L.A. Lakers preview: Now or never

USA TODAY Sports

Whoever loses Sunday's game is going to have an awfully hard time getting themselves back into the playoff race.

Drew Garrison is one of the many fine writers you can find over at Silver Screen & Roll, SB Nation's Lakers team blog. For more Laker schadenfreude, follow him on Twitter at DrewGarrisonSBN.

I guess THE $64,000 question (because there are a lot) is Dwight Howard's long-term health. Will he be the guy he was in Orlando again? A big man with a back problem is a red flag and he has been in the league a long time.

There's a very high level of concern regarding Dwight's back. While he has already stated, repeatedly, that his back has only recovered to a 75% capacity, he was saying the exact same thing when the season began. There has been little progress with the back, and instead, the springy Howard makes cameos once every other week.

There's no telling what 100% Dwight will look like right now, but there's also been no indication that he won't be able to make a full recovery. It's certainly something that weighs heavily as we watch Dwight play like a shell of himself far too often.

Is there enough time for the Lakers to make the playoffs? How many wins do they need and who do you think is more likely to fall off the pace -- the Jazz or the Rockets?

The Lakers absolutely have enough time to make the playoffs, but they've been 3.5 games out for quite some. They've also got to worry about the Mavs and Blazers, who are only a game or so behind them. To make the playoffs the Lakers would need something in the ballpark of 44 wins, meaning they'd have to win 17 of the next 26 games (65% of the remaining schedule). That's a very high figure for a team that is still under .500 for the season.

The Rockets continue to win games even with the Lakers picking up the pace a bit, while the Jazz kept their team fully intact for the playoff stretch. It's difficult to project which team is going to fall out of the playoffs, which is part of the problem the Lakers are facing. Even if they play great ball from here on out, they need other teams to start losing too. Right now, that doesn't appear to be happening. If pressed to choose one? I'll say Utah. The rest of their schedule looks brutal and Houston just keeps on keepin' on.

Step 1 this off-season is obviously re-signing Dwight. What's Step 2 for the Lakers? And how much freedom to maneuver are they going to have given the luxury tax restrictions?

There really is no Step 2. They absolutely need to sign Dwight in the off-season and that will be the dominating story once the season ends. Metta World Peace has a player option as well, but it's hard to see him leaving $7.7 million on the table to test free agency. It's unlikely a team will offer him more than that and he loves being in L.A. Much like they did this off-season, they'll look to adjust the roster using exceptions and minimum offers, finding veterans and role players who are willing to take pay cuts to make a run with the purple and gold.

Speaking of Pau, did he hit the wall this season or is he still an All-Star caliber player? Can he co-exist with Howard in Mike D'Antoni's scheme and, if not, what do you think the Lakers could get for him in a trade?

Pau didn't hit a wall so much as he hit reality. He's an older player now in the league and his body gave up on him this season. From battling tendinitis in both knees to playing through plantar fascitis and eventually tearing his plantar fascia, Gasol was slapped silly by father time. He is still a tremendously talented player who can contribute to a team, but his days of being a dominant force are definitely in the past. Aside from the offense being inconsistent, his defense is brutal. Those feet just don't move like they used to, and while he's still a viable post defender, he gets eviscerated in pick and rolls as well as dribble penetration.

There's no reason to believe he can't co-exist with Howard, as he showed he can play with another post player in Andrew Bynum, but it will never be ideal for him. His offense is predicated on being able to soak up time in the post and when he's on the floor with Dwight he functions more as a facilitator to spoon-feed Dwight easy looks around the rim. It doesn't help that his mid-range jumper has plummeted by the percentages, as that is where he fits within D'Antoni's "scheme" more often than not. The Lakers could definitely find a trade for Gasol next season as he's a juicy $19 million expiring contract, but it's also important to Los Angeles to keep the books as clean as possible going forward. Right now, it's next to impossible to project what they may seek in a Gasol trade.

Is Kobe still the best SG in the NBA? For this year only, would you still take him over Harden and Wade?

Kobe is still the best shooting guard in the NBA. Given the choice this year only I'd still take Bryant over Harden and Wade, though Harden is making it crystal clear he will be the best in that bunch over the next few years. It's incredible what Kobe is doing in his 17th year in the NBA. He really has transformed his game.

It's not just that trendy "Kobe's passing" narrative that's being passed around. He also stopped settling for mid-range jumpers as much. Last year was one of his most inefficient season in his career and a major problem was his decision to settle for ridiculous shots out of isolation sets. He still does that this season -- it's in his blood, come on now -- but he is making more of a point to drive to the rim.

How much fire is there given all the smoke about the Kobe/Dwight feud? Is there something real there or is that overblown and do you think it could affect the plans of Dwight and/or the Lakers this summer?

In the NBA, where there's smoke, more often than not, there's dry ice giving the illusion of fire. Kobe and Dwight are definitely polar opposites in demeanor, but much of this stems from media hype and the sensationalism generated from the ever-rapid news cycle in the sports world today. It's unlikely to affect the plans the Lakers have this summer, as they will be pushing all-in to keep Dwight while Kobe is an expiring contract either way should things be extremely sour.

Should Dwight not want to play with Kobe, there's only a year remaining until he receives the keys to the palace. For now, Bryant still provides Howard the best chance possible to win now as long as he's on the roster. Howard walked into the franchise knowing he was going to be broken down by Bryant at times. He initially welcomed it, but saying and doing are two different things, especially under the microscope of losing games.

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