Lakers could take a big step back

The Los Angeles Lakers barely made the playoffs with Dwight Howard in uniform last season, so losing the NBA’s best center for nothing in return -- combined with an aging core and Kobe Bryant’s ongoing recovery -- increases the odds that the Lakers will be counting lottery balls next summer.

What’s worse, since the Lakers are still well over the luxury tax, they can only offer the mini midlevel exception (worth approximately $3.2 million) or veteran’s minimum (worth approximately $1.2 million) to prospective free agents. With such limited means to upgrade their roster -- trading Pau Gasol and/or Steve Nash wouldn’t bring back valuable assets at this point -- the Lakers project to take a major step back next season.

Since 19 of the Lakers’ 25 most-used lineups featured Howard, and L.A. has yet to fill out the rest of its roster, it’s difficult to predict what a Howard-less rotation would look like. It’s clear, though, that the Lakers will miss Howard’s post presence, finishing abilities out of the pick-and-roll, rebounding prowess and, above all else, defensive impact.

When Howard was off the floor, the Lakers’ defense allowed 107.8 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked 29th in the NBA last season (they ranked 10th with him on the floor). The Lakers also allowed 3.3 more second-chance points and 7.7 more points in the paint when Howard was on the bench; his interior intimidation prevented offensive rebounds and deterred shots at the rim.

Though the Lakers are looking to sign defensive-minded wings and big men, no available option will have even half the impact Howard did. As such, the Lakers once again promise to be a below-average defensive team that, despite its size, cannot contain penetration or protect the rim adequately.

Offensively, the Lakers actually scored more (106.6 points per 100 possessions) and shot better from beyond the arc with Howard on the bench (36.8 percent compared to 34.8 percent), but struggled to finish near the rim, shooting just 58.0 percent (25th best in the league).

Howard’s ability to draw fouls will be especially tough to replace. Even though he couldn’t make free throws, he often got opponents in the penalty early in quarters.

Once he returns from his Achilles injury -- which is the dark cloud hanging over the Lakers’ season -- Bryant will have to shoulder his most substantial offensive load since before Gasol arrived in the 2007-08 season, because Nash will be 39 (and never looked like himself last year), and Gasol and D’Antoni have yet to mesh philosophically.

With Howard on the bench, Bryant became much more aggressive and shot-happy from the perimeter, and his shooting dipped from 47.9 percent to 43.1 percent.

Even if he’s not a perfect fit for the roster, Gasol shifts back to his natural center position, making him the biggest beneficiary of Howard’s departure; he will be able to move down to block and function in a similar role as during the Lakers’ 2008-09 and 2009-10 championship runs.

When Gasol was on the floor without Howard last season, the Lakers outscored opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions, and Gasol’s shooting and rebounding numbers spiked while simultaneously decreasing his turnovers.

Jordan Hill will also prosper. Barring an unforeseen transaction or decision by D’Antoni, Hill will replace Howard and start alongside Gasol. Outside of Howard, Hill was the Lakers’ best rebounder and posted the best defensive rating (105).

In 164 minutes together the Gasol-Hill duo produced a plus-10.1 net rating (point differential per 100 possessions), averaging 106.9 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 96.8 points per 100 possessions. Surprisingly, they were much more effective than the Howard-Hill pairing (minus-7.4 net rating), as Gasol and Hill formed one of the Lakers’ best rebounding and defensive lineups.

Overall, the projected starting lineup of Gasol, Hill, Metta World Peace, Bryant and Nash had a plus-10.1 net rating in a total of 14 minutes last season, which is an extremely small sample size that provides little indication of how effective the lineup can truly be.

Perhaps a more accurate preview would be the four-man combination of Gasol, World Peace, Bryant and Nash, which produced a minus-0.7 net rating in 330 minutes. The lineup shot the ball efficiently, passed well and rebounded above the Lakers’ season average, but struggled defensively (allowing 105.6 points per 100 possessions) and turned the ball over frequently.

Regardless of last season’s samples, it’s almost impossible to project injuries, aging and regression, so there’s no telling what’s in store for the Lakers in 2013-14. The Lakers still need shooters outside of World Peace, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake, and have arguably two players capable of shutting anyone down defensively.

The wild card, of course, is Bryant, who will miss an undetermined amount of floor time. If he can return earlier than expected and miss a month or less of the season -- while also maintaining his level of efficiency from last season -- the Lakers can and should be in the playoff hunt.

That’s a big if, though, and even then the Lakers are far from a lock to make the playoffs in a Western Conference that keeps improving and getting deeper at the top.

With Bryant, Gasol, Nash and D’Antoni’s offensive system free of Howard’s constraints, the Lakers have enough firepower to remain a top-10 offensive team. Defensively, however, they will struggle once again, likely finishing as one of the 10 worst defensive teams.

The Lakers will scour the free-agent market for a bargain or two, flank the court with shooters and run wild behind Bryant. But ultimately, it seems as if they’ll suffer from the same problems as last season.

Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats, MySynergySports.com, HoopData.com and Basketball-Reference.com.