For a franchise built on success like the Los Angeles Lakers, anything less than an NBA championship is a disappointment. So after not winning an NBA title since the 2009-10 season, one can imagine that getting knocked out in the Western Conference semifinals for two years in a row is unacceptable.
As such, the Lakers made a real effort to overhaul their roster this offseason in an attempt to raise the elusive 17th championship banner to the rafters of the Staples Center. They added the league's top center in Dwight Howard, acquired point guard Steve Nash in a sign-and trade and signed Antawn Jamison to help get them over the top.
Now the team's roster is brimming with star-caliber players at all five positions. And it looks like the additions will be enough to put the Lakers back among the NBA's elite.
But despite having such a star-studded roster, the Lakers' hopes of winning a title hinge on a few key players. Here are the Lakers' six most pivotal players in 2012-13.
Steve Nash should be an integral part of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13. After all, he's a future Hall of Famer and a two-time MVP. And despite being 38 years old, Nash is still near the top of his game.
One thing that Nash will provide the Lakers is an elite point guard. It's something the Lakers haven't had during any of their recent championship runs. Considering that L.A. was hoping to have Ramon Sessions return as its point guard, getting Nash from the Phoenix Suns is a huge upgrade.
With the Lakers adopting some new Princeton schemes into their offense, having a point guard like Nash to run the show and execute them is a huge bonus. He can command an offense, and he always finds the open man, which should guarantee more open shots and less one-on-one basketball from the Lakers.
Not to mention, although he isn't a huge scorer, he's an excellent shooter. With the Lakers ranking 25th in the NBA in three-point percentage at 32.8 percent last season, adding a career 42.8-percent three-point shooter like Nash to the mix should help one of the team's biggest deficiencies.
While Nash isn't a great defender, which is well-documented, what he provides on offense will more than make up for what he's lacking on the defensive end.
All in all, the Lakers are lucky to have him.
Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players in NBA history and one of the best players in the game today. Ever since Shaquille O'Neal was traded following the 2003-04 season, the Lakers have gone as far as Kobe can take them.
This year will be no different.
Bryant is one of the most prolific scorers of all time. He's seemingly always in the hunt for the league's scoring title, and that's unlikely to change this season. But for the first time in his career, Bryant has a backcourt mate in Steve Nash that's more than capable of leading an offense. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics between the two play out.
Kobe's used to getting his field-goal attempts—he's averaged 21.7 attempts per game since the 2001-02 season. The bottom line is unlikely to change much, but the way that Bryant gets his shots is likely to be different.
Instead of taking a lot of shots in isolation, Bryant should have Steve Nash helping to set up a lot of his attempts. It's something that could end up being very effective for the Lakers, but that's only if Kobe Bryant accepts it. After all, Kobe is the alpha dog on this team, and what he says goes.
But hopefully, Bryant's at a point in his career where he's willing to relegate some of the offensive responsibility to Nash. It's why the Lakers brought in the point guard in the first place. And considering that L.A. hasn't advanced past the Western Conference semifinals for the last two years, it's obvious that something needed to be changed. Now, Bryant needs to embrace it.
It's possible that nobody will benefit from L.A.'s offseason changes more than Pau Gasol.
With Dwight Howard now on the team, Gasol will be paired with the best center the NBA has to offer. Don't get me wrong, Andrew Bynum's an excellent player, but he's not as good as Dwight Howard.
Like Nash is to Bryant, Howard should take a lot of the burden off of Gasol. Howard's a premier post defender, and he's sure to be a focal point of opposing defenses. That makes Pau Gasol the main benefactor.
Of course, Gasol's ability to pass the basketball and score from outside of the paint will also be pivotal when the team runs the Princeton offense.
That offense is most effective when power forwards and centers can work from outside of the key. It brings defenders out of the paint, opening the basket for back-cuts. Gasol can hit players as they cut to the hoop or keep defenders honest with his consistent jump shot when they refuse to follow him outside of the key. It's a perfect scheme for someone with Gasol's skill set.
