Brian already examined the biggest threats to the Lakers should they appear in their fourth consecutive Finals, but before reaching that hallowed ground, a conference must be won. The hoopla that was "Summer 2010" relocated a couple of big names (Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer), but the west is still the superior conference. Emerging as its postseason kahuna remains tough as ever.
Are the Lakers still the best team left of the Mississippi? In my estimation, yes, but there remain some powerful challengers looking to steal the crown. With free agency's whirlwind largely settled, here's a look at the Lakers' western challengers.
Unless They're Just Plain Cursed, The One Scaring Me Most
Portland Trail Blazers
Heading into last season, on paper, the Blazers struck me as the team posing the biggest threat to the Lakers' top dog status. Then the team was bitten by the injury shark. (A mere bug isn't fierce enough to do this kind of damage). A comical 311 games were lost to injury, and despite an impressive collective resolve, bad health ultimately derailed the season.
But on the plus side, it's almost impossible by definition to relive this experience. No basketball god is that vengeful, right?
The Blazers didn't do much moving or shaking this summer, but assuming the bodies are all present and accounted for, it's the same well-constructed team set to battle the Lakers. Between oodles of length (Marcus Camby, Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla and LaMarcus Aldridge), available wing defenders (Nic Batum, Wes Matthews), penetrating point guards (Andre Miller, Jarryd Bayless) and Brandon Roy's all-around talents, additional fire power wasn't really necessary. Unless an offseason of inexplicable front office firings creates a sour atmosphere, the Blazers can pick up where they left off: More than capable of providing fits for the Lakers.
The Young Guns
Oklahoma City Thunder
A smart G.M. recognizes the value of continuity, leaving fixed what's not broken. Sam Presti is universally considered among the league's smarter general managers and clearly smells what's cooking in Oklahoma City. Thus, he wisely opted to let his rapidly improving team marinate, rather than jumpstarting the flavor by cramming a big name into the mix. The Thunder have chemistry (which sometimes means more than pure talent) and the young core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka gained valuable experience while serving as a legit first round challenge for the Lakers.
Natural progression should allow these kids to take the next step forward.
I say "should" because there's always a chance of either a sophomore slump in the face of heightened expectations or increased injuries. (OKC had virtually none last season). I obviously can't predict the latter, but I'm not betting on the former. Covering this squad during the playoffs, their precociousness was evident. Heads are on straight and if a postseason rematch emerges, I'm betting it arrives in the deeper rounds.
The "Hoping To Be A Little Younger" Guns
San Antonio Spurs
It feels like we've been waiting for Tiago Splitter to join the NBA since about 1985, but in reality, the Brazilian big has only been under the Spurs' control since the 2007 draft. The 25 year-old finally arrives this season, carrying high hopes he can provide Tim Duncan with his best frontcourt compliment since The Admiral. At the very least, Splitter, along with George Hill and DeJuan Blair, needs to provide quality minutes and fresh legs to lighten the big three's load. Pressing matters further, Richard Jefferson's opt-out may have been a pleasant surprise from a financial standpoint, but if he doesn't return, those 12 ppg, however awkwardly fitted, must be accounted for. Again, the "smaller three's" responsibility. If they're not ready to step up, it wouldn't shock me to see Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker gassed and/or banged up come playoff time.
Of course, that might happen even if the kids pull their weight. Father Time can be cheated for only so long.
The Powder Keg?
Let me say from the outset, I don't envy Denver's players for having to compete last year while George Karl underwent a grueling cancer battle. No matter how strong the mind, assuming the player in question is human, there will be an effect. Still, I had hoped, perhaps unrealistically and unfairly, Karl's situation would serve as a rallying force. Instead, the Nuggets seemed to come apart under interim coach Adrian Dantley, the latest chapter of disharmony for a collection of players possessing what I kindly refer to as "strong personalities."
The talent is there and Karl, fingers crossed, will be able to return next season, but I'm not positive his presence will be enough to right a ship filled with tense sailors, many of whom could be fixated on hidden treasures. J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin (who'll miss some time post-knee surgery) are due to hit free agency in 2011. Carmelo Anthony might test that same market and Chauncey Billups could be left with no other choice. This is a potential recipe for chaos and self interest.
Al Harrington was a solid pick up at mid-level money, but the cash might have been better spent poaching Ron Artest's therapist for a full-time team gig. The Lakers could be the least of the Nuggets' problems.
Same As It Ever Was
I once equated the post-Stockton-Malone Utah Jazz to Bruce Springsteen. I recognize and respect the talent, but it's never moved me on a regular basis. As 2011 approaches, I'm still not predicting . . . wait for it . . . glory days for a team continuing to match up badly against the Lakers even after a key pair of additions. Al Jefferson is an upgrade over Carlos Boozer in length (not to mention treating basketball like more than just a business), but he's just as bad a defender. Raja Bell represents Wes Matthews at about one-third of the price, but also one-third the speed, dynamism and upside. Bell can also replicate some of Kyle Korver's shooting, but do you really want the shoes of two role players filled by a 34 year-old coming off wrist surgery?
The Jazz will undoubtedly play hard, but effort doesn't erase the fact Utah has nobody who can guard Kobe for large stretches, and the Lakers' size is still superior.
The Sissyphus squad
Every year, it's the same thing. Cuban reshuffles the deck. The deck spits out a two-seven offsuit come playoff time. Granted, this hasn't specifically happened against the Lakers, but I'm willing to assume it would. Tyson Chandler is a nice addition to Brendan Haywood to help slow Andrew Bynum, but neither lightens the scoring duties of Dirk Nowitzki, who is less capable of guarding Pau Gasol than vice versa.
From there, matchups issues persist. Jason Kidd can barely stay in front of Derek Fisher at this stage of his career. Ron Artest has shut down much better scorers than Caron Butler. And save Shawn Marion, there is nobody to put on Kobe.
That rock, it's hard to push up the hill.
Wild Card #1
Yao Ming, Kevin Martin, and Aaron Brooks are, in theory, a three-headed monster well-suited to play together, and the versatile supporting cast runs deep. However, seeing is believing, and we've yet to get a glimpse.
Wild Card #2
On one hand, Hakim Warrick is more Amare Stoudemire "skeletal" than "lite." On the other, the dude was often a pain in the ass, and the play-making Hedo Turkoglu should fit the Suns' system like a glove. Will addition or subtraction mean more? My guess is the latter, but I also wrote off the Suns heading into last season, and they ended up in the Western Conference Finals. I'll extend a hedging benefit of the doubt at their ability to forge a sum greater than the parts.
Wild Card # 3
Los Angeles Clippers
Stop me if you've heard this before, but on paper...
Still out there to help these squads
-Shaquille O'Neal: Dallas was reportedly interested, but Chandler's arrival likely nixes that. His fit elsewhere is questionable (kinda like his market value and the gas left in the tank), but wherever he does land, it's a story.
-Brad Miller. Basically Shaq, except he's easier to picture blending in and his landing spot hardly constitutes "a story."
-Roger Mason/Marquis Daniels: Two role players coming off disappointing seasons, but versatile players capable of helping a good team and likely affordable.
-Tracy McGrady: I may be in the minority, but I'm intrigued. At the right price and role ("reduced," in both cases), T-Mac is the summer's ultimate low risk/high reward guy.
-Ronnie Brewer: I thought the Griz would resign him, but instead replaced him with Tony Allen. I thought the Jazz might bring him back, but instead opted for Bell. I've read Chicago is interested. Wherever he suits up, I'm a big fan.
-Matt Barnes: Seriously, can't he stick anywhere?