How fast will Dwight Howard's back heal? How quickly can L.A.'s Big Four of Kobe Bryant, Howard, Steve Nash, and Pau Gasol develop championship caliber chemistry? Is Mike Brown ready for the task ahead? Will the team's high mileage guys (namely Kobe, Nash, Gasol, and Antawn Jamison) hold up? How will Kobe -- and Nash, to a lesser degree -- adjust to playing off the ball more often? Does Howard solve enough of last year's defensive issues? Can Jamison sufficiently improve what was a remarkably unproductive bench last year?
These are some of the major questions facing the Lakers this season, and if the answer to too many is "no," the other stuff doesn't much matter.
But assuming things go well -- I'm very optimistic -- given how closely bunched the Lakers, Oklahoma City and Miami are expected to be, the little things could make a big difference. The "b-list" issues become far more important, either enhancing or undercutting the core strengths of the team, perhaps enough to tilt the championship scale either towards or away from the Lakers.
So with that in mind, here are three smaller questions facing L.A. whose answers could have big impact:
1. How much responsibility is Devin Ebanks ready to handle?
The biggest positional question mark in the Lakers' rotation is at small forward.
Metta World Peace is set up well to succeed this year, given how little defensive attention he'll receive (he could set a record for completely uncontested jumpers) and the incredibly linear nature of his role (find the best wing player on the other team and defend him). Still, he turns 33 early in November and while his performance improved over the course of last season -- mostly because he got his body together -- overall his game has trended the wrong way. MWP is closer to the end than the beginning, and will be watched closely for more decline. Behind him on the depth chart is Ebanks, who had some quality moments last year (Game 1 against Denver, for example) but overall played very, very little.
With Matt Barnes gone, Ebanks is in line for a meaningful role in the rotation. Not just for a few games at a time, as it was last season, but on a night in, night out basis.
The Lakers aren't totally dependent on the third year player from West Virginia. Last season, they didn't have a real backup 2 guard, but this year they have picked up Jodie Meeks. If Meeks performs, Kobe can suck up more time at the 3, as well. But the goal is to limit Bryant's minutes, not figure out ways he can paper over potential weaknesses. Consistent performance from Ebanks not only would provide the Lakers an athlete on the wing and greater lineup flexibility, but also help preserve Kobe's legs.
He's a serious, hard-working kid who wants to be good, but should Ebanks step into a regular role in the rotation, he'll have a lot to prove.
2. How much production can the Lakers expect out of their backup PG's?
Nash represents a massive upgrade for the Lakers over last year's starting PG's -- for this analysis I get paid -- but turns 39 in February and at the very least the Lakers prefer he not play more (certainly not significantly more) than the 31.6 minutes a night he averaged in 2011-12. Obviously, the play of his backups influences that equation. Thanks to improvements in the starting five and additions of Jamison and Meeks, whether you're talking Steve Blake or Chris Duhon, neither will be expected to bring big production off the bench. Good thing, because in the last two seasons neither has posted a PER north of 9.0. Last season, Duhon tied for the second worst turnover rate among point guards, an improvement over the year before, when he was first.
Blake has had less trouble taking care of the ball, but hasn't been able to knock down shots in the way everyone anticipated when he was signed a couple years back, hitting only 37.7 percent from the floor last season, including 33.5 percent from downtown, the worst he's done from there since '06-'07.
Beyond basic playmaking/offense running duties, one thing that will be at a premium for both Blake and Duhon is perimeter shooting, particularly since neither guy is adept at attacking the basket. Together, they combined for .9 shots a game at the rim last year. Traditionally Duhon has laid bricks from outside, but last year was up to 42 percent. Blake, in theory at least, is a quality 3-point shooter. Both will have opportunities to knock down open shots.
For both, it could be a matter of finding a single thing and doing it well. Duhon, for example, comes with a solid reputation defensively, another way he can contribute coming off the pine. Anything allowing Brown to resist the temptation of adding to Nash's workload is positive. From there, if Blake or Duhon make it possible to steal a few minutes here and there for Nash, the Lakers will be in even better shape.
The task isn't as difficult as last year, but both will have to step up from recent performances.
3. Does Jordan Hill perform consistently even when he's now part of the opposition's game plan?
Without question, one of the more important pieces of off-season business for the Lakers was re-upping with Hill. Without him, there would have been a large hole in the frontcourt likely impossible to fill with comparable athleticism, youth, and talent.
Looking at his time with the Lakers, Hill played a grand total of 18 garbage time minutes before his signature L.A. moment, a 14 point, 15 rebound, three block effort in the double OT win over Oklahoma City in the second-to-last regular season game of the year. It was a game nobody saw coming, including OKC, who almost surely figured he wouldn't step on the court. Hill opened the playoffs with a double-double against Denver, again taking advantage of a team more focused on L.A.'s stars than him. Hill produced two more 10-plus rebounding games in that series (including one more double-double), impressive considering the Nuggets were now looking for him and he only cracked the 25 minute mark in minutes once in seven games.
Hill didn't have the same impact in the next round against OKC, but still finished the postseason with an NBA-best offensive rebound rate of 18.9 percent.
That said, Hill is hardly a fully developed, predictable NBA quantity. Taken by the Knicks with the eighth pick in the '09 Draft, the Lakers are Hill's third team. In two of his three seasons, Hill has played 47 or fewer games, and his one full campaign ('10-'11), Hill posted his lowest PER (13.1) and total rebounding rate. That could be due to any number of factors, but is nonetheless should lift an eyebrow or two. It's reasonable to wonder if, when he's someone for whom opposing teams are prepared on a day-to-day basis, Hill has less of an impact.
Good news: Like Metta, Hill will be put in a position to succeed based in large part on the personnel around him. He'll spend a lot of time on the floor with either Howard or Gasol, and could also get a boost from Bryant and Nash. Even in a lineup without many starters, in Jamison and Meeks the Lakers have better players than last season. Bottom line, Hill should be free to do those things he does best -- hit the glass (offensive glass in particular), get after loose balls, make a block off the weak side -- while his weaknesses -- an unpolished offensive game, high foul rates -- are protected.
Still, just as last year was his first postseason experience, the 2012-13 season will be Hill's first playing a key role in the rotation of a team with very high expectations. How will he respond?