Sizing up the competition: L.A. Lakers
No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers
Move along, nothing here to see. Yeah, right. Luxury tax be damned, the Lakers are must-see TV this season with their retooled roster that reads like an All-Star team or an Olympic squad or, if you will, a future Hall of Fame roll call. General manager Mitch Kupchak, who in 2008 acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis -- a deal long-ridiculed as thievery although the Grizzlies did get Marc Gasol -- finagled Steve Nash for draft picks. He then landed the most dominant defensive big man in the league, Dwight Howard, who has also averaged 20 points or more in four of the last six seasons. So the Lakers will roll out a starting five of Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol and Howard. The Lakers were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team last year and that should begin to change the moment Howard returns from back surgery. Offensively, this should be a lot of fun with Nash running the show and making life super easy for Kobe, Pau and Howard. Move over Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, a new Lob City might be taking up residence at Staples Center.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Lakers acquired Steve Nash (above) and Dwight Howard in the offseason, but it's the reinforced bench that will vault L.A. to the top.
@Lakers 73, Mavs 70
Lakers 96, @Mavs 91
Lakers 109, @Mavs 93
@Lakers 112, Mavs 108 (OT)
This season's games
Oct. 30: @ Lakers
Nov. 24: vs. Lakers
Feb. 24: vs. Lakers
Apr. 2: @ Lakers
Obviously, the marquee moves the Lakers made with Nash and Howard have everyone talking. But it's the ancillary acquisitions to bolster the bench that pushed me to hand L.A. my No. 1 ranking ahead of West champion Oklahoma City. Bringing in veteran forward Antawn Jamison and 3-point specialist Jodie Meeks to join guard Steve Blake and energetic young forward Jordan Hill gives the Lakers' second unit proven scoring and some muscle. There's lots of talk that the Lakers could challenge the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record 72 wins, but considering Howard will probably miss the beginning of the season recuperating from back surgery, the age of key stars such as Nash and Kobe and time needed to jell, that feat doesn't seem terribly likely. That's not the goal anyway. The end-game is fitting Kobe for a sixth ring to match Michael Jordan and getting Nash and Howard their first. The intriguing aspect is how second-year Lakers coach Mike Brown will handle this gift of talent and how he'll adjust offensively. For instance, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, as time went on with Jason Kidd, relinquished most of the play-calling and allowed the offensive to "flow" from Kidd. Nash's presence as the primary ball handler will also be a major adjustment for Bryant, who can take on the role of a more traditional shooting guard playing off the ball. It should greatly benefit Bryant, who turned 34 on Thursday.
How the Mavs match up
The Mavs will get an early look when they open the season in L.A. in what should be quite a Hollywood scene. This Lakers squad brings just about everything: Star power, size, skill, strength, savvy and doses of athleticism that will be difficult for any team to match. Howard probably won't be ready to go just yet, but Nash will be primed for a big opener with his new club. As big a problem as Andrew Bynum was for the Mavs to handle defensively and on the boards (he averaged 17.0 points and 13.0 rebounds last season vs. Mavs) and as difficult as Howard will be, Gasol was a killer last season. Dirk Nowitzki is often saddled with guarding Gasol, arguably the most skilled 7-foot low-post player in the league. Gasol averaged 19.8 points and 8.5 boards in four games against Dallas and shot 55.9 percent from the field. Against teams Gasol played more than two times last season, he shot a higher percentage against only Houston and Minnesota. Chris Kaman will probably get Gasol in the opener, but when Howard's in the lineup, Kaman will have that nasty assignment with Nowitzki on Gasol. Shawn Marion will be happy to get help from newcomers Dahntay Jones and O.J. Mayo when it comes to guarding Bryant. Any way you slice it, this is going to be a tough matchup -- and the Mavs are lucky enough to try it four times this season.
No. 5: Denver Nuggets
No. 4 San Antonio Spurs
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder
103.3 FM ESPN PODCASTS
Play Podcast ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to talk about the NBA playoffs.
Play Podcast Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle gives his take on the contrasting styles of the Pacers and Knicks, Carmelo Anthony, Bulls-Heat, Tom Thibodeau, the state of the West and more.
Play Podcast Chuck Cooperstein joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to talk about who he would rather have if forced to choose between Dwight Howard and Chris Paul.
Play Podcast Tim MacMahon joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss the possibility of Chris Paul joining the Mavericks and break down what kind of pitch Mark Cuban would have to make to the NBA's best point guard.
Play Podcast ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to touch on the storylines in the NBA playoffs and offer a Mavs perspective.
Play Podcast Rick Carlisle joins Chuck Cooperstein and Tim MacMahon to discuss the Mavericks' disappointing season and what needs to happen for them to get back to the playoffs.
Play Podcast Donnie Nelson joins Chuck Cooperstein and Tim MacMahon to discuss the Mavericks' season and the importance of this summer.
Play Podcast Rick Carlisle joins Galloway & Company to discuss the Mavericks playing after being eliminated from playoff contention, whom he wants to keep for next season and much more.