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The Biggest Early-Season Storylines for Los Angeles Lakers

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIINovember 20, 2013

The Biggest Early-Season Storylines for Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Kobe Bryant’s return to the court following an Achilles tear he suffered in April continues to be the biggest early-season storyline surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The future Hall of Famer has returned to practice, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, but there still isn’t a set date for his regular-season return.

    Although any news involving Bryant is what grabs the headlines in Los Angeles, Mike D’Antoni’s team has still been faced with the arduous task of winning games without its superstar.

    While there have been some bright spots through the first month of the season, injuries, poor shooting from inside the three-point arc and struggles on the defensive end have the Lakers sitting below a .500 record.

    No team in the loaded Western Conference will reach the playoffs without posting a winning record by season’s end. There are simply too many talented teams in the conference.

    Getting Bryant back will help a great deal if he returns to form, but the Lakers still have work to do in the meantime.

5. Defensive Struggles

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    Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    The Los Angeles Lakers finished 22nd in the NBA last season by allowing 101 points per game. The Lakers allowed more than 100 points per contest despite the fact that they had Dwight Howard, Metta World Peace and a healthy Kobe Bryant.

    As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that they have been a woeful defensive team without those three capable defenders.

    So far this season, the Lakers are giving up 103.8 points per contest. That ranks them 25th in the league. Their opponents are shooting 45.2 percent from the field (ranking L.A. 15th) and 36.5 percent from three-point range (again, ranking them 15th).

    Additionally, the Lakers are forcing just 13.5 turnovers per game, which positions them 28th. Only the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers force fewer turnovers on average than the Lakers.

    Also, opposing centers have recorded a player efficiency rating of 19.7 against the Lakers, while opposing shooting guards have notched a PER of 20.2, according to 82games.com.

    Key players like Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake have allowed opponents to be extremely productive.

    All told, the Lakers are a vastly mediocre defensive squad. They don’t have the personnel available to turn that around, nor the coaching necessary for a change in philosophy. Mike D’Antoni always has been and always will be an offensive-minded coach.

    Any defensive improvement starts and ends with better effort.

4. Injuries

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Pau Gasol went from injury-free and “ready to get back to form,” to finally healthy and “making his impact loud and clear,” to continued struggles and the revelation that the Lakers big man has a strained foot, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.

    The Spaniard entered the 2013-14 campaign with high expectations following a down year beside Dwight Howard, but Gasol, the former All-Star, hasn’t bounced back.

    In fact, Gasol is shooting a paltry 39.5 percent from the field. That percentage would be unacceptable for any NBA guard, let alone for a 7-footer who prides himself on efficient scoring near the basket.

    Gasol has rebounded the ball well this year, leading the team with 10.7 boards per contest, but his offensive output has been worse statistically than it was a year ago when D12 received the majority of touches down low.

    It became increasingly clear that Gasol wasn’t 100 percent, and now we know that he’s dealing with a foot sprain.

    Being critical of Gasol is difficult considering that he’s been playing through discomfort. However, the two-time champion is a much better player than what he’s shown so far.

    In addition to the lanky power forward/center, Steve Nash has been a shell of himself in 2013-14.

    The former two-time MVP is averaging 6.7 points on a measly 26.1 percent shooting clip.

    His player efficiency rating sits at 6.8. That ranks him 288th in the NBA behind guys like Brandon Davies, Jeff Ayres and Ish Smith.

    Nash has been sidelined after being diagnosed with nerve root irritation, which has caused problems in his hamstring and back. The injury has reportedly forced him to consider medical retirement, according to sports columnist Peter Vecsey via Twitter.

    Aside from Bryant, Nash and Gasol make up the veteran backbone of this Lakers squad. Both have struggled significantly this season with injuries as the root cause.

    The playoffs appear to be a pipe dream for the Lakers in 2014 if those two guys can't get healthy moving forward.

3. Jodie Meeks' Hot Hand

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The play of Jodie Meeks early in the season has been one of the most surprising storylines coming out of Los Angeles.

    The shooting guard never found a rhythm in 2012-13 (his first season as a Laker), but he’s been shooting the lights out for purple and gold through 12 games.

    Not only has he knocked down 49.2 percent of his three-point attempts, but he’s also shooting 52.8 percent from the field—a massive improvement from the 38.7 percent shooting he posted in 2012-13.

    The biggest reason for Meeks’ superior field-goal shooting has been his ability to finish at the basket.

    He shot 53.2 percent at the rim last season, according to Basketball Reference. That percentage is respectable, but he’s finishing at the hoop more than 74 percent of the time this season, per Drew Garrison of SB Nation via Twitter. Again, that’s a huge improvement.

    Meeks has only had a hard time making mid-range shots, but he’s done a great job limiting his attempts in that area. He’s shooting 2-12 (16.7 percent) from mid-range, according to Vorped.com.

    Bryant’s eventual return will likely mean less minutes for Meeks. However, Mike D’Antoni will have no choice but to play him if he maintains the hot hand.

    Keep an eye out for more small-ball lineups.

2. Jordan Hill Thriving with More Minutes

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Despite being the most consistent player on the Lakers roster to start the season, Jordan Hill eclipsed 20 minutes of action only once in the team’s first eight games.

    In four games since, Hill is averaging 18.8 points, 12 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 30.5 minutes per game.

    The former University of Arizona Wildcat has always posted solid per-36-minute stats. Often that can be a misleading statistic, but Hill is proving that he’s capable of posting big numbers when given the opportunity.

    He notched 21 points and 11 rebounds in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans and had a 24-point, 17-rebound night in a blowout win over the Detroit Pistons.

    Hill’s emergence has been a welcome sign for the Lakers considering that Pau Gasol isn’t even shooting 40 percent from the floor. Couple the Spaniard’s struggles with an obvious lack of frontcourt depth, and it’s evident that the Lakers would be in a lot of trouble if Hill failed to thrive with more minutes.

    The big man should expect to see plenty of court time as long as he stays out of foul trouble. He’s finally starting to gain favor in the eyes of coach D’Antoni, which honestly should have occurred a lot sooner.

1. Kobe Bryant's Return

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    No matter how well Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks or any other Lakers player performs, nothing will overshadow the looming return of Kobe Bean Bryant.

    The Lakers’ chances of making the playoffs in 2014 without Bryant are nil. Their chances with him? Well, it all depends on health, but their chances of making a playoff push would improve dramatically if he returns to form.

    We know that he has returned to practice. We also know that the Black Mamba believes a November return to be a possibility, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

    Bryant said the following when asked whether or not there would be certain limitations upon his return:

    I think there’s areas where it still needs to get stronger in terms of the jumping and being able to plant quickly and change directions and things like that. Those are areas where you just have to get stronger…but I could adjust my game and play at a pretty high level right now.

    Simply having Bryant back in the lineup would be a huge boost for a Lakers team that has struggled to keep its head above water.

    At the same time, however, there’s no sense in rushing him back before he's ready for game action.

    Seeing Bryant play in November may not happen, but he’s inching ever closer to his much-awaited return.

    The regular-season arrival of No. 24 is the Lakers' biggest early-season storyline without question.

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