Through 14 games of the 2012-13 season the Lakers are a .500 team with seven wins and seven losses. This record leaves them tied for seventh in a crowded Western Conference and looking up at multiple teams that have, so far, looked to be superior to them.
However, with 68 games left in the regular season there is plenty of time for the Lakers to make up ground and find their way back to the top of the conference. It will take several things to break their way, but it is definitely possible.
The first step is for them to improve defensively. As of Nov. 26, the Lakers rank 12th in defensive efficiency, allowing 102.3 points per 100 possessions. This is a respectable mark but will need to improve for the them to leapfrog the teams in front of them.
This video contains a play that represents an approximation of the Dwight Howard that's considered the best defensive player in the league.
When the Spurs set up to run a pick-and-roll, Howard positioned himself to deny penetration. When the ball was swung to Howard's man near the free-throw line, he recovered in time to contest what would have been a makable jump shot. After recovering, Howard was able to slide with his man who attacked off the dribble, elevated to contest his man's shot and then jumped a second time to rebound the ball.
This is elite level defense and the Lakers need more of it.
To make the push they'll need, the Lakers will also require more consistent offense. And in order to perform better, for longer stretches, on that side of the ball the Lakers need to get Steve Nash back healthy and ready to play.
With the move to Mike D'Antoni's offense, Nash's absence is felt even more severely than when the Lakers were playing under Mike Brown. D'Antoni's pick-and-roll heavy scheme requires multiple wing players who can run this action at a high level.
Right now, the Lakers only have Kobe as an every-play threat in the pick-and-roll. And while he's been balancing his scoring and playmaking when running this play, Nash coming back can add a second dynamic threat to aid Kobe.
This is the type of play Nash can make consistently when he is running an offense with the pick-and-roll as its primary action. Nash simply (and expertly) comes off the pick, strings out his dribble to occupy the hedge man, and then delivers a pinpoint pass to the screener the instant he breaks open on his dive to the rim.
Nash makes plays like that look so routine it's not even funny. Now imagine what he can do when it's Dwight Howard setting that screen instead of Robert Sacre. When Nash is back, the Lakers have the opportunity to play even better on offense than they already have and do so consistently. For opponents, that has to be a scary thought.
There are several other smaller variables that help improve the Lakers chances, but in reality the only way to get to the top of the standings is to win games.
As mentioned above, the Lakers have 68 games left on their schedule. Of those contests, 11 of them are against the top four teams in the Western Conference. They play the Thunder four times, the Spurs and the Grizzlies twice and the Clippers three more times.
Of those eleven games the Lakers have to win at least eight. And, if at all possible, they'd be best served winning at least ten of them.
The Lakers have already played and lost to the Spurs, Grizzlies and Clippers. In order to leapfrog them in the standings and hold the tie-breakers over them, the Lakers would need to win both remaining games against San Antonio and Memphis. For them to hold the tie breaker over the Clippers they'd need to win the division (but the best way to do that is to beat the them the next three times they play).
The Lakers have yet to play the Thunder, but winning three of four against them ensures a season series victory which helps them in the standings and wins the tiebreaker.
Getting the wins they need against the best teams in the conference will surely be difficult. But, if the Lakers defense improves and Steve Nash plays up to his ability when he returns from injury, the Lakers will be set up well to get those victories.
And, with those wins, the Lakers would likely be in the driver's seat at the top of the standings when the regular season ends.