hard to look past the one the Lakers employed in the 2020 playoffs. Rondo scored 8.9 points and dished 6.6 assists per game while going 20-50 from deep. But although the 2020 championship run encapsulated Rondo’s best shooting stretch of his career, his all-around performance in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semis is one of the great, underrated playoff performances in recent basketball history, and just too good to pass up.
With Kevin Garnett marginalized after a collision under the basket with Kendrick Perkins caused an injury to his foot, Rondo took full control of the Celtics, leading the team in points and assists per game while finishing second in rebounds. Although he shot better from distance in 2020, his overall offensive value in 2010 was at least as strong on a rate basis, and significantly greater in terms of his total impact. In addition to shooting a passable 33.3% from distance, Rondo took the second-most shots on the Celtics and almost twice as many free throws as any of his teammates. He finished the series with a 59.4% true shooting, even better than his 55.3% mark from the 2020 playoffs.
Almost as important as his passing was his impact on the defensive end of the floor. At just 23-years-old, Rajon Rondo was one of the quickest players in the NBA, leading the league in steals, steals per game, and making the first of his two consecutive All-Defensive First-Teams. Throughout the series, his help defense impacted the only truly meaningful assignment on the Cavs, guarding LeBron James. Limiting LeBron was a team effort, and the Celtics held him to 26.8 points per game on 55.6% true shooting, each mark considerably worse than his regular-season averages.
As an overqualified secondary playmaker and point-of-attack defender, the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals version of Playoff Rondo would be an almost ideal fit at the 1 for the 2020-21 All-Time Machine Lakers.
3: Carmelo Anthony, 2013-14 Regular-Season
Despite the fact that the Knicks fell apart down the stretch due to the disintegration of the lineup surrounding Melo, there’s a strong case to be made that 2013-14 was the individual best of his career.
Playing in 77 games, ‘13-14 marked the healthiest stretch of Melo’s career since his rookie season (in which he played in all 82). He also led the league in minutes per game (38.7), while scoring within 1.5 points of his career-high in points per game (27.4 in ‘13-14) on the third-best true-shooting percentage of his career (56.1%) while shooting better than 40% from behind the arc. That year, Melo was a devastatingly hyper-efficient offensive weapon on his way to posting the highest VORP and BPM of his career. Although he loved to operate in isolations, he’d get far superior looks next to two all-time creators in LeBron and Rondo than whatever the combination of Pablo Prigioni and an out-of-shape Raymond Felton could feed him.
While he’d certainly make for the worst defender in this unit, he was still lithe enough to deter wide-open driving lanes, and strong enough to be a decent post defender, especially with his deceptively active hands, jarring a loosely-gripped basketball free from unsuspecting bigs’ grips. Though he wouldn’t be able to play the four next to the upcoming twin towers, the rest of the squad’s defensive prowess would more than make up for Melo’s lapses.
4: Anthony Davis, 2020 Bubble Playoffs
Requiring the shortest rewind of any member of the Time-Machine Team, Anthony Davis’ most dominant performances came during the Lakers’ 2020 championship run. While it was certainly still LeBron’s team, Davis’ contributions in the playoffs were considered by some to be at least as great, meriting consideration from some that Davis, and not LeBron, should have taken home the Finals MVP.
On this particular team, he’d likely need to play more around the perimeter than the 2021-22 Lakers should ask him to. In the 2020 playoffs, Davis transformed from a below-average shooter to a borderline sniper, drilling 3s at a 38.3% clip. Anthony Davis’ ability to find his stroke is essential to any Laker lineup’s optimization, especially when stationed at the four, whether it's the real one or this imaginary one.
5: Dwight Howard, 2010-11 Regular-Season
Coming off of his first Finals appearance after his staunch defense and paint presence carried the Magic past LeBron’s Cavaliers before Kobe captured his fifth ring, Dwight Howard stepped it up a notch in the 2010-11 regular season. That year, he set career-highs in points per game (22.9), free-throw attempts (11.7) and makes (7) per game, while having the third-best blocking (2.4) and rebounding (14.1) averages of his career.
Dwight was so good that if voting for LeBron was off the table, considering the fact that he’d won the award in each of the previous two seasons, Howard, and not Derrick Rose, should have been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2010-11. In reality, Howard finished second, losing to Rose by a landslide, but posted superior win shares and win shares per 48 minutes to Rose while scoring just 2.1 fewer points per game on superior efficiency.
In terms of on-court impact and team construction, the erroneous Rose-Howard MVP awarding mirrored that of the Allen Iverson-Shaquille O’Neal mishap of 2000-01. In ‘01-02, O’Neal, and Tim Duncan for that matter, were far superior players in terms of their overall value to their teams, providing significantly positive contributions to their team on both ends of the floor. Iverson, alternatively, may have been the more voluminous scorer but lacked the oomph on D that made O’Neal and Duncan’s total packages so game-breakingly dominant. If you’re still not sure whether Shaq (who played in 74 regular-season games but had won the MVP two seasons prior) was better than AI in 2001, please do me a favor and go rewatch games two through five of the 2001 NBA Finals before getting back to me.
Like Rose on the Bulls, Allen Iverson was flanked by an awesome defense. That unit, headed by Dikembe Mutombo, allowed AI to shine as the sole engine of the offense. In Rose’s case, he had the NBA’s Second-Team All-Defensive center behind him, doing the bulk of the grunt work required to keep the league’s best defense (per Cleaning the Glass) in check, to which Rose contributed marginally. They also had a group of elite wing defenders, including Lakers Legend Luol Deng, who would eventually make the NBA’s Defensive Second-Team the following season.
