Uncertainty. That's what surrounds the Los Angeles Lakers as the 2013-14 season approaches, and it's taking on several different forms.
Whether it's Kobe Bryant's return date, the production of Nick Young, how much Steve Nash has left in the tank or the team's standing in the Western Conference, there's plenty about this year's squad that remains unsettled.
With so much up in the air, we're here to take a stab at how this season could play out for the Lakers. Specifically, we'll be looking at predictions for individual players and the team as a whole, with an emphasis on end-of-season outcomes.
The honeymoon period between Nick Young and the Los Angeles Lakers has remained in effect to this point, so why rain on the parade?
While Young has imperfections (and lots of them), he can do one thing extremely well, and that's score the ball. However, only once in his career has Young topped the 15-point-per-game milestone, and that was in 2010-11 (17.4 points per game) with the Washington Wizards, when he started 40 of the 64 games he appeared in that season.
Perhaps it doesn't sound quite so ridiculous to project 15 points as a nightly average for Young, but given his history of offensive inconsistency and the Lakers' bevy of scoring options, reaching that mark may be tougher than it appears on the surface.
With a gimpy Kobe Bryant, a lackluster defense and question marks galore on the bench, Mike D'Antoni and the Los Angeles Lakers could be staring at a bumpy start to the season once again.
We saw how quick the Lakers were on the trigger when it came to firing Mike Brown just five games into the 2012-13 campaign, and while D'Antoni undoubtedly has more of a cushion, a lack of success over the season's first month or two could heat his seat up quite a bit.
A significant factor in D'Antoni's job security will have to do with Bryant's timetable for return, as the Lakers front office won't truly have a sense of where its team stands in the Western Conference before the "Black Mamba" is back in the starting lineup at close to full strength.
Along with Dwane Casey and Ty Corbin, look for D'Antoni's name to be one that emerges in hot-seat discussions as the new year approaches.
The seven-foot Spaniard may be fading out of his prime, but at 33 years old, he still has plenty to offer the Los Angeles Lakers from an offensive standpoint.
Although Gasol struggled mightily last season due to a combination of Howard's presence on the blocks and D'Antoni's inability to put him in correct spots, it feels appropriate to forecast a bounce-back year for the four-time All-Star.
In fact, with Gasol now owning complete control of the blocks, look for his shot distribution to get back to where it was during the 2009-10 season, when he was named a Western Conference All-Star.
According to Hoopdata, Gasol attempted 5.8 shots per game at the rim, 3.7 between three and nine feet and just 1.6 between 16 and 23 feet, which is preferable to the 3.9, 2.2 and 3.9 attempts he averaged from those same three spots, respectively, last season.
Xavier Henry has been arguably the most pleasant surprise of the Los Angeles Lakers' preseason, collecting 29 points in L.A.'s preseason opener against the Golden State Warriors.
With some explosive offensive performances, the former lottery pick appears to have solidified his spot on the Lakers roster after entering camp on the roster bubble.
But once the season starts, will Henry see anything resembling regular minutes in Mike D'Antoni's rotation?
Consistent minutes have eluded Henry at the pro level (14.4 per game for his career), but his steal percentage (1.5, per Basketball-Reference) over three seasons remains higher than Wesley Johnson's (1.3), while he's also posted a higher total rebounding percentage than Johnson by a margin of .6 percentage points.
Considering Henry's offensive game is far more versatile than Johnson's, some consistent and aggressive defensive showings out of the 22-year-old could bump him up in the rotation while Johnson falls into a reserve role.
If there's one thing Mike D'Antoni's offense knows how to do, it's maximize possessions and put up points in a hurry. That much was evident during his first year in Hollywood, when the Los Angeles Lakers ranked ninth overall with an offensive rating of 108.49, per Basketball-Reference.
In addition, the Lakers' uptempo style helped them become a top-10 offense as they pushed the ball at the league's fifth-fastest pace, recording 94.4 possessions per 48 minutes, according to Basketball-Reference.
With Steve Nash working his way back to full strength, Pau Gasol operating out of the high-and-low post and perimeter scorers like Kobe Bryant and Nick Young, the Lakers should have no problem putting up their fair share of points this season.
The real task for the Los Angeles Lakers this season will be defending up to snuff, a feat they rarely achieved during a disappointing 2012-13 campaign.
Last season, the Lakers ranked 20th overall with a defensive rating of 107.23, per Basketball-Reference, which grouped them among some of the league's lowliest teams like the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Phoenix Suns and Detroit Pistons.
And when you consider all that the Lakers lost defensively over the summer, it's clear that they're going to be sorely hurting on that end of the floor.
Defensive staples Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and Earl Clark all departed this summer, and the Lakers replaced them with a collection of bodies that includes Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry.
That's positively frightening when you consider how out of sorts the Lakers appeared throughout last season when it came to defending, especially in transition. With no established rim-protector or a true lockdown defender on the perimeter, the Lakers could conceivably be one of the league's five worst defenses this season.
Steve Nash is an esteemed member of the 50/40/90 club several times over, but lost in all of the chaos surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers' disastrous 2012-13 season was how close the point guard came to posting those shooting splits yet again.
Four times in his career (2005-06, 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10) Nash has shot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the free-throw line, which is simply unthinkable efficiency in this day and age.
And what many people seem to be forgetting is that Nash approached 50/40/90 status last season, falling just short in the field-goal percentage department, posting a mark of 49.7 percent shooting from the floor. He was true on 43.8 percent of his threes and 92.2 percent of his free-throw attempts in year one with the Lakers.
Assuming health isn't a major issue for Nash this season, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to replicate 50/40/90 numbers in a high-octane offense that he's extremely comfortable running.
