The Lakers quest to win their 18th NBA championship has officially begun.
Tuesday marked the beginning of Lakers training camp, and the team's annual Media Day. Each year a select group of media members assemble to ask questions of all players on the Lakers roster. As the players make their rounds, they do interviews for television, radio, take team photos, and shoot all of the promotional clips you see during games at Staples Center as well as during commercial breaks on Spectrum SportsNetLA.
Tuesday's Media Day marked the first time the newest Lakers on the roster donned their jerseys, and in some cases answered questions for the first time. Following the deluge of questions, the team will practice for the next five days before hosting the Brooklyn Nets in their preseason home opener on Sunday.
After over two hours worth of questions in a press conference setting with the 2021-22 iteration of the Lakers, here are the five biggest takeaways:
- Don't let the old guys get hot
Plenty of fodder has been made about the 2021-22 Lakers roster construction. The Lakers added 11 new players from last season, and nine of them are over the age of 32, young by most standards, but Gandalf the Grey (or white) in NBA years.
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The Lakers are by far the oldest team in the league, with an average age of 31 years old. By comparison, the Miami Heat are the second oldest with an average age of 28.8 years, and that's skewed by Udonis Haslem, a player/coach that is 41 years old.
The league average in the NBA this season is 26 years old. So needless to say, the Lakers are well above the average when it comes to age. Therefore, we must ask the question: are the Lakers to old to win the title? Or does age equal valuable experience and wisdom?
"We're a lot older, but we have a lot more wisdom," said Lakers forward Anthony Davis when asked that very question. However, the answer is a little more complex than that, and truly comes down to the health of one man: LeBron James.
James will turn 37 during the season and is among the oldest players on the roster. Yet, James spends over a million dollars annually on his body and is one of the few players--cough, cough, Tom Brady--that can turn the clock back on Father Time.
James immediately took to Twitter when he heard the talk about the Lakers "old guys," and addressed it directly at Media Day on Tuesday.
"The narrative about our age, I really do laugh at it," said James. "Some of the memes and jokes are extremely funny, and some of it is just trying to get people to read tabloids. The game is won in between those four lines, it's not won in the newspaper, or sports talk shows. If we come out and put the time in and put the work in, we'll make our own narrative. We have a bunch of guys who have been in this league for quite a while, and know what it takes to win, and we're in the business of winning."
If there's a business of winning, than LeBron James is the CEO. James has been to nine out of the last 11 NBA Finals, and won four championships. In fact, the oldest championship winning team in NBA history was the 2012-13 Miami Heat which featured James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. That team had an average age of 31.2 years old, older than the current Lakers team.
Another LeBron James team, the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers are the third oldest at 29.5 years old, and the 2019-20 Lakers team that won the title in the bubble in Orlando, Florida is fifth at 29.1 years old.
The other two teams in that top five?
The 2007 San Antonio Spurs (29.6) and 2011 Dallas Mavericks (29.3), both had to defeat a younger James in the NBA Finals. Theres's no doubt that if any team can win the title with the oldest roster in the league, its LeBron and his teammates.
"I think our entire organization and team is motivated by that," said Davis. "They're not counting us out because we're the Lakers, they're counting us out because we're old. We see it. It's fun and exciting, and we're excited to get started and show everyone that age ain't nothing but a number."
The better question will be if the roster can stay healthy, a factor that uprooted the Lakers chances of repeating last season. However, the Lakers added plenty of depth this season, including a third superstar in Russell Westbrook. Now, if a player goes down with injury, they have the depth to absorb it, and keep on winning.
Which leads us to number two...
2. How will Russell Westbrook fit in with his new teammates?
The Lakers newest superstar is one of the biggest questions entering the new season. The Lakers acquired Westbrook on July 29, in a trade with the Washington Wizards that sent forward Kyle Kuzma, center Montrezl Harrell, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to the Nation's Capital. Since then, the number one question I get when I go on sports talk radio is: 'Does Russell Westbrook fit with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
It's a question that clearly James has been thinking about as well, as the two have been inseparable ever since the trade was announced.
