5 Players Who Must Step Up for the Los Angeles Lakers to Exceed Expectations

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2013

5 Players Who Must Step Up for the Los Angeles Lakers to Exceed Expectations

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    The Los Angeles Lakers need better performances across the board if they hope to make the playoffs.
    The Los Angeles Lakers need better performances across the board if they hope to make the playoffs.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Through the early part of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers are the definition of a mediocre team. They're 8-8 through 16 games, and while half of those wins are by double digits, five of the losses fall under the same category.

    The honest truth is that everybody on the roster must play to the best of their abilities if this group wants to compete for the postseason. That's the goal in Tinseltown, and while expectations across the league may be lower, it's a reasonable target at this point in the year.

    For the purpose of this article, we'll look at the five players who must help LA become a top-eight seed in the West. That doesn't mean the players on this list have performed poorly all season; it means each one can take his game to the next level before the year comes to an end.

    Kobe Bryant's return will, of course, help the process, but everybody must be on top of their game to exceed expectations of those around The Association.

Steve Nash

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

    Whether it's fair or not to Steve Nash's aging body, you can't ignore the 39-year-old when it comes to who must improve.

    Through the first 16 games, Nash has seen just six contests. Medical retirement has been floated around as a possibility, but the more likely scenario is that the veteran returns with the mindset that anything he can give is a bonus.

    It's true that you can't expect much out of Nash when he returns, but what you can do is hope for a better performance than we saw early. With Kobe Bryant sidelined, the guard was supposed to resemble the ball-dominant playmaker we all remember, yet he recorded just 6.7 points and 4.8 assists while shooting a disastrous 26.1 percent from the field.

    If he is at the point in his career when anything he offers is a bonus, so be it. But if he can stay healthy, make open shots and bring the ball up the court from time to time, the Lakers will be a significant step closer to where they want to be come April. 

Jordan Farmar

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    Jordan Farmar's production has been sporadic throughout the early part of the 2013-14 season, but after a string of recent solid performances, the point guard deserves an increased role.

    The Los Angeles Lakers need consistency out of him. One night he goes for nine points and three assists while shooting 37.5 percent, and the next he drops 22 points and eight assists while shooting 9-of-11 from the field (including 3-of-4 from long range).

    With Nash out for the foreseeable future (and limited beyond that), throwing Farmar into the deep end seems like a reasonable option. Steve Blake has played well this season, but more firepower in the backcourt can only help a team that is constantly threatened by the injury bug.

    Farmar has been aggressive, and his high-energy style of play adds athleticism to a roster that desperately needs it. He has to control his turnovers if he's to earn the extra looks, but if he can do that, he'll be a consistent option regardless of who else is on the floor.

Chris Kaman

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    According to TeamRankings.com, the Los Angeles Lakers are the second-worst team in the NBA when it comes to defending the paint. They allow 46.1 points per contest in that area, besting only the 2-14 Utah Jazz in the category.

    Chris Kaman isn't known as a terrifying shot-blocker, but his 7'0", 265-pound frame has helped him average 1.4 blocks on his career. More importantly, his size allows him to occupy the paint when the perimeter defense breaks down, which could continue to be a theme in LA this season.

    In Kaman's defense, playing time is the issue. He's only earned 17.3 minutes per game, and more specifically, he's been benched despite being healthy, according to ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin.

    We'll dedicate this segment to Kaman, but we can't help but point the finger at Mike D'Antoni to put him in the game. The center's offensive abilities will be considered a bonus, but his defense, albeit not what it once was, can give this team a presence down low that it needs.

    Kaman must step up and show he can still play, but D'Antoni needs to give him the opportunity to prove he was worth the signing.

Nick Young

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    ESPN's Dave McMenamin recently pointed out how Nick Young's energy and confidence have given a spark to a Los Angeles Lakers team that needed it this season. 

    Having a swagger is fun, but it's efficient play that helps teammates buy into that confidence.

    In Young's defense, he's gotten increasingly better as the year has gone on. He scored a season-high 26 points against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 27, but the most impressive part was shooting 8-of-16 from the field including 5-of-6 from downtown.

    The potential for Young to impact the game in other areas than scoring is minimal, but let's be honest here: Once Kobe Bryant returns, the ball will be out of "Swaggy P's" hands. The 28-year-old's responsibilities will turn to making occasional open shots and scoring in transition.

    The Lakers need Young's scoring boosts with or without Kobe running the show, and if he can keep up his current pace, the team will have a perimeter player it can look to for a spark late in the season.

Pau Gasol

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Paul Gasol being on this list is a testament to how crucial he is to the team's success; it's not an indictment of his play this season.

    Throughout the early part of the year, fans were screaming for the 7-footer to become a true No. 1 option. His middling production was directly correlated to his minutes, and since his time on the court has increased, we've seen his numbers improve.

    Ever since Gasol earned a season-high 33 minutes against the Denver Nuggets, he has posted 18.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. He's averaging a solid 17 shots per contest, and he's shooting nearly 50 percent from the field along the way.

    If he can continue producing at this rate, we'll consider that stepping up. Taking it a step further, if he can post those kind of numbers when Kobe Bryant comes back, we'll be looking at a formidable tandem that can do some damage in a brutal Western Conference.

    Nobody knows exactly what the Black Mamba will look like upon his return, but having a consistent No. 2 alongside him will do wonders when it comes to proving the league wrong and making the postseason.