The NBA regular season is a long prelude to the “real” season: the playoffs. Injuries, motivation and competition play a huge role in determining a team’s success or lack thereof. For Kobe Bryant and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the road to three-peat is paved with purple and gold as long as they avoid their own self-inflicted wounds.
The Rest of the Best of the West—Spurs, Mavericks, Thunder, Hornets and Jazz—are legitimate threats to win it all. They just don’t measure up to L.A., and here’s why: These 2010-11 Lakers are better than the last two that won titles back to back. No team in their division is as deep from one through 15. They have the game’s best closer in Bryant, the league’s biggest and best collective bodies in the paint in Odom, Gasol and Bynum, an explosive guard in Shannon Brown, veteran newcomers Steve Blake and Matt Barnes who bring added stability and grit and the game’s best coach in Phil Jackson, who has the motivation of capturing one more title before calling it quits.
The competition in the West is undeniably strong and getting better as its younger stars mature. It will not be an easy road to the NBA Finals for L.A.—it never is. Teams are more determined than ever to knock out the champions and stake their own claim to the crown. A closer look: