It's not exactly a stretch to think that the Los Angeles Lakers, fresh off back-to-back championship seasons, will be the favorites heading into the 2010-2011 campaign. When you've beaten all comers for two straight years, it only seems logical that you might be able to do it once more. All things considered, the Lakers have shown that they are currently the best team in the league. If the NBA existed in stasis, if no trades were made, if no coaches traded one office for another, the Lakers would be in good position to defend their title(s) once again.
The NBA does not exist in stasis, especially not this off-season. That's a main reason why a defending champion is less likely to win than its previous incarnation. Sometimes, it's because veteran teams get a year older. Others, it's because the desire to win dwindles just a bit. Most of the time, however, it's because of player movement. Other teams swoop in to siphon off important players, willing to overpay for a champion. The teams which were the closest the year before will go the extra mile and sign the necessary players to make a move on the champs.
But, in the crazy world that is the Summer of 2010, the Lakers future looks brighter than ever. They stand to lose a few bit players, but the Lakers' core, the players who were the most instrumental in delivering a championship, are all locked up long term. All except Derek Fisher and, well, nobody else wants D Fish. The beauty of his intangibles is that they only work for one team. Instead, it's the rest of the league that is in flux. The Lakers may not stand to get better this off-season, but they don't need to. What they won't do this off-season is change very much. Their state is very much a certain one. Combined with the high level of uncertainty facing just about all of their prime competitors, and you can't help but feel confident that a 3-peat is on the way.
If you name the Lakers 5 best players (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest), you will have named a player that is under contract for the next 2 seasons. The only way the Lakers' core will be affected in the coming seasons will be if the Lakers choose to have that core affected. There is Derek Fisher to consider, and his role will continue to diminish as a contributor until it disappears entirely, but if he can play, he will play for the Lakers. Past that core, there is uncertainty, but how much does it even matter? Are Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown really vital to the Lakers title hopes? No, no they are not. The only important question belongs to Phil Jackson. Do you really think he walks away from this?
So it seems pretty safe to say the Lakers aren't going anywhere, and that just happens to be the only safe thing you can say about any team in the league right now. Every other major contender is facing a summer of HUGE uncertainty.
Cleveland will be much the same team (minus Shaq) IF LeBron James returns, but that is a big if, especially considering they lack roster flexibility right now. The Cavs certainly couldn't bring in another superstar unless it was done via sign and trade, and which player do they have which looks all that appealing? Mo Williams? Anderson Varejao? Plus there's the whole "The coach and GM have both been fired/resigned" thing going on. They don't exactly look like an attractive situation to return to right now, but even if LBJ does return, that team has a lot to prove to show it's not just a regular season juggernaut.
And what about Boston? They just took the Lakers to the limit, will they be able to mount another challenge next year? Well, never say never, but the situation looks pretty bleak. They've only got 6 players under contract, and that number could drop to 5 if Paul Pierce opts out of the final year of his contract. Pierce is almost guaranteed to be back, but the same can not be said for Ray Allen. Even after that, the Celtics need bodies badly (you could see how much their lack of depth hurt them in the 4th quarter of game 7) and they are already over the cap with the 6 contracts they already have. I'm not sure, but I don't think the MLE is that effective when you split it 5 ways. And their coaching situation might be even worse. The brains of the Celtics defensive operation, Tom Thibodeau, is finally going to get his shot as a head coach with the Chicago Bulls, while the C's head coach, Doc Rivers, supposedly has one foot out the door in order to spend more time with his family and take up a cushy TV job.
Orlando returns a good chunk of their core, but in their case, that might not be such a good thing. The Magic have just been through the Vince Carter playoff experience, and unless they can unload him on somebody else for something decent, they're stuck with him for one more season. The only important player they could lose is J.J. Redick, and even he is only a restricted free agent, so their personal is pretty much set. Their uncertainty resides in their coaching situation. Stan Van Gundy is a good coach, no doubt, but in the Eastern Conference Finals, there were strong and persistent rumors that he had lost his team. A few pundits even predicted he would be not return to the Magic after their surprisingly tame playoff exit. Between trusting in Vince Carter (and Rashard Lewis) to perform in the playoffs, and being coached by a guy labeled as the "Master of Panic", Orlando seems to be heading in the wrong direction.
In the West, there were already few teams considered likely to threaten the Lakers' supremacy, and the teams that did all have issues. We'll start with the Suns, who don't know whether Amar'e Stoudemire will come back or not. Besides him, they also stand to lose Channing Frye, or at least have to pay up to keep him, as Frye is guaranteed to waive the $2 million player option on his contract. The rest of their core is locked up pretty well, but their owner is notoriously cheap, and just ran off the GM, who got them all these decent pieces, by apparently asking him to take a pay cut.
The rest of these guys get bullet points because it's not even worth giving them a whole paragraph.
- The Spurs' window appears to have closed for good, their last gambit of bringing in Richard Jefferson having backfired in a monumental way.
- Dallas still has all their pieces, except perhaps for Dirk Nowitzki, who does have the option to opt out of his contract and test the free agent waters, so another season for them could make them a legitimate threat. However, the one piece they do lose is Brendan Haywood, leaving them extremely thin up front, with no money left to do anything about it.
- Everybody comes back for Denver, and they always do have in them the capability to challenge, but after another year and another melt down, it seems more and more unlikely they'll ever get past their own mental issues to mount a strong challenge again.
Those are the current contenders, but there are a couple of intriguing teams waiting in the wings to mount a challenge: the Portland Trailblazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland is an interesting situation. They've got a lot of talent, and no team has been more cursed with injuries over the past few seasons than them. Unfortunately, when you are routinely cursed with injuries, it's not a given that the curse will ever go away. Their success hinges on a healthy season out of Greg Oden, and as tragic as it is, that is in no way a certainty.
We all know how promising the future looks for OKC. Until the Finals, I'd say Oklahoma City were the Lakers' toughest opponents. They defend like mad, and have some fantastic athletes. They are well under the cap, and if they can sign a good big man, that is one scary team. I certainly think that, if a threat exists in the West, OKC is that threat. That said, they are still very, very young, and if the meeting between the Lakers and Thunder happens later on in the postseason next year, their team will still not have a full bearing on the playoff pressure. Maybe two years from now, OKC will be a very serious threat, but they appear to be another year away.
Which brings us to the greatest threat of all to the chances of the Lakers hoisting another trophy next season: the great unknown. If two of these superstars do end up in the same place, like Chicago, or Miami, or even New Jersey or New York, that team will likely be the biggest challenge to the Lakers' throne. We can't really analyze it until it happens. It's no guarantee to ever happen. This summer could end up being far more bark than bite. That said, even if two max contract guys end up in the same place, it can be hard for teams to put it all together in one season or less. The last time it happened was 2008, for the Boston Celtics, but the team they ended up competing with, the Lakers, were putting it together on an even shorter time frame. Can a two-star super team beat our super team, who have a couple years experience playing together?
I wouldn't bet on it. Which means I would bet on another Lakers championship next year.