It hasn't happened since 2010-11 when he finished fifth in scoring average (25.3 points per game), but Kobe Bryant could very well finish outside the top three in nightly output this season due to a number of factors.
The first is his Achilles, which could feasibly limit his minutes below the staggering 38.6 he played a night last season. If the Lakers are seeking to preserve Kobe's longevity, a slight minutes cut should be in order.
Second, there are several high-quality competitors who will be fighting for the league's scoring crown. Among them are Carmelo Anthony (the reigning champ), Kevin Durant (who will need to pick up even more of the slack with Russell Westbrook out), LeBron James (for obvious reasons) and Derrick Rose (who looks stronger and more determined than ever).
Based on past trends, Bryant should wind up somewhere in the 23-26 point-per-game range, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to crack the top three of which he's become an annual staple.
Aside from the obvious interior defensive holes that Dwight Howard left the Los Angeles Lakers with, L.A. now lacks the league's best rebounder to help create extra possessions on offense and snatch down boards on defense.
And not only did the Lakers lose Howard, but they'll also be without three of their top five rebounders from last season, having also lost Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison to the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively.
It will be up to the trio of Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill and Chris Kaman to do the dirty work on the boards, while Kobe Bryant will seek to rack up somewhere in the neighborhood of five rebounds a night after accruing 5.6 per game last season.
The big beneficiary of Howard's exit should be Hill, whose game revolves around scrappy play on the boards and on the blocks, but he simply doesn't have the athletic tools to make the Lakers forget about last season's league-leading rebounder.
After finishing fourth in total rebounds last season, expect the Lakers to hover somewhere between No. 10-15 overall when the season comes to a close.
As if it weren't clear already, the Los Angeles Lakers had some serious struggles on the defensive end last season.
One key subset of defense in which the Lakers performed extremely poorly was in the turnover department, where they created just 1,061 takeaways on the season, a mark that ranked No. 29 overall.
In addition, that lack of defensive intensity resulted in the Lakers finishing with the league's second-worst defensive turnover percentage, posting a mark of 11.9 percent.
It's scary to think that the defensive onus on the perimeter will fall upon an aging Kobe Bryant, a defensively inept Nick Young and unknowns in Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry, so the Lakers will need to cross their fingers for some good fortune as the season gets underway.
How Kobe Bryant looks when he returns to the floor remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain: He'll be back sooner rather than later.
We've learned that it's foolish to doubt Bryant's determination and pain tolerance, and while it's looking unlikely that he will make his season debut on opening night, appearances in 85 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers' games this season sounds like a realistic yet bold target, considering the serious nature of his injury.
In order to play in 85 percent of his team's games, Bryant will need to suit up for 70 contests this season, which would allow him to miss 12 due to injury or rest.
The last time Kobe played fewer than 70 games in a full 82-game season was in 2004-05 (66 appearances), the last season in which the Lakers failed to qualify for the postseason.
The two big problems facing the Los Angeles Lakers are defense and depth. The latter is particularly concerning, considering that general manager Mitch Kupchak and the team's front office had virtually no cap space to work with over the summer, meaning the team's bench is now even thinner than it was last season.
According to HoopsStats, the Lakers bench ranked 28th last season in scoring, and simply looking at the team's reserves, there's no reason to think that mark will improve dramatically.
Examining Mike D'Antoni's bench, the Lakers will be dependent upon Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill and possibly Xavier Henry to score the ball.
The big thing that you notice about that group is that only one player (Henry) is capable of creating his own shot off the dribble time and again, and we're not even sure how much time Henry is going to see at this juncture.
Blake is a solid table-setter and at times a great three-point shooter (shot 42.1 percent from deep last season), but he is hardly a threat to score off the dribble. For his career, Blake is a 42.2 percent shooter inside the arc, per Basketball-Reference.
Pairing Nick Young with the Lakers' second unit at times could help open up the offense a bit, but it's not going to provide L.A. with the stability it so desperately needs.
The Los Angeles Clippers swept the season series with the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0 last year for the first time since 1974-75, sending a message that the balance of power is shifting in Hollywood.
With a more balanced lineup that features improved perimeter shooters (J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, specifically) and loaded depth at all five positions, the Clippers have a chance to make a bit of history and sweep the Lakers in back-to-back seasons as Doc Rivers seeks to lead his bunch to a Western Conference title.
It won't take long for the rivalry to renew, as the Clippers and Lakers will square off on opening night at Staples Center. Get your popcorn ready.
The Los Angeles Lakers struggled mightily over the first few months of the 2012-13 season and still managed to sneak into the playoffs as a No. 7 seed.
They won't be afforded the same good fortune this season, though, as the Western Conference is loaded with plenty of elite talent at the top and several emerging young contenders throughout.
Based on last season's performances and player movement this offseason, we can project the top six seeds to go to the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, in some order.
Simply put, the Lakers may be the weakest of that bunch, depending on how things shape up in New Orleans.
Each of those teams grouped with L.A. is stronger defensively and possesses far more depth, which makes it logical to think that the Lakers will be on the outside looking in when the postseason starts in April.
This isn't a knock on the Los Angeles Lakers so much as it's a show of appreciation for how talented the Western Conference has become from top to bottom.
As noted previously, there are six playoff spots that would seem to be locked up by the elite or near-elite contenders. After that, you have five teams vying for two playoff spots, and while it looks rather odd on paper, there's a very real chance the Lakers could finish at the back end of that pack.
Whether it's the Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks or New Orleans Pelicans, the budding nature of those squads makes it possible that four of them could finish ahead of the Lakers in the final standings.
Although L.A. still has its core trio of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers' supporting cast hasn't been this big of a liability in a very long time.