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Lakers will be better this time around

8/14/2013

LOS ANGELES -- I know what you're thinking. It's OK. I've been hearing it all summer.

The Los Angeles Lakers will be terrible.

They should simply mail in the season and focus their efforts on next year, when they can go after LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. When, presumably, Kobe Bryant will be healthy and fully recovered from his ruptured Achilles tendon. When, hopefully, the bad aftertaste of the short, forgettable Dwight Howard era will be gone.

It's a valid argument, but the Lakers' immediate future is not all bleak.

Despite losing Howard, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison and others, the Lakers will have a better season in 2013-14 than they had last season, when expectations were off the charts and the injury bug was merciless from the opening tip.

This isn't to say the Lakers will win a championship. They won't. But they will win more games than last season (45) and more games in the playoffs than they did this year (zero).

The bar, once placed so ridiculously high, is now ridiculously low. The truth is it should be somewhere in the middle.

Here are the top five reasons why this season will be better than the last for the Lakers:

1. Kobe Bryant

Depending on whom you talk to, this could also be the No. 1 reason why the Lakers will, as Charles Barkley so eloquently put it, "stink." Most people who are predicting doom and gloom for the Lakers seem to think Bryant will be out until Christmas Day at the earliest or the All-Star break at the latest.

I think both dates are absurd. I fully expect Bryant to be in the starting lineup on opening night when the Lakers play the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 29.

Now, I'm no doctor, but Robert Klapper is. He's the director of the joint replacement program and an orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai. Klapper not only expects Bryant back by opening night but expects him to come back even stronger than he was before. He has compared Bryant's recovery to that of Adrian Peterson, who tore the ACL, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee on Dec. 24, 2011, and came back the next season to rush for more than 2,000 yards and win the league's MVP award. Bryant confirmed he was way ahead of schedule this month while in China, according to NBA.com.

"The surgical procedure was different ... and because of that, the recovery has been different," Bryant told reporters. "The normal timetable for recovery from an Achilles, we've shattered that. Three and a half months [and] I can already walk just fine."

The normal timetable for his recovery was six to nine months, and six months would have Bryant back sometime during training camp. Lakers vice president Jim Buss said last month that he expected Bryant to not only be back for opening night but even for a preseason game.

Any way you look at it, unless Bryant suffers a major setback, he should be back around the start of the season, giving the Lakers a better chance to make the playoffs than most people think.

2. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol

If last season never happened (sorry, Lakers fans, there's no way to erase it), chances are expectations now would be far greater. A big reason for that would be how we would view Nash and Gasol's roles, as well as their ability to play in Mike D'Antoni's offense. But last season's train wreck has completely thrown out of whack how we should think about a team that has Nash running the point, Gasol manning the post and D'Antoni calling the plays.

That trifecta was never able to effectively showcase what it could do for a variety of reasons. Nash missed 32 games, and Gasol missed 33. D'Antoni never got to implement his system and was forced to change his offense as often as his rotations while he played catch-up after being hired after the season began.

The Lakers figured themselves out by the end and were 28-12 over the final 40 games. The season-ending .700 clip was actually better than the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. D'Antoni believes that a healthy and motivated Nash and Gasol, playing in his system from the start of training camp, will surprise a lot of people.

He told ESPN LA recently that he expects Gasol to have "the best year he's ever had" and Nash "to have as good of a year as he's had in a while because he's hell-bent on coming back and giving Los Angeles their money's worth because that's the type of person he is."

If both Nash and Gasol have even close to career years, as D'Antoni predicts, the Lakers will be better than anyone predicts.

3. Chemistry

A few years from now, the Lakers will miss Howard. When Bryant, Nash and Gasol are gone and D'Antoni has been replaced by Kurt Rambis, we'll wonder what the Lakers could have been if they had kept Howard. For now, however, his departure could be an addition by subtraction.

Despite being at the Lakers' meeting to woo Howard back to the Lakers, Bryant, Nash and D'Antoni were never on the same page with Howard. Even Gasol, who's as amenable as it gets, couldn't figure out how to play alongside Howard.

Howard was a divisive force in the locker room and on the court, and his failure to commit to the Lakers in the long term or D'Antoni in the short term was a hurdle the Lakers simply could not overcome. Complaining about Howard may have bonded some players and coaches last season, but having 12 players and a coaching staff buying into a common goal will make this season's group far more harmonious.

4. Consistency

It's hard to have any kind of consistency when you go through three head coaches and your starters miss a combined 82 games. Last season was seemingly an aberration on both fronts for the Lakers. Chances are D'Antoni will start and end the season and the Lakers' starters won't miss anywhere near as much time.

With a stable head coach and a healthy starting lineup, last season's Lakers might have been able to do some damage in the postseason. The ceiling for this season's group might not be as high if both go their way, but they will be better than a team clawing to get into the playoffs if they can avoid those jarring changes.

5. Something to prove

The Lakers have made no secret that this season is nothing more than a one-year bridge to the next. Nothing is guaranteed beyond this season. Even though Nash will have one year left on his contract and D'Antoni will have two, both could be gone if this season goes up in flames.

Guys like Bryant and Gasol are playing out the final year of their contracts while economical pickups like Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson inked one-year deals. Young has a player option for a second year but is no doubt hoping to get more than the minimum if he plays well this season.

Every player and coach has something to prove. They're essentially playing for their future, whether it's with the Lakers or elsewhere. That's why the notion that the Lakers should tank this season is absurd. Try telling that to Bryant, Nash and Gasol at the end of their careers. Try telling that to D'Antoni, who is coaching for his job and his reputation.

Everyone in the Lakers' locker room has something to prove, and I'm guessing they're going to prove a lot of people wrong.