After the Los Angeles Lakers' 103-99 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on New Year's Day, Kobe Bryant did what he's done so often and so freely of late—he spoke his mind (via Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com):
You just saw an old damn team. I don't know how else to put it to you. We're just slow. You saw a team over there that was just younger and just had fresher legs and just played with more energy, and we were just stuck in the mud. I think individually we all have to figure out how to get ourselves ready each and every game to have a high level of energy. That's all that is.
Yet, when L.A.'s elder statesman spoke to ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd the next day, he seemed more chipper about his team's playoff construction:
I don't think there's a doubt about that. The problem is we've dug ourselves such a deep hole we got to do a lot of fighting just to catch up and get in that conversation. We firmly believe it's going to happen but we have to do a lot of fighting just to get there.
Indeed they do. Before the Lakers can run to the 2013 NBA title, they'll have to crawl their way back into the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
At present, L.A. is 15-16 and in 11th place in the West. The Lakers have a game to make up on the eighth-seed Portland Trail Blazers, are six games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for home-court advantage of some sort and sit nine games back of the Los Angeles Clippers in the Pacific Division.
Chances are, the Lakers will be in the postseason in some capacity. Steve Nash is back, Dwight Howard's back continues to improve and Mike D'Antoni seems to have concocted something resembling a workable rotation.
They're talented, they're experienced, and—by the time mid-April rolls around—they'll be a dangerous team that nobody wants to play, regardless of seeding. The question is whether the Lakers' age will impede or propel their (unlikely) journey to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
If anything, age alone would seem to indicate a positive outlook for the Purple and Gold. With an average age of 28.5 years, the Lakers stand behind only the Miami Heat (29.2 years), the Clippers (29.3 years) and the New York Knicks (31.3) among the league's most senior-laden squads.
That also puts L.A. slightly ahead of the Chicago Bulls (28.1 years), the San Antonio Spurs (28.0 years) and the Boston Celtics (27.9 years), with the Grizzlies (25.3 years) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (24.8 years) checking in as age-related outliers among the early title contenders.
In other words, age needn't be a limiting factor if you want to be in the championship conversation come spring of 2013. Nor was it before.
Last season, the Heat won it all with the sixth-oldest (and one of the thinnest) rosters in the NBA. The entirety of Miami's squad averaged nearly 29 years, though its core (excluding well-paid towel boys like Juwan Howard) averaged approximately 28.4 years.
The year prior, the Heat, then the oldest team in the league, lost to the third-oldest team in the Dallas Mavericks. Miami's average age was well north of 31 years, while Dallas' was approaching 30.
Trace the trend back over time, and you'll find that championship teams were regularly as old as (if not older than) the Lakers of today. Might being closer to convalescence be an advantage, then? Perhaps, assuming age isn't just a number, but also a proxy for experience.
It stands to reason that older teams would fare better in the postseason, when the pace of play slows, every possession means more and experience under pressure is of the utmost importance. Older teams, teams loaded with players who've been there before, tend to have a better collective understanding of how to execute amid any and all circumstances.
They know what it takes to claim the ultimate prize (hard work, dedication, sacrifice, focus, poise, etc.) and are prepared to do so. Such squads sport a much greater sense of urgency, in part because of all the participants whose careers are nearing their respective conclusions.
Of all of this, the Lakers have plenty. Kobe has won five rings in seven trips to the NBA Finals. Pau Gasol notched two in three. Metta World Peace is one-for-one with the Lakers. Steve Nash and Dwight Howard have both come agonizingly close, only to be left with the bitter taste of defeat.
The former four (plus Antawn Jamison and Steve Blake) are all on the downslope, at least as far as Father Time is concerned, while the latter is out to prove that he can carry a club to a championship while in his prime.
What these Lakers lack—and what may ultimately keep them from living up to the preseason hype in the end—is cohesion.
L.A. came into the 2012-13 season with seven new players, a revamped coaching staff and a brand-new system. Injuries to Nash, Gasol and Blake, along with the switch from Mike Brown to Mike D'Antoni on the sideline, only set the team back even further.
Frankly, the vast majority title teams needed time to gel, to learn each other's tendencies, to grow together and play for the good of the whole.
The Heat lost a grueling six-game Finals series before they figured it all out. The Mavs that beat those Heat spent five years stewing (and acquiring Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler) before they broke through.
Even the most recent Lakers mini-dynasty had to fall to the Celtics before being truly ready to win four series in a row, much less a second set in as many seasons.
As it happens, those 2008 C's were the only team in recent (or any) memory that can claim to have been thrown together and emerge with the title in the very same season. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo were already residents in Beantown, but they weren't joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen (and Glen Davis, Eddie House and James Posey) until the summer of 2007.
If anything, the 2007-08 Celtics were the exception that proved the rule. General manager Danny Ainge was fortunate enough to see all of the parts he picked up fit together almost flawlessly under head coach Doc Rivers. Garnett captained the defense, Pierce marshaled the offense, Rondo handled the ball and Allen spread the floor with his long-range shooting.
True, nobody in that team's core had ever won a ring. But the majority had been around the NBA for some time, and they checked in with an average age just under 30 years.
Are the Lakers too old to win the title?
The best hope for the Lakers, it seems, is to imitate their historic rivals. Then again, even that would be a considerable stretch at this juncture. Those C's started the 2007-08 season by winning 29 of their first 32 games, finished with an astounding mark of 66-16 and battled their way through 26 playoff games to prove that anything is possible.
In theory, anything is still possible for the Lakers. They're getting healthy, which gives them the opportunity to (finally) play together and find their footing as a team. Their core remains imposing on paper, and it has shown flashes of greatness on the court.
But losses like the one against an undermanned Sixers squad to start the new year show that there's much work to be done, perhaps too much for 51 games. The Lakers look slow and lethargic at times, as if the idea of "being old" is something of a crutch.
Their execution on both ends of the floor has been inconsistent at best, and their defense has been particularly porous, in part because the Lakers' perimeter players are too slow and/or not all that interested in playing up to snuff.
Old legs may have something to do with L.A.'s ongoing woes. So, too, might the usual grind of an 82-game season and the toll it takes on seasoned veterans.
Still, if/when the Lakers are escorted home in something other than a parade bus at the end of their campaign, it won't likely be a matter of being too old to wear the ring, but rather one of relationships within the team being too young to support jewelry of any sort.