The Los Angeles Lakers have won the NBA's Western Conference three years running, and they're overwhelming favorites to do so again in 2011. Earlier this week, ESPN asked 93 of its NBA writers and reporters for their pick to win the West, and 88 of them went with the Lakers. Vegas is giving the purple and gold about one-to-one odds to come out of the West, with the next-best contender all the way down at six-to-one. This is the sort of cred you pick up when you're 12-0 in conference playoff series over the past three years, with only one of those opponents even taking you to a seventh game.
If the Lakers do retain the Western crown in the season ahead, they'll join an elite club. Or rather, they'll rejoin the club. In the postwar era, only six franchises in the major North American professional sports leagues have won their conference in four consecutive seasons. They are: the New York Yankees, the Buffalo Bills, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Islanders, the Boston Celtics and the Lakers themselves, who owned the Western Conference from 1982 through 1985. Nobody's pulled off the feat since the Yankees did it from 1998 through 2001. Nobody's done it in the NBA since the Celtics from 1984 through 1987.
It'll take a strange sequence of events for the Lakers not to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals. Their injury situation, which was plenty bad this past season, will have to become downright apocalyptic. And someone from among the mass of good-but-not-great contenders in the West will have to make a huge leap forward. Which of those challengers is most likely to emerge as the Buster Douglas to the Lakers' Mike Tyson?
Let's look at this systematically. Of the 14 Western Conference teams who are not the Lakers, five we can eliminate out of hand. The Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves are all lottery-caliber squads waist deep in long-term rebuilding efforts (or whatever it is we should call what David Kahn is up to). If any of those teams even clawed their way into the eighth playoff spot, the event would fall somewhere between "enormously surprising" and "a miracle on par with discovery of a new Shakespeare play." I think we can pretty safely rule out the New Orleans Hornets as well. A healthy Chris Paul will make them more respectable, and Trevor Ariza could be a decent pickup, but they're not about to jump from 37 wins into the conference finals.
That leaves us with eight candidates. These are the seven non-Laker playoff teams from this past season plus the Houston Rockets, who weren't bad last year and have added a franchise talent in the form of a (theoretically) healthy Yao Ming. Below is a look at what these teams have been up to this offseason, why they might have a puncher's chance of beating the Lakers, why they might not, and what your humble author thinks they're in for in the year ahead. I present them in ascending order of threat level, starting with the team that poses the least danger to Laker hegemony and working our up to the one or two we might actually have to worry about.
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Trying to use Erick Dampier's nonguaranteed contract as currency to acquire LeBron James or another balance of power-shifting free agent. Failing at that. Settling for Tyson Chandler.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: With Chandler and Brendan Haywood, the Mavs are one of the few teams with the height to defend Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum somewhat credibly. Also, Dirk Nowitzki is still around and still fairly awesome.
Why They Might Not: The Mavs weren't that good last year. Yes, they had the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs, but only because they significantly outplayed their Pythagorean projection (i.e., their expected won-loss record based on their points scored and allowed). That's generally not sustainable. Furthermore, they were the oldest team in the league and haven't gotten any younger. Come next May, Dirk will be 32 years old, Caron Butler will be 30, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion will be 33, and Jason Kidd will be 38.
Prognosis: Obsolescence. The Mavs' depth chart is filled with guys you've heard of, but nearly every one of them is in or about to enter his decline phase. There's too much talent here for the bottom to fall out, but the ravages of time will leave them with a win total in the high forties, just on the wrong side of the playoff cutline.
7. Phoenix Suns
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Parting ways with GM Steve Kerr and power forward Amare Stoudemire. Acquiring every second-tier small forward (Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick) who wasn't nailed down.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: They didn't embarrass themselves in the Western Conference Finals last season. The presence of Steve Nash seems to guarantee that a team will outperform expectations. Defensively, losing Amare is addition by subtraction. Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez are up-and-comers. And Childress is the type of high-value, under-the-radar talent grab in which the franchise has specialized in recent years. (See, e.g., Grant Hill and Channing Frye.)
Why They Might Not: Maybe they didn't embarrass themselves in the WCFs, but they didn't come terribly close to winning them, either. Phoenix is a dismal defensive team, and Amare was only part of the problem. They need to improve their D substantially just to be mediocre. (Relatedly, Grant Hill cannot guard Kobe Bryant.) Without Amare finishing at the rim and hitting jumpers off the pick-and-roll, the Suns' league-leading offense will take a step back. One of these years, Nash has to start looking his age.
