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Are the Lakers better than the New Orleans Pelicans?

Veteran big man Pau Gasol has the ability to play at the forward position for the Lakers this season but might end up starting at center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

To make the playoffs, the Lakers need to be better than seven teams in the Western Conference.

In the first of a 14-part series, are the Lakers better than the New Orleans Pelicans?

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Point guard

The Pelicans made two major off-season additions in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans.

Holiday, a one-time All-Star, was picked up from the Philadelphia 76ers in trade. Last season, he averaged 17.7 points with 8.0 assists for the Sixers.

Evans was acquired in trade from the Sacramento Kings after averaging 15.2 points a game. The former rookie of the year could start at small forward, or come off the bench at either guard position.

The Pelicans also have Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts at the position. Rivers struggled in his rookie season. Roberts is a solid low-minute guard.

The Lakers have three point guards on their roster, including Steve Nash, who is healthier now than he was for almost all of last season (breaking his leg in the second game of the year).

In addition to veteran Steve Blake, the Lakers brought back Jordan Farmar (who recently played in Turkey).

Farmar adds some athleticism to the position for the Lakers, but the Pelicans have an advantage when it comes to pure speed and quickness.

The Lakers come in with tremendous experience at the position -- making up some of the athleticism gap.

Shooting guard

Eric Gordon has struggled to stay healthy (knees) but he’s a capable scorer and defender at his best. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been at his best since his time with the Clippers in 2011.

Last year, Gordon averaged 17 points a game but at 40.2% from the field in just 42 appearances.

Evans will probably log minutes at two-guard as well. The Hornets also signed shooter Anthony Morrow.

Naturally the biggest question facing the Lakers is the health of Kobe Bryant after April’s Achilles’ tendon tear. If he’s able to play the bulk of the season as a relatively high level, the Lakers have the advantage.

The Lakers also picked up Nick Young and Wesley Johnson over the off-season, both capable of playing two-guard (although they both may get more time at small forward).

Jodie Meeks is returning; the team also invited Xavier Henry to camp. Blake and even Farmar could see minutes at the two as well.

The Lakers have depth and are younger than they were a year ago.

If Gordon can bounce back, the Pelicans are formidable at shooting guard -- but Bryant is still among the best in the game until proved otherwise.

Small forward

The Pelicans re-signed Al-Farouq Aminu, another former Clipper, over the summer. Aminu is an athletic, capable rebounder from his position.

Aminu’s backup, Darius Miller, is recovering from a stress fracture (foot). Evans may get significant minutes at small forward (and possibly the start ahead of Aminu). Power forward Ryan Anderson can also play at the three as well.

The Lakers lost the defensive prowess of Metta World Peace but added youth and athleticism with Young and Johnson.

The team also picked up Shawne Williams and Marcus Landry, both fighting to make the final roster, to add shooting and toughness to the position.

Bryant is also capable of playing the three as needed, when healthy.

Neither team is especially dominant at the three.

Power forward

Power forward Anthony Davis had a strong rookie season last year. The 2012 top overall pick averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks a game -- although he missed 18 games with a variety of injuries.

Davis will be better in his second season as he continues to grow into his 20-year-old body.

Anderson is one of the better stretch forwards in the league. The Pelicans also have Arinze Onuaku and Lance Thomas.

The Lakers could use Pau Gasol at the four, but he could end up starting at center.

Gasol struggled with knee problems last season and has spent most of the off-season recovering. He just recently started running basketball drills, according to his Twitter feed.

If he’s healthy, Gasol has more experience and a greater array of moves than Davis. Athletically, it’s not close, with the Pelicans maintaining the advantage.

The Lakers also have Jordan Hill, recovered from his hip injury, along with rookie Elias Harris.

Harris has potential as a defender but needs to develop his outside shot. His contract isn’t fully guaranteed, which means he’ll be fighting Williams, Landry and Henry for one of the team’s final spots.

Williams and Landry are also capable of playing power forward in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system.

Power forward is a strength for both teams -- less so for the Lakers if Gasol is starting at the five.

Center

The Pelicans gave up Robin Lopez, which means the starting center position will be open to Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma and Jeff Withey.

Smith is the best shooter of the three. Stiemsma is more of an effort player and Withey needs to prove his game translates to the NBA.

Davis may also get significant minutes at center.

The Lakers lost Dwight Howard to free agency but brought in Chris Kaman in July. Kaman, at his best, is a more skilled offensive player than Howard -- but he isn’t the same defender or athlete.

Both Gasol and Hill can and will play center throughout a normal rotation -- Gasol may still end up the opening-night starter. The Lakers also brought back the energetic Robert Sacre.

The Lakers have a slight edge at center with Kaman, more so if Gasol is the starter.

Who is better?

The Lakers will finish ahead of the Pelicans this season.

If Bryant, Gasol and Nash can’t stay healthy, the answer isn’t nearly as clear, but with both teams at 60-100% capacity, the Lakers have the better roster.

The Pelicans have the advantage athletically with Holiday, Evans, Gordon and Davis. Along with Anderson’s shooting, that’s the core five and a dangerous group.

The Lakers are more experienced and have greater depth at nearly every position.

Last season, New Orleans finished 14th in the West with a 27-55 record. The Lakers ended 45-37, despite massive injuries all season.

The Pelicans will be better than they were a year ago.

The Lakers may stand at about 45 wins, and while it’s unclear if they’ll make the playoffs -- after looking at the Pelicans, the Lakers won’t finish 15th in the conference.

ALSO:

Lakers unveil new ‘Hollywood Nights’ alternative black jersey

Kickstarter campaign launched to fund Steve Nash documentary

Shawne Williams, Elias Harris have partially guaranteed contracts

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.


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