"We've been tied at the hip since we made the acquisition and we're going to continue to do that," said James of Westbrook. "We're going to hold each other accountable. We look forward to that and continuing to get better and being the best team we can be."
Westbrook is a fast, aggressive, downhill point guard that struggles from the three-point line. Arguably one of the team's greatest undoings last season was their inability to shoot the three-ball. Westbrook won't help with that, but he will be able to get the ball to James, Davis, Dwight Howard, and DeAndre Jordan at the rim for some easy finishes. Also, since the acquisition of Wesbtrook, the Lakers have added a bevy of three-point shooters to the roster.
"I love his energy, his pace. You watch how he gets down the floor. He gets the ball and he's pushing. You have to run because he's running," said Davis of Westbrook. "For me, I'm very excited to run the floor with him. He's an elite lob passer. The motor he plays with and brings to every game is going to propel us and we can feed off of that."
When asked directly by the media how he sees himself fitting in alongside James and Davis, Westbrook admitted he doesn't give it much thought.
"I honestly don't pay much mind to it," said Westbrook. "It's going to be a process. My job is to make the other guys better. I need to make sure they are the most comfortable in their own skin and playing at the highest level they can play at. I want to make sure I can uplift them and use my abilities to make those guys better."
"We need Russ to be Russ," said LeBron. "We don't want him to change for anybody, that's why we got him. It's our job to all help him feel comfortable in our system and he's going to be as dynamic as he's always been. It's not going to be peanut butter and jelly to start the season, but that's all part of the process and the work. I like putting in the work to get to how great it can be."
3. 100% Vaccinated
How great the Lakers can be is dependent upon how healthy they can be. As aforementioned, the only way age can play a significant factor in this team's success is if it leads to injuries.
Ultimately, what derailed the Lakers hopes of repeating as champions last season was health. Both LeBron and Davis missed significant time with injuries, dropping the team in the standings from second to seventh in the process.
In addition to injuries, multiple players missed games last season because of COVID-19. Two players tested positive for the virus, Marc Gasol and Dennis Schröder, and others missed time because of contact tracing, including Schröder who admittedly said he was unvaccinated.
This season, the Lakers are determined to make sure that COVID-19 won't play a factor in the team's success or failure. According to general manager Rob Pelinka, the team will be 100 percent vaccinated by opening night. A topic that was front of mind for everyone at Media Day.
"It's huge," said Lakers' head coach Frank Vogel of the team being 100 percent vaccinated. "Obviously you want to be able to not be compromised and have to have an extended absence for quarantine or contact tracing. They were costly last year to our group. Not every team in the league this year has the luxury of being 100% vaccinated, but we do. I'm super proud of our guys for making that commitment and hopefully we don't have some of those disruptions that we had last year."
The Lakers front office met with many players and detailed their team first philosophy and concept. Citing last season and all the games missed by key players because of COVID-19, the Lakers were able to get even vaccine skeptics like Howard and Kent Bazemore to get the shot.
The latter was a vocal critic of the vaccine last season with the Warriors, but Bazemore said after a conversation with Pelinka, he decided to recently get his first vaccine shot and is expected to get his second in the coming weeks.
"When the vaccine first came out, I felt like it was forced on me, and I'm not a person who responds well to that," said Bazemore. "I had a good call with Rob Pelinka and he laid it out to me in the most fairly honest way that I ever heard. To pass up an opportunity like this, to be on a roster with so many greats from my era, it would be a hard opportunity to pass up. I have my first does and will get my second dose here in a couple weeks. I made the decision for myself. I've made a ton of sacrifices playing the game of basketball and that's what it's all about."
