When you think of legitimate championship contending teams in the NBA this year, who comes to mind?
While a case can also be made for the Oklahoma City Thunder, they should remain a second-teir team for this season.
Each one of these championship hopefuls has similar strengths, but a different secret weapon.
The Miami Heat's ace in the Hole is their over powering line up of superstars. The Heat's Big Three will dominate their opponents on both ends most nights, as their defense is very underrated up to this point. Everyone is talking about their array of offensive guns, but what really sets them apart is the instinct they possess on the defensive end.
The Orlando Magic's big gun is none other than Dwight Howard. This year he will prove to be more vital than ever to his team, as his post presence could be just what the Magic need to disrupt the Heat come playoffs time.
The Celtic's are packing a new punch this year with Rajon Rondo, as he will continue to become more and more vital to the teams success. His minutes are up, he's already set two assist records in three games and his confidence seems to be boiling over these days. The strength of the Celtics has always been their unity as a team, but Rondo will serve as their go to problem solver when things get rough in the postseason.
Finally, the Los Angeles Lakers have a Trojan Horse of their own.
Even as recent as last year, the Lakers' secret weapon has been Kobe Bryant.
Who else? He's the closer. The man. The last-shot maker.
While Kobe will still be the Lakers' big threat for seasons to come, the new secret weapon of this squad in the regenerated bench mob.
With a new group Phil Jackson has nicknamed "The Renegades," the Lakers will look to punish all challengers with their never ending onslaught of weapons. Los Angeles has suffered from thin-bench syndrome the last few years, and as a result would give up even the biggest of leads when the starters needed a rest.
Now, with the additions of this last offseason, the Lakers will be looking to expand on their leads, not lose them.
Just last night the Renegades punished the Grizzlies on the glass and allowed Kobe Bryant to rest the entire fourth quarter. Each one of the new Renegades bring their own poison to the table, and together, the combination should be pretty lethal.
He's in the starting five-fold for now, but when Bynum returns, it's "Back to the pine" for Lamar.
Once that happens, the Lakers will hold the "best bench" title as well. Odom is the king of versatility, and he's already in top-game shape thanks to FIBA this last summer. He's actually becoming more consistent in his not-so-old age.
If Odom can bring his leadership skills off the bench with him, the Lakers second unit will thrive under his direction.
Let's be Frank here: Fisher is going to need some relief this year, and Blake is the perfect man for the job.
Steve Blake is an incredibly quick guard who can knock down shots and slash through the lane at will. When Fisher retires to the bench each game, he can leave confidently knowing that Blake is not afraid of the moment at hand.
Blake's biggest plus is that he too is a dead-eye from long range, and could end up having a few game-winners himself.
So you thought L.A. was tough before? The addition of Matt Barnes gives Ron Artest a partner in crime to wreak havoc with. Think twice before passing the balls with these guys patrolling the lane, as one bad move could result in fast break points for L.A.
Barnes can knock down open jumpers, hit the three ball with the best of them, and climb inside the mind of the opposing teams star player. Look for Barnes to be most effective when the Lakers are in a rut this year. He's the type of player who comes alive when all hope is lost and provide that essential spark to get their team back on track.
Just last night against Memphis, Barnes appeared to be one of the hardest workers on the court, finishing with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
While Ratliff may be on the bad side of aging at this point, he will be vital to the Lakers in the early going. With Bynum out for at least the next few weeks, Ratliff fills a glaring hole left in the Lakers front court.
Don't kid yourself about his game either. Theo can still block shots if given adequate minutes, and I see a few game-changing moments throughout the season's duration.
What can Brown do for the Lakers?
Something a whole lot more than air mail, that's for sure. While he was not acquired this year, he did re-join the squad via contract, and will serve as one of the bench's most vital assets.
Brown has been a high flying act for some time now, but something else has developed in him lately.
His shots are falling.
He's officially a scoring threat on offense now that he has more than the "slam dunk" in his arsenal. Add that to his respectable three-ball, and you have a dangerous guard. If Brown continues down the path that he's currently on, he will serve as a very respectable backup for the Mamba.
Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter
These two rookie "steals" showed quite a bit of promise in the preseason and may end up a larger part of the rotation come playoff time. Caracter appears to be Big Baby-ish, while Ebanks is called Trevor Ariza 2.0 for a reason. If either one of them develops early, it could pay huge dividends for the Lakers.
Both Caracter and Ebanks got a burn last night as L.A. rocked the second unit for extended minutes. In their time, Caracter drew fouls and made his free throws, while Ebanks was the recipient of a nasty Ally-oop.
Together, this group of Renegades equals more than the sum of their parts. Their scrappy and tenacious tendencies will allow the Lakers to keep the leads they build (for a change), provide their starting five some adequate rest and bring them back from the dead when they aren't playing so hot.
They may also be what puts the Lakers over the top of the competition this year, and on the road to another three-peat.