The Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2010-11 season as the reigning NBA champion, and are returning all of the key pieces from last season's championship run. The Lakers even have the luxury of not facing the most scrutiny or media attention in camp—even as the two-time defending champions.
That honor is held by the new look Miami Heat and their Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
The Lakers are more than happy to just cruise through the preseason and into the regular season with as little fanfare and hype as possible. The possibilities are endless for stories regarding this team. Kobe Bryant is aging and battling lingering knee issues. Derek Fisher feels that the Lakers underpaid him. Lamar Odom spent his summer playing for the US team, what impact will that have on him?
Phil Jackson is going for his 12th career ring—could this be his last season win or lose?
With all of these story lines and more there is a lot to talk about with these Lakers, but even with the uncertainty many consider them the favorite to repeat as NBA champions for the third season in a row. Now for a closer look at the Lakers, and 10 Bold predictions for their upcoming season.
Phil has been flirting with retirement for some time now, but his competitive drive along with the teams he has had the opportunity to coach keep pulling him back into the game. This season, win or lose, may be the perfect time for Phil to finally hang it up and walk away with the most NBA titles in the history of the game.
If the Lakers win it will mark the fourth time in Jackson's career that he was able to win three straight championships with a team. He accomplished the feat twice with Michael Jordan and the Bulls and earlier in his Lakers' coaching career with the duo of Shaq and Kobe.
Completing this extraordinary accomplishment one more time would not only put even more distance between himself and the rest of the coaching world, but provide an element of symmetry that the NBA's "Zenmaster" would be hard pressed not to appreciate.
If the Lakers do not succeed in their efforts this season, Jackson might be hard pressed to find reasons to stick around for another go at it. He is already the games most statistically successful coach, and with an aging roster, and especially an aging Kobe, this season may mark the Lakers' best chance to win again in the near future.
With all of his health issues and simply a desire to get away from the game for a while, look for Jackson to walk away in 2011, regardless of how the Lakers' season turns out.
This Lakers team is one of experienced veterans, most of whom have multiple rings, that understand the grind of an NBA season. This understanding will lead the Lakers to a slow start. Add to their experience anytime a team wins one championship, let alone back-to-back championships, it is only natural to become a bit complacent.
The situation is ripe for a few early losses.
This does not mean that the Lakers will put it in cruise control and be fighting for playoff contention, but do not expect the Lakers to come out playing a dominant brand of basketball when the season opens.
Kobe Bryant spent the summer having knee surgery and nursing himself back to health after another brutal grind of a season. Pau Gasol took some time off from basketball and spent the summer traveling. Lamar Odom may need a rest as he spent his summer playing in the World Championships for team U.S.A. Andrew Bynum spent his summer getting hurt again and will be out for at least the start of the regular season, and most likely longer.
With all of these contributing factors as well as a likely lack of urgency early on, look for the Lakers to be in fourth of fifth place in the West come Christmas Day.
While the Lakers will not come out of the gate on fire, look for Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes to outplay their expectations early in the season.
Odom is coming off a very successful World Championships campaign where he was a key factor in the United States' run to the gold medal. While many NBA players spend their summers resting up and developing some rust, Odom was refining and improving his game in Europe.
Look for these improvements to be on display, especially while the rest of the league is trying to recapture its edge and sync up. With Bynum out, Odom will need to be a bigger part of the Lakers' rotation and luckily for them he has spent the summer training for just such a role.
Watch for Barnes to step up because of a need to prove himself in the early goings. The Lakers are a very established team with quite a bit of talent, so if Barnes wants to make himself an integral part of the rotation he will need to come out on fire and capitalize on the extra playing time that will come from both Bynum and Kobe not playing at 100 percent to start the season.
Barnes will be hungrier than the rest of the team and so he will use that drive to push himself a little bit harder to start the season than the rest of the Lakers' more established and relaxed core players.
While there are conflicting reports out there right now about Bynum's injuries, the Lakers are not going to take any chances. Playing through injuries in the 2010 playoffs, LA proved more than ever it needs Bynum's presence for another run.
With that in mind, the Lakers are likely going to rest Bynum as much as possible during the upcoming season in order to release a healthier Bynum in the playoffs, when he can really make a difference.
This Lakers' team is very talented and with other frontcourt options like Odom, Gasol, and the ever dominant Kobe Bryant—they simply do not need Andrew Bynum to make the playoffs.
Watch for Bynum to play in less than half of their games this season, and coast to the playoffs in a way very similar to every Boston Celtic not named Rondo from last season.
Ron Artest has always been one of the NBA's most mercurial players. Finally, it seems, he has found a coach and a team that can handle his interesting personality in a way that helps him maximize his production on the court.
As strange as Artest's behavior has always been, he has undoubtedly always matched it on the court with the quality of his play on defense. Artest is arguably the league's best defensive player of the past decade. He is the only non-center or power forward to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award since Gary Payton did it in 1996.
While Dwight Howard always makes a case for winning the award, look for Artest to focus even more on his defense this season and give Orlando's block machine a run for his money. Artest finds himself in the position of being one of the game's best defensive players on a roster that requires almost no offensive production from him.
