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The Lakers Are Betting Big on Experience—and Familiarity

After trading for Russell Westbrook last month, L.A. added four former Lakers (including Kent Bazemore and Dwight Howard) to round out the roster. The moves raised questions about the team’s age and stamina, while answering others about its direction.

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Back in 2018, inside the Atlanta Hawks training facility, Kent Bazemore sat down to talk about Trae Young. Young was struggling to find his footing in the league, and Bazemore—who acted as a mentor to Young during their lone season together—summed up the wisdom he’d shared with his rookie teammate in one sentence: “Vets can tell you a lot of things, but you won’t understand until you have gone through it.”

Three years later, Bazemore is entering his 10th NBA season, and he’s doing so on a team that has a roster full of veterans. To complement the Big Three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and now Russell Westbrook, the Lakers recently signed Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, and Dwight Howard. All of those players have been with the team in previous stints; all have at least a decade of NBA experience; and all fit with a trend that’s existed throughout LeBron’s career—and especially as he’s extended his prime.

Anytime LeBron lands on a new team, the organization adds players who have experience. Experience is essential to a LeBron-led team. There’s little time or room for development when you’re always trying to win a title. This is part of the reason Andrew Wiggins was traded to Minnesota for Kevin Love once LeBron returned to Cleveland; why Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were traded to New Orleans for Anthony Davis after LeBron missed the playoffs in his first Lakers season; and why Kyle Kuzma was traded this offseason as part of a package for Russell Westbrook.

The Lakers are now well stocked with veterans (they’re on track to have the oldest roster in the league) and also with players who have, in Bazemore’s words, “gone through it.” Ariza played for the Lakers from 2007 to 2009, winning a title with the team in 2009, and he’s returning to his hometown on a one-year deal. Bazemore, who played for the Lakers during the 2013-14 season, also signed a one-year deal and took less money to go to L.A. Ellington was on the 2014-15 roster and signed a one-year deal to return. And Howard, who was last seen dancing by the pool in the Orlando bubble before winning the championship, got another of the one-year contracts Rob Pelinka dealt out this week. “It’s all guys who have respect from LeBron,” one Eastern Conference scout said about the signings.

Collectively, those four players have made the playoffs 29 times, gone to nine conference finals, and made four Finals appearances. If the Lakers wanted to send a message this offseason that they were trending toward the familiar, it was received loud and clear. Pelinka not only signed those four former Lakers, but he also added Westbrook, an L.A. native, and Carmelo Anthony, one of LeBron’s closest friends.

It’s strange to think that a player like Howard could be considered anywhere close to a sure thing, especially at this point in his career. But when operating alongside LeBron, Howard seems to accept his role as a physical backup center and excels at it. And Howard isn’t the only one who performed well the last time he was a Laker. Bazemore upped his scoring during the stint he had with L.A. in 2013-14, and he’s coming off the best 3-point shooting season (40.8 percent) of his career. With James and Westbrook as the de facto point guards, Bazemore’s ability to space the floor could soon be more valuable than whatever cryptocurrency is currently trending. The same applies to Ellington, who quietly shot a scorching 42.2 percent from 3 last season in Detroit on six attempts per game. And that was with Jerami Grant as the Pistons’ no. 1 option. Imagine what kind of looks he’ll get with LeBron and Davis.

Ariza’s Lakers connection runs even deeper. He was part of the late-2000s Kobe Bryant–led teams that made two straight Finals, losing one to the Celtics in 2008 and then beating the Magic the following season. The Lakers were where Ariza, a former second-round pick who had been on two teams during his first three seasons, first broke out. His stint in L.A. jump-started a journeyman career that’s now coming full circle.

“You always remember him from how well he did in L.A.,” the scout said. “He’s probably a year away from being done, but we’ll see how much he has left in the tank.”

With all the goodwill that comes from bringing these players back into the fold, there are still a few concerns: One of the biggest (and most obvious) is age. The past two NBA seasons have been marathons. The teams that went furthest in the bubble suffered turnaround whiplash last season, leaving them fatigued and hurt for big chunks of the campaign. Both LeBron and Davis nursed injuries, and while LeBron is still considered a paragon of endurance, he will turn 37 this season. As the Lakers view it, though, age can also be an advantage. Experience matters, and so does having players who have made title runs before. This type of team structure certainly seemed to work for the Lakers in the bubble, when they had players like Howard, Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee, and Jared Dudley (who may soon be back with the Lakers).

The second concern is the lack of defense-first players. Alex Caruso had a big role on that end of the floor last season, but the Lakers just lost him to the Bulls in free agency. And while Avery Bradley might help fill the gap if he’s signed, the team’s recent identity has been anchored on the defensive end (they’ve had a top-three defense the last two seasons), which now looks to be on shaky ground. Still, coach Frank Vogel has been able to get the most out of his rosters defensively in the past, and as the Eastern Conference scout pointed out, the Buddy Hield trade the Lakers were rumored to be after wouldn’t have been a defensive-minded move, either.

“Vogel’s had a really good defense, but they don’t have great defensive players [beyond Davis and LeBron] now,” the scout said. “Same as Brooklyn, who don’t play defense but [are] so good offensively it doesn’t matter. We’ll see if the Lakers can get there.”

The Lakers’ title hopes this season will always rest on LeBron and Davis, and especially on their health. But Westbrook can raise the team’s floor on nights when either Davis or LeBron is out, and having players like Bazemore, Ariza, and Ellington also adds a level of consistency that younger players may not have.

“I think they did well for themselves,” another Eastern Conference scout said of the Lakers. “I think, in a vacuum, the Buddy Hield deal was better for them. But … [Westbrook is] playing next to the best player in the world who doesn’t need the ball in his hands. If he’s going to [change his game] anywhere, it’s gonna be there.”

While a team like the Warriors, which has its own Big Three but also drafted four teenagers in the past two drafts, tries to balance its future with its present, the Lakers are doubling down on their current experience-before-youth strategy. That’s part of the calculus you have to make when you have LeBron James on your team.