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Are the Lakers the Oldest Team in NBA History?

LeBron James’s fight against Father Time will have a lot of company this season in Los Angeles

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James isn’t mad. He’s laughing. Or so he says, anyway, when it comes to the jokes about his Lakers’ revamped roster.

“The narrative about our age,” LeBron said last week, “I kind of laugh at it. I actually do really laugh. I’m not just saying that.”

A since-deleted August tweet might suggest differently. But LeBron’s take on the takes is beside the point. With James entering his age-37 season, the Lakers have chosen to surround him with similarly seasoned vets. So much so that a more interesting question arises: Could these Lakers be the oldest team in NBA history?

The oldest group on record is a tie, at an average age (weighted by minutes played) of 32.0, between the 1997-98 Rockets and 2000-01 Jazz. For those Rockets, six of the top seven players in minutes were at least 34 years old, including future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon (35), Clyde Drexler (35), and Charles Barkley (34). For those Jazz, 37-year-old Karl Malone, 38-year-old John Stockton, and 35-year-old John Starks all cleared 2,000 minutes apiece.

More broadly, dating back to 1951-52 (the first season for which Basketball-Reference features teamwide age information), the number of teams with an average age of 31 or higher is in the single digits:

Team Age Distribution in NBA History

Average Age Number of Teams
Average Age Number of Teams
Under 24 23
24-24.9 147
25-25.9 308
26-26.9 414
27-27.9 291
28-28.9 173
29-29.9 107
30-30.9 43
31 and over 8
Since 1951-52

So, could these Lakers challenge that obscure record? They certainly seemed like they were pursuing it with their offseason additions. Only three players from last year’s team remain: LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker. In overhauling the roster, the Lakers imported a throng of 30-somethings.

Among the 13 players on the Lakers’ roster with significant NBA experience, nine are 32 or older; there are as many players age-36 or older as in their 20s. And the two youngest members of that group are both injured at the moment: Horton-Tucker with a torn ligament in his right thumb that will require surgery, Malik Monk with a groin strain.

2021-22 Lakers by Age

Player Season Age
Player Season Age
LeBron James 37
Carmelo Anthony 37
Trevor Ariza 36
Dwight Howard 36
Rajon Rondo 35
Wayne Ellington 34
Russell Westbrook 33
DeAndre Jordan 33
Kent Bazemore 32
Anthony Davis 28
Kendrick Nunn 26
Malik Monk 23
Talen Horton-Tucker 21

It’s impossible to know the Lakers’ eventual minutes-weighted age right now—not least because of the uncertain injury returns, and because we don’t yet know everyone who will suit up for the team. In 2018-19, the last full NBA season, every team used at least 16 players, with the average team using 21. The back end of the Lakers’ bench will probably skew younger with projects like Austin Reaves, which should reduce the team’s overall age—though it’s also possible they’ll dip back into the veteran well when a need for depth arises, via free agents or future buyout names.

For now, the best we can do is make projections using the 13 established rotation players on the roster. For this exercise, we tried a few different ways, which all ended up pointing to a similar conclusion.

First, we looked at a projection for the team’s minutes allocation, via Jovan Buha at The Athletic. That projection comes from early August, so it predates the Rajon Rondo signing, still includes Marc Gasol in lieu of DeAndre Jordan, and doesn’t include any recent injuries, but it provides a workable baseline. Assuming Gasol’s 15 projected minutes go to Jordan instead, the Lakers’ average team age would be 31.3. Only five teams in NBA history have been older.

Yet that theoretical minutes distribution also highlights the challenge that awaits Frank Vogel in incorporating all his players into a reasonable rotation. Anthony, for instance, is tabbed for only 10 minutes per game. Last season, Melo played less often than ever before in his career—and still averaged 24.5 minutes. It’s hard to imagine that he’d drop all the way to 10, due to veteran respect alone.

So we tried a second method. This time, we took the 2020-21 minutes-per-game figures for all 13 players, then adjusted proportionally for the fact that those figures add up to be well above the 240 minutes per game actually allocated to a team. Here, we calculated an average age of 31.7. Only two teams in NBA history have been older.

