Lakers Lead Pack of NBA Title Contenders

This NBA season promises to be one of the most exciting in the history of the sport. It is uncommon that an event like the summer of 2010 lives up to its inflated level of hype – three years of it, to be exact – but in this rare case, it can be said without a doubt that the hype was deserved. And, because no one needs more rhetoric about the displacement of Bosh and LeBron thrown at them, let’s get right into it. For non–NBA watchers, there are usually only about three to seven teams per year that turn out to be realistic title–contenders. Here is my early ranking of the six teams I think are best poised to be those teams considered

legitimate contenders come April:

1. Los Angeles Lakers: Personally, I think a healthy Celtics team is better equipped to win in a seven-game finals series. However, with 63 percent of GMs voting the repeat defending champs as favorites to three–peat, who am I to disagree? At this point, you know the core cast, so I won’t waste words on that. Newcomer Matt Barnes will fill Luke Walton’s role as backup combo–forward, and helps create a sense of competitiveness and toughness that even the addition of Ron Artest had not fully accomplished. Steve Blake fills a large weakness at backup point guard and will likely be splitting minutes with the aging Derek Fisher. You can still expect coach Phil Jackson to lean on Fisher during key moments for his experience and consistency, even as Fish pushes towards 36 years of age. Speaking of old, the Lakers also snatched up Theo Ratliff because, well, because I guess the Lakers were next on his bucket list of 30 teams to play for

before he retires.

2. Boston Celtics: I don’t want to hear another word about the average age of the Celtics. The Lakers third big man, Odom and Pau’s backup, coming into the season will be Ratliff’s corpse. Sorry, but my man Theo was over the hill in ‘06 when he was on the Celtics and six teams later I don’t think much has changed. But go ahead and call Danny Ainge crazy for rolling the dice on paying the vet’s minimum $1.3 million to Shaq, the starting center for last year’s Cavs, only the 2009 regular season’s best team. With a front–line composed of rehabilitating Kendrick Perkins, revived KG, veteran Jermaine O’Neal, last season’s breakout sixth man Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Turkish prospect Semih Erden, I am no longer concerned about the Celtics’ big man situation, which was their biggest weakness in last year’s finals. Delonte West, Marquis Daniels, and Nate Robinson help spearhead a bench that apparently has been giving the Celtic’s big three a lot of problems in training camp exhibitions. Lastly, don’t forget that, unlike the Laker’s now aging superstar Kobe Bryant, Boston’s best player is a 24-year-old freakishly fast point guard named Rajon Rondo. The key threat to their finals hopes, as always, is health, and is really my only reason for ranking the Celtics below the Lakers.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder: The new favorite name to drop for people trying to look like they know what they’re talking about. Kevin Durant and his Thunder now look like the one team with the best chance of challenging the Lakers for Western Conference superiority. Don’t pay too much attention to headlines claiming that the FIBA Championship somehow changed/improved Westbrook and Durant. Durant was already an unreal scorer, and these two youngsters were already well–developed leaders. What’s most important to remember about the Thunder is that the general manager, Sam Presti, knows what he’s doing; he signed KD to a five-year extension, and is sticking to the development of a young core of talent, rather than gambling on blockbuster trades or risky signings. Their biggest weakness is the front–line, supplemented slightly by the addition of draft pick Cole Aldrich. A young, yet fairly experienced, athletic, hard-working team with great chemistry that makes its mark on the defensive end is just barely a better bet to succeed than my choice at number four.

4. Miami Heat: I realize there’s a possibility that the new big three might absolutely blow away the league and spend the next seven years dominating the Lakers, Celtics and everyone else, but I think it’s a bit early to predict that scenario. There is no historical precedent for how exactly to assess such a top heavy team, with no bench, incredibly weak point guards (Chalmers and Arroyo), centers (“Big Z” Ilgauskas, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and, oh right, Juwan Howard) and a weird white guy named Mike Miller who shoots the lights out. So it’s tough to say with any certainty how they will fare. Don’t put too much stock in my putting the Thunder ahead of the Heat; frankly, a Finals that doesn’t contain either the Celtics or Lakers seems too improbable to put much thought into whether Miami would beat OKC in seven games. The Thunder are ranked higher because the top of the West is weaker than the East this season, and if the Lakers fell due to (more) Kobe injuries, a spot in the finals would be the Thunder’s to lose.

5. Orlando Magic: With no one on the Heat who can guard the Magic’s Dwight Howard, a.k.a. most dominant center in the league, not to mention the best “Wade/’Bron-stopper,” the Magic have a definite place in the discussion of the league’s best teams. This is essentially the same Magic team that lost to last year’s Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games, plus an overpaid Chris Duhon backing up Jameer Nelson. Matt Barnes, whose lack of shooting skills never allowed him to fit in fully in Orlando, left, heading to the opposite coast to play for the defending champion Lakers.

6. Chicago Bulls: The addition of outside-scoring threat Kyle Korver and inside-scoring threat Carlos Boozer, whose recent injury will only sideline him for eight weeks, provides this basketball-hungry city with something to believe in. With all the building blocks to win a championship, strong defense in Deng, Noah and new coach Tom Thibedau, an ultra-talented point guard and leader in Rose, and a compelling mix of athletic youth and experience veterans, I don’t think Chicago is worried about LeBron’s “decision.”

Don’t like that your team’s not mentioned? Unless you’re a Bucks, Blazers, Spurs, Mavs or Jazz fan, I don’t want to hear it. But, maybe I’m wrong. Watch the 2010–2011 season, because it’s only October and anything could happen.