Stop crying L.A. fans, the Lakers have a better chance than any team to come back and win the title next year.
Despite embarrassing themselves to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, life isn’t over for the Los Angeles Kobe Bryant and Friends. L.A. is a year early anyway. Was Pau Gasol the missing piece that made them title contenders? For sure, but that puzzle also had a giant piece named Andrew Bynum, who happened to be missing for the entire end of the season. Gasol is a seasoned scorer and an incredible athlete in his own right, but he doesn’t bring the strength and mean streak that Bynum does (ask Shaq). Bynum is the cornerstone of that low-post defense, and Boston would have found the paint to be a far more unfriendly place if they had to run through two long, athletic 7-footers. When Bynum returns from surgery and joins Gasol on the frontline (assuming this roster stays together -- I'm looking at you, Kobe) and the Lakers move Lamar Odom for a player with a pair of rocks in his sack (rocks > talent), they will be competing for the championship for years.
But they will not be alone.
Another team also started making noise a year early. Last October, the Portland Trailblazers were expected to be one of if not the worst team in the league. They had just traded away Zach Randolph, their leading scorer and rebounder, and banked their entire future on #1 draft pick Greg Oden. They then watched Oden shut down for the entire season due to microfracture knee surgery. It didn’t leave them with much.
Their players were, on average, the youngest team in the league by far at 24.06 years, 1.29 years younger than 29th youngest Seattle (0.55 years separates #29 from #22). The players also had the least amount of experience at 2.87 years, 0.60 years less than 29th least experienced Chicago (0.46 years separates #29 from #20). This was a team that didn't have a front court player who cracked double-digits in scoring the year before. Their one lone bright spot for the season was Brandon Roy, a promising but hardly explosive sophomore combo guard who missed 25 games his rookie season due to injuries. Well, at least if they’re terrible, they’ll get another high draft pick, right?
A 13-game win streak, a run at the playoffs in the most competitive conference in NBA history, a 41-41 final record, and one All-Star later, the lesson to be learned is never doubt coach Nate McMillan. This is the same Nate McMillan who took the 2004-05 Seattle Supersonics, another team that was supposed to be one of if not the worst in the league that year, to 50-32 and pushed the eventual NBA champs San Antonio to more games than any other team in the Western Conference playoffs. If any coach has proven he can get much more out of a team than anyone expects, it's Nate McMillan (and if any coach has proven he can get much less, it’s Larry Brown -- good luck, Charlotte!).
Yet, it goes further than just the final record. McMillan succeeded while still giving his young players heavy minutes and developing their talents. Brandon Roy played his way into the All-Star game. LaMarcus Aldridge proved to be a force in the paint. Travis Outlaw started to realize his enormous athletic potential and became a game-changing sixth man. Martell Webster and James Jones found their roles and spread the floor. Even Channing Frye started re-discovering the potential he had in New York before Larry Brown stomped out his confidence, averaging 16 and 10 in the last five games of the season (admittedly against the JV players most teams trot out at that time of the year).
The only real disappointment was that neither Jarrett Jack, Steve Blake, nor Sergio Rodriguez could play well enough to claim the starting point guard role. Yet looking outside the light of the rest of the team, one could argue that they're just developing at a normal pace. There's still a lot of potential there, particularly with the one they call "Spanish Chocolate" (… that's a dumb name).
Of course, the big addition this year is the player they were hoping for last year: Greg Oden, the 7-foot center with hops like he's got springs in his legs. As with Bynum, Oden's very presence will mean the post defense is locked down. Unlike Bynum, Oden has the athleticism of an Olympic high-jumper (also unlike babyface Bynum, Oden is 1000 years old). When Oden returns to join Aldridge in the front court, the Trailblazers will be adding a young Patrick Ewing to a young Pau Gasol.
Everyone already knows about the impact Oden will bring to the team, but another signing may also prove to be a critical piece of the puzzle. Earlier this month, Rudy Fernandez announced he would leave his Spanish ACB League team to join the Trailblazers (which acquired him by buying his draft rights from Phoenix for straight cash, much like how the championship Celtics bought the drafts rights to their starting PG Rajon Rondo from Phoenix -- good work, Phoenix!). The Spanish ACB League is widely considered to be the second best basketball league in the world (right behind the And1 Streetball Tour of course) and Rudy Fernandez is arguably the best player in the ACB league if not all of Europe itself. This league’s alumni include NBA pros such as Arvydas Sabonis, Pau Gasol, Andres Nocioni, and Luis Scola.
Last season, Fernandez led the ACB in points with 21.2 and steals with 2.2 while also dropping in 4.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 28 min a game for second-place DKV Joventut Badalona. Imagine a player of that caliber joining Portland. They can play a backcourt of Fernandez and Roy, two 6’6” combo guards who both can dribble, pass, and score. Or picture Rodriguez running the break with the two of them on the wings. Or Fernandez coming off the bench behind Roy and the Trailblazers not missing a beat on offense like they did last year when a reliable but one-dimensional shooter like Martell Webster or James Jones took over. Then consider that Rudy Fernandez doesn’t even break the Trailblazer’s league-low average age at 23 years old.
So Lakers fans, don’t worry. With all due respect to the Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz, the New Orleans Hornets, and the San Antonio Geriatrics, the championship is yours to lose next year. And the year after that. And probably the year after that. But, at some point, that young team in the upper Northwest is going to grow up, and you’re going to be the one getting your lunch money taken away.