By Ben Fisher
Are the defending NBA champions coming into the 2010-11 season as underdogs? After being products of hype and media attention for years, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers spent the summer taking a back seat to the Miami Heat’s new superstar trinity.
The Lakers, with 27 games on national television this season, have hardly gone unnoticed as they embark on a third straight title, but they have to be licking their lips at the prospect of entering the season with underdog status. Certainly none of their four division rivals appear poised to challenge their place atop the Pacific Division.
Since toppling the Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA Finals last June, little has changed in the world of the purple and gold. Phil Jackson decided to return to the bench for a Brett Favre-esque “one last season”, joining Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Lamar Odom among the returnees.
In fact, the Lakers rotation remains almost completely intact, if not slightly improved. Steve Blake replaces Jordan Farmar as the back-up to Derek Fisher, while Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff come aboard to add depth, defense and additional veteran presence. The only questions facing the team come in the form of injuries, with Bryant (left leg) and Andrew Bynum (right knee surgery) looking to get back into the line-up.
Fortunately for L.A., the only other Pacific Division team that can challenge them has faced their share of setbacks this off-season. The Phoenix Suns still boast Steve Nash at the point, but suffer a glaring absence in the middle with the departure of Amar’e Stoudemire. They added a trio of scoring threats in Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress, but none are as dynamic or physically imposing as the New York Knicks newcomer.
In addition to the three new Suns, Grant Hill, Robin Lopez, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Earl Clark and rookie Gani Lawal comprise what is a crowded Phoenix front court. Meanwhile, the aging Nash may cede more minutes to rising young point guard Goran Dragic this season. Dragic could also see time backing up Jason Richardson at the two-guard spot.
That the Clippers were mentioned as dark horses in the superstar free agent sweepstakes of this past summer speaks volumes of a team being built around a strong nucleus of young, talented players. Just don’t expect much this year.
Blake Griffin should finally make his NBA regular season debut after missing all of last year’s campaign. He, Eric Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and rookies Al-Farooq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe form a 22-and under core that can develop together over time. But don’t expect Griffin to bring immediate improvement to a squad that won just 29 games last year and still faces questions about depth, defense, coaching (sorry, Vinny Del Negro) and team chemistry.
If it’s any consolation to the Staples Center co-tenants, they’ll have company in the Pacific. In 2009-10 rookie of the year Tyreke Evans and high-ceiling rookie big man DeMarcus Cousins, the Sacramento Kings have what they hope is a pairing to build around for years to come. The dynamic Evans and volatile Cousins will be fascinating to watch this season, but that may not lead to many wins due to their inexperience and a weak supporting cast. Outside of hard-nosed Carl Landry and incoming big man Samuel Dalembert, the Kings roster is filled with veterans who couldn’t play on contenders (Beno Udrih, Francisco Garcia, Antoine Wright and Luther Head) and youngsters who are still learning the game (Jason Thompson, Omri Casspi, Donte Green and Hassan Whiteside).
It may not move them out of the basement of the Pacific division, but the Golden State Warriors have formed a nice starting five heading into the season. David Lee, the team’s big off-season addition, joins a starting corps that includes Andris Biedrins and likely Dorell Wright up front to go along with the talented backcourt of Steph Curry and Monta Ellis. But it’s backing those men up that will be an issue, with Vladimir Radmanovic, Charlie Bell, Louis Amundson, Dan Gadzuric and the disappointing Brandan Wright hardly forming a formidable bench unit. Lee is a nice piece up front, but the cost of his acquisition (Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike, Ronny Turiaf and a six-year, $80 million financial commitment) could be tough to swallow.