Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash-Led Lakers Should Nab High Seed in West With or Without Dwight Howard

Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash-Led Lakers Should Nab High Seed in West With or Without Dwight HowardThe Lakers are interested in getting Dwight Howard, because every NBA team's lead executive is contractually obligated to be interested in getting the best center in the game. Also, the Lakers are required to be mentioned in any story involving the biggest stars in the league. The owners snuck that stipulation into the collective bargaining agreement at the last minute.

Whether the Lakers do land Howard, a possibility that vacillates between extremely likely and extremely unlikely depending on what day it is, could be of huge consequence in their quest of winning a 17th NBA championship. The All-Star backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash is also an all-defensive liability, and while Andrew Bynum is a good enough defensive center, the Lakers probably need a rim-protector of Howard's stature to be a championship-level team defensively.

Lest anyone forget, though — which some people apparently have — the Lakers will be more than a decent team without Howard. Four-fifths of the starting lineup remains from the 2010 champs, with Nash being a substantial upgrade from Derek Fisher. The Western Conference should be deep and competitive again, but the Lakers have an advantage none of the conference's other top contenders have.

The return of the 82-game schedule means the return of structured divisional play. During last season's 66-game sprint, teams played anywhere between 13 and 16 in-division games, making the advantages and disadvantages of playing in a stacked or thin division uneven across the league. For example, the Denver Nuggets made the playoffs as the sixth seed even though they went a game under .500 in the competitive Northwest Division, in part because the Nuggets only played 13 divisional games. Denver played last-place Minnesota four times, but only faced playoff-bound Utah and eventual finalist Oklahoma City three times each. Had Denver played two more division games against the Jazz and Thunder, rather than three inter-division games against the Warriors or four games against the Hornets, the Nuggets might have dropped down to the eighth seed or out of the playoffs entirely.

In an 82-game schedule, every team will play each foe in its division four times. A strong squad in a weak conference therefore enjoys a huge advantage over one in a strong division. Every team has 16 division games — almost 20 percent of the schedule — and the quality of the opponents in those 16 games can directly impact a playoff seed.

That is where the Lakers could turn out to be the luckiest group in the league this season. Despite the top-to-bottom strength in the West, the Lakers' Pacific Division may be flat-out bad. The Warriors and Kings were walkovers last season, and none of them made any moves this offseason to suggest a dramatic improvement is coming. The Suns got worse by losing Nash and Grant Hill and replacing them with an odd group of good, but not great, players like Goran Dragic and Luis Scola. The Clippers, who pushed the Lakers for the division title last season, should be the Lakers' only true competition after making upgrades on the wing and in the high post.

The rest of the West's best could be in for a greater challenge. Three of the Thunder's four Northwest opponents harbor realistic playoff hopes — Denver, Utah, Minnesota — while every team in the Southwest division save Houston improved or stayed just as good in the offseason. Meanwhile, even the Trail Blazers and Rockets have the potential to split four divisional games with any of those opponents and muck up the playoff picture.

This only matters in terms of the Lakers' playoff seeding, which is to say it matters a lot. The Lakers muscled into the No. 3 seed last season, were pushed to seven games by the Nuggets and then bowed out rather easily in five games to the second-seeded Thunder. Perhaps having home-court advantage would not have had much impact on that series. Perhaps it would have.

With the Timberwolves, Rockets and Hornets coming off intriguing offseasons, the West is poised to have another strong season. The difference of a spot or two in the standings could have a noticeable influence on how the postseason plays out, which is why the divisional setup will be crucial. Howard would help the Lakers own the Pacific, but they should be able to do that on their own anyway.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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