When NBA teams in two of the largest cities and media markets on the planet tooled up this offseason with guys who attended college in the 1990s, it was all about the dozens for a lot of fans.
No one really knew how good or bad the Lakers and Knicks would be. All we really knew about these squads was they would be fun to crack jokes on, since it’s clear that the game’s elite no longer come from the class of 1996. Kobe Bryant described the Lakers as “old as sh*t.” Watching them play, it’s hard to argue that point.
But what we’ve seen this season, particularly in the cases of Steve Nash in LA and Jason Kidd in NY, is a common strategy in the league. It’s no coincidence that an aspiring contender would acquire “old, slow and unathletic” players, as Charles Barkley recently put it, to match them up with young cubs.
Nash and Kidd are old, and obviously not nearly as quick as they used to be. But the Knicks aren’t one of the biggest stories of the season without the leadership and outside shooting of Jason Kidd. And we’ve heard all season how important Steve Nash is to making the Lame Show (that’s what we’re calling it for now) work in LA.
You need these geezers to contend. They provide leadership and intangibles. But what determines whether the effort does any good can be nuanced. How well do the pieces fit? It’s the difference between the Knicks’ success and the Lakers’ failure.
Nash is supposed to be like a coach on the court, similar to Peyton Manning on the football field. Kobe rules over everything, even with a young star on board in Dwight Howard, whom you’d think would ease into a leadership role rather seamlessly on any other team if he weren’t so goofy. Perhaps it’s an indictment on Howard, since he’s a playoff-experienced veteran in his own right.
It’s important to observe those intangible influences on younger players, as well as what Old School brings to the floor. Jason Kidd's role in the development of the often out-of-control J.R. Smith is a prime example. J.R.’s game is nothing new, far from it actually. Dude has always been this good. But there are reasons why he’s averaging a career high in points per game and poised enough at the end of games to hit big shots for the Knicks. One of those reasons is Kidd.
Here’s Smith quoted on nj.com before the 81-76 loss to the Indiana Pacers last Thursday:
“J-Kidd is unbelievable. He makes sure we’re always calm, even when we’re in a hostile environment, or sitting on the bench all game, or blowing leads. He communicates with everyone so well, and shows the confidence in everyone, that they go out and play so well and worry-free."
That’s aside from Kidd hitting clutch shots of his own and averaging an impressive three-point field goal percentage (42 percent).
This was the kind of impact the Lakers were expecting Nash to have.. I’ve heard suggestions that Nash and Kobe just take over the team and “figure it out” themselves, Mike D’Antoni be damned. That, however, was before the Lakers’ towers went down.
Isaiah Thomas was on Dan Le Batard’s radio show last week discussing how the Lakers’ championship identity has always been in their great big men. Right now they have two potentially great big men in Howard and Gasol who didn’t have much of an identity when they were healthy.You heard Kobe earlier in the season saying it had to be the guys who had “been there and done it before.” He’s talking about the old guys on the team – Metta, Gasol and himself. Nash wasn’t included in that quote because he was injured and it was hard to project his return.
TSL caught up with longtime NBA player and coach John Lucas over the weekend and he offered up some perspective.
“You don’t win with young players. You see the teams that go to the championship. Take for example the Heat. They went and got older players (Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Juwan Howard). They’re experienced veterans that come off their bench and know how to play.
“What about Oklahoma, right? Look how much they had to lose as they developed. Really, when they beat the Spurs last year, they had more veteran experience. When teams add players in the middle of the year, they add older guys.”
The Boston Celtics are buried by the media every year, but they were one win away from an NBA Finals appearance last season with a relatively old nucleus. For a couple of games, the Spurs seemed to have exposed the peach-fuzz-buzz Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last season.
“When I coached and had veteran players, I won 50 games. When I had young players, I lost about 50 games. You want guys that know how to play, know how to get their space and know where to be on the court.”
Ultimately, it comes down to whether the pieces fit. What role do the old guys play on the team? Are you building around the great uncles of the league and supporting them with young blood, or surrounding up-and-coming stars with the senior citizens that have been in the trenches?
“Steve Nash has to have the ball, but so does Kobe Bryant,” Lucas said. “So does Dwight Howard. He needs a lot of post-ups. Well, they aren’t built that way. Look how hard it is to watch Kobe over there isolated, or standing to the side not moving. So they’ve got older guys, but their pieces haven’t fit yet. Look at the Clippers. Why are the Clippers so good this year? Look who’s coming off the bench. Veteran guys. All of those pieces fit. Look who the Knicks added: Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace, old as dirt.
Lucas, who’s known Kobe since he was in the 8th grade, also noted the Laker legend hasn’t been as successful outside of the triangle offense – all the more reason why the genius of Nash is imperative in this.
Calling the Lakers old misses the point if experience is as important as it seems. The Lakers don’t have linking parts like the Knicks, Spurs and even the Celtics. The Knicks are good to rely on Kidd because of the way he fits with Tyson Chandler, Melo and J.R. Smith. Kobe and Nash haven’t found that chemistry with Howard in their limited time together.
Everyone is hip to health risks, especially for an older guy who doesn’t have the Phoenix Suns training staff on his side. Ask Nash and Grant Hill about that. But jokes aside, teams still need these NBA godfather figures with the right new school mix.
The Knicks’ success is indicative of guys like Smith and Melo finally coming of age, with the assist from the Kidd-Camby-Sheed generation. If the Lakers don’t make the playoffs, age won’t be an excuse for why the pieces never fit.