Especially with the addition of Barnes, who plays Artest's position, there really is no need for Artest to do anything but play lockdown defense. Look for Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant to emphasize this point to Artest this season as he could be a valuable weapon against the likes of Paul Pierce, LeBron James, and maybe even Kevin Durant.
Kobe Bryant is coming into the season still recovering from knee and finger issues that have been plaguing him of late. Being the competitor that he is, Kobe has not allowed these injuries to have much of an impact on his production, but that will change this season.
Jackson will likely look to take it slow with Kobe as there is no reason to overextend his star early in the season. A more mature and older Bryant will likely understand the maneuver, and be willing to give his legs a bit of a rest at points during the season.
Also look for Kobe to be a little slower.
For a player who relies heavily on quickness and his ability to create the smallest gaps of separation—this will likely lead to a decline in his numbers. Kobe is the best in the game at hitting shots with a hand in his face, but how will he fair if that hand is an inch or two closer to the ball this time around?
Kobe is one of the game's all-time greats, but as a mature player with an intelligent coach, there is just no way Kobe plays the minutes or puts up the numbers he used to, if only because the Lakers are good enough to survive without them.
The lasting legacy of the 2010 Boston Celtics will not be their dismantling of LeBron's Cavaliers in the playoffs which may have attributed to his ugly exit to Cleveland. It will not be their near Finals victory over the Lakers. It will be a new philosophy for older and experienced teams, being that the No. 1 priority is getting into the playoffs as healthy as possible.
The Celtics got off to an incredibly fast start last season before fading and finishing fourth in the conference. Nobody gave them a shot, mainly because they were entering the playoffs ice cold. The Celtics team that showed up in the playoffs, however, was the same team that started the season looking unbeatable.
The Lakers, too, are a slightly older team with an incredible championship pedigree. They have a full understanding of just how long the season is after playing more games than anybody in the past two seasons. Watch for the Lakers to slip behind the Mavericks and potentially the Thunder this season in an effort to enter the playoffs as healthy and as fresh as possible.
As I have already mentioned, Kobe Bryant is not going to put up Kobe Bryant numbers this season. In a choice between getting healthy and putting up MVP quality numbers, Bryant is going to choose the former. He has the luxury of doing so because of one man, Pau Gasol.
Gasol elected not to participate in the FIBA World Championships this summer so that he could rest his tired body and be as fresh as possible for the upcoming season. This decision, although painful for Spain, will pay dividends for the Lakers all season.
Gasol proved in the run to the 2010 Championship that he is now one of the league's premier big men, surpassing Tim Duncan and being in the same category as the sweet shooting Dirk Nowitzki. Gasol has as much scoring touch and finesse around the rim as almost anyone to ever play the game.
What had always been lacking was a level of toughness and defensive grit, which was exactly what Gasol exhibited during the playoffs last season. Gasol went toe to toe with Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, and the rest of the Celtics extremely physical lineup on his way to his second career championship.
As a more complete player this season on a team that will need him to carry the load at times, Gasol will step directly into this year's MVP race.
It has already been mentioned a couple times that Kobe will have a down year. This is true, but only to the extent of having a down year, for him personally, during the regular season. Once the playoffs begin Kobe will do what Kobe does best—score points and win games.
Kobe is the Lakers' alpha dog and even if Gasol does have an MVP caliber season, Kobe is still going to become the team's No. 1 option during the postseason. Kobe is one of the league's best scorers and if he is able to keep his legs fresh and remain healthy, even one more year of aging will not slow him down yet.
Kobe's scoring abilities come from a killer instinct and an ability to hit seemingly any shot from any spot on the floor, even when he is closely guarded. For this reason, even if he is slowed by his knee, it will not have that much of an impact on his scoring abilities when he turns it on.
The final reason to expect Kobe to explode in the playoffs, he simply wants it more.
If Kobe has proven anything in his career it is that he wants to win more than any other player in the NBA. You do not have his level of success, his ability to hit absurd shots, or his resume of clutch performances without a unique level of desire. It is all of these factors, but especially his desire, that will carry him to yet another legendary performance.
The Los Angeles Lakers are still the most complete team in the NBA.
From top to bottom their lineup is almost bulletproof and contains both a championship pedigree and level of chemistry that is unmatched in the game today. Other teams may have more raw talent, but nobody has been molded into a more dominant singular unit than the Lakers.
Add to their chemistry their experience and consider that the Lakers may spend the entire season simply brooding and preparing for another playoff run. They can afford to do this because nobody is expecting them to win 73 games this year. With expectations low and all of the attention on some team that plays in South Beach, watch for the Lakers to fly under the radar as much as any defending champion ever has.
In the playoffs, their lineup is just too deep and experienced for the rest of the West and they have too much depth in their frontcourt for any team in the East. The Lakers are just too good and as long as their core stays healthy and focused, there is no reason for them not to repeat as champions this season.
P.S. For those Heat fans that are in a rage right now, check out my breakdown of the Heat and the Lakers here, it will really get you going.