While the 2010 championship is fresh in our memory, it isn’t too early to start looking ahead to what the 2011 season holds in store. Yes, much is yet to be determined as the most exciting offseason in NBA history will officially commence in a matter of days. Regardless of this fact, we can make some predictions as to who might contend for the title next season.
The Lakers return to next season and expect to be fairly intact. While the pending decision of Phil Jackson looms large, the makeup of the starting lineup and bench will remain intact. The Lakers rolled in the playoffs until meeting the Celtics. Boston seems to be the only team who has the ability to beat L.A. in a best of seven series (when healthy). While the Laker’s chances to three-peat are certainly better with Jackson at the helm, don’t expect anyone to slack off while Kobe is still leading the team. Unless the Celtics big men stay healthy (doubtful) or another playoff-ready team lands a top free agent who can cause matchup problems with the Lakers (possible, but unlikely for the reasons stated below), Kobe and the Lakers should be adding another banner for the rafters in the Staples Center.
The Lakers seem unbeatable when faced against a smaller lineup (which is almost always the case). Let’s take a look at the pieces in place and the possible additions of the expected players in this year’s free agency market:
Miami Heat: The Heat are widely expected to resign Dwayne Wade this offseason. It is also likely that they may land Chris Bosh to play along-side Demarcus Beasley. While the combination of Bosh and Beasley would certainly provide more fire-power than the Beasley-O’neill tandem of 2010, the question remains to be seen whether or not they could provide the rebounding necessary to overcome the likes of Bynam and Gasol. I expect that Ron Artest could sufficiently quiet Quentin Richardson over seven game. Similarly, Kobe Bryant could serve more than adequately to contain Dwayne Wade (especially with carrot of a sixth NBA championship dangling ever-so-close). Derek Fischer, while aging, showed that he can handle the best the NBA has to offer at the point-guard position during the last playoff run, so Carlos Arroyo certainly won’t scare the Lakers. Of course, if the Heat manage to pry Lebron, this analysis would go out the window (although I consider this a long-shot).
Chicago Bulls: The Bulls have the look of a team that is quickly coming together. Joakim Noah has just the style of play that could give the Lakers fits, if it were a regular season game. He’s a hustle player who can catch less-attentive players by surprise with his aggressive and active style. While Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have shown that they can be prone to such fits of inattentiveness, we did not see that kind of play when it mattered: the championship series. The addition of either Lebron or Bosh would certainly make the Bulls the most likely contender to unseat the Lakers in 2011. Either would take up enough space in the middle to grab more than their share of rebounds, and to make both Laker big-men use up significant energy on the defensive end.
Cleveland: While everybody would love to see a Kobe vs. Lebron finals, it may never happen. Particularly if Cleveland hits the jackpot AGAIN by resigning Lebron. Cleveland just doesn’t seem to have what it takes to make the jump into the Laker’s league. Yes, the Celtics are again. Yes, Orlando can’t seem to fit all of the pieces together. The East, regardless of where Lebron signs, is going to be undergoing a seismic shift this offseason. Expect at least one or two teams to supplant Cleveland as the favorite in the East, even if Lebron stays put.
The Best of the Rest: Eastern Divsion
The Knicks and Nets expect to be players in this season’s free agent frenzy. The Knicks appear years away from contending, even with the addition of two strong free agents. They could certainly transform into a playoff team overnight with the addition of Lebron and/or Joe Johnson or Chris Bosh. However, the lack of depth that this team suffers from will only be cured with two solid drafts (a task that the Knicks front office has shown incapable of achieving).
The Nets, on the other hand, have been able to build a solid base through the draft. Brook Lopez proved to be the steal of the draft following his rookie campaign. True, reliable centers are hard to come by, and the Nets have found themselves a good one. While the rest of their starting lineup is full of quality bench players (an exception noted here for Devin Harris, if he plays to his potential), a true superstar could transform this team into an upper-tier team on the rise overnight.
The Hawks have certainly been fun to watch over the last two years, but the pending departure of Joe Johnson is certain to leave a void that isn’t expected to be filled. Regardless, the lack of size that this team suffers from will leave them ill-prepared in a seven game series against a team like the Lakers.
The Best of the Rest (Western Division):
The Phoenix Suns gave the Lakers their biggest scare this offseason, but the Suns suprising run was more of an anomoly that anything else. Even if they can manage to resign A’mare Stoudamire, they still just don’t match up with the length and size of the Lakers.
Oklahoma City has shown a ton of promise, but it MAY still be a year or two away for this team. They seem to have all of the pieces, except for the center position, a position that the Lakers can certainly exploit. Don’t expect the Lakers to overlook this team should they meet again in the 2011 playoffs.
Portland is going to be an interesting team to watch next year (although it seems that is the story every year). If Greg Oden is healthy, and they get the same play from the power forward position that they did in 2010, they certainly seem to have the capability to negate the length and size of Bynam and Gasol. Until Portland shows that they can stay healthy, I wouldn’t put my money on them.
San Antonio and Dallas are intriguing, but they seem to have lost their window for a championship run. Their best players are past their prime and haven’t shown the ability to beat the Lakers over the past three years.
Let me know what you think below.