It's NBA Finals or bust for Mike D'Antoni's Lakers.
Despite the Los Angeles Lakers being on track for a 41-41 record, they should be considered a top-two or three candidate to make the NBA Finals.
Mike Brown wasn't the sole reason why the Lakers were struggling to start the season, but Mike D'Antoni has the ability and track record to take this team all the way to the Finals.
This isn't a slight to Mike Brown, but D'Antoni has a much better chance of unlocking this team's full potential without the standard overreactions in Hollywood over whether Kobe shot him a dirty look or not.
I highly doubt D'Antoni will get too mad if Dwight Howard decides to shoot a three in the middle of a game.
If it wasn't for Robert Horry's elbow to Steve Nash (and the suspensions thereafter to Amare Stoudemire), D'Antoni would have an NBA Finals appearance and maybe even a championship under his belt.
No, he isn't Phil Jackson, but let's face it, no one is.
There are five reasons why the Finals are now in sight with D'Antoni at the helm.
Once Dwight and others get healthy, this is a very scary team.
Even though Steve Nash is out for the foreseeable future, and Dwight Howard is not 100 percent as he plays through a bad back, and Pau Gasol is playing through knee tendinitis, the Lakers should still be happy.
As long as they are able to keep pace in the playoff standings (currently third in the Pacific Division with a 7-7 record), they should be able to mesh and come together healthy by the All-Star Break.
The injuries are a blessing in disguise because, with the age of Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant (who himself is battling through foot injuries), the old guys will get more rest during the middle of the season before coming on strong at the end.
By doing this, they will be able to acclimate themselves to D'Antoni's offense and function fully as a team by the time playoffs roll along.
Fresh legs for players aged in the mid-30s will do wonders for their game as well.
Despite Kobe, Dwight and Nash's importance to the team, Gasol may be the key to a deep playoff run.
There is no reason to trade Pau Gasol.
Even though the team doesn't have a knockdown three-point shooter like a Joe Johnson or Quentin Richardson on the wings, it doesn't mean that D'Antoni's offense will work less effectively.
In fact, the combination of Gasol's excellent passing and Dwight's ability to get to the rim will be fearsome when the Lakers are clicking on all cylinders.
With Nash running the pick-and-roll with Dwight, Gasol playing the high post, and Kobe and Metta World Peace on the wings, the offense should function extremely well with its different dimensions.
The bench is terrible, but leaving Gasol in there will immediately boost the offense. Especially if D'Antoni flanks him with a shooter like Jodie Meeks. I know, there isn't much shooting here but D'Antoni can work with it.
I mean, he expects Metta to shoot well. That says it all.
The Lakers presently are not even 20 percent of where they will be come playoffs. It'll be fun to see how they progress as they get healthy.
The infamous defense of Steve Nash will matter less in a Western Conference devoid of shutdown defenses.
Much has been made of D'Antoni's terrible defensive teams and Mike Brown's defense-first philosophy.
When Dwight was brought to L.A., he was supposed to single-handedly shift them into elite status.
That hasn't been the case as the Lakers have allowed the 13th-most points in the NBA.
Not too far away from last year's 15th-ranked defense.
Granted, it's been a small sample size with many missing players, but it's a trend to keep an eye on.
However, it may matter less in a conference without absolute shutdown defenses like the Boston Celtics or Miami Heat. The only Western Conference defense that is in the top nine are the Memphis Grizzlies. The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder all sit outside the top nine.
By owning the same defense as last year (thanks to Dwight), and what should be a much improved offense by the end of the season, the Lakers now have more than a puncher's choice to making it back to the Finals.
There wasn't much trust in ex-coach Mike Brown's system but there will be in D'Antoni's.
When Mike Brown was running the team, there wasn't much trust between the coach and the players.
The reasons for the Lakers' early struggles are not solely on Mike Brown, and he deserved a longer leash than the four-game sample size he had.
The fit just never really worked out, and when Mike Brown decided to run the Princeton offense in the offseason despite having players like Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant who demand the ball in their hands, it got chaotic.
Ultimately, Mike Brown was fired and Mike D'Antoni hired to bring his famous offensive philosophy to the team.
It allows players more freedom (see Steve Nash in Phoenix or Jeremy Lin last season).
I'll assure you there won't be any stare-downs from Kobe or random threes from the center this season.
Kobe Bryant is playing some of his best basketball ever and will look to avenge last year's close losses to the Thunder.
Lakers fans might not want to hear this, but without some late gaffes from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers could have easily been in a six or seven-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They lost Games 2 and 4 by a combined five points.
And of course, they imploded in Game 5 like they did against the Dallas Mavericks a year before that.
With the Lakers adding Dwight and Nash and the Thunder losing Harden in the offseason, the Lakers may have found what they need to get over the hump.
Also, never doubt Mitch Kupchak dealing for a player in the middle of the season.
No one knows how he does it, but the the General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers always seems a step ahead of other teams.
Watch out for Kevin Love opting out of his contract in two years and heading to Hollywood. But I digress, Timberwolves fans.
The Western Conference is absolutely wide open this year, with no clear favorite between the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies and the Thunder. Even the Denver Nuggets and Mavericks may have a say when it's all said and done.
There's no reason a Mike D'Antoni-led team with healthy superstars won't make the Finals.