As the season nears its conclusion, it is clear that the Los Angeles Lakers' title aspirations are slim to none. However, the core they brought together that was expected to contend for a title has shown some life as of late.
Despite their ups and downs this season, the Lakers' key players have shown flashes that indicate that, with the right role players, they can remain competitive in the Western Conference.
While there has been a lot of debate regarding the style of play that would best suit the roster, it may be hard to debate which players are most important to the franchise.
Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Steve Blake, Earl Clark, Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison make up a rotation that has been pivotal in the roller coaster ride the Lakers have gone through this season.
While different people may have different interpretations of this grouping, there should be no debate regarding Bryant, Howard, Gasol and Nash making up the nucleus of what the Lakers are trying to achieve.
Although Howard and Gasol have not played well together this season, the Lakers' recent victory over the Sacramento Kings revealed a blueprint of how Howard and Gasol can maximize their talents when playing together.
All of these players are signed on for next season with the exception of Howard. While Bryant is definitely the most important player, and Gasol is arguably the most versatile, Howard is an integral part of the defense, and his presence is essential if the Lakers wish to continue being a playoff force.
The reason this nucleus should be kept together is the undeniable amount of talent each player possesses. Without a proper training camp given the injury woes the players had to go through, a healthy camp with a healthy Howard could be conducive to a very cohesive unit.
Against the Kings, Howard dominated the paint and got his share of interior looks while being active on the offensive boards. Gasol stayed primarily on the elbow and in the high post as a distributor and creator on offense. Bryant balanced his scoring efforts with facilitating via the drive-and-kick and the pick-and-roll.
While Nash was injured early in this game, his presence as an outside shooter and a supplementary passer to Bryant gives this offense a lot of potential.
While chemistry among the Lakers stars has been sporadic this season, there is still reason to believe that—with an injury-free training camp to allow these players to better familiarize themselves with their roles—the team could ultimately fulfill those enormous expectations heaped upon them prior to this campaign.
This doesn't mean they can't be flexible. If Bryant's having a good shooting night, it isn't unreasonable to expect Nash to take over the facilitator's role like he has his entire career. Furthermore, Gasol's ability to post up on the low block can be utilized in case Howard has an off night.
There is a versatility in the players' skill sets that was recognized at the beginning of the season. Keeping this core together could give the Lakers a chance to finally utilize this versatility effectively.