For the first time since the start of the 2008-09 season, the Los Angeles Lakers will not be starting the new season as the defending champions. And despite losing Phil Jackson to retirement, trading their best bench player in Lamar Odom and more transactions likely on the horizon, it will still be “championship or bust” for the Lakers this season.
But before the team can start thinking about hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy too much, they must worry about their foes in the always wildly competitive Western Conference.
Here are the Lakers’ biggest threats in the Western Conference this season.
The San Antonio Spurs will begin the 2011-12 season with the same big question surrounding them as the Los Angeles Lakers: Has their championship window closed?
The Spurs looked like the Spurs of old last season, winning a conference-best 61 games before losing to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
The team will return their core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, along with some decent young pieces to go with the trio, including DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter and rookie Kawhi Leonard.
If the Spurs youngsters are able to step up and pick up any slack from their veterans, they may have one more run at a championship left in the tank.
The Memphis Grizzlies took everyone by surprise last season, upsetting the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs and pushing the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in the conference semifinals.
Now the Grizzlies will be faced with expectations for the first time in the franchise’s history and will likely struggle at times this season. But with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the team has arguably the best frontcourt in the conference.
And if Mike Conley continues to be a serviceable floor leader and Rudy Gay is fully healed after missing the majority of last season with a separated shoulder, the Grizzlies are definitely good enough to finish with the second or third best record in the conference.
While many are hesitant to pick the Dallas Mavericks to repeat as champions, I will steal a line from former Houston Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
If the Mavericks are going to repeat, they will have to do it with many new faces. Gone to free agency are Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Caron Butler who signed with the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively.
But the Mavs have done a decent job thus far of replacing their proven pieces, adding Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West.
I cannot wait to see Dirk Nowitzki’s encore performance this season after his brilliant performance in last spring’s playoffs.
After winning only 23 games during the 2008-09 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are now one of the best teams in the league.
After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2010 playoffs, the Thunder made it to the conference finals last season before losing to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks.
The Thunder are now headed into the 2011-12 campaign as a trendy pick to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this spring.
The Thunder would have been just as dangerous playing a full 82 game slate, but it’s possible they will be more formidable playing a truncated, 66-game schedule.
The team is young enough to handle having to play back-to-back-to-back games more easily than the Spurs and Lakers of the world, in addition to having played with one another long enough to not feel the hurt of a shortened training camp.