Prognosis: First-round target practice for the Lake Show.
6. Houston Rockets
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Ending the Trevor Ariza experiment after one whole season. Trading for Courtney Lee and Brad Miller. Drafting Kentucky proto-stud Patrick Patterson. Anxiously tracking the progress of Yao's surgically repaired foot.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: The Rockets are the only team in the West to have pushed the Lakers to an elimination game in the Gasol era. In Aaron Brooks, they have a point guard who always gives L.A. fits, and in Yao they have one of the few players who tower over the Laker frontline. Shane Battier is in the upper ranks of would-be Kobe Stoppers. Patterson, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill offer youthful upside. A trade for Carmelo Anthony is a possibility.
Why They Might Not: How confident are you that Yao's really healthy and will stay that way? All it would take is some oafish backup center landing on Yao's foot while battling under the boards, and the Rockets are right back in lotteryville. And for all the adoring press Daryl Morey receives, some of it actually deserved, he hasn't exactly built a powerhouse yet. Last season Houston was below the league average in both offensive and defensive efficiency and had a Pythagorean record of 40-42. Even a 10-win improvement on that mark, which would be massive, lands them at just 50-32.
Prognosis: Hopeful. They're moving in the right direction, and it'll be great seeing Yao back on the court, but the Rox are still one big trade away from contending in the conference. Adding Melo would make things interesting.
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Enduring turmoil. The team cashiered Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman, previously their de facto co-general managers, and just recently replaced them with scout Masai Ujiri. Melo, whose contract expires after the coming season, has left an extension sitting on the table, forcing the front office to sort out whether they should trade their franchise star. Head coach George Karl, who's been battling throat and neck cancer, insists he'll be back on the bench in the fall, although he's still undergoing medical tests. Oh, and J.R. Smith is choking people.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: La Nuggs have competed well against the Lakers in recent years - as, for example, in the 2009 Western Conference Finals. They've got good talent up and down the depth chart. If you need someone to guard up on Kobe, Arron Afflalo isn't a bad option. Chauncey Billups is getting a tad long in the tooth, but backup Ty Lawson could start for any number of teams. Al Harrington should prove a useful addition.
Why They Might Not: Outside of Minneapolis, there's not a team in the league with a more toxic vibe. This was a volatile collection of dudes to begin with, and that was back when Karl was healthy and Melo content. The list of scenarios in which everything unravels is long and plausible.
Prognosis: Iunno. Although holding this operation together will be difficult, on paper there aren't many rosters you wouldn't happily swap for Denver's. Their window to reach the Finals has probably just about closed, but I could see them being a second-round playoff irritant for the Lakers. As usual, the Nuggets are just making everyone's heads hurt.
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Pioneering the art of firing a GM on the eve of the draft, and then having him run your draft room anyway. (Thanks, Kevin Pritchard! Here are your COBRA forms.) Luke Babbitt and Elliot Williams were Pritchard's parting gifts to the franchise. They also took second-year guard Wesley Matthews off Utah's hands.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: More than any team in the league, the Blazers get up to play the defending champs. Their home court has been the site of exceedingly few Laker wins over the years. Brandon Roy is a legit star, and Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge are above-average pieces. Portland's main problem last season, a defense whose mediocrity was masked by their slow pace of play, should be significantly improved from the addition of Matthews, a full season's worth of Marcus Camby and a presumptively healthy Greg Oden.
Why They Might Not: Because they drafted Oden instead of Kevin Durant. Because Roy isn't as good as Kobe and Aldridge isn't as good as Gasol. Because Miller is old and Jerryd Bayless isn't developing the way people thought he would. Because as he showed in the playoffs last season, Matthews has a long way to go before he can even think about containing the Black Mamba. And because they drafted Oden instead of Kevin Durant.
Prognosis: Continued incremental improvement. The Blazers aren't the sexy young It Team everyone drooled over a couple years back, but they keep adding talent around Roy while waiting and hoping that Oden doesn't break into a dozen pieces. If Babbitt could hit some threes, that would be a big help. Too bad about the Durant thing.