One of those greats is Carmelo Anthony, a 10-time NBA All-Star, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, but a future Hall-of-Famer without a championship. Anthony is joining his good friend James on the same team for the first time in his career, despite numerous talks over the years about joining forces. Anthony was one of the most vocal players about the importance of every player being vaccinated on Tuesday.
"The most important thing is staying healthy. We don't want nothing compromising our goal of winning a championship," said Anthony. "We can't control COVID, but we can do what we have to do to prevent it."
4. More small ball
After playing a lot at center when the matchup favored them during the Lakers 2019-20 title run, Anthony Davis moved back to power forward for the 2021 season. Davis was a vocal critic of the shortened NBA offseason following the Lakers' championship in the bubble.
With just 60 days between Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the heat, and the start of training camp, Davis was a mere shell of himself last season.
An achilles injury forced him to miss 36 games during the regular season, and a knee/groin injury during the first round of the NBA Playoffs was the biggest factor in the Lakers quick exodus. Davis averaged career-lows in shooting percentage (55.6 percent), rebounds (7.9), blocks (1.6), and steals (1.3). His three-point percentage of 34 percent in the three years prior to 2021, fell to just 26 percent.
After nearly four months of rest, rehab, and recuperation, Davis says he feels 100 percent healthy and is in the best shape of his life. He told reporters on Tuesday that after discussions with head coach Frank Vogel, he expects to play more center this season than he ever has before. That will allow the Lakers to go small and put shooters on the floor around Davis, James, and Westbrook.
"I expect to play center. Frank and I talked about it a couple times and that's the plan," said Davis on Tuesday. "We want to see what that looks like and I'm comfortable with that. For the most part, the plan is to go with me playing center."
Vogel, and his newly revamped coaching staff will have fun this season tinkering with all the potential lineups they can put on the court. One of those lineups is expected to be Davis, James, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, and Russell Westbrook. Swap Anthony for either James or Ariza and you have a glimpse at how the Lakers can space the floor, open up driving lanes, and get down the court when they go small this season.
If Davis gets into early foul trouble, the Lakers can unleash Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan at center, especially against teams with true proven centers like the Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic), the Philadelphia 76ers (Joel Embiid), or the Chicago Bulls (Nikola Vucevic).
Either way, the Lakers have assembled multiple pieces that make them extremely versatile this season. They could go athletic and defensive-minded with players like Talen Horton-Tucker alongside Westbrook on the wings and Howard and Davis down low. They can big, they can go with one big and four shooters, they can control the pace by going fast or slow, and can even deploy a roster of old or young, depending on what the game calls for at any time. Expect to see a lot of experimenting with rotations early in the season.
5. The Hillbilly Kobe
One of the highlights of Media Day was the unveiling of a nickname for one of the team's relatively new and unknown players.
Former G-League player and fan favorite Alex Caruso, nicknamed "The Bald Mamba," signed with the Bulls in free agency. Leaving a void on the Lakers roster for a new scrappy two-way player that can steal the hearts of Laker Nation.
Enter Austin Reaves, an undrafted player out of Oklahoma who signed a two-way deal with the Lake Show and was a star during the team's Summer League in Las Vegas. He even hit a buzzer-beater to sink the Kings.
During Media Day on Tuesday, Reaves was asked by reporters if it was true that his nickname was really "Hillbilly Kobe."
Reaves confirmed the nickname, saying he grew up on a farm "in the middle of nowhere" in Arkansas, and was given the nickname during his freshman year at Oklahoma.
“My first year at Oklahoma, we had a (graduate assistant),” Reaves said. “He came up to me one day and said ‘I figured (your nickname) out.’”
“I was like ‘What are you even talking about?’ He was like ‘HBK.’ I was like ‘What?’ He was like ‘Hillbilly Kobe,’” Reaves said. “One of my teammates heard it and it just stuck. For three years, that’s what they said around Oklahoma, and then I guess people caught wind of it elsewhere.”
Oh yeah, fans are going to love this.