It's been a rough couple months for the Los Angeles Lakers. After losing Kobe Bryant to a torn Achilles tendon in April, the Lakers were unable to re-sign Dwight Howard. They also lost long-time starting small forward Metta World Peace, whom they amnestied.
Even though Howard brings plenty of antics off the court, he still has the most pure talent of any center in the league.
The Lakers have made a number of signings to try and revamp a roster that finished with a disappointing 45-37 record. They signed center Chris Kaman, small forward Wesley Johnson, shooting guard Nick Young and point guard Jordan Farmar.
Still, even with the new additions, the Lakers will not be able to contend if Bryant cannot recover from his injury.
Fortunately, it seems like he's ahead of schedule on his recovery. Arash Markazi of ESPN LA notes that Bryant could be back by preseason:
Lakers vice president Jim Buss updated NBA TV (via ESPN LA) on Bryant's recovery:
Well, we're in Vegas, and I would bet a lot of money that this guy comes back probably in preseason. He's real sharp in taking care of himself and he's not going to rush anything just to get back and prove a point. He's going to come back when he's right. He's a machine. He's inhuman. I see him coming back at the beginning of this season. I can't believe how much he's progressed so far.
Bryant's competitive fire is legendary, so it's not surprising that he's making a faster-than-expected recovery. Achilles injuries are tricky, however, so an early return is not guaranteed.
That said, if Bryant does come back and can play at his normal level of play, then the Lakers have a legitimate chance of contending.
While losing Dwight Howard is tough, Chris Kaman has been one of the most underrated centers in the league for some time. Playing with the Dallas Mavericks last season, Kaman averaged 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds. He's a solid defender, is capable in the post and will provide steady minutes.
In addition, a healthy Steve Nash should help. Nash played just 50 games last season, averaging 12.7 points and 6.7 assists. If he can play the full schedule, he will give the Lakers much-needed stability.
Further, Pau Gasol will get a chance to play his game now that Howard is out of the picture. Gasol and Howard did not work together in the frontcourt. Gasol averaged just 13.7 points per game, well below his career average of 18.4 points. Gasol, who also battled injuries, should return to being the focal point of the frontcourt.
And finally, there's Bryant, one of the best players of all time. Assuming he can return capably from his injury, there is no reason why Bryant won't put up big numbers. He averaged 27.3 points last season, and that was with having to share the rock with Howard. With Howard in Houston, Bryant can return to being the lead dog, a role he excels in.
The Western conference is pretty stacked, as the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets all have a legitimate chance to make the finals. Even with a healthy and productive Kobe Bryant, it will be difficult for the Lakers to make it to the finals.
That said, the Lakers do not have an awful roster. In fact, it's pretty good. Howard was never a great fit, and his departure will let Gasol become more productive. Bryant will undoubtedly be motivated to show that he can play effectively without Howard. In addition, a full season under Mike D'Antoni—who will now have the time to fully implement his high-octane system—should make the team as a whole more comfortable.
Maybe a Western Conference championship is too tall an order. But the Lakers, assuming Bryant's rehab stays on track, will make the playoffs, and they do have a decent shot of making some noise.