On the surface, the Lakers appear to be a formidable opponent, because they are. But not to the extent most believed them to be.
And that's not going to change. Not as they're currently constructed.
It's on all of them.
Los Angeles' problems are not going to be quelled by one player, or by moving one in favor of another. This team, in all its star-power, is flawed—detrimentally defective.
Kobe continues to defy the laws of age, and Nash has been bordering on sensational since he returned. But outside of Bryant's league-leading 30.3 points on a career-best 47.9 percent shooting, and Nash's eight assists a night, what do the Lakers have?
Inconsistency. And lots of it.
In Gasol, Los Angeles has a deteriorating 32-year-old fighting a losing battle with plantar fasciitis. He's averaging a career-low 12.7 points per contest on a career-worst 41.7 percent shooting.
Then you have Howard, who's putting up a stellar 17.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks on 56.3 percent shooting, yet is visibly and admittedly at the mercy of his surgically—but not fully—repaired back.
Howard is obviously less explosive, isn't running the floor with as much zest, isn't looking to score as much and his impact on the defensive has never made less of a difference.
Former coach and self-proclaimed Howard confidant Stan Van Gundy (via Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times) even admitted as much:
"I don't think he looks quite as explosive or as quick as he has in the past," said Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando for five seasons before being fired in May. "Now, he's still above almost everyone in the league at that size athletically, but he has not totally looked like himself to me."
If Van Gundy's insight isn't enough to quench our thirst for proof, there's always Howard himself.
Prior to the start of January, the big man admitted (via Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times) the problems with his back were not yet in the rear-view mirror:
Dwight Howard has a message for anybody criticizing him.
The Lakers center wanted to remind everybody he was still not 100%.
"I wasn't even supposed to be playing until January and I'm playing now. What do you expect?"
While it's impressive that Howard is persevering through the pain and sustaining respectable production levels, it's nothing short of alarming to know that the Lakers' defense is actually allowing fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the floor. It's even more bothersome that, for the first time in Howard's career, his team is scoring more points when he's off the floor.
I am too.
Because that's the extent, with the exception of Metta World Peace, of the Lakers' core.
World Peace's performance thus far—13.5 points and 5.9 rebounds per game—has been inspirational. But you can't win contend for a championship, let alone win one, with just five guys.
As well as Jodie Meeks has played at times, he's still wildly inconsistent. After dropping 12 or more points in five straight games, Meeks hasn't hit the double-digit plateau in four consecutive contests.
The combo guard is also a poor defender. Like Mike-D'Antoni-could-teach-him-a-thing-or-two-about-defense poor. The Lakers are allowing 110.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court compared to 104.1 with him off. And of the three different positions he's defended (per 82games.com), the opposition is posting an average PER of 19.
That's a problem.
As is the fact that Antawn Jamsion has played so poorly he's not even a blip on D'Antoni's radar, and the fact that Los Angeles' bench is 26th in points scored per game.
You see, the Lakers don't just have an age problem, they have a depth problem. One that (via Arash Markazi of ESPNLosAngeles.com) is going to cripple them against aristocratic convocations like the Los Angeles Clippers:
The Clippers are the deepest team in the NBA, and since D’Antoni came to Los Angeles, the Lakers are probably the thinnest team in the NBA. It’s not like the Lakers had a great bench before D'Antoni arrived, but at last Antawn Jamison and Devin Ebanks were becoming key role players. Now they are at the end of the bench and unable to even see the floor in the past six games. Even players such as Jordan Hill sometimes fall out of D'Antoni's rotation, as D'Antoni plays only eight players in a game.
We can chalk their struggles on both ends of the ball up to age. We can attribute their No. 18-ranked defense to Howard's back or D'Antoni's deficient level of defensive understanding. And we can accredit their No. 22-ranked transition offense to them being to slow.
But that only tells part of the story.
Elite teams have depth. And they have coaches willing to exploit that depth.
Can the Lakers contend as currently constructed?
A necessity that the Lakers don't have, that they haven't had since they won their last championship with Phil Jackson in 2010. Its also one that their coach, as Markazi notes, isn't known to put stake in when he has it.
Which needs to change. For the sake of this team, the Lakers need to acquire some added weapons and implore their coach to use them.
Los Angeles isn't going to improve by playing four players of age 32 or older for more than 30 minutes per game; it's not going to improve by believing its shallow roster is suddenly going to deepen.
The results the Lakers are yielding are only going to worsen, unless depth becomes a reality.
Not an exaction that continues to elude them.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 3, 2013.