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ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

Oct 14, 2013, 8:45 AM EDT

Kobe Bryant AP

Last season: It was supposed to be yet another year spent contending for a championship for a storied Lakers franchise that already has 16 of them. L.A. loaded up with free agent talent in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and was on paper the team most believed would stand in the way of a second straight Miami Heat title.

Instead, it was a season full of drama and disaster. The Lakers were decimated by injuries to nearly anyone that mattered, Howard struggled to embrace head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and playing alongside Kobe Bryant, and the team snuck into the playoffs only to be swept in the first round by the Spurs.

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, Bryant went down with a torn Achilles injury near the end of last season that will have a lingering effect on the team entering this one.

Signature highlight from last season: Bryant’s Achilles injury and subsequent free throws that helped give the Lakers a much-needed late season win to keep their playoff hopes alive was a candidate here, as was Steve Nash, literally the best teammate in the game, losing his temper Dwight Howard. But those were both bummers for Lakers fans, so instead let’s revisit some vintage Bryant heroics during one of the team’s most exciting wins of the year.

Key player changes: The loss of Dwight Howard in free agency immediately dropped the Lakers out of championship contention in the eyes of most pundits. But L.A. did a nice job of adding talented role players at below market value to support the stars still in place on the roster.

Keys to the Lakers season:

1) The health of Kobe Bryant: Recovering from an injury as severe as a torn Achilles is no small task, even for someone with a ruthless work ethic and insanely high pain tolerance as Kobe Bryant. While his rehabilitation appears to be going well and Bryant has said that he’s ahead of schedule, the timing of his return isn’t nearly as important as the quality of his play whenever he does see the court this season for the first time.

Assuming a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, with the latter playing in a contract year as the featured big man in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, there is still legitimate star power on the Lakers roster beyond whatever Bryant brings. He puts the team over the top, however, in terms of having enough talent to do real damage — but only if he’s back playing close to the level we’ve come to expect, at least for the majority of the season.

2) Pau Gasol returning to All-Star form: Ever since coming to the Lakers via trade during the 2008 season, Gasol has been the one who largely was blamed publicly when things weren’t right with the team. He’s been the constant subject of trade rumors, and due to a variety of factors, many thought it was a long shot that he’d even be back with the Lakers this season.

Gasol appears healthy now, and after being marginalized in favor of Dwight Howard, D’Antoni has spent every opportunity praising Gasol’s abilities, and seems genuinely excited about being able to feature him in the offense. There should be a monster year on the horizon for the Spaniard, and depending on what version of Bryant we see, Gasol’s return to form could help the Lakers overachieve by most people’s standards.

On the flip side, Gasol is in the final year of his contract, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he stumbles at all or the team doesn’t produce wins in spite of his stellar play, the Lakers could look to dump him at the trade deadline in order to make sure they get something in return for a player of his caliber. A lot will hinge on Gasol’s play this season, both in terms of the team’s fortunes, as well as what the future may hold for him personally.

3) One word — Defense: The good news for the Lakers is that Mike D’Antoni has had a full training camp to put in his offense, and the Lakers have added players like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar who should thrive in his system while having no trouble putting up big numbers.

But D’antoni teams have never been known for their lock-down defense, and the personnel in place this year looks to be woefully inadequate on that end of the floor. Nash, Young, and Chris Kaman have a history of struggling defensively, yet all are expected to play big minutes this season. Bryant has proven he can play above average defense over the years, but was dreadful there a season ago, largely by personal choice.

These Lakers don’t have quite enough firepower to outscore teams, and don’t have nearly enough defensively to shut their opponents down for extended stretches .That middle ground is likely going to be troublesome to escape, and along with the uncertainty surrounding Bryant, it’s the primary reason that most have the Lakers finishing out of the playoffs.

Why you should watch: Well, the first reason is you won’t have much of a choice — the Lakers will be on national television 29 times. Beyond that, the intrigue surrounding how Bryant returns, what Nash has left to give in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, and what ends up happening with Gasol are each reasons on their own, and combined they’ll make the Lakers as interesting as usual.

Prediction: 46-36, one more regular season win than last year’s supposed world-beater squad, and enough to secure one of the final two playoff spots in the West.

Look, there are six teams that are essentially guaranteed to make the postseason in the Western Conference, which only leaves two spots up for grabs. There are a lot of “ifs” surrounding this Lakers team, but I’m taking the optimistic approach on Kobe’s health and the overall team talent being enough to finish in seventh or eighth place when the regular season is finished.

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