Lakers guard Kobe Bryant steals the ball from Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
To make the playoffs, the Lakers need to be better than seven teams in the Western Conference.
In the first 11 of 14 entries, the Lakers were ruled better than five (New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz) but not as good as the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Clippers.
Are the Lakers better than the Denver Nuggets?
In previous seasons, Ty Lawson has driven the Nuggets' offense -- which was predicated on running. Former Laker Brian Shaw, now head coach of the Nuggets, intends to employ more of a half-court offense but Lawson will remain the team's primary offensive initiator and scorer.
Andre Miller is a savvy veteran point guard, and Nate Robinson is an explosive scorer. When Robinson gets going, he can carry a team offensively. The Lakers always seem to have issues with Miller as well.
Ultimately, the Lakers need Steve Nash to stay healthy after a difficult season with leg, hip and hamstring problems. Two solid reserves in Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar should help Nash keep his minutes down.
Though the Lakers are solid at point, the Nuggets are more explosive and athletic.
The Lakers have the clear advantage at shooting guard if Kobe Bryant can return healthy from his Achilles tendon tear.
The Nuggets picked up capable veteran Randy Foye after letting Andre Iguodala go to the Golden State Warriors. Denver also has Evan Fournier and can play Wilson Chandler, Miller or Danilo Gallinari at the two if needed.
Gallinari is currently sidelined with a knee injury.
Blake may play steady minutes behind Bryant at the two along with Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Darius Johnson-Odom (the last two are camp invitees who still have to make the team). Henry has made a strong case to stick with the team, at least into the start of the season.
Gallinari is a vital part of the Nuggets' offensive attack with his ability to shoot and score. His return timeframe is still up in the air, although the hope is he's back well before 2014.
Chandler is a solid all-around small forward with a nice outside stroke. The Nuggets also have Jordan Hamilton, Quincy Miller and Damion James. Foye can play undersized three as well.
Coach Mike D'Antoni may start offensive-minded Young at small forward with Johnson backing him up as the stronger defender. Young could also start at the two initially while Bryant recovers, with Johnson starting.
Shawne Williams, Marcus Landry and Elias Harris, each fighting to make the final roster, bring shooting and toughness to the position. Harris is more of a D'Antoni four who needs to develop his outside shot but brings versatility to the floor. Bryant may also play some small forward.
The Nuggets have the edge at small forward once fully healthy.
Kenneth Faried is an extremely active, athletic forward and prolific rebounder. Last season, he averaged 11.5 points on 55.2% shooting along with 9.2 rebounds a game.
He'll be backed up by Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson and Anthony Randolph.
The Nuggets have depth, youth and athleticism.
It's still not clear what D'Antoni will do at power forward. Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman have shown chemistry together, which might make Gasol the starting four.
If so, the Lakers have size and skill over the Nuggets.
If Gasol is the starting center, Shawne Williams may get the start. Other options could be Jordan Hill or even rookie Ryan Kelly, although he still has to make the team. Harris, Landry and Johnson may get time at the four in reserve roles.
The Nuggets hold the edge if Gasol starts at five. The Lakers have the advantage in skill and size but not athleticism if Gasol is the four.
JaVale McGee needs to break through and, under Shaw, this could be his year. McGee's extremely long and athletic but he's still searching for consistency and focus.
Timofey Mozgov is a serviceable big. Hickson also can contribute at center.
Gasol has the advantage over McGee. Kaman is also skilled. Hill's energy and rebounding helps against a team like the Nuggets.
The Lakers also have an improved Robert Sacre when needed.
McGee is a unique player but the Lakers are stronger at center.
Who is Better?
Last season, the Nuggets won 57 games. They're going to dip with the coaching change and the loss of Iguodala.
Denver may end up in the 45-50 range, but that might be enough to outpace the Lakers.
If Bryant returns quickly and healthy -- and veterans Nash, Gasol and Kaman stay sound all season -- the Lakers could nudge up into that same 45-50 area.
A more realistic expectation for the Lakers is 40-45 wins, even fewer if Bryant's return is up and down.
A good season and the Lakers have a real chance to beat out the Nuggets, but a conservative guess would put Denver ahead after 82 games.
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Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.