Coming into the season, the Los Angeles Lakers looked like the most dangerous team in the Western Conference.
Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were already in the fold, and the team had acquired Steve Nash from Phoenix and Dwight Howard from Orlando. Nash is one of the most dynamic point guards in recent history, while Howard is widely considered to be the top center in the game.
With Nash on the perimeter, Howard in the post and Kobe on the wing, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, a lot. Nash hasn't played since Halloween, and Gasol has been out of the lineup since Dec. 2. The Lakers are 11-14 on the season and wouldn't be in the playoffs if they started today.
But Lakers beat reporter Mike Trudell is reporting that both Nash and Gasol as expected to return to practice this week.
And when both players return, the Lakers will get back to where they belong—atop the Western Conference.
The Lakers fired head coach Mike Brown Nov. 9 after a 1-4 start to the season. Since then, the Lakers are just 10-10.
Mike D'Antoni has implemented a much different system with the Lakers, and the team has felt some growing pains during its adjustment from Brown to D'Antoni. Defensively, the Lakers rank just 21st in the league, allowing 99.3 points per game.
Nash's defensive deficiencies have been well documented. And while Kobe was once one of the league's most versatile defenders, he's no longer capable of shutting down an elite scorer.
Los Angeles certainly won't find a head coach that makes Nash or Kobe any younger. If the Lakers are going to turn things around, it will be because of their high-scoring offense.
D'Antoni coached Nash from 2004-2008 in Phoenix, and the Suns were consistently one of the highest scoring teams in the league under his direction.
Once Nash returns to the Lakers' lineup, the pieces are in place for a similar, fast-paced team.
The Lakers currently have the seventh-highest scoring offense in the league. Kobe is leading the NBA in scoring, averaging 29.5 points per game at 34 years old.
But without Nash and Gasol, the Lakers have been forced to rely even more heavily on Kobe. And although he's one of the greatest Lakers of all time, the Lakers are just 2-11 this season when Bryant scores at least 30 points.
Kobe will remain the focal point of the Lakers' offense when Nash and Gasol return, but their presence will lessen some of the burden on Bryant's shoulders.
And while Dwight Howard has taken some heat for not being a dramatic improvement over Andrew Bynum, he's enjoying a very respectable season. Howard averages a double-double every night, scoring 18.2 points and pulling down 11.9 rebounds per game.
Howard can do everything one could possibly want from a post player, yet he still has the ability to move up and down the court on the fast break.
Once Nash returns to the court, D'Antoni will be able to fully put his system into action. There has been some concern over whether or not Nash and Bryant can coexist since both players need control of the ball to be at their best; however, as long as Nash is the point guard, he'll run the show.
This team will look a lot different when it's at full strength.
The Oklahoma City Thunder currently has the best record in the NBA, and there are eight teams in the Western Conference with a record over .500. Obviously, the Lakers are not one of them.
But still, this is perhaps the most dangerous team in the Western Conference even at 11-14. The Lakers are a talented team without a real identity right now.
Add a two-time MVP point guard in Steve Nash and a four-time All-Star power forward in Pau Gasol, and the Lakers will become the team that many thought they'd be.
They've dug themselves into a deep hole early in the season, so they face an steep uphill battle to the No. 1 seed in the West. But seedings don't matter once the playoffs begin.
The Lakers will be as dangerous as anyone come playoff time. And the rest of the West should take notice.