Can the Lakers' offense stay afloat without its key cog?
Based upon the decisions that team management made in the offseason, it's clear that the Lakers will endeavor to field a competitive team and strive to reach the postseason instead of blowing things up and beginning the rebuilding process like so many other franchises.
Given their roster construction and the state of the Western Conference, it will be an immense challenge to achieve that goal.
The Lakers know from their experience just one season ago that a slow start can be a tremendous obstacle to overcome, and it will be even more difficult in 2014 with as many as 12 teams in the West harboring legitimate playoff hopes.
Last year, the Lakers entered the season feeling like they were destined for an effortless trip to the NBA Finals, with four future Hall-of-Famers in the starting lineup. There are no such illusions of grandeur this year.
Instead, here are two hurdles the Lakers will face right off the bat.
The presumed absence of Kobe Bryant to begin the season leaves a Grand Canyon-sized void in the Lakers' offense.
Bryant is the foundation of everything L.A. does offensively. It's not just the 25-plus points he pours in on a nightly basis; the attention Bryant draws from opposing defenses opens up the floor for his teammates.
There is inherent value in shot creation. Though the debate rages in the analytics community as to how to quantify that value, studies have shown that lineups consisting of low-usage players decrease in efficiency as their usage rises.
That's the dilemma the Lakers are presented with, as four of the top-six players from last year's squad in terms of usage percentage (minimum 30 games played) are gone.
Bryant's presence forced entire defensive game plans to be built around him. All five opposing defenders were keyed-in on him on every possession. He drew frequent double (and even triple) teams and took advantage of them with his incisive passing to find open teammates all over the court.
He was the guy you could rely on to get off a semi-decent look when a play broke down, and the one who could create something out of nothing as the shot clock expired.
Even Bryant's misses were advantageous to the Lakers, creating easy second-chance baskets off of offensive rebounds (a strength of the Lakers' big men) because those bigs can get in position for a rebound while the man guarding them is usually trying to help defend Bryant's shot.
This insightful piece by Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry explains this phenomenon in greater detail, and highlights just how many baskets the Lakers are able to generate off those Bryant missed shots.
Last season's Chicago Bulls provide a recent example of what happens to a team's scoring output when they lose their do-everything offensive superstar.
Chicago dropped to 24th in offensive efficiency without Derrick Rose in 2013 after finishing fifth in that category in 2012.
It's likely that the Lakers will see a similar decline in their offensive efficiency, which was the eighth-best in the league last season.
Bryant's on-court/off-court splits from 2013 corroborate that notion.
According to NBA.com (Subscription Required), the Lakers scored 107.4 points per 100 possessions with Bryant on the floor compared to just 99.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the sidelines.
That was roughly the difference between Denver's fifth-ranked offense and Philly's 26th-ranked offense.
Without Bryant around, the offensive burden will fall squarely on the shoulders of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.
If this was 2009 you could build an amazingly efficient offense around those two, but in 2014? Based on how they performed last season you can't predict that with any confidence. Especially given the talent level of those around them.
Since there's no one person to pick up Kobe's scoring and shot creation slack (sorry, Nick Young, I know how much you'd relish the opportunity) it will be interesting to see if Mike D'Antoni goes back to his bread-and-butter pick-and-roll dominant system which produced a half-decade's worth of offensive brilliance in Phoenix with Nash at the helm.
Nash and Gasol can each function as high-quality playmakers out of pick-and-roll sets, but the question is do they still command enough respect individually from defenses to open up the floor and ensure the Lakers' offense generates good looks at the basket?
Fans of the dearly departed Breaking Bad will know how great a difference it makes to get the chemistry precise.
The Lakers know that too, after never finding any during last season's horror show.
From the very beginning something seemed off about the team. It felt like not everyone was on the same page. The rumor mill was churning about bad blood behind closed doors and superstars not getting along.
However, L.A. has thoroughly turned the roster over. More than half of the players currently on the roster weren't there last season, meaning nine new guys have to get acclimated to the system and to each other.
Those new guys are question marks in themselves—a mix of fringe rotation players (Chris Kaman, Nick Young), failed recent lottery picks (Wes Johnson, Xavier Henry), lightly regarded rookies (Ryan Kelly, Elias Harris) and guys who weren't even in the league last year (Jordan Farmar, Shawne Williams and Marcus Landry).
It's difficult to foresee where they fit and how they'll play because, for the most part, we've seen so little of them in the NBA. Aside from Kaman (and perhaps Young and Farmar, but even that's stretching it), none of them have been major contributors to NBA teams.
And they'll have to be effective for the Lakers to keep up in an absolutely stacked Western Conference. In fact, two or three of those players have to play at a level that we have yet to see from them in order for the Lakers to stay in the playoff race.
It's up to D'Antoni to juggle the rotations until he finds one that works. One of his biggest problems last season was not solidifying his rotation until midway through the season. His doing so coincided with the team improving to the level they did for the last 40 games of 2013, even with all their injury woes.
If the team doesn't jell together quickly, they'll be so far out of the playoff picture that even Bryant's return won't save them.
A lack of chemistry leads to an inferior product. Just ask Heisenberg.