The expectations game can be a tricky one to play.
When the Lakers acquired both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the span of five weeks, the expectations went from a team that could win the title, to one that should win. That's how it goes when you nab two franchise players without gutting your entire roster.
As individuals, both Nash and Howard must also do their part by playing to the levels at which they were brought in to play. Nash's combination of shooting and play-making will be depended on to help elevate the Lakers' offense. Meanwhile Howard's defense, rebounding, and power post game will be looked at as the pillar of L.A.'s paint dominance.
With the standard of play already being set for these two, exceeding what they were brought in to do becomes difficult. They are already All-NBA level performers and rising above that is a lot to ask.
This is nothing new for them, though. These two have made a career of playing above what many considered their ceilings to get to where they are today. Did anyone really think Steve Nash would have won two MVP awards? How many were really confident that Howard—even as the No. 1 pick in his draft—would become one of the top two or three players in the world at this stage of his career?
In the 2012-13 campaign, they can again reach levels that no one thought possible. Here's how...
In his 16-year career, Steve Nash has made the All-Star team eight times. So, making the team won't be a stretch for him, especially since he made it last season (2011-12). That said, at this point in his career, Nash would be considered a long shot to be named the starter.
For all intents and purposes, this is a position that Chris Paul should have locked up. Paul is widely considered the game's best point guard and, like Nash, plays in Los Angeles, both of which combine to create a ton of exposure that aids in these selections.
Nash, though, can snatch away this honor from Paul for several reasons.
Nash is a beloved player that fans love to watch. He's been voted into the game as a starter before (as recently as 2010) and that is not likely to change playing for a team that has the ability to play an exciting brand of basketball.
Nash's presence on the Lakers will also aid him in being named the starter. Playing for a team with such a wide-reaching fan base will only generate more votes that get him into the starting spot. Beyond that, the Lakers will also play on national television countless times, exposing Nash to more fans that may punch a ballot in his favor.
Lastly, fans like to vote for history and getting Nash in as a starter would be a pretty big deal. He's entering his 17th season and has no business starting in the All-Star game over players like Paul or Russell Westbrook, but if he can play up to a high enough standard while still entertaining patrons, he has the chance to make that happen.
Not since LeBron James made his "decision" has a player's talent level and reputation been as disconnected as Dwight Howard's are heading into the 2012-13 season. Howard remains one of the league's best players but his petulance in handling his Orlando departure has him at the top of the list of least-liked players.
For Howard to overcome that and win the MVP would be nothing short of amazing, but he's in the unique position of being able to do just that.
Howard will be the starting center man on one of the league's marquee teams. Being the Lakers' center comes with a cache that few positions in the league do and that can be leveraged to help Dwight earn the MVP award that evaded him in the 2010 season.
Of course it will take more than just being on the court: It will take dominance. But, as this ESPN report from Dave McMenamin on Lakers' training camp can attest, Howard is already participating in drills and looking physically strong. That means Howard is well on his way to being the same player he was before his back surgery. Which also means trouble for the rest of the league.
If Howard can block shots, rebound and score the ball at levels similar to his career numbers, he will start to become revered again. His play will speak loudly and the flip-flopping in the lead up to his trade from Orlando will no longer be the main talk surrounding the superstar big man.
And once the focus shifts from Howard's Orlando departure to what he's doing on the floor, he'll be in line to be recognized as one of the few legit candidates to win the MVP award. This first step will only start to snowball if Dwight is able to maintain his level of play.
Also understand that with Howard playing well, the Lakers will likely be one of the better teams in the league. And since the MVP award has, in recent years, been as much about team success as individual brilliance, Dwight will have a leg up in that department as well.
All in all, no one should expect Dwight to turn around his image and claim the league's top individual honor in one season. Then again, the stars could align to allow it.
The list of amazing point guards in the league is amazingly long. It is easily the deepest position in the league with more than a handful of them capable of making the All-NBA First Team.
For Nash to steal away this honor from the likes of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, or Derrick Rose would be an amazing feat and quite unexpected.
He is capable of doing it, however.
Nash is in position to be one of the league leaders in assists again. Playing with the caliber of finishers he will in Los Angeles will give him the opportunity to rack up the dimes with ease. Be it pick-and-roll passes to Dwight Howard, hitting Kobe on cuts to the basket or on the wing for spot-up jumpers, or running two-man games with Pau Gasol will lead to countless assists nightly.
Combine these plays with the open court chances Nash will create each night simply by pushing the ball, and he'll be in line to reach double digit assists each night he steps on the floor.
Besides setting up his mates for make-able shots, Nash can also score at a level he hasn't in recent seasons. By playing with such talented teammates, Nash will see more space to take his own shot than at any other time in his career.
Be it through double-teams off him (which would be a horrible mistake by a D, but they do make them) or the defense having to leave him to rotate to an open teammate, Nash will find seams in the defense where he's open for a split second longer than in prior seasons. And since he is one of the best shooters to ever grace the association, he will make them pay.
Nash will also see more open looks solely through the quality of his teammates that operate in the countless two-man games the Lakers will employ offensively. Screen-and-rolls with Kobe, Howard, or Gasol will put defenders in the lose-lose situation of having to slow the roll man as much as the ball-handler. Steve will turn the corner unimpeded more with the Lakers and that too will lead to open shots.
Potentially this combination of points and assists will lead to people standing up and noticing how valuable Nash is. If this also aids in the Lakers achieving a 60-win season (or more), Nash will be in the running to dethrone his younger point guard counterparts and earn the First Team nod.
With that being the case, I find it difficult to imagine that, should the Lakers achieve their goal of winning an NBA title, anyone besides Kobe would take home the MVP award. But, if there is someone that could steal away the honor, Dwight is clearly his biggest challenger.
Because for all the hubbub about the Lakers being Kobe's (something that I agree with on its face), Howard is the better player at this point in their careers. Howard is younger, more efficient and has more impact on both sides of the floor.
These facts translate to a player who will be in a position to make more of a difference than any other Laker in whether the team wins or loses. Sure, Kobe will play an important role (he is Kobe Bryant), but the odds that Howard is the catalyst in the Larry O'Brien trophy returning to L.A. would be huge.
And, ultimately, this is what the Finals MVP is all about and is a fact that Lakers' fans should be familiar with. Back when Kareem missed the clinching game six in the 1980 Finals while Magic filled in with the game of his career, it was the rookie point guard that took home the MVP. In 1988, it was James Worthy's other worldly series against the Pistons that nabbed him the hardware over the Magic man.
With Howard, no one expects him to usurp Kobe from a power standpoint and thus no one expects him to win any award on the team over the longstanding Laker legend. However, Howard is more than capable of doing so.
All Howard would need to do is play his game at the level he would have all season (the fact that the Lakers are even in the Finals in this scenario would mean that Howard had a great year) and he'd be in position to win it. It probably wouldn't be popular and Lakers fans would probably have some trouble dealing with Kobe being dethroned as the key difference maker on a title team, but they'd get used to it in a hurry should the team win that elusive ring.