Lakers are facing an age-old question
The Lakers touched down in England on a chilly Friday morning, a franchise crossing the Atlantic for the first time in 19 years.
Two exhibition games are the only things separating this trip from a European vacation, and even then, they’re only exhibitions, the first in a season still more than eight months from determining a champion.
A handful of kilometers from the Lakers’ game in London will be a deeper, more symbolic occurrence, Big Ben continuing to chime every hour on the hour, a 151-year veteran that never tires, never disappoints and never needs knee surgery.
Can this year’s Lakers withstand their own test of time, carving out another wedge of NBA lore despite nine of their 14 players being 30 or older?
Here are the (c)old, hard facts: Derek Fisher is 36, Kobe Bryant is 32, Pau Gasol and Luke Walton are 30, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom turn 31 in November.
The Lakers’ veteran newcomers, though expected to contribute right away off the bench, are also oldcomers: Theo Ratliff is 37, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes are 30.
Age aside, if the Lakers don’t win a championship this season, there’s no telling when they’ll get another chance. A lockout is looming when the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires next July, with neither owners nor players optimistic about rapid resolution.
The worst-case scenario for the Lakers: they don’t win a title next June, the 2011-12 season gets cancelled and Bryant is 34 years old when they can presumably try again in 2012-13.
“It’s a year that’s [rife] with all kinds of possibilities — the opportunity to win, the opportunity to tie the [ Boston] Celtics, those are all big things,” Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Saturday. “I think [owner] Dr. [ Jerry] Buss realizes that. I think he knows the situation. We have a potential [issue] that looms in the future of the NBA. So we’d like everything to go well for us.”
The players are aware of it, too, the added importance stretching from now to June.
“This is a big season,” Artest said. “So much is at stake. Greatness is at stake.”
Said Bryant, succinctly: “We feel very prepared.”
Greatness potentially awaits in many corners.
Bryant needs one more championship to tie Michael Jordan at six. Jackson, who at 65 has called this season his last stand, wouldn’t mind riding off into the distance with another “three-peat” in his saddlebag, his fourth as a coach. And, of course, there are the hated Celtics, their 17 championships still one more than the Lakers’ total.
There’s no denying the importance of a veteran team, last season’s playoffs serving as the latest example, loads of experience helping the Lakers fight their way out of a first-round jam against the blindingly quick, but young, Oklahoma City Thunder.
But no matter the sport, regardless of a player’s physique, age is a stat that can’t be lowered, unlike points against or earned-run average.
How old are the Lakers? The NBA allows teams to practice twice a day for the first six days of training camp, but the Lakers opted for only one day with two practices.
“We found with a few veteran players that it’s a negative return, most of it,” Jackson said.
In other words, the Lakers aren’t young pogo sticks. They don’t have the shock absorbers of Oklahoma City. They aren’t Miami, with a trio of stars comfortably under 30.
“The experience that we have, the age that we have, it puts us in a position of not wasting opportunities,” Gasol said. “Every year we have to make sure we maximize opportunity as much as we can. We’re a veteran team. We understand that and that’s why we’ve been successful the last couple of years. We have to continue in that lane.”
There’s no guarantee the road won’t turn abruptly into a cul-de-sac when July 1 rolls around. The latest ball of tension was presented last week by Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who said players needed to abide by a stricter salary cap and was promptly fined $100,000 by the NBA for publicly discussing the brewing labor struggle.
The situation might get tense only a few days after the streets get swept clean in the city of the 2011 championship parade.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next season,” Artest said. “If we do a lockout, who knows when we’re going to come back and play?”
The Lakers have been a picture of production the last 11 seasons, appearing in seven NBA Finals, winning five championships and turning around their franchise quickly after the Shaquille O’Neal trade in July 2004, winning with a more finesse squad with Gasol down low and, of course, Bryant as the fabric of both championship runs.
The Lakers’ top players are signed through at least the next three seasons — Bryant, Gasol, Artest, Odom, Fisher and Andrew Bynum — but their plane of opportunity is certainly more window than sliding glass door.
Then again, there are plenty of reasons to choose old over young.
“It’s always good to have a certain kind of balance in your team, where you mix wisdom with youth and athleticism and energy, so you can have those two weapons in your pocket,” Gasol said. “But if you want to be something, you want to be more of a veteran, mature team than a young team because obviously you’re going to be in better shape in certain situations than young teams would be.”
And, for the record, not every Lakers player thinks advancing age brings erosion of skills.
“My defense is going to be pretty crazy this year,” said Artest, who is entering his 12th NBA season. “I think for myself personally, I’m only going to get quicker. These next three years, I might come in quicker and quicker.”
But then Artest follows with a caveat, the great unknown that faces all veteran players.
“It depends on what my body says.”
Bryant practiced Saturday but remained cautious despite showing an outside touch and decent lift on a right knee that has been surgically repaired three times, most recently in July.
“I’m not ready yet,” he said. “I’m getting there. It’s a process. Today it felt a lot better.”
Walton and Barnes also practiced Saturday after sustaining mild hamstring injuries a few days ago.