Because of that, although Gasol's production has dipped a bit the last two seasons, it's likely to increase once again in 2012-13. Gasol's now in a position to flourish, which is exactly what he should do.
Dwight Howard's pivotal for two main reasons.
Let's start with the good. Howard's the best center in the NBA. He's the premier post defender in the league and likely the best defender—period.
He's won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. Only two players have won the award four times. Of those two, Dikembe Mutombo has been retired for years, and the other, Ben Wallace, is nearing the end of his career and not nearly the defender he once was. That leaves Howard, who is still only 26 years old and in the prime of his career.
Howard is also an underrated offensive player, largely because he lacks polish on his post game and because he's an inconsistent free-throw shooter (58.8 percent for his career). But the fact remains that he's averaged 20.6 points per game and shot 59 percent from the field over the past five seasons.
And none of that even mentions that he's led the NBA in rebounding in four of the last five seasons and averages 13 rebounds per game for his career.
The bad thing about Howard—and what makes him so pivotal to the Lakers in 2012-13—is that he's recovering from back surgery. He said at his introductory press conference that there's no timetable for his return to the court and provided no guarantees that he'd be ready for the season opener on Oct. 30.
As anybody who's familiar with back injuries can attest to, they're often unpredictable. Of course, Howard's been healthy for the vast majority of his career, so he doesn't have the overall injury concerns that came with Andrew Bynum. But given the nature of his injury, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.
If Howard's healthy, L.A. is on the short list of championship contenders. But if this injury lingers or gets aggravated, forcing him to miss a significant portion of the season, the Lakers could be in a world of trouble.
Because of the relative uncertainty surrounding Howard's health, whether or not he can make significant contributions for the Lakers will be the most pivotal development in the upcoming season.
The addition of Antawn Jamison should really help the Lakers in 2012-13. Consider that Los Angeles had the worst-scoring bench in the NBA last season at 20.5 points per game. Then factor in that Jamison averaged 17.2 points per game for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season.
Jamison's ability to provide some offense off the bench will be absolutely crucial for this team. Sure, Jamison has been a starter for the vast majority of his career (he's started 858 of his 985 NBA games). But the one year in which Jamison was primarily a reserve player (2003-04) he won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award.
That season, Jamison averaged 14.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in 29 minutes of action for the Dallas Mavericks. He also posted a career-high shooting percentage of 53.5 percent. If he can provide that type of production for the Lakers, it will go a long way in improving what was the worst-scoring bench in the NBA in 2011-12.
It was a toss-up here between Metta World Peace and Jordan Hill. If we knew that Howard would miss a big chunk of the season due to injury, Jordan Hill would likely be more pivotal than World Peace. But since we're not sure how much time Howard will be out, World Peace is likely to be more vital to the Lakers than Jordan Hill.
World Peace will be crucial because of what he provides on defense. He's still one of the better wing defenders in the NBA. With Steve Nash not providing much at all on defense, and with Kobe Bryant's best days behind him as a defender, it will be key for World Peace to be a rock on defense.
That's especially true if the Lakers end up meeting the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs. With Kevin Durant being the Thunder's go-to player and with Durant playing small forward, the responsibilities of guarding him will once again fall on Metta World Peace.
While it's unreasonable to expect MWP to shut down Durant—because nobody is capable of that—anything he can do the slow down Durant's production will go a long way in helping the Lakers knock out the Thunder.
On top of that, what World Peace does on offense will be extremely important. As we've seen in the past, he's got a propensity to take ill-advised shots that are outside of the team's flow. With the Lakers running a new scheme and with Steve Nash now running the offense, that could be really detrimental to what Los Angeles is trying to accomplish.
Or as fellow Bleacher Report NBA writer Ethan Norof mentioned in a recent conversation, World Peace could have a much improved year on the offensive end because of all the attention paid to Nash, Bryant, Howard and Gasol. That could leave MWP to fly under the radar and benefit from a lack of expectations put on him by opposing defenses.
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