What 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers Must Do to Make Playoffs and Exceed Expectations
Some may argue that the Lakers actually got better when they lost Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets in free agency, and it is true that their chemistry should be much improved without Howard's cancerous presence in the locker room.
But, the teams Los Angeles will be fighting for a playoff spot also improved, and they did it by adding dynamic elements to their teams.
The Rockets catapulted to the top of the Western Conference by adding Howard, and Golden State's ability to land Andre Iguadola solidified their claim as California's second-best team behind the Los Angeles Clippers.
Speaking of the Clippers, all they did was add a coach with a championship pedigree in Doc Rivers, and they also strengthened their roster by bringing in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
The Lakers did manage to get younger and more athletic with the additions of Nick Young and Wesley Johnson, and Chris Kaman gives them a player who can compensate for the size they lost when Howard took his talents to Texas.
Young and Johnson's ability to shoot from distance gives Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni an opportunity to spread the court and run the type of offense he envisioned when accepting the job last year, but will that be enough to push the Lakers over the top in a crowded field?
Success for the Lakers next season probably hinges on a couple of factors, and player health will likely play a key role.
Injuries decimated the Lakers' starting five last season, as each player missed periods of significant time, and star guard Kobe Bryant is expected to begin this season the same way he ended last season, as a spectator.
Of course Bryant could surprise everyone and join the team's starters on opening night, but a more realistic expectation for Bryant's return from an Achilles injury is probably some time in November.
Until Bryant does get back, veterans Pau Gasol and Steve Nash will be expected to pick up the slack, and while Nash does seem to be healthier right now than he was at any point last season, he's still a 40-year-old point guard in a conference dominated by youth and talent at that position.
According to the AP (via ESPN.com), Gasol is confident and eager to re-assert himself as a leader of the Lakers, and since this is a contract year, you can expect Gasol to be motivated. But how much does he really have left in the tank? And will Gasol's knees and feet hold him up as the Lakers' featured post player?
Unfortunately, good health will not help the Lakers play better defense, and if they were bad on that end of the court with Howard in the middle, imagine how bad they can potentially be without him.
D'Antoni's offense could resemble the units he directed in Phoenix, but the Lakers defense may be equally bad, and in the Western Conference it will be hard to sneak into the postseason if you can't get stops when you need them the most.
I expect the Lakers to exceed expectations simply because the bar has already been set so low for them.
No one expects the Lakers to do much of anything next season, and that general oversight could provide them with the motivation they need during what will definitely be a trying season for fans.
If Bryant returns completely healthy and if the new players on the roster can blend with the veterans, the Lakers will be competitive, and they may be one of the more entertaining teams in the league, at least on offense.
Will the Lakers Qualify for the 2014 NBA Playoffs?
However, qualifying for the playoffs is something entirely different.
The Lakers will exceed expectations if they manage to win more games than they lose next season, and under that scenario qualifying for the playoffs would actually be anticlimatic since it's highly unlikely they would finish any better than they did in 2013.
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