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Will Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers' Reign End Out West?

Hadarii JonesSenior Writer IJuly 28, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands next to Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Two of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2010 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on April 27, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns gave the Los Angeles Lakers all they could handle before eventually falling in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals, as the Lakers went on to claim their third conference crown in as many years.

The Lakers appear to be in position to make it four in a row unless some team in the West can prove it has the right balance of size, defense, scoring, and chemistry to unseat Los Angeles.

The task will be formidable because the two-time defending champion Lakers actually improved in the offseason by addressing the need for help at the point guard position and depth in the backcourt.

It's a difficult proposition, but not an impossible one, and if someone does find a way to expose the Lakers' weaknesses, it will likely come from a group that includes Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Portland.

The Suns lost star forward Amar'e Stoudemire to the New York Knicks in free agency, and although Hedo Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick should help alleviate some of the pain from Stoudemire's loss, it's unlikely they can replace his impact in the lineup.

Al Jefferson has the potential to be an upgrade over the departed Carlos Boozer in the Utah Jazz's lineup, but the loss of Wesley Matthews and Ronnie Brewer means Utah must replace two of their best perimeter defenders.

The Houston Rockets are always a dangerous opponent for the Lakers, but the uncertainty surrounding the health of center Yao Ming leaves a hole in the middle that Los Angeles will easily exploit.

Even a healthy Yao would find it hard to operate against a front line consisting of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and the newly acquired Theo Ratliff.

Throw in Matt Barnes for good measure, and the Lakers have length and depth all over the court, and can match the defensively-minded Rockets blow for blow in that category also.

On paper, the Dallas Mavericks would seem to be the best counter for the Lakers because they can match Los Angeles in terms of depth, skill, and chemistry.

Dirk Nowitzki is one of the few players the Lakers will face who is capable of creating the types of mismatches the Lakers usually subject opponents to, because his size allows him to shoot over smaller defenders.

The acquisition of Tyson Chandler from the Charlotte Bobcats gives the Mavericks another seven-foot player to pair with center Brendan Haywood on a Dallas front line that can match the Lakers in size.

Jason Kidd may not be as quick as he once was but he remains among the elite players at the point guard position, and age has not bothered his extraordinary vision in the open court. 

Caron Butler and Shawn Marion provide the Mavericks with athleticism and good defensive play, while Jason Terry leads a group of reserves who are every bit as talented as the Lakers.

But the question about Dallas has never been talent.

The Mavericks have always had championship caliber teams dating back to their NBA Finals team of 2006, but they have yet to show the heart and consistency needed to win at the highest level.

Each year, weary Mavericks fans hope for a different result, and each time they are faced with the same outcome. Although this team has the ability to compete with the Lakers, history tells a different story.

The Denver Nuggets faced some of the same consistency issues that plague the Mavericks, and an injury to Kenyon Martin and head coach George Karl's cancer didn't help their situation.

Denver has a superstar in Carmelo Anthony, and one of basketball's best big-game players in Chauncey Billups. Newly acquired Al Harrington should also provide immediate scoring help.

The Nuggets have always managed to be their own worst enemy however, and most observers expect Denver to implode as soon as the pressure begins to mount in the postseason.

Utah's Deron Williams almost single-handedly eliminated Denver in last season's playoffs, and although Martin and NeNe are strong post defenders, the Lakers' size advantage would wear them down over the course of a seven-game series.

The San Antonio Spurs remain a threat despite constant murmurs about their age, and Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are still one of the better trios in the NBA.

All three players have slowed down, but Duncan is still arguably the top power forward in the conference, and when healthy, Ginobili and Parker can still cause nightmares for opposing defenses.

The Spurs' experienced trio is surrounded by an eclectic and deep cast of supporting players that include 6'11" newcomer Tiago Splitter and rookie James Anderson as well as second-year player Dejuan Blair.

San Antonio has experience in Antonio McDyess and an above average backup point guard in George Hill.  The only thing that could prevent the Spurs from challenging the Lakers is their inability to stay healthy.

Health seems to always play a factor for the Spurs, and if they can't escape the regular season intact, there is little chance they could mount a charge for the Western crown.

The Portland Trail Blazers are another team that looks good on paper, but the oft-injured Greg Oden and the recent knee injury to star guard Brandon Roy have cast doubt over next season.

If Roy does return healthy and Oden can somehow make it through a season, Portland has a strong roster with the underrated LaMarcus Aldridge and the experienced Andre Miller as two of the feature attractions.

Wesley Matthews provides scoring punch and defensive help for a team that could be a real threat in the West if they can overcome the same injury problems that hampered the Spurs.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most intriguing Western Conference contenders, and a dark-horse favorite to reach the conference finals this season.

Many people were impressed with the Thunder's gritty first-round performance against the Lakers last season, and some felt the series could have gone differently if superstar Kevin Durant could have played a little better.

The Thunder pushed the Lakers to six games in what was mostly a tight series, and displayed the type of heart that championship teams are built on in the process.

Before the Thunder can dream of a coronation ceremony, there are some basic things to consider about last season's loss to the Lakers, and some very valid points which may tip the scales against Oklahoma City.

The Lakers' size has been a prevailing theme throughout this article, and Los Angeles dominated the Thunder on the boards despite a knee injury to Bynum early in the series.

The Thunder have decent size in Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, and Nenad Krstic, but the Lakers can match Oklahoma City's size; none of the Thunder's players are as talented as Odom, Bynum, and Gasol.

Barnes serves as an alternate defender to Ron Artest, and the combination will trouble Durant, although another 35 percent effort during the course of a series is unlikely.

The Thunder could possibly sneak past some of the more talented teams in the West and meet the Lakers in the conference finals, but if both teams are healthy, Los Angeles should prevail due to experience, talent, and depth.

The Western Conference may be an improved conference next season, but unless the Lakers fall victim to injury, a fourth straight league crown is firmly in their sights.

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