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NBA Los Angeles Lakers

Can Pau Gasol Lead the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA Championship?

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Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

With Kobe Bryant‘s return from his Achilles injury still uncertain and a roster filled with mid-level players and veterans, the Los Angeles Lakers are expected to finish 12th  in the Western Conference this year. But Pau Gasol has the potential to lead the Lakers to a far more successful season than has been predicted. Gasol can maybe even lead the Lakers an NBA Championship.

That’s right.

The 2012-13 season was a poor one for Gasol. His averages for points scored per game, rebounding and field goal percentage all fell by as much as 21 percent in some fields. Yet, Gasol suffered multiple injuries last season, which not only affected his productivity but also his minutes on the court. He played only 49 regular season games, averaging about 33 minutes per game.

Taking time off last season could be exactly what Gasol needed to fully heal. Interestingly, the torn plantar fascia Gasol suffered last season may have actually helped heal his knee tendinitis for which Gasol underwent surgery. Because of the successful surgery, his rehab and the curiously serendipitous plantar fascia injury, Gasol should return and be as dominant as ever for the Lakers’ 2013-14 season. Gasol aims to do just that.

“I think I have the most uncertain period behind me,” said, Gasol, according to USA TODAY Sports. “The team has suffered a lot of changes, but as far as me, I am back in the position of a lot of responsibility, which I like…”

Assuming Gasol gets and remains healthy, with Bryant out with his torn Achilles, Gasol could lead the Lakers in scoring. From 2008 to 20011, Gasol scored an average of more than 18 points per game. With his field goal percentage average greater than .500, his double-digit rebounding and his masterful passing, Gasol’s ability to lead the Lakers has been overlooked.

Should Coach Mike D’Antoni reconfigure the Lakers offense to operate around a pick-and-roll between Gasol and Steve Nash, the Lakers could actually win more games than they did last year. Forget about finishing 12th in the Western Conference — the Lakers could win the Western Conference.

Apart from Dwight Howard, the NBA has a dearth of dominant centers. And even Howard has been judged ineffective on offense. Gasol may be the best post-up player in the league. Because he also happens to be 7-foot tall and passes as good or better than many point guards, other Western Conference teams will struggle defending him.

The Lakers’ defense is where the team’s most vulnerable. After losing Howard to the Houston Rockets and choosing to release Metta World Peace, the Lakers now lack both perimeter defending and protection at the rim. Western Conference teams with explosiveness and multiple scoring threats like the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Rockets, will certainly challenge the Lakers’ defense.

But if the players the Lakers signed over the offseason, like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar, can exceed expectations on defense, the Lakers will improve their chances of contending for an NBA title. Farmar’s already declaring that his focus will be on defense. And don’t forget about Jordan Hill, whose aggressiveness on defense made a notable impact for the Lakers last season before Hill suffered a back injury.

How could a team with future Hall-of-Famers like Gasol, Bryant and Nash — no matter what their age — be unable to make it to the playoffs? With such talent, as long as they improve their defense, the Lakers could win the Western Conference.

More than 90 percent of ESPN analysts picked the Lakers to contend for the NBA Championship last year, and we learned how horrible that season turned out for them. Maybe ESPN’s predictions will be just as wrong this year.

Lucas Rubio is a columnist for RantSports.com and author of the Playerz League Sports Blog. Follow him on Twitter @PlayerzLeague.