The Los Angeles Lakers' roster is a far cry from what it was one year ago.
Heading into last season, the summer acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash had the Purple and Gold perched atop the "on paper" power rankings (at least in the West) even though depth was a serious concern.
A year later the depth is there, but the star power is nowhere near as bright. Howard is gone, Nash looks his age, Pau Gasol is coming off his worst season in a decade and Kobe Bryant is rehabbing a devastating injury.
Let's dig deeper and see how this year's complete roster stacks up against last year's version at various positional groups beginning with the point guards, transitioning to the wings and finishing up with the big men.
The top two point guards on the depth chart are still held down by the two Steves—Nash and Blake, but their perceptions coming into this season are wildly different.
Nash arrived in L.A. to a lot of fanfare last season. He was fresh off an All-Star campaign and carried the aura of being ageless. It took less than two games to shatter that narrative, as a leg injury in the season's second contest sidelined Nash for nearly two months. He had his worst season since 2000, even after being reunited with coach Mike D'Antoni.
Steve Blake's season, meanwhile, trended in the opposite direction. He was terrible in his first two seasons in L.A., but turned it around last year, shooting a sizzling 42 percent from three-point range and competently running the offense in Nash's absence. Unfortunately, Blake battled injury issues of his own which limited him to just 45 games.
Going into 2014, Nash's stock has plummeted while faith has been restored in Blake. Their combined value is probably the same as it was on opening day last year, but because Nash is no longer one of the elite players at his position, the result is a net negative for the Lakers.
Behind the Steves last year were the illustrious duo of Darius Morris and Chris Duhon, who were pressed into duty far too often. Morris and Duhon had the fewest win shares of any Lakers players who played at least 250 minutes and were generally a disaster on the court.
Replacing them this season is former Lakers first-round draft pick Jordan Farmar, back in the league after a year playing abroad. When last seen in NBA action, Farmar was an above-average guard who showed he was capable of playing either backcourt position with aplomb.
That will be key for the Lakers because, barring more injury woes, there aren't too many point guard minutes left over after accounting for Nash and Blake.
Expect to see Farmar playing off the ball quite a bit, like he did next to Deron Williams in 2012. He's a massive upgrade over the likes of Morris and Duhon, neither of whom were reliable shooters or playmakers.
Adding Farmar to the mix—and dropping Morris and Duhon—means an upgraded point guard rotation on the whole for the Lakers in 2014.
In 2013 the Lakers had a starting wing pairing of Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace. Bryant, a fixture on the All-NBA First Team, performed up to that level yet again.
World Peace was a past-his-prime lockdown defender whose offensive game fell off a cliff after joining the Lakers. He had arguably his best season in L.A., but still rated as a below-average starter.
Behind those two was Jodie Meeks, who provided outside shooting and little else. Earl Clark cracked the rotation and had quite a stirring stretch midway through the season but was nowhere on the radar heading into the year.
The Lakers overhauled their wing rotation this offseason, waiving World Peace via amnesty and letting Clark sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
To fill in the holes, the Lakers raked through the bargain bin and came up with some intriguing finds.
Microwave scorer Nick Young was signed to a very agreeable two-year deal, and L.A. also took fliers on failed lottery picks Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry.
Young is a known quantity. He can absolutely light it up (he once dropped 43 points in a game), but his shot selection is one of the worst in the league and he can be an inefficient, ball-stopping chucker who shoots his team out of games.
With the Lakers desperately needing some scoring punch, his merits outweigh his deficiencies. He's looked good in the preseason, not taking too many bad shots outside of the offense's flow.
Johnson looks good on paper. He's a former top-five overall pick in the draft who's got great size for his position. Unfortunately, he hasn't improved his jump shot since coming into the league. If he can become a decent corner-three shooter and tough perimeter defender, he can add value to L.A.'s wing core.
Henry has been a pleasant surprise in the preseason. He's relentless when it comes to attacking the rim off of pick-and-rolls and practically lives at the foul line.
Like Johnson, Henry's shooting has also been his biggest liability. Though his outside shot is still a work in progress, he has shot the ball much better from the line in the preseason. He can spark the offense off the bench as one of the few Lakers who is a threat to penetrate all the way to the rim.
Overall, the Lakers are in far better shape on the wings than they were heading into last year. Young and Henry can give the offense a boost and Johnson can at least be used to guard the opposing team's top perimeter scorer.
The big question mark, ironically enough, is Bryant.
Achilles tears are one of the most career-threatening injuries a basketball player can suffer. It's naturally assumed that Bryant can come back from any knock quicker and stronger than anybody in the game, but a return to last year's sublime form shouldn't be taken for granted.
If Bryant gets back to being 90 percent of what he was last year, the Lakers should enjoy far more production from their wing spots than they did in 2013.
However, if Bryant is noticeably hindered or suffers setbacks throughout the season, L.A. would lose their most dangerous quality.
The twin towers of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol never lived up to the hype in 2013. Both men battled injuries all season long. Howard persevered through 76 games, but was clearly limited. Gasol, meanwhile, missed nearly as many games (33) as he had the previous five seasons combined (35).
In the rare instances they did share the court, the results were less than stellar. The Lakers were actually outscored on a per-possession basis when Howard and Gasol played together, per NBA.com, and never seemed comfortable being on the floor at the same time.
Backing them up were Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison.
Hill was a great energy guy off the bench, but an injury (surprise, surprise) kept him out of action for 53 games.
Jamison had value on offense as a guy who could stretch opposing defenses as well as score intuitively around the basket. But he always seemed to give up two points for every one he scored himself. That's probably why he's playing across the hall with the Los Angeles Clippers now.
Howard has also (as you may have heard) moved on, leaving a yawning hole in the middle for L.A.
The Lakers addressed that void by signing Chris Kaman to a one-year deal for the taxpayer's mid-level exception. Kaman is nowhere near Howard's level, but he is a stabilizing presence who can play both ends of the floor.
He is one of the best mid-range shooters in the entire league. Last season, he was second in the NBA in field-goal percentage on shots between 16 and 24 feet, according to NBA.com.
Kaman is also an above-average rebounder and shot-blocker. He doesn't possess the lateral quickness of Howard, but he can still be a factor around the rim.
Hill is back healthy and ready to contribute off the bench. The Lakers also signed Shawne Williams and drafted Ryan Kelly to take Jamison's spot as a stretch 4 who can play next to either Gasol or Kaman.
Jamison's reliable offense won't be easy to replace though, and neither Williams nor Kelly is projected to be much of an upgrade over Jamison defensively.
As competent as Kaman is, the downgrade from Howard is steep. Without one of the game's premier rim protectors as the last line of defense, the Lakers could wind up being one of the league's worst defensive teams.
The Lakers' core of big men isn't as strong as it was entering last season.
On the whole, this year's roster has more depth, but the NBA is a star-driven league, and L.A.'s "stars" have lost a lot of their shine.
That could prove to be the difference between a spot in the playoffs and a spot in the lottery in 2014.
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