According to Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Lakers big man Jordan Hill believes the Lakers will be a top-three team in the Western Conference. This comes in the midst of a tumultuous offseason in which the Lakers' future has come into question.
Hill's confidence, and the condescending reactions to it, are yet another sign that the Lakers will overachieve in 2013-14.
Before we move forward, it's important that we define just how the Lakers will be overachieving. After all, the Lakers have emerged as a preseason favorite for NBA title contention in virtually every year since the turn of the century.
In 2013, however, ESPN ranked the Lakers as the No. 12 team in the Western Conference. I'm far from on-board with the talk of a "top-three finish," but to rank the Lakers as the No. 12 team in the West is stunning.
Hill scoffed at that ranking in his interview with Medina.
“We definitely could be in the top three in the West,” Hill recently said in a phone interview. “I don’t see why not. Kobe is making progress with his rehab [surrounding his left Achilles tendon]. I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes back at the beginning of the season or in training camp. I don’t know if he will. But I wouldn’t be surprised. I have faith in everything he can do. I believe in the Mamba. The sky’s the limit for him.”
No one will question that last part.
Kobe Bryant's work ethic is legendary, but that alone doesn't crown the Lakers as anything short of a risky gamble. Fortunately, Bryant isn't the only player worth acknowledging—not when his supporting cast include Pau Gasol and Steve Nash.
The Lakers are being written off as a non-factor by every outlet possible and have absolutely nothing to lose. What they do have is a trio of superstars that, on any other team, would be regarded as elite.
Just check the numbers.
The most common misconception about the 2012-13 Lakers is that their theoretically elite starting lineup failed to pan out. After all, the Lakers struggled to reach .500 for most of the season and needed a ferocious push to reach the postseason.
During the course of the regular season, however, the Lakers' starting lineup ranked second in scoring, fourth in efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency, per HoopsStats.com.
Losing Dwight Howard is a serious blow, but the Lakers weren't any better with him than they were the year prior without him. Furthermore, Los Angeles' remaining core consists of Bryant and Gasol—a duo that won back-to-back NBA championships in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
As for Nash, he led the Phoenix Suns to a 33-33 record in 2011-12 with Marcin Gortat playing second-fiddle and a supporting cast significantly worse than what L.A. possesses.
Assuming the Lakers can remain healthy—the likely source for their underrated ranking—expect L.A. to be a postseason lock. It has star power, a quality bench and the confidence of its role players.
Still, it all ties back to "The Black Mamba."
Bryant led all shooting guards in scoring, rebounds and assists during the 2012-13 season, all the while shooting 46.8 percent from the field. Recovering from an injury as severe as a torn Achilles' tendon makes his production a question mark, but there's no doubt that the skill remains.
It's all about how far his body can go.
Gasol played in just 49 games in 2012-13, but he finished with three triple-doubles during his final seven outings. He topped 10 rebounds in eight of his final 12 appearances and 10 assists in three, scoring in double figures in all but one of those games.
If he's able to avoid the injury bug, no one in their right mind will question how productive Gasol can be offensively—especially with Howard gone and the low-block back in his possession.
As for Nash, his supposed "down season" consisted of shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range. It's also critical to acknowledge that Nash posted a usage rate of 18.3, which is 3.2 percentage points lower than the mark he tallied in 2011-12, per ESPN.
With the offense now being run through Kobe, Gasol and Nash, without a fourth star needing massive amounts of touches to instill a defensive motor, the Lakers will have no trouble scoring points.
As for their flaws, the Lakers ranked 28th in second-unit scoring and 26th in bench efficiency during the 2012-13 season, per HoopsStats.com. During the current offseason, the Lakers have made a point to address their reserves, adding the likes of Jordan Farmar, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young.
Farmar was the backup point guard on the Lakers' title-winning teams in 2009 and 2010, while Johnson and Farmar offer a much-needed injection of athleticism. Joining Gasol and Jordan Hill in the frontcourt will be efficient 7'0" big man Chris Kaman, thus rounding out a solid effort with limited cap space.
Losing D-12 will hurt, as will the departure of Metta World Peace, but in terms of depth, the Lakers are substantially better in 2013-14 than they were a year ago.
To be clear, there is no question that the Lakers will struggle to contend for an NBA championship during the upcoming NBA season. L.A. lacks any form of defensive promise and could rank among the worst in the league on that end of the floor.
With that being established, the Lakers have an offensive-minded head coach who, for all of his criticism, has been a consistent visitor to the NBA playoffs in six of his past eight full seasons.
If Bryant and Nash are able to reach full health—and that is a major question mark—the Lakers will overachieve and finish the year with a postseason berth. Seeing as both Bryant and Nash are regarded as two of the greatest warriors in NBA history, we're inclined to believe they'll be active in 2013-14.
For that reason, the underrating of the L.A. Lakers is nothing but fuel to a fire that no one wants to light. Hill's confidence simply speaks to the direction of the team.