If the Los Angeles Lakers can manage to escape San Antonio and Denver, who I see as their biggest challenges in the West, their journey will lead them to the NBA Finals where they will face one of three potential opponents from the Eastern Conference.
The first of these teams is Cleveland, which is probably the best match-up for the defending champions. The Lakers hold all of the primary advantages over the Cavaliers, save one. But that one just happens to be LeBron James.
James has jumped to the forefront of conversation when discussing the best players in the league. Outside of Los Angeles he probably gets the nod over Kobe Bryant.
His attributes are numerous and he has steadily improved in most aspects of his game. His man defense is less than stellar, but he makes up for it by being one of the best help defenders in the NBA.
There will be no way for the Lakers to shut him down, but the acquisition of Ron Artest means that Kobe won't have to exert as much energy trying to defend James.
Honestly, Artest will have his hands full, but if the emphasis is placed on another player having to beat the Lakers, then half of the battle is already won. The Cavaliers simply don't have another player capable of picking up the slack.
On the perimeter, Mo Williams would seem to be the logical choice and his jump shot could spell some trouble for the Lakers.
The problem with Williams is that he would be much more of a threat if he used his exceptional quickness to penetrate the Lakers' porous perimeter defense. But for some reason he seems to settle for the jumper far too often.
That plays to the Lakers' advantages and for the Cavaliers to compete, that is something that would have to be corrected. The rest of the Cavaliers' perimeter players are an odd assortment and at a glance do not strike much fear into anyone's hearts.
Delonte West is the most experienced and is capable of being a problem for Los Angeles. But due to the state of his legal affairs, his availability is not a given. The only other viable option is Anthony Parker.
Parker does have size, but his talent level is a far cry from what he would see in Artest and Kobe Bryant. He is much better suited to defend and is not reliable enough to depend on for points.
The paint is where Cleveland could inflict the most damage, as they are able to match the Lakers in size, if not quickness. Shaquille O'Neal is nowhere near the player that he was, but is still capable of playing motivated in spurts.
Shaq would definitely bring his best in a series with the Lakers because to him, a final battle with Bryant would be a chance for ultimate bragging rights.
He is still nimble for a 37-year-old and is wily enough to cause problems for center Andrew Bynum, provided that Bynum is healthy if a match-up were to occur.
Trying to picture Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao chasing Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol through the paint and around the perimeter is enough to bring chuckles in any visible situation.
They simply don't possess the athleticism or quickness to defend either of those Lakers for an extended period of time. Lately Cleveland has been giving J.J. Hickson more playing time, but his problem is length.
He does have ability, but his lack of height would put him at a disadvantage against the Lakers' towering front line. Jamario Moon is another option and could offer relief guarding Odom on the perimeter, but he too lacks the experience.
The benches for both teams are about even. Cleveland holds an advantage in depth while the overall talent factor is a plus for the Lakers.
Coach Mike Brown rarely receives the credit he is due for merging a team of average players with LeBron James and instilling the defensive principles that make the Cavaliers go.
He is under-appreciated and if he can't produce a championship this year, it may be his final season in Ohio. Although Brown is capable, he is not even in the same arena as Laker coach Phil Jackson.
Jackson may be the best coach to ever stroll the professional basketball sideline. He has as many championship rings as Brown does years of experience.
The one advantage Cleveland may hold is not on the court, but in the mental intangibles. O'Neal is known to get under Bryant's skin and, due to their time together in L.A., knows his tendencies better than any other player.
That does have the chance of back-firing though because the same can be said of Bryant knowing the ways of O'Neal and his weaknesses, which have increased due to age.