LA Lakers or Miami Heat: Which Team Was Free Agency's Biggest Winner?

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IJuly 27, 2010

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 28:   Dwayne Wade #3 of the Miami Heat and Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during a break in the game on February 28, 2008 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  The Lakers won 106-88. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Miami Heat may have grabbed all the headlines with their free agency coup involving LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, but the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers made quite a statement of their own.

If Pat Riley's bold moves have made the Heat instant contenders for an NBA championship, then Mitch Kupchak's subtle moves ensure the Lakers are still the team to beat.

Many comparisons have been made between the two franchises, and most people feel the teams are destined to meet in next season's NBA Finals, but in reality the Lakers are much closer to that goal.

Los Angeles needed to do very little in terms of roster moves following its second consecutive championship, but the areas of concern were addressed in the Lakers' few moves.

Help at the point guard position was viewed as the Lakers' biggest offseason need, and the addition of Steve Blake gives the team a more dependable upgrade over the departed Jordan Farmar.

Blake's signing was an encouraging development, but the additional signing of free agents Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff were the real prizes in the Lakers' offseason.

The Lakers' defense was sometimes overshadowed by the precision of the triangle offense, but defensive specialists Ratliff and Barnes should guarantee the defensive unit gets all the recognition it deserves.

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Tracy McGrady may be the biggest name left on the free agent market, but Barnes will likely have more impact for the Lakers, and he has none of the health questions that have plagued McGrady.

Barnes' reputation has been made on the defensive end of the floor, but he has shown the ability to knock down threes when opposing defenses have left him open.

And Barnes will get plenty of open looks because a rejuvenated Kobe Bryant may be asked to expend even less energy on the defensive end than he did last season.

It's no secret that Ron Artest made Bryant's life a lot easier by defending the opposition's best player, and the addition of Barnes means Bryant will not be asked to assume that task when Artest takes a breather.

This should preserve some of Bryant's energy for the offensive end, and Ratliff serves the same purpose in the post when it comes to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Some view Ratliff as insurance in case Bynum is hampered by his impending knee surgery, but he has a chance to be much more than protection provided Bynum is able to return healthy.

Ratliff, like Barnes, is a defensive force and his career average of 2.8 blocks per game serves as a testament to his ability to act as a deterrent in the paint.

In Ratliff the Lakers now have another player to match the toughness Bynum brings to the paint, and even at the age of 37, Ratliff is still capable of bringing intensity and energy when called upon.

The Lakers approached free agency with a less is more attitude, and through Kupchak's shrewd maneuvering they improved their chances of reaching the Finals for a fourth consecutive year.

Riley was every bit as shrewd as Kupchak when it came to improving the Heat, but there was nothing quiet in the way Riley turned the team from middle of the road playoff team to contender.

Riley's ability to land James and Bosh, and re-sign Wade lends credence to the perception of Riley as one of the best basketball brains in the NBA, and instantly makes his Miami team a target.

All the talk concerning the Heat has been centered around their superstar trio, but the players Riley has managed to surround them with has been equally impressive.

Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Zydrunas Ilglauskas, and Mike Miller are all steady, if not spectacular players, and Riley has young players such as Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman who could make a significant impact.

The path to a potential meeting in the Finals of 2011 is filled with peril for both teams, and there are numerous obstacles each team would have to overcome.

Riley has done a masterful job in constructing the Heat's roster and a postseason berth is almost guaranteed, but the truth is that no one is sure how Miami will perform in a playoff atmosphere.

Miami will join Boston and Orlando in a top-heavy Eastern Conference where teams such as Milwaukee and Chicago have rosters which are capable of hanging with the Heat.

The Lakers will be forced to navigate a Western Conference which is much more balanced than the East, but one they have conquered for the past three seasons.

Teams such as Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Portland will likely give the two-time defending champions all they can handle, but the Lakers have improved, and they are familiar with the journey.

Los Angeles will enter next season with one of the most balanced rosters in NBA history, and it also has young players such as Derrick Caracter and Devin Ebanks who could possibly contribute.

The Heat and the Lakers will finish this free agency period with the NBA's most talented rosters, the only difference being that we have already been witness to what the Lakers' roster is capable of.