3. Utah Jazz
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Waving goodbye to Matthews and longtime employees Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver. Trading for Al Jefferson. Honoring their tradition of drafting white guys by picking up Butler's Gordon Hayward. Snagging Raja Bell out from under Kobe's nose.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: Utah last season was both very good (with a 58-24 Pythagorean record) and pretty young. Core talents Deron Williams and Paul Millsap are still only in their mid-20s. Thanks to his lack of height, Boozer was basically useless against the Lakers, so routing his minutes to the quicker Millsap and the more skilled and creative Jefferson should improve their odds against the defending champs if they meet in the playoffs again. Hayward, if he pans out, will be a more versatile offensive weapon than Korver. Matthews' D was overrated.
Why They Might Not: Three main failings contributed to their sweep at the hands of the Lakers last May. The first was an absence of size on the frontline, which allowed the Laker bigs to play volleyball at the rim. The second was an inability to guard Kobe. The third was a failure to force turnovers on defense. A healthy Mehmet Okur helps with the first of those issues, but it's not clear that Utah's done anything to cure the other two.
Prognosis: Worse in the regular season, but an improved shot in the playoffs. The steady and productive Boozer was great from November through April. But after a 4-0 maiming at the hands of the Lake Show in the second round, it was achingly obvious that the Carlos Boozer Jazz were never getting past the champs. It'll take time to integrate Jefferson, who needs to stay healthy, but if he and Hayward come through, Jerry Sloan will have a more dangerous concoction to throw at playoff opponents.
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Signing Spanish League MVP Tiago Splitter. Restructuring Richard Jefferson's contract to stay under the luxury tax. And, um. Well, that's pretty much it. These guys have been quiet. A little too quiet, if you ask me.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: The Spurs last season were stronger than their record indicated. They finished ninth in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency and, per our friend Pythagoras, had the underlying performance of a 57-win team. And that was with Jefferson, who was awful, leading the team in minutes played, and Tony Parker slogging through an injury-plagued down year. Both are likely to bounce back. Splitter should be productive right out of the gate, and rebounding menace DeJuan Blair could be in for a monster sophomore campaign.
Why They Might Not: Come playoff time, Tim Duncan will be 35 years old, and Gasol seems to PWN him worse and worse every time they face each other. Not coincidentally, the Spurs have yet to throw a real scare into the Lakers during the Gasol era. When the history of the Duncan Spurs is written, the Lakers' trade for the Spanish big man will probably be recognized as the moment San Antonio's run of titles went poof.
Prognosis: Short-term rejuvenation. Splitter and Blair will allow Gregg Popovich to limit Duncan's minutes in the regular season without sacrificing too many W's. Parker's in a contract year, so expect a return to All-Star form. Manu Ginobili has to stay healthy. If all goes to plan, there's enough here to make one last charge before Parker becomes a Knick.
How They've Spent Their Summer Vacation: Basking in adulation. Everyone was already in love with the league's youngest team, and then Durant signed a five-year extension with neither pomp nor circumstance and instantly became an examplar of how to announce one's career decisions without alienating an entire planet's worth of basketball fans. He and teammate Russell Westbrook are now in Asia Minor, repping Team USA in the FIBA worlds. Meanwhile, the front office picked up Kansas big man Cole Aldrich on draft night and traded for wings Daequan Cook and Morris Peterson.
Why They Might Knock Off the Lakers: As young talent goes, it doesn't get much better than Durant and Westbrook. Those two led the Thunder to a couple playoff wins over the Lakers last season, and they're just 21 years old. Jeff Green may be overrated, but he's another young contributor. Serge Ibaka looks like a defensive monster in the making. James Harden had an adequate rookie year and could well emerge as the outside shooter this team needs.
Why They Might Not: This team really, really needs an outside shooter. They were 25th in the league in three-point accuracy last year. In the playoffs, the Lakers sagged off Green and Thabo Sefolosha to crowd the lane against Westbrook and Durant, and no one punished that strategy by knocking down open looks. And speaking of which, it's not like the Thunder came that close to beating the Lakers in the first round. The one time they put the champs in a must-win situation, in Game Five with the series tied at two wins apiece, the Lakers treated them to a vicious throttling. Let's not get too worked up here.
Prognosis: Believe the hype, mostly. The youngsters need more seasoning, and Harden especially needs to become a true floor-spacer, but the Thunder already look like the second-best team in the West. In 2012-13, they could be good enough to be co-favorites in the conference. For now, they're still punching a bit above their weight.
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