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Which Superstar Is Most Important for LA Lakers' Success?

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2012

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 10: (L-R) Kobe Bryant #24 and Pau Gasol #16 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on February 10, 2012 in New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Chris Chambers/Getty Images

After General Manager Mitch Kupchak's busy summer, the Los Angeles Lakers now have four players who would each qualify as the best player for more than a few teams.

But who's the best player on the Lakers now? Which one is most important to the team's title hopes? 

Though much has changed in the last few months, the answer to that question hasn't. 

Kobe Bryant remains the Lakers' most valuable player, and will continue to be next season and likely another couple of years beyond that should he elect to keep playing. Sure, you can make at least somewhat compelling arguments for Los Angeles' other stars, but there's an easy test for determining the most vital component.

How good would the Lakers be without that component?

Los Angeles would struggle mightily on the defensive end without Howard, but a combination of Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill could capably man the painted area. Head coach Mike Brown would no doubt encourage a quicker tempo and utilize Antawn Jamison at the four position to spread the floor.

Without Steve Nash, the Lakers wouldn't be a heck of a lot worse than they were last season. That's not to say he doesn't make them significantly better; it's just to say this team is used to playing without an All-Star point guard.

Taking away Pau Gasol wouldn't be all that different from taking away Howard, but the impact would be felt more on the offensive end than on defense.

Removing Kobe Bryant from the equation would be nothing short of catastrophic, though, especially against quality playoff teams.

Los Angeles managed a decent 5-3 record without Bryant last season, but it also lost by 20 points to the Phoenix Suns and by 21 to the San Antonio Spurs during that stretch.

Bryant remains the team's undisputed first option, its leader and the guy on whom it will continue to rely in late-game situations. He's irreplaceable by virtually any metric. Forget about making up for his production with anyone on the Lakers' roster—there are only two or three other players in the entire league who can do the sort of things Kobe does.

Another way of answering this question is comparing a world in which each star plays at his very best to one in which he struggles (at least by their own lofty standards).

For example, if Dwight Howard wasn't at his best, the Lakers might be looking at less scoring, but he'd remain a force on the defensive end and a beast on the glass.

There is, however, no substitute for Bryant's ability to score against even the stiffest defensive clubs. When he goes cold, the Lakers are in trouble, and that won't change just because Steve Nash is around and the team is moving toward the Princeton offense.

His league-leading usage rate should decline a bit this season now that Nash will be handling the ball so much, but Bryant will still be the focal point of Los Angeles' offense.

And he should be.

He's the only Laker who can't be shut down by even the best defender (or multiple defenders).

With or without Bryant, the Lakers will be good enough to beat a number of teams in this league. On any given night, they could even beat the very best.

But don't even think about this team being able to keep it up on a consistent basis. Besides his obvious status as one of the league's two or three best scorers, he's also a fine perimeter defender in his own right.

He might not be quite as frisky as he was in his 20s, but he's smart enough to make up for it.

It's easy to forget about Kobe given the attention justifiably heaped on the Lakers' newest acquisitions. 

However, he'll be the last person Los Angeles' opponents forget about, and that's why he's still the most important Laker.

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