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NBA Hot Take SZN: Lakers are pretenders


The 2021-22 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.

Data for the oldest teams in NBA history is somewhat scarce, but the 2012-13 New York Knicks were once dubbed the league’s oldest team ever with an average age approaching 33 years old, and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls’ weighted average age of 32 years old made them the oldest rotation to win a championship.

Given the Los Angeles Lakers entered training camp relying on minutes from Carmelo Anthony (37), LeBron James (36), Trevor Ariza (36), Dwight Howard (35), Rajon Rondo (35), Wayne Ellington (33), DeAndre Jordan (33), Russell Westbrook (32) and Kent Bazemore (32), they could be north of that neighborhood, even if Anthony Davis (28), Kendrick Nunn (26), Malik Monk (23) and Talen Horton-Tucker (20) log major minutes.

So, are these Lakers equivalent to the ’98 Bulls, who won 62 games and a six-game Finals set against a Utah Jazz team that would soon rank as the league’s oldest team in league history by weighted average?

No. James is unlikely to match what Michael Jordan did en route to a sixth ring, and his aged Lakers — still heavy favorites in the Western Conference somehow — will be more pretender than contender as a result.

Even if the Lakers do win the West, benefiting from the existing major injuries to stars on their three chief competitors, it is far easier to stare down a 34-year-old Karl Malone than prime Giannis Antetokounmpo or the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and (maybe) Kyrie Irving on the other side of the bracket.

Jordan entered the 1997-98 season with 39,308 combined regular-season and playoff minutes on his legs, working as a 34-year-old on a third straight title campaign without missing a single game. James enters his age 37 season with 61,090 minutes logged, having missed 58 games over the past three years, including one injury that cost him a 2019 playoff berth and another that derailed last year’s hopes in the first round. The 21,782 minutes difference is roughly the same as John Wall has played in his regular-season career.

This is no small measure. We have not seen James play a complete season since he was on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even during the Lakers’ 2020 championship run, he was afforded a fourth-month respite before returning to a bubble that removed all travel from the equation. Nobody is saying James is washed, but it is no longer a given that he can be at his best in the playoffs, let alone be the best player in the league if he is.

BetMGM lists six players with better Most Valuable Player odds than James this season, and that does not include reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. No general manager picked James to win the award in 2022. Jordan was the undisputed top dog 24 years ago, a contentious runner-up finish to Karl Malone away from winning three straight MVPs. James has sandwiched two finishes outside the top 10 in MVP voting around a less controversial runner-up campaign to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. 

Granted, James was the odds-on MVP favorite through the first two months of last season, but his grip on the award slipped before he suffered a high ankle sprain on March 20. He was never the same, marked by the worst playoff performance of his career by any measure. Either there was something to his concession in early May — “I don’t think I will ever get back to 100% in my career” — or he was just playing a long con.

The Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook to help LeBron James' championship hopes from fading. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook to help LeBron James’ championship hopes from fading. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Regardless, the Lakers’ potential for derailment goes well beyond whether James can approach his peak performance. Much of the same logic applies to Anthony Davis, who also benefited from the league’s four-month hiatus prior to the 2020 playoffs. He, too, has not navigated a normal regular season and playoffs since 2018, missing half of last season with an Achilles injury before straining his groin in the postseason.

Do not forget this regular season is far from normal. The bubble rolled into a shortened offseason, a condensed 2020-21 campaign marred by injuries to high-usage stars and another shortened offseason.

The Lakers have been a dominant force with James and Davis healthy on the court the past two seasons, outscoring opponents by better than 10 points per 100 possessions, which bodes well for their chances if they can avoid overtaxing either pillar during the regular season. Westbrook should help in that regard, but what becomes of the Lakers when his frenetic energy yields high-volume inefficiency in the playoffs? We have seen star (Kevin Durant) after star (Paul George) after star (James Harden) run from Westbrook’s side.

The Lakers sacrificed depth to acquire Westbrook. They scrambled to sign a hodgepodge of veterans, along with Nunn and Monk, whose combined playoff experience entails Nunn’s 19 games. He would have six more if he were not benched for chunks of the Miami Heat’s Finals bid in the bubble. Both Nunn and Ariza started for the Heat team that was swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round last season, and Ariza — arguably the best wing defender of the current Lakers’ lot — just underwent right ankle surgery.

DeAndre Jordan, Rondo and Horton-Tucker combined for 20 DNPs during last year’s playoffs, and Howard might has well have been absent from the Philadelphia 76ers’ second-round no-show against the Atlanta Hawks. Ellington is 2-9 in 11 career playoff games over a 12-year career, none of them with last year’s 20-win Detroit Pistons. Anthony was the most successful of the bunch, logging 20 minutes a night for the Portland Trail Blazers, whose first-round exit left Anthony sitting on one playoff series victory since 2009.

Lakers not named James or Davis finished a combined -291 in 48 postseason games last season. Of the 239 players who appeared in the playoffs last season, Ariza ranked 236th in per-game plus-minus (-12.3). Westbrook was 234th (-12), Nunn 229th (-10.3), Anthony 214th (-8), Horton-Tucker 178th (-3.5), Howard 169th (-2.8), Rondo 158th (-2.1). Bazemore and Monk were a combined -30 in their three play-in losses.

The wings expected to fill roles around James, Davis and Westbrook combined to shoot 27.6% from 3-point range in the playoffs last season. Anthony, Bazemore, Ellington and Monk all shot better than 40% from distance during the regular season, if you want to roll with any two of them in a big playoff moment.

James is incredible, arguably the best ever at maximizing his teammates’ strengths, but there is only so much he can extract from that group, unless he rewinds the clock for his teammates to 2011. Granted, we made a similar hot take two years ago, and there is no questioning James’ ability to defy time and space.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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