While the team is loaded with stars, there is a hesitance to anoint the Lakers as the best team in the NBA. The Miami Heat, who won the title in 2011-2012, are still the title holders, and the Lakers are the team trying to steal the crown off the head of King James.
Indeed, the debate over who is better, “Kobe Bryant or LeBron James,” takes on a new dynamic as the season opener approaches. To some, this season might be a deciding factor as to which player should be regarded as the greatest perimeter player since Michael Jordan, as a possible showdown between the Heat and the Lakers could be the most watched NBA Finals in history.
It won’t be an easy journey to the Finals for either club. Miami will have to contend with a revitalized Brooklyn Nets squad that has a new city, a new arena, new uniforms, new talent, and most importantly, a new attitude.
No longer the pushovers they once were in the Atlantic Division, the Nets have one of the best backcourts in the league, and have center Brook Lopez at full strength. Along with the Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and New York Knicks will likely wreak havoc on the young Toronto Raptors, who will likely be the lone division absentee to miss the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
The Chicago Bulls, who still have a solid chance to make the playoffs without Derrick Rose, might be contenders, should their superstar point guard return to form following a serious knee injury.
The Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, and Indiana Pacers figure to compete for playoff spots, though none are expected to make a serious run at the Eastern Conference title.
The Miami Heat, with renewed swagger and confidence following their championship season, seem to have the right pieces in place to come out of the East again. Not only does the club boast a three-player threat in James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, but the Heat have added sharpshooter Ray Allen, and veteran perimeter threat Rashard Lewis.
Over in the West, the Lakers have a major obstacle in last season’s conference champions. The Oklahoma City Thunder spent the regular season and the postseason terrorizing the Lakers. Oklahoma City defeated the Lakers twice in three games in the regular season, and held off L.A. in the Western Conference Semi-Finals by winning four of five games.
The Thunder made only modest improvements to their club in the offseason, but still have athletic guard Russell Westbrook, and superstar Kevin Durant. The Lakers may have a small edge over Oklahoma City, simply because they have more players who can score, and have perhaps the best defender in the NBA in Howard.
The Southwest Division offers some talented teams with the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Dallas Mavericks. All three have a strong chance to do damage in the playoffs.
The Lakers also have to contend with their co-tenants. The Clippers are not only expected to make the playoffs, but also make a more serious postseason run with the addition of forwards Grant Hill and Lamar Odom.
Still, the Lakers seem to be the team to beat in the West for a variety of reasons. Clever playmaker Steve Nash is expected to bring a more dynamic half-court set, as newcomer Dwight Howard and veteran big man Pau Gasol should receive numerous scoring opportunities off pick and rolls and alley oops.
The onus might still be on Bryant more than any other player. The star guard received criticism for his shot selection in the postseason series with the Thunder, but now Bryant has a backcourt partner who can create more catch-and-shoot chances, as well as take pressure off him by going to the big men.
The 2003-2004 Lakers might be hanging over this current squad, as well. In that contentious season, the Lakers seemed destined to win the title when they added stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Like Malone, Nash is trying to win a title in the twilight of his career, and like Payton, Howard has joined a star-studded team after being a main weapon in his smaller market franchise.
Yet, this Lakers squad is in a much different situation than that team. There was a great deal of infighting on the 2003-2004 Lakers and both Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were in position to leave the club at the end of the season, with Bryant flying in for games due to a sexual assault trial in Colorado, and O’Neal upset with management over negotiations for a contract extension. The current Lakers roster seems more interested in winning than squabbling.
But the 2012-2013 Lakers may also have distractions, though they are less likely to receive such high-profile attention. The upcoming season will have plenty of chatter about Howard’s probability of returning to the club next season, and head coach Mike Brown’s job security will also be in focus should the Lakers slump.
Brown, who had to follow in the grand footsteps of Phil Jackson, may be in his final season if the Lakers don’t win a title. Should the Lakers face the Heat in the Finals, a major storyline would be the relationship between Brown and James. The Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to the Finals in 2007 with Brown as the coach, and some had posited that Brown’s presence with the club helped James leave Cleveland.
On paper, the Lakers appear to have more depth in talent than the Heat. The Lakers have a legitimate starting five, as Metta World Peace might be the only starter to not have a guaranteed a spot in the first five on nearly every roster in the NBA.
The Heat lack a true center, and while point guard Mario Chalmers is a fine outside shooter, he is not an elite player at the position. Defensive specialist Shane Battier will likely receive a steady amount of playing time, though he shares the same position as James.
Erik Spoelstra’s side appears to have the bench advantage. Allen and James Jones make up a formidable three-point shooting duo, and the Heat still have veterans Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, though neither were particularly effective in the 2012 playoffs.
The Lakers bench will rely heavily on Antawn Jamison. The 36-year-old has spent a bulk of his career with under-achieving clubs, but there are questions as to whether he will be effective after 13 seasons.
The Lakers also have Jordan Hill, who had some quality games in the later part of the 2011-2012 season, and shooters Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. Devin Ebanks is an athletic, though still rather unpolished, wing.
The Heat likely have the best chance of finishing with the top regular-season record. Miami’s main talent are younger than the Lakers, and are more familiar with each other’s talents.
In the postseason, the Lakers might have the edge. Bryant remains the most competitive player in the NBA and now has players around him who are nearly as eager to win a title. Veteran leadership means a great deal in the playoffs, and the Lakers have plenty of that.
A possible Finals matchup would be rating bonanza. It will by hyped as “Kobe vs. LeBron.” There will be constant references to Jordan, as Bryant tries to match Jordan’s title count at six. The conversation will also center around the possibility of James leaving Miami for L.A., should Bryant retire in 2014.
No Laker has ever won six titles for L.A., so Bryant could vault into sole possession of that prestigious honor. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, but one was with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Magic Johnson won five.) Bryant seems desperate to prove that he is the greatest player ever, and a sixth title would prompt more serious debate.
James also craves another ring, and would get a major boost to his ego if it came at the expense of Bryant, a player who has a four-title edge on him.
It’s rather hard to conceive how a Finals battle would end up before a regular-season game has been played. The Heat would have matchup problems with Gasol and Howard, since Bosh can only cover one player, and Howard would probably require a double team.
It’s still very early, but right now the edge appears to slightly belong to L.A.