Despite losing three of their seven exhibition games, the Los Angeles Lakers have had a successful preseason. Establishing roles and working out the kinks in their system, the Lakers have had some surprising young stars rise above the rest.
Without Kobe Bryant for the entirety of the preseason, the Lakers were able to give each of their young guards a good look and plenty of minutes. Players like Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar have increased their stock by electrifying the crowd and showing the ability to conform to Mike D'Antoni's offense.
There is no doubt that the Lakers are still a flawed team. However, with a clearer rotation and a deep pool of talent on the roster, they still have time to work out the kinks in their offense.
While their interior defense and protection against penetration could potentially be issues all season, their offense should continue to improve as the players start to establish their roles in the rotation.
The preseason has been a good indicator of which players will be key contributors and which will spend most of their time riding the bench.
Averaging 13.3 points, six rebounds and one block in roughly 24 minutes per game, Pau Gasol appears as healthy and dangerous as he has been since the Lakers' most recent two NBA championships. While it remains to be seen whether or not he can stay injury free this season, a healthy Gasol will be key to the Lakers' success.
Scoring via the pick-and-roll, jumper and in the paint, Gasol has shown that his trademark versatility for a big man hasn't depreciated with age. Averaging close to three assists per game, he remains one of the better passing big men in the league.
The key for him has been his ability to run in transition. Gasol has always been capable in the open court. While he isn't the finisher that Amar'e Stoudemire was, D'Antoni should be pleased to be able to rely on Gasol in the half court as well as in the open court. Suffering no apparent setbacks throughout the preseason, Gasol's knees seem to be in fine shape.
If he can keep up this level of play for the rest of the preseason, expect to see him play upwards of 30 minutes per game during the regular season.
While it is apparent that Steve Nash is holding back to avoid injuring himself, there is no doubt that he is a shell of his former self. Hindered by a multitude of minor injuries, he has had a hard time rounding into form during the preseason.
Averaging fewer than four points per game in very limited minutes, he hasn't been able to find his rhythm. While he is a competent passer who generated more than five assists on two different occasions, Nash's health may keep him from competing on the floor.
Not only is he struggling to play meaningful minutes, he has also become almost a nonfactor on defense. While he has never been a defensive specialist, he has become the worst perimeter defender on the team. While part of this may be due to him holding back, his quickness just isn't what it used to be.
Nash can still be a key contributor. His experience and high shooting percentages should make him an important player down the stretch. However, the way he is looking right now, expect the former MVP to play limited minutes throughout the season.
Sidelined for a few games with a calf injury, Jordan Farmar returned in force and is perhaps the most dynamic and productive point guard on the roster.
Averaging 13.7 points and fewer than five assists per game, he has returned to the Lakers with confidence and experience. As a versatile point guard with the shooting ability to play shooting guard, he has thrived in the few games he has played this preseason.
His one fault has been his turnovers. Turning the ball over three times per game, Farmar has to learn to be careful with the ball and have better balance between his scoring and facilitating.
If Nash sees limited minutes because of his lingering injuries, Farmar could be in line for a breakout season.
While Steve Blake started the preseason as the incumbent substitute for Nash, his shoddy shooting percentages have left room for Farmar to shine.
Shooting 20 percent from the field, Blake has been putting up blanks from the perimeter all preseason. Whether this is due to aging or an inability to find his rhythm, Blake's inconsistent shooting touch has enabled Farmar to swoop in.
At his best, Blake is still a competent shooter and a smart floor general. However, without his shooting touch and his ability to stretch the floor with his corner three-point shot, he will lose time to Farmar and the other guards on the roster.
Still a good facilitator who eclipsed the seven-assist mark twice this preseason, Blake will still see some time because of his ball-handling and ability to run an offense in transition. However, because Farmar can do all these things while playing tougher defense and shooting more efficiently, it is only a matter of time before Blake becomes accustomed to the bench.
Xavier Henry has played his way into the rotation in the preseason.
Going off for 29 points in his first game and 15 points or more on two other occasions, he showed off his scoring touch in a multitude of ways.
Whether he took the ball into the paint or shot it from the perimeter, Henry has shown offensive versatility that can't be matched by any player on the roster outside of Kobe.
His ability to create his own shot with his ball-handling and shooting makes him an important part of rotation. Outside of Nick Young and Kobe, Henry is the only other perimeter player who can generate his own shot from scratch.
With Young starting at the small forward position, Henry should be able to split time with Jodie Meeks at the shooting guard position until the "Black Mamba" returns to take back his spot.
While Jordan Hill has shown great energy and has been a decent rebounding presence, his lack of an offensive game has hurt him. With Shawne Williams usurping Hill's starting power forward position with his three-point shooting touch, Hill will be hard-pressed to find meaningful minutes in the rotation.
The problem with his game is that it is one-dimensional. He plays with energy and is a great rebounding threat. However, outside of his ability to crash the boards, he can't do much else well.
He doesn't have much of a post game and isn't a great shot-blocker. He can run in transition but doesn't have a soft touch at the rim.
He is still valuable for his hustle, but D'Antoni's emphasis on the offense means that Hill will see limited minutes due to his limited offense.