No one is really expecting the Los Angeles Lakers to do much in the 2013 NBA playoffs, but what would it mean for injured star Kobe Bryant if his team managed to ride its current momentum to the Western Conference Finals and beyond?
The Lakers managed to weather injuries to point guard Steve Nash and Bryant, and enter the postseason with five victories in a row, one of them coming against their first-round opponent the San Antonio Spurs.
The Lakers won their final two games against the Spurs and Houston Rockets without the services of Bryant, and in each of those victories, they played a style that seems tailor-made for the postseason.
Los Angeles slowed the pace of each contest by pounding the ball inside to Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, and the team played strong, consistent defense for most of both games.
The Lakers were not perfect in either instance, but the ball flowed freely and they maximized the interior advantage that will precede them in the playoffs.
There is no other team in the NBA playoffs with an inside duo as dominant as Gasol and Howard have been over the season's final games, and a healthy Bryant doesn't change that.
But Bryant's absence sure does make the picture a lot clearer.
Lakers fans may not want to hear this, but the chemistry Howard and Gasol have displayed recently has always lurked just beneath the surface. Bryant's tendency to control the flow of the game has prevented that chemistry from manifesting.
Well, you sure can see it now.
During the Lakers' regular-season-ending 5-0 stretch, Gasol and Howard combined to average 40 points and 24 rebounds while shooting better than 57 percent from the field.
Included in those five games were two triple-double performances from Gasol, which illustrated the Lakers' unique ability to dominate both ends of the floor from the post.
Are there any other teams in the postseason with a seven-foot power forward who can dictate his team's offense from the paint?
Is there another team with a center who can dominate an entire game without scoring a point?
The answer to both questions is no, but things really get interesting when you consider Gasol and Howard's impact on their teammates.
Suddenly, opponents are not as quick to leave point guard Steve Blake alone, after witnessing him erupt for 47 points in the Lakers' final two regular-season games.
Reserve Antawn Jamison becomes even more dangerous and elusive when you pair his unpredictable shot release with Gasol's pinpoint passing accuracy.
None of this means anything until the Lakers can prove that their latest makeover is different from the last five, but what if it really is legit this time?
The Lakers have gained confidence and momentum by breaking the game down to its rawest elements and exploiting the fundamental advantages they have over every other team in the league.
That might not be enough when it comes to the perimeter quickness of the Spurs, but by reducing the game to its simplest factors, the Lakers have given themselves a fighting chance, and once the ball is jumped at center court, anything can happen.
Unfortunately for Bryant, if the ball does bounce the Lakers' way against the Spurs and their next opponent, it may never bounce in his direction again.
It may be impossible to imagine the Lakers using their amnesty clause on Bryant, but if they were able to reach the conference finals, why wouldn't they?
If the Lakers somehow manage to reach the 2013 NBA Finals, Lakers fans could probably consider a Kobe amnesty a done deal, because it would prove the Lakers can still be an elite team, minus Bryant.
As a matter of fact, does anyone else find it strange that the Lakers have yet to use their amnesty provision?
Gasol and Metta World Peace are certainly amnesty candidates, but using the clause on either one of them would not have the same effect as wiping Bryant's salary off the books.
Bryant would still receive the $30 million he's owed next season, but more importantly, the Lakers would avoid the $60 to $80 million luxury tax penalty they would accrue if they carry Bryant's contract into 2013-14.
Most people assume the only way Kobe ever gets amnestied is with his blessing, but if Howard, Gasol and (gasp) Mike D'Antoni can lead the Lakers deep into the postseason, will Bryant's opinions even matter?
Dr. Jerry Buss may have stayed loyal to Bryant, but there's no guarantee that his son will. And if the Lakers complete a historic turnaround and reach the brink of their 17th title without Bryant, why should he?
Bryant will always be my second-favorite Laker of all time, but the simple fact that he ranks second proves that in my opinion the team means much more than the player.
In a Lakers fan's dream, his team will shock the world by downing San Antonio in the first round, disposing of either Denver or Golden State next and exacting a measure of revenge by ousting Oklahoma in the Western Finals.
How ironic would it be if the Lakers and Heat finally meet in the NBA Finals and Bryant's not there?
It's extremely doubtful this reality will ever come to fruition, and that may be in Lakers fans' best interests since that result would lead to some much harder questions down the line.