This is the third and final part of the 2010-2011 season preview for the Lakers.
Off-seasons are some of the most anticipated-but-dreaded part of the NBA because of the excitement that goes along with seeing new faces for your team or, in this case, watching the landscape of the rest of the league change in their hopes of challenging the Lakers for the throne.
So let's start.
Biggest Threats Out West
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: You'd be foolish to think the youngest squad in the league will not give the improved back-to-back champs fits this season. Unlike any other young teams out there, this Thunder squad deeply believes in what they stand for and in each other. That is the basis of a championship team. They also have the right superstar leader in Kevin Durant and a cast that simply isn't afraid of anyone. However, they still lack an inside threat, size and more defenders to throw at Kobe Bryant. Oh and not having more playoff experience will also be their downfall against the Lakers no matter how young, how active and how talented they are.
2. Utah Jazz: They may have lost Carlos Boozer to the Chicago Bulls but they got a bigger and better post-player on both ends in Al Jefferson. Keeping coach Jerry Sloan for a few more years should also secure more chances at stopping the purple and gold reign. But just like OKC (and a host of other teams), the Jazz doesn't have the size to keep up with the Laker frontline. Losing 3-point specialist Kyle Korver and promising young guard in Wesley Matthews (who did a decent job defending Bryant) will hurt them more than they will admit against the Lakers.
3. San Antonio Spurs: With Amare Stoudamire going east, Tim Duncan will have one less team to worry about next season. The Spurs are the only other team in the West that boasts the core, the coach, and the championship experience that can challenge the Lakers for a ticket to the Finals. But this team is no longer the team that won the 2007 NBA Finals. In fact, health has been their biggest opponent since finishing that season. Will they be able to go through next season with enough healthy bodies to make a final push for a title? They better hope so.
Other Notables Out West
Dallas Mavericks: Yeah, they made the biggest deal last season but forgot that having more talent doesn't guarantee anything. They tried to improve their inside defense by acquiring Tyson Chandler and signed Tim Thomas to provide another shooter off of the bench this summer. But those changes will only impress the mediocre teams in the league at best. Still, having the core of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Caron Butler and Jason Terry should give them no worse than the 3rd spot in the west.
Portland Trailblazers: They always seem to carry that label of "budding young team" for years now but can't seem to hang on to any form of consistency in their roster. Yes, they are talented. Yes, they are young. Yes, they've proven to be a thorn on the Lakers' side...at the Rose Garden. But they also have proven that all that youth and talent aren't enough to even take them past the first round in the playoffs to be taken seriously. Will the return of Greg Oden change that? It's a possibility, but Oden missed way too many games to be relied upon to be that X factor against the elite teams in the NBA.
Beasts of the East
1. Boston Celtics: Sorry, Miami but the boys in green have been there before twice already in the past 3 years. No one expected them to even get to the Finals last season, so I don't think people will doubt them this year. Boston may have gotten both O'Neals, but they also lost 2 more key players in Tony Allen and Rasheed Wallace. Without T. Allen, who are they going to put on Kobe? Ray Allen? Puh-lease!
2. Miami Heat: Ah yes, the new darling team of the NBA because the trio of Dwayne Wade, Lebron James and Chris Bosh decided a long time ago (and not the morning of "The Decision" as James claimed) that they will all play for Miami. They certainly look good on paper, no doubt. But the pressures of expectations will weigh down as the playoffs get closer. Will the 3 Heat be able to handle it? Heck, will they be able to get past a tougher Eastern Conference? It doesn't really matter. They, and the rest of the league, will have to go through the Lakers to win it all. But at least, they'll give plenty of entertainment on the court (and get a lot of bashing and heckling on Twitter).
3. Orlando Magic: This team is in the #3 slot only because they still have Dwight Howard in the middle. Otherwise, this team won't even crack the 8th or 7th seed in the east. Why? Oh a few reasons but none bigger than Vince Carter. How many more teams will get fooled by this guy only to realize that Carter isn't really a true star in this league. Unless the Magic can get Howard a couple more pieces around him, a return to the NBA finals will only continue to be an illusion.
Other Notables in the East
Chicago Bulls: The Knicks may have snatched Amare Stoudamire away from Phoenix. But Chicago was even busier in the summer by snagging 3 Jazz (Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver) and signing solid vets Kurt Thomas, Jannero Pargo, Devin Brown, and Flip Murray. With the vastly-improving Derrick Rose leading them, don't be too shocked if they happen to be the dancing partner of either Boston or Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Teams That Fell Out of Title Contention
Phoenix Suns: How can they let Stoudamire go without getting something in return? Hakim Warrick and Channing Frye will only breed regret in owner Robert Sarver next year. Amare may be overrated, but he seemed to be the perfect compliment to Steve Nash. The good thing for them is they lost none of their shooters and gained a scorer and defender in Josh Childress. But the playoffs is all about who controls the paint. With no Amare, Phoenix won't even get a mirage of the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Denver Nuggets: With Carmelo Anthony already demanding a trade to the New York Knicks, I'd say this team is in a bit of disarray right now. Even if Melo doesn't get his wishes granted, his desire to leave the team has already destroyed what little chemistry this team has. Sorry Nugget fans, that's what happens when the superstars of the NBA all of a sudden think having a championship ring should be part of the entire superstar package instead of actually working for it.
Cleveland Cavaliers: This was an obvious one. No Lebron James equals no title. Then again, did they really have a shot at winning a championship WITH Lebron?
Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks aren't really title contenders. We all know that. But I just added them here so this list would be balanced for both conferences.