When this version of the Lakers came together over the summer of 2021, they projected to be the oldest team in the NBA. So, in the exact ways that the internet inspires, we had some fun at their expense. Geriatric jokes. Nursing home humor. M. Night Shyamalan movie references. The jokes practically wrote themselves. We all made them, all the time, and we got a good laugh out of it.
Fast forward a few months, and well, those jokes... did not age well. Not because the Lakers roster transformed in any meaningful way, but because as injuries and COVID-19 ravaged the team and the coaching staff learned a brand new batch of players, the idea of what this team should be and the best way to get there evolved.
Players who began the season as starters have since been relegated to end-of-bench players. Guys who had limited roles — or, in some cases, no role at all — have now become steady rotation players. And, most recently, one player who wasn’t even on the team’s radar a few months ago (Stanley Johnson) has signed a second 10-day contract and has the potential to start as a small-ball center for as long as he sticks on the roster (or at least until a certain superstar big man returns).
The transformation in identity is real, as is the impact it’s had on the rotations and, more specifically, the age of those players in the rotation.
It’s a fairly rudimentary way to look at this, but it still tells the story pretty clearly. There are currently 10 players on the Lakers roster who have appeared in at least five games and who average 20 minutes a game or more. Of those 10 players, four are 25 years old or younger: Talen Horton-Tucker (21), Malik Monk (23), Austin Reaves (23), and Stanley Johnson (25). A fifth player of those 10 is Anthony Davis (28). With reports that Kendrick Nunn (26) is getting closer to a return and will play a substantial role when he does, the prospect of at least half the Lakers rotation being made up of guys 28 or younger flies in the face of preseason expectations.
Don’t get me wrong, the Lakers still do — and will continue to — play guys who are on a first-name basis with Father Time. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are both 37 and in their 19th seasons. Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard are both 36 and in their 18th seasons. The other 30-somethings in the rotation are Russell Westbrook (33) and Avery Bradley (31). Those last two aren’t exactly old, but we’ll keep them here for now.
With those guys included, this is the group accounts for the entirety of the Lakers “old” rotation: a 31-year-old (Bradley), a 33-year-old who almost made an all NBA team last year (Russ), a part-time big man who won’t play every night (Dwight), a swing forward who projects to be helpful but is mostly still an under 20 mpg guy (Ariza), a pure-gunner forward who definitely needs to have his minutes monitored (Melo), and LeBron James — one of the all-time outliers in terms of an elite player whose prolonged prime continues to defy reason.
Meanwhile, the Lakers’ younger players are taking up bigger and more substantive roles in the team’s rotation. This matters for several reasons, but instantly my mind goes to two key points. First, it’s the young players who are most well-equipped physically to play the pace and style that best suits this team. Offensively, whether it’s running in transition, getting downhill on drives or creating shots in halfcourt situations — or just the general ability to thrive in five-out schemes — it really is Monk, Reaves, and THT who are some of the better options on the entire roster.
Second, and maybe more important, it’s almost always going to be young players who are both more willing and capable of doing a lot of the little things that help you win possessions over the course of a game. It’s the younger player who can make that extra rotation from the paint to the 3-point line, who can chase down a loose 50/50 ball, who can make that initial jump, and then second or third effort, to tip away a ball from a greedy offensive rebounder. These are the acts of fresh legs, and we’d all be lying if we didn’t admit that these are the plays that Stanley Johnson, Reaves, Monk, and THT are making at a much higher rate than most of their more veteran teammates.
That last point should not be glossed over. There is a symbiotic relationship between the team’s younger players and their more aged veterans via the handling of the things on the court that are best described as “the dirty work”. The veterans — and maybe even more pointedly, the superstars (or former superstars) — simply aren’t going to do these things as often. If your lineup consists of only these player types, you’re likely to suffer the consequences of these things not getting done at all. Promoting the team’s younger players into the rotation not only helps ensure these little things get accomplished, but it saves some of the older players from having to absorb these duties as often as they otherwise would have to.
Of course, with youth comes inexperience. And with inexperience comes certain types of mistakes that coaches who lead teams trying to win a championship often have the least amount of patience for. Vogel feels as open minded as any coach can be about giving these opportunities to younger players, but that doesn’t come without the need for adjustments from him to facilitate those chances. Vogel will need to continue to tweak and, in some cases, simplify his schemes in order to promote the success of those young guys while limiting mistakes.
Big picture, though, I trust him to do just that. Earlier in the season, it was more than fair to question Vogel when he was leaning on his veterans and playing lineups where the execution did not often enough align with the idea of what those groups were supposed to be good at. Over the last several weeks, however, he’s shown a great amount of flexibility and adaptability in moving in the direction that he has. Ultimately, that has meant giving his younger players more of a chance to contribute via those stylistic shifts that play more to their strengths. A shift that should help the Lakers win more games.
So, maybe it’s time to cut out the M. Night Shyamalan jokes, and make Benjamin Button references instead. Because this team is getting younger as the season goes along, and these changes have left them a far cry from the same old team we thought they’d be just a few months ago.