With a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol back in the fray, the Los Angeles Lakers are quietly moving back into the championship picture.
After such a rough start to the season, the Lakers (14-14) can't change their fate over night.
But with their current season-best five-game winning streak (including wins over playoff hopefuls Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors, along with a Christmas day 100-94 win over the championship-hopeful New York Knicks), coach Mike D'Antoni's team certainly isn't wasting any time.
Prior to Nash's return in the team's Dec. 22 win over the Warriors, this was every bit a franchise in disarray.
Offensively, they struggled to find an identity. This wasn't really a surprise, considering the Lakers were already on to their third coach of the season and third and fourth options at point guard (Darius Morris and Chris Duhon).
Defensively, the Lakers had more leaks than structure. They were feather-soft on the perimeter, with a surgically repaired Dwight Howard anchoring the interior.
Given his previous success running D'Antoni's system, the 38-year-old Nash was widely labeled the offensive savior before he even returned from a leg fracture suffered on October 31.
The early returns have the veteran point guard looking every bit the part.
During the three games with a healthy Nash running the offense, the Lakers have averaged 26.3 assists. Without Nash, they averaged just 20.2, as Kobe Bryant struggled to balance his role between being the team's top scorer and distributor.
Nash's ability to put his teammates into scoring position was evident in the win over the Knicks. And it's a large reason why there's no panic inside the Lakers locker room:
D'Antoni summarized why LAL are confident moving forward: they get a pretty good shot most times down, even in crunch time.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) December 25, 2012
Of course, Nash was never thought of as playing that same saving role for the defense. He's never been a particularly strong defender, and whatever skills he once had at that end had more than likely diminished over time.
But as Howard has worked his way back to 100 percent, that Lakers frontcourt looks as imposing as it did during their back-to-back championship runs of 2009 and 2010.
During the 16 games that the Lakers played in October and November, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year averaged 11.1 rebounds per game. He has bumped that number up to 13.1 in the team's 12 December games.
This team still has defensive limitations in their backcourt, but the pairing of Howard and another former Defensive P.O.Y. (Metta World Peace) affords them some crucial defensive stops. Their ability to frustrate Knicks shooters late in the game played a big role in them giving L.A. fans an unexpected Christmas gift:
Mike D'Antoni credits late LAL D (Knicks scored only 16 in 4th).— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) December 25, 2012
D'Antoni has built his coaching reputation on the offensive end of the floor, but he may have made his biggest impact on this team's future success with his decision to move former starting forward World Peace to the second unit.
The Lakers bench has struggled for consistency all season, forcing D'Antoni to search for a spark. He found one in the 13-year veteran, who not only accepted his new role but has thrived in it:
D’Antoni on MWP: “He been great. Weather you want him to start of come off the bench. Get the toughest perimeter assignment. Been great.”— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) December 25, 2012
A fixture in the starting lineup for the team's first 25 games, World Peace averaged 13.3 points per game. Since moving to the bench on Dec. 18, though, he's poured in an impressive 19 points per game.
Rough patch or not, this Lakers season will still be graded on the brutal championship-or-bust scale.
But this club looks a lot closer to achieving a passing grade then they did just two weeks ago.