Finally, we ran 300 simulations of the Lakers’ possible 2021-22 rotation, to add more nuance to these figures. In each simulation, the first-, second-, and third-highest minutes totals went to Russell Westbrook, James, and Davis in some order, as they all averaged 30-plus minutes per game last season and presumably won’t lose many this season. Then spots four through 13 went to the other rotation players by random selection. Using those relative placements and each of the 30 teams’ actual minutes distributions from 2018-19 (the most recent 82-game season) for guidance, we then calculated an average age projection with each simulation. Because it’s based on actual observed minutes distributions, this method also has the advantage of accounting for injuries, albeit nothing long term for the three stars.

Here’s how it works in practice. In simulation no. 5, for instance, Horton-Tucker, Monk, and Kendrick Nunn all fell to the back of the rotation as Anthony, Rondo, and Wayne Ellington picked up more minutes, increasing the team’s average age to a would-be-record 33.0. Or in simulation no. 273, Anthony, Trevor Ariza (who is out for two months after undergoing ankle surgery), and Dwight Howard all lost playing time so the team’s average age fell to a more reasonable 31.1.

Over all 300 simulations, the average result for the team’s average age was 31.8, with a range from 30.5 to 33.0. That average is in line with, but slightly higher than, the simpler estimates. Again, only two teams in NBA history have been older, and about a third of the time, the simulations produced an average age that would set a record.

The Lakers’ looming gerontocracy stands out even more in comparison to recent history, because the NBA is the youngest it’s ever been. No team since LeBron’s 2017-18 Cavaliers has eclipsed an average age of 30, and in each of the past two seasons, the average leaguewide age was just 26.1—tied for the lowest on record. In a span of just three seasons, the league’s average age dropped half a year; in the past two decades, it’s dropped nearly two full years, as the influx of two-way roster spots have attracted younger players and a faster-paced game leaves less leeway for older, plodding vets.

But this story has a twist at the end. The Lakers are historically old, but being old isn’t a bad thing: Actually, in the NBA, older teams are better teams.

Last season, the eight oldest teams—Clippers, Jazz, Nets, Lakers, Bucks, Trail Blazers, Heat, and 76ers—all reached the playoffs. In 2020, the oldest teams were the Lakers, who won the championship, and the Bucks, who won the most regular-season games. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, both finalists ranked among the league’s five oldest teams in their respective seasons.

Here’s that same chart from up above again, just with another column added for winning percentage:

Team Age Distribution in NBA History

Average Age Number of Teams Winning Percentage
Average Age Number of Teams Winning Percentage
Under 24 23 34%
24-24.9 147 37%
25-25.9 308 45%
26-26.9 414 48%
27-27.9 291 54%
28-28.9 173 60%
29-29.9 107 62%
30-30.9 43 61%
31 and over 8 64%
Since 1951-52

The same pattern appears with that data in graph form: Younger teams lose most of their games, while older teams win.

On a more granular level, the 18 oldest teams in league history, and 28 of the top 29, all finished with a .500 record or better. (The oldest exception is the 1990-91 Mavericks, with a 28-54 record despite an average age of 30.6.) The 1997-98 Bulls (average age: 31.7) won a title, then inspired a smash documentary. The 2010-11 Mavericks (average age: 30.9) also raised the trophy. So did the 1996-97 Bulls (average age: 30.7), 1968-69 Celtics (average age: 30.5), and 2006-07 Spurs (average age: 30.4).

Several previous LeBron teams have thrived despite advanced ages, as well. The 2012-13 Heat, 2013-14 Heat, and 2017-18 Cavaliers all reached the Finals with average team ages above 30.

This general trend makes intuitive sense. Veterans command higher salaries than young players, so there’s no reason to keep an older core together unless it’s contending, while losing teams tend to rebuild with younger players. Contending teams also sacrifice draft picks in win-now moves, depriving them of a chance to add youth to the rotation. That’s certainly the case with the Lakers, who haven’t kept a single one of their own draft picks since LeBron signed in free agency four summers ago. (Horton-Tucker, a second-rounder, joined the Lakers in a draft-night trade.)

These new Lakers are old, then, maybe historically so—but while that extreme brings creaky concerns such as injuries, and how a bunch of post-prime players will fit in a fast-paced league, it also might bring plenty of wins, too. Maybe LeBron has a reason to laugh after all.