So now that the Los Angeles Lakers have added Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Antawn Jamison to their existing nucleus of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, the rest of the NBA might as well lay down and let the presumptive champions waltz their way to the Larry O'Brien Trophy...right?
Not so fast. There's a reason they play the games, you know, and not just because the folks who own the teams and the league arenas have bills to pay. Though that's certainly a major factor.
The fact is championships aren't won on paper; they're earned on the court, and as of right now, the best the Lakers can do is count themselves among a select swath of squads with shiny aspirations.
To be sure the Purple and Gold deserve the proliferation of praise they've garnered in the wake of their blockbuster pickups.
They were a solid team last season even amidst Kobe's bum wrist, Lamar Odom's ouster, Pau's daily trade distractions, Andrew Bynum's inconsistency, World Peace's war-like outbursts, and not to mention Mike Brown's attempt to fill Phil Jackson's shoes and establish his own system without the benefit of a full training camp or much in-season practice time on account of the lockout.
All of which is to say, it's only fitting that optimism would be on the rise in the City of Angels this season. But before the Lakers get to planning their next victory parade down Figueroa St., they'd be wise to prepare for these seven teams, all of whom will be gunning to keep the league's newest collection of All-Stars from scaling the standings.
The Miami Heat will be the champions until...well, they're not.
Proclamations from Captain Obvious aside, the Lakers would more than likely have to beat the Heat in the NBA Finals if they're to bring home their third title in the last five years. Miami's stranglehold on the East has grown stronger this summer what with Ray Allen taking his talents to South Beach, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh healing up and Derrick Rose still out of commission for the Chicago Bulls.
Oh, and LeBron James is coming off a postseason for the ages, having finally found his rightful place at the center of the Heat's universe, and, at the age of 27, has plenty of top-notch basketball left in his system.
What's more, the Heat know full well the challenges LA will face in getting a super-team to gel in short order. They endured plenty of growing pains during the 2010-11 campaign, which ended in a six-game shortfall against the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals.
Also, have I mentioned LeBron James? He's pretty good, you know.
The Oklahoma City Thunder deserve the same benefit of the doubt in the Western Conference that the Miami Heat have earned across the league. That is the Thunder are the defending champs in the West and will continue to be until proven otherwise.
OKC didn't make any particularly dramatic moves to upgrade its roster this summer, unless anyone thinks the additions of Hasheem Thabeet and rookie forward Perry Jones III constitute as much.
Not that the Thunder necessarily needed to overhaul their roster to keep up with the Lakers or stay atop the West, for that matter. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the rest of OKC's ragtag bunch bumped LA out of the playoffs in just five games this past spring.
Granted the Purple and Gold did plenty to choke away Games 2 and 3 of that series, but the fact remains that the young-guns of the Thunder were undaunted, and they aren't likely to be daunted the next time these two teams meet.
OKC's core will return to the court brimming with confidence after partaking in the 2012 London Olympics and hungry in the wake of coming up short against the Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals.
They won't be the least bit scared by LA's upgrades. After all, the Lakers still lack a defensive presence capable of slowing down Westbrook whose speed and athleticism won't be any easier for Steve Nash to handle than it was for Ramon Sessions.
It also helps the Thunder's case that they employ Kendrick Perkins, Dwight Howard's biggest foil, at center.
But more so is that they're young, hungry, athletic and play suffocating defense.
Speaking of young teams that like to run and know how to push the Lakers' buttons, look out for the Denver Nuggets.
They may have helped to create a monster by facilitating the Dwight Howard deal, but to their credit the Nuggets' front office made the most of an inevitable situation.
And by "made the most," I mean landed an All-Star swingman and an All-NBA defender in Andre Iguodala. He should fit in perfectly on a team that lacks superstars but employs a slew of good-to-very-good players, including but not limited to Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee.
That crew gave the Lakers all they could handle in the first round of last year's playoffs when they pushed LA to seven games. The speed and athleticism that those youngsters bring to the table give the aging Lakers fits on the floor, particularly in the thin air of the Mile High City.
