Kobe-Less L.A. Lakers a Tougher 1st-Round Matchup Than You Think

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 16, 2013

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 12:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers appears to injure himself against the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at Staples Center on April 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The Lakers defeated the Warriors 118-116. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers lost more than just an immensely talented basketball player when Kobe Bryant's 2012-13 season was struck down by a torn Achilles.

They lost their emotional leader, a player who saw through months of frustration and created a light at the end of the tunnel. His borderline ludicrous guarantee to not only qualify for the postseason but to wreak havoc when they arrived gave this club the sense of belief that bandwagon fans and analysts had long before abandoned.

But they didn't lose everything.

They didn't lose their overwhelming size, perhaps their greatest asset even when a healthy Bryant was shredding opposing clubs for 27.3 points a night.

And they didn't lose their massive playoff potential either, according to CBSSports.com's Matt Moore:

As much as we think the Lakers suck, I'd bet there are a LOT of playoff teams who are pulling for Utah and Houston Wednesday.

— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 16, 2013

The Lakers haven't officially secured a playoff berth yet. They need either a win over the Houston Rockets or a Utah Jazz loss to the Memphis Grizzlies to do that.

Assuming they can find their way to the dance, though, the Lakers may have a lot more left in the tank than the basketball world is anticipating.

The new-look Mamba-less Lakers were on full display during L.A.'s 91-86 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol imposed their will on the glass, combining for 33 rebounds in the contest. Howard and Steve Blake picked up Bryant's scoring slack with 49 total points, and the Lakers assisted on 18 of their 31 field goals.

And according to Howard, this was only a preview of the things to come. "Despite whatever has happened this season, we've got a chance to win this next game, go into the playoffs and make history," he said (via Greg Beacham of the Associated Press).

Steve Nash may or may not be a part of L.A.'s postseason plans, according to Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register:

Nash is out tomorrow but Lakers hope he will be ready for playoffs.

— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) April 16, 2013

Having Nash around would certainly lighten the offensive load a bit on Howard and Gasol. He shares a rich history with coach Mike D'Antoni and could be in line for his best days as a Laker with the ball-dominant Bryant removed from the equation.

But the Lakers' playoff hopes aren't lost without Nash, either.

Blake is a capable creator (3.8 assists against 1.4 turnovers per game on the year) and a reliable perimeter shooter (42.8 three-point percentage). And Darius Morris infuses the backcourt with athleticism and defensive energy unmatched by his purple-and-gold point guard peers.

The Kobe-less Laker guards will take a backseat to their frontcourt teammates, though.

Howard and Gasol give this club a puncher's chance in its first-round series with either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the San Antonio Spurs. If Howard decisively starts his attack before defenders can wrap him up, and Gasol can strike the delicate balance between finding his teammates and calling his own number, the Lakers are a collective tough cover on the offensive end.

Things will still have to fall in the Lakers' favor to get out of the opening round.

Jodie Meeks (36.1 three-point percentage) and Antawn Jamison (36.0) need to convert their perimeter looks and open the floor for Howard and Gasol. Earl Clark needs to be a force on the offensive end and on the glass. Metta World Peace must set a defensive tone on the perimeter.

For a team that flirted with becoming the biggest disappointment in the league's history, the fact that they're still standing is remarkable in and of itself.

But the Lakers aren't done yet, and neither are their playoff dreams.