In contrast, the only truly staunch defender that the Magic had was Dwight, the NBA’s First-Team center and winner of his third-straight Defensive Player of the Year. On the foundation of Dwight’s dominance alone, the Magic had the third-best defense in the league.
Although the Bulls won 10 more games that year than the Magic, the Magic had the better-rated offense and were only four games shy of the Bulls’ record according to their expected win total based on their point differential. Derrick Rose deserves kudos for helping the Bulls close games down the stretch (a relevant factor in the disparity between the Bulls’ ability to reach their expected win total, and the Magic’s inability to do so), but when considering context and defense, Rose’s on-court value paled in comparison to Dwight’s.
Despite missing out on his most deserving chance for an MVP, Dwight’s unmatched rim protection, even next to Anthony Davis, would make the All-Time Machine starting-five one of the greatest defensive units in basketball history. AD’s floor-stretching and switchability would become imperative next to a traditional five-man, and might reduce his individual impact compared to a smaller unit with Davis playing center. At his peak, the second Superman was one of the game’s few truly inevitable forces, providing a presence felt by all nine other players on every possession.
6th Man: Russell Westbrook, 2016-17 Regular-Season
In 2016-17, Westbrook became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over an entire season, winning the League’s MVP (though the award should have gone to Kawhi Leonard). Although Russ went on to replicate the statistically anomalous feat in three of the next four years, he hasn’t done as much or as well in any following season. In ‘16-17, Russ not only led the league in usage rate (41.7% and assist rate (57.3%), but also set a career-high in 3-point percentage (34.3) and matched his best-ever true shooting percentage (55.4).
While it might seem sacrilegious to insist on placing a current Laker star on the bench, behind a current reserve in the hypothetical starting five, giving Russell Westbrook the keys to the second unit maximizes his utility on this overloaded team. In LeBron-less minutes, Westbrook could take over the offense with the greatest efficiency of his career. Replacing Rondo next to LeBron, his career-best shooting would help ease the transition into a secondary playmaking role. For the purposes of spacing and limiting the number of cooks in the kitchen, Rondo-LeBron-Russ lineups ought to be avoided given the seven men available in this exercise.
The Westbrook show isn’t without its baggage in any form, but the maximalist version we saw in its debut season is just downright better than the sequels it spawned.
Reserve: Marc Gasol, 2018-19 Season (Raptors)
For their seventh man, the All-Time Machine squad just needs a guy who can be a star in his role within a championship-caliber rotation. While his 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year campaign or 2014-15 First-Team All-NBA season might have the stronger case’s for being Gasol’s best overall seasons, the particular set of skills Gasol displayed during the Raptors’ 2019 championship run would serve this squad best.
In just 24.9 minutes per game in 26 regular-season contests, Gasol stepped into Jonas Valanciunas’ role, swapping out interior scoring for superior paint protection and some outside shooting. In his short Canadian regular-season stint, Gasol nearly doubled any other rotation-playing Raptor’s defensive box plus-minus. In the playoffs, his minutes and defensive impact increased while maintaining pole position in the latter column. While DBPM can’t holistically measure a player’s total defensive value with a single number, the sheer difference between Gasol’s grade and any of his teammates’ gives a sense as to his instrumentality in shoring up the Raptors’ interior D.
Also, Gasol made almost half (44.2%) of his two 3-point shots per game following his trade to Toronto at the deadline. In the playoffs, he maintained above-average efficiency (38.2%) while taking almost twice as many shots from distance per game. Beyond the aforementioned attributes and being a solid ball-mover, he didn’t do much else for Toronto (9.4 playoff points per game), but what he did do was more than enough to topple the East, and overcome an injured Warriors team.
This assemblage would give LeBron more oh-so-sought-after secondary playmaking than any team he’s ever been a part of. AD and D12 would give LeBron, Russ, and Rondo a pair of ideal candidates to finish off lobs around the rim, while any unit featuring a combination of at least three of Melo, Davis, Gasol, and Rondo would provide plenty of spacing to lubricate LeBron or Westbrook’s drives to the rim.
The team’s weakest link might be its perimeter defense, though they wouldn’t be all too bad in that category. However, lineups featuring Rondo, Westbrook, and Melo aside two bigs would struggle to close gaps on the perimeter, especially against bigger wings and movement shooters. Still, any two-man combination of the roster’s three bigs would amply deter any open driving lanes, considering the fact that they likely make up half of the six best interior defenders in the past decade of basketball (next to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, and Draymond Green).
This impossible coalition would certainly challenge almost any real-life conglomeration of basketball talent in human history, perhaps even one of the great American Olympic squads. In fact, the 2008 and 2012 Redeem Team share exactly three and four members, respectively, giving us a real-life analog of what this make-believe superteam might actually look like IRL — undefeated. With the optimal versions of each player in tow, this imaginary version of the current Lakers would likely dominate any real team in the history of the NBA in a seven-game series.
The 2021-22 Lakers don’t need to be the greatest team of all time to win an NBA championship, nor would it be possible for them to be considering the advanced age of their current core. Nonetheless, a stroll down memory lane should serve as a reminder of the unprecedented accumulation of talent this squad is working with.