Clearly, the Nuggets aren't intimidated by the big, bad Lakers and should only be emboldened by Iggy's arrival.
The Los Angeles Clippers will be treated like little brothers by the Lakers until they do something dramatic to upstage them.
As it happens this may well be the season in which the Clips shake up the existing hierarchy at Staples Center. LA's other team upgraded its bench this summer with a trio of savvy veterans—Jamal Crawford, near-Laker Grant Hill and former Laker Lamar Odom—and are anticipating Chauncey Billups' return from a torn Achilles' tendon.
As great as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were for the Clips last season, it was Billups who vaulted the team into contention, however briefly. He torched the Lakers for 19 points to spark a convincing Clippers victory in January and played a key role in another close contest later that month before going down with his season-ending injury in early January.
With Mr. Big Shot back in the fold, Griffin presumably upgrading his faulty jump shot and CP3 ready to run circles around Steve Nash by the time the season starts, the Clippers have to be taken seriously as a threat to the Lakers' supremacy.
For the time being, anyway.
Of course, the Clips were swept out of the playoffs last season by the San Antonio Spurs, who themselves must be considered a threat to tear up the Lakers' paper title.
The core of this Spurs squad (i.e. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) has long constituted a worthy adversary for the Purple and Gold, dating back to the days when Kobe and Shaq were still the league's most volatile item.
The Spurs appeared prepared to steamroll their way to the title this past spring amidst a 20-game winning streak, but were sent packing from the Western Conference Finals once the Thunder rediscovered their collective mojo.
Remember, that winning streak was preceded by a 30-rebound outburst by Andrew Bynum, but included two blowouts of the Lakers. Say what you want about San Antonio's aging triumvirate, but those guys still execute Gregg Popovich's system to a tee, and can now count young guys like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter among those well-versed in the franchise gospel.
If nothing else, Parker has long been a "Laker killer" and has the requisite supporting cast to keep up that reputation for at least another season.
Few teams in the NBA, if any, have the size up front to go toe-to-toe with the Lakers. The Memphis Grizzlies, though, might just be able to count themselves among the fortunate.
Their front line of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (with Marreese Speights coming off the bench) sports a superb combination of skill and sheer beef with which the Lakers have had and would have much difficulty. The Grizz gave the Lakers a pair of tough games while Z-Bo was out with an injury and finally gave LA its comeuppance once the All-Star forward returned.
Randolph should be back at full strength this time around with Rudy Gay and Tony Allen prepared to torture the Lakers on both ends of the floor albeit in alternation.
And, again, not to harp on it too much, but I'd be remiss without mentioning that Mike Conley Jr. is quite the speed demon himself at point guard. LA's sloth at the point has made him look quite good in the past, and the addition of the 39-year-old Nash only figures to help Conley stand out even more this season.
No team in NBA history has been a more frustrating foil for the Lakers than the Boston Celtics. These two ancient rivals have met 12 times in the Finals in which the C's have emerged victorious on nine of the occasions.
This coming season's edition looks poised to make some serious noise to that effect. The Celts are already deeper and more talented across the board than they were last spring when they took a 3-2 series lead against the eventual-champion Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Ray Allen may be gone, but GM Danny Ainge has done well to replace him with players who are younger (Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley) and more versatile (Jason Terry) than the sharpshooting Hall-of-Famer.
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce aren't getting any younger, but they still have plenty of fuel left in their proverbial tanks, not to mention healthy backups—Chris Wilcox and rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo for The Big Ticket, Jeff Green for The Truth—to help them manage that remaining energy more efficiently.
And, of course, there's Rajon Rondo who's poised for yet another career year now that he's approaching his 27th birthday. He's already a top-five player at his position and, were it not for an unreliable jump shot, would be a one-man menace in Laker Land.
In any case, the Celtics should challenge the Heat for supremacy in the East, and if they reach the Finals, can rely on a core of players (Rondo, KG, Pierce and The Jet) who are well-versed in the ways of knocking LA out of the playoffs.