You know we're living in strange times when a discussion of the Los Angeles Lakers' playoff chances is neither ironic nor facetious.
While those chances ultimately rest upon a myriad of eventualities no one can really predict (injuries, cold spells, hot streaks, whether Mike D'Antoni gets fired), we can still isolate a few variables that impact those chances in important ways.
The first and foremost is Kobe Bryant. Since Shaquille O'Neal's departure from Los Angeles in 2004, Bryant's importance to making postseasons—and making something of them while there—has never been in question, not even with respect to Andrew Bynum's evolving role or Dwight Howard's dalliances with building a Laker legacy.
Ordinarily, Kobe's results are a given. We know he'll score with the very best of them, and we know he'll do so when it matters.
However, there's absolutely nothing ordinary about returning from a torn Achilles. The talent will still be there, but the big unknown is when his typical allotment of minutes follows suit.
Bryant's averaged nearly 39 minutes a game in three of his last four seasons—mostly out of necessity. In a perfect world, Los Angeles could curb his minutes and preserve him for the playoffs. Even without last season's tragic conclusion, maintaining this kind of playing time was destined to be an issue. It has been in the past two seasons.
Unfortunately, that won't be the only issue with which Los Angeles must contend. The Lakers' postseason hopes rest on Kobe, but he'll need some help.
Steve Nash's Resilience
Despite his diminished impact, all it takes is one quick look at Los Angeles' roster to remember how vital Steve Nash remains.
The 39-year-old point guard's shooting and playmaking should ostensibly ease some of the pressure on Bryant. Nash may not amount to enough production to properly constitute the third prong of a legitimate "Big Three," but that doesn't mean the Lakers are going anywhere without him at his best.
Bryant has enough on his shoulders, all the more without Howard around to pick up some slack in the paint. Unfortunately, Nash's vulnerability to injury weighs against his ability to shoulder any significant amount of Los Angeles' offensive burdens.
He faced an uphill battle against the San Antonio Spurs during the first round last season thanks to hamstring soreness that typically would have earned him some time off, according to Pau Gasol (via ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin):
He's fighting through something that probably would have kept him out longer if it wasn't the playoffs. I think it's something that we're happy to have him back with us. I think he played really well, considering. He's just fighting through it.
Nash's effort was nothing short of admirable, but Los Angeles needs more than motivational material to make the postseason this time around.
Howard's exodus puts the Lakers at a distinct disadvantage on the defensive end, where their margin for error was already dangerously thin. With immediate solutions few and far between, Los Angeles' best option may be scoring a lot of points and hoping there are enough of them.
There won't be without Nash at full strength.
Pau Gasol Playing All-Star Ball Again
It's been a recurrent theme ever since Kobe Bryant blamed Gasol for not being assertive enough in pursuit of his own shot in the 2012 playoffs. It became a more complicated theme last season, with Howard's presence in the post simultaneously jeopardizing how often Gasol got the rock and where he was on the floor when he got it.
In theory, this season should be different. In theory, Gasol will have the opportunities he needs and the mandate to take advantage of them. This time, it won't be about making Gasol happy—it'll be about maintaining some semblance of an inside-outside game despite having precious few assets who can make that "inside" part happen.
On face, it might seem like Howard's presence was to blame for Gasol's decreased production. And while he did attempt 2.3 fewer shots per game last season, the real story was that fewer of those attempts were actually going in.
Was that because Howard's preferred spots in the post were forcing Gasol to take his shots further away from the basket? A comparison of Gasol's shot distribution before and after Howard's arrival suggests that while there are some noteworthy differences, they weren't drastic.
Here's a look at where Gasol took his shots in 2011-12.
And here's where he took them last season.
Gasol actually took a greater proportion of his shots right at the rim last season. And with the exception of an uptick in jumpers from the top of the key, there isn't a vast increase in mid-range shots. The only thing Howard's presence might have been responsible for is the reduction in those short baseline jumpers.
So the real explanations for Gasol's sluggish season probably have more to do with knee problems and poor shooting than anything else. That might still mean a bounce-back season is in order, but it won't be because of Howard's exit.
Supporting Cast or Support Group?
Given the virtually non-existent cap flexibility with which general manager Mitch Kupchak had to work, it's amazing he was able to sign anyone. Fortunately, the allure of playing for the Lakers still means something to most players, even if it didn't mean much to Howard.
It certainly meant enough for Nick Young and Jordan Farmar to accept minimal contracts. The two of them combined won't make $2 million this season. Wesley Johnson will make less than $1 million, too.
But let's not get any crazy ideas about how much they'll contribute. These aren't the kind of ring-chasing veterans who put contenders over the top. These are the guys you put on your bench when you have nowhere else to turn.
For all his talent, Young has never materialized into more than a poor man's J.R. Smith—replete with the kind of boneheadedness and defensive lapses that have plagued him. Optimistic Lakers fans will raise an eyebrow at the consistently solid three-point stroke, but they'll be raising something else when they see their bench giving up way more points than they actually score.
Compared to the rest of the haul, though, Young's addition is admittedly somewhat exciting. Farmar spent last season in Turkey, and—even worse—Johnson spent last season with the Suns. Good luck trying to distill anything about their Lakers future from those stints.
Chris Kaman (and his comparatively blockbuster $3.2 million deal) and returning big man Jordan Hill are nothing to sneeze at. They won't even begin to replicate Howard's defensive impact, but they can still make themselves useful by doing little things—Kaman spacing the floor, Hill cleaning the glass.
Guys who do those little things won't thrill anyone, and they may not sell a lot of tickets either. But without them, it's going to be an awfully long year for Bryant.
And yet, with a playoff berth suddenly up in the air